The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Feb. 10 2001 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

Californian purchasers of Dr. Stephen Meloy's new female orgasm device will doubtlessly want to know whether his invention will require batteries or whether will it draw power from the already overwhelmed electrical grid. To not be able to rely on a man (or a woman) is one thing; to know that you can't count on electrical power might be quite another. Jeanette Winterson and other feminists have expressed their dismay at Meloy's machine, comparing it to the fantastical Orgasmatron in Roger Vadim's movie Barbarella. Writing in the Guardian, Winterson says: "I am all for pleasure. I love sex. Sex is about being aroused by someone else and being happy in your own body. If neither applies to you, it's time for a change. All the gadgetry in the world won't make you pleased with yourself or attracted to another person. Electronic sex is another way of faking it. So much for the moral high ground. What about the practical problems? Electrical pulses are sensitive to their environment. At the moment of ecstasy, will you set the car alarm off? Will the car alarm set you off?" Professor Elaine Scarry of Harvard University, who believes that electromagnetic interference from military installations has brought down several commercial airlines, could well have a view on such matters, Jeanette. She might suggest that anyone wearing the device should stay well clear of Long Island on Wednesdays, especially between 8.20 p.m. and 8.40 p.m., when Meloy's invention, like airplanes, may be vulnerable to EMI emanating from Aegis class destroyers, black hawk helicopters, nuclear submarines, and other toys belonging to the military industrial complex.


Erin Brokovich's reaction to the Californian power crisis has not, as far as I know, become public knowledge, though one can only assume that the plight of Pacific and Gas Electric, the dreadful, greedy company you will know about from seeing the movie directed by Steven Soderbergh, has brought some sort of twinkle to her eye. PGE, along with another power generating firm, Edison, is now nearly $13 billion in debt. According to the Economist, the power crisis is symbolic of much wider state malaise—failing dot-coms, a looming writers' strike in Hollywood, even the collapse of the Cruise-Kidman marriage. "Power cuts, with the threat of worse to come when the summer heat brings on the air conditioning, have embarrassed the state at a time when Silicon Valley and Hollywood are going through troubled patches, and when familiar doubts about California's creaking infrastructure are re-emerging. … The toll on morale has been [high]. Half the population of the state, according to a recent Field poll, is pessimistic about the way it is heading. The popularity of Gray Davis, the governor, has taken a hammering." The Amish, according to the Boston Globe, have been a beneficiary of the power crisis. Their gas lamps are in much demand.


Private Eye, the biweekly satirical magazine, invites readers to send in the most pretentious or absurd articles they've seen. The best examples then appear in a column titled " Pseuds Corner," and currently on display is Neville Hoad's correction to an article he wrote for the July 2000 issue Postcolonial Studies (scroll down). "Arrested development or the queerness of savages: Resisting evolutionary narratives of difference." "The following text was printed incorrectly: The narrative hierarchizes difference, doing violence by a priori constituted by progress through its various others, which are then posited as vestigial, arrested, anachronistic or degenerate. It should have read: The narrative hierarchizes difference, doing violence, by a priori incorporation, to the others in the constitution of the subject. The subject is constituted by progress through its various others, which are then posited as vestigial, arrested, anachronistic or degenerate."


In the New Criterion, John Gross writes: "Someone once wrote a book—about the mid-nineteenth century, I think—called The Age of Paradox. It is not a very revealing title. Every age since the Old Stone Age has been an Age of Paradox, just as every age has been an Age of Transition. But at least we can fairly claim that no age has bristled with more paradoxes than our own." The Internet can claim to be the home of several paradoxes, and as Kurt Andersen says, one of them is that many non-paying-every-man-and-woman-for-themselves Web sites, such as, are dependent on sites such as Inside that hope to make a profit. "In order to be economically sustainable, Web content may resemble talk radio and Who Wants to Be A Millionaire more than The New Yorker or Playhouse 90, at least for a while. But consider what the user-generated content sites and sub-sites all have in common: their bottomless reservoirs of free content would not exist without professionally produced music, movies, television and prose for the hordes of interested amateurs to praise and slag and emulate. These packets of user-generated content are remoras, the helpful parasites that attach by means of a clever sucking disk to the backs of whales and sharks for a free ride. It is one way to survive."

While students of Columbia's journalism school absorb the lessons of their first off-the-record audience with Al Gore, over at the university's English department professors and students alike await the arrival of Jonathan Arac from Pittsburgh, who, as Elisabeth Franck reports in the New York Observer, has been charged with task of bringing some relief to a department that "has been suffering from a host of maladies, not the least of which are understaffing and high turnover. The result has been a department so unnerved, it has a difficult time holding faculty meetings, let alone making such crucial decisions as who to name as its department chair. Paralyzed by internal strife, and shaken by the cultural winds of gender and ethnic studies, as well as contemporary theories like deconstructionism, the department has been locked in inertia. … 'What has happened at Columbia represents an acute form of what has happened in the field as whole,' said George Stade, a veteran of the department who retired last year. 'There are those people who see literature in traditional ways, which includes historical circumstances, and there is a school that wants to see literature as a symptom of all the evils of society.' "


The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation has released a report on the amount of sex broadcast on American TV over the last two years—there's more of it and it's more vivid than ever, though the authors are curiously reluctant to offer an explanation for the rise. As the Washington Post  reports: "The study did not suggest reasons for the increase in sexual content, but participants at a conference titled 'Sex on TV' in Beverly Hills today speculated that in response to the harsh criticism leveled at violence in the media in the past couple of years, TV writers have focused more on human relationships and sexual activity." Really? Can we therefore conclude that the congressional publication of Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton affair with Monica Lewinsky had absolutely no impact at all on the content of TV shows? For the New York Post's report on the Kaiser findings, click here.

If a pornographer with an interest in children generates images of boys and girls on a computer, can he or she be prosecuted under the terms of the Child Pornography Prevention Act? As Ron Scherer of the Christian Science Monitor writes: "When the Department of Justice tries cases today in the Western part of the US—where the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled part of the Child Pornography Prevention Act unconstitutional—it must prove the pornographic images are of real victims. That adds what prosecutors say is a monumentally difficult task to an already heart-breaking job. 'A greater burden shifts to law enforcement to prove these are actual victims,' says a US Customs spokesman. 'It may force us to change the way we investigate our cases,' adds Angela Bell, a spokeswoman for the FBI. … Next month, the US Supreme Court will begin weighing whether the … act can constitutionally bar such images."


The world is awash with scandal and corruption, and not just of the political variety, Salman Rushdie writes in the Guardian. "Is there anything out there that is not fixed? Reality-TV contests? Literary prizes? University entrance examinations? Your upcoming job interview? Or is it just that we haven't found out how the fixing is being done? Welcome to the third millennium. The American novelist Thomas Pynchon's redefinition of paranoia has never seemed more firmly on the money: paranoia usefully seen as the crazy-making but utterly sane realization that our times have secret meanings, that those meanings are dreadful, immoral and corrupt beyond our wildest imaginings, and that the surface of things is a fraud, an artifact designed to hide the awful truth from us ordinary deluded suckers, who keep wanting to believe that things might actually—you know?—be beginning to improve."

Despite its rigorously enforced immigration laws, Britain is a favored nation for asylum seekers from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, according to Oliver Craske   of the Central Europe Review, though perhaps it's because a British work permit is so hard to get that this destination, rather than Germany or France, is so desirable. If this true for refugees, then the opposite appears to be the case for many British journalists, academics, and intellectuals who it often seems just can't wait to begin a life in exile almost anywhere on Earth, though preferably in Manhattan. (Click here for some gloating from one who made it.) Others consider exile more of an intellectual condition. Though they have no experience of exile or of being a refugee, they nevertheless consider themselves refugees in their own country and are therefore the intellectual vanguard for those who truly know exile—namely, the real refugee. Not that this is a peculiarly British condition. Theories of resistance and notions of the intellectual as exile are familiar to many American campuses. As Ian Buruma writes in the New Republic, this is not to say "that intellectuals should not stand up for society's victims. They can and they should. But they must not do this by pretending to be victims themselves. For that is a false identification. To don the bloody mantle of real victims is not just in bad taste, it also trivializes actual suffering. It transforms victimhood into a fashion accessory. The soi-disant exile status might attach a certain glamour to the writer in London or New York, but it does nothing for the poor Tamil trying to get some sleep in Frankfurt station."


In retrospect, much of the early enthusiasm for the Internet seems more naive than Utopian, though in its more elevated moments the enthusiasm often strived to match the Utopian ideals one comes across in the 19th-century writing of Charles Fourier or Robert Owen. In the mid-1990s, if you believed what you read, life as we knew was about to change forever and for the better now that everyone was about to join the information superhighway. On the other hand, when has the arrival of one form of technology or another not been treated as the best (or worst) thing since (or before) the invention of canned tomatoes? In this respect, the advent of Internet resembles many of the technological and industrial advances delineated by the filmmaker Humphrey Jennings in his undervalued book Pandaemonium: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, which was described by the anthropologist Jacob Bronowski as offering "a sulphurous, splendid furnace picture of the greatest days of industry—their poverty and their exhaltation, the garish flames and the sense of creation, the squalor and the confidence and the powerful sense of self-sufficiency, the sense of a new culture which did not give a damn for anyone else and for anything that had happened before."


Nineteen of Samuel Beckett's plays have been adapted for the screen. Over the course of a weekend in Dublin, Andrew O'Hagan saw them all. "The strongest of the bunch may be Conor McPherson's version of 'Endgame' … the template for so many plays, films and TV shows, said McPherson. … 'There would be no Monty Python without Endgame … no Harold Pinter, no David Mamet, and without Mamet no Quentin Tarantino or independent cinema of any kind.' McPherson's production … is typical of all the films in one great respect: it makes a cult of faithfulness to the Beckett text. You could not but see the films as very much for the record, and that is what the Beckett estate stipulated: 'no changes.' "


In his book The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell contends that a fashion has a "tipping point." There is a moment when, in certain conditions, a following for a fashionable item is transformed and becomes an object of mass demand. In this respect, fashion behaves in a manner similar to, say, a resilient strain of influenza, one that is powerful enough to become an epidemic. But how far is this comparison true? Isn't it more accurate to say that fashion has much in common with health campaigns mounted by public officials to counter diseases such as smallpox, influenza, or AIDS. Unlike infection, there's nothing natural about fashion. As an article in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests, the eradication of a disease that's reached epidemic proportions requires subtle transformation of public perception. In this respect, countering a disease is remarkably similar to the promotion of certain goods and services. The authors of " The Last Smallpox Epidemic in Boston and the Vaccination Controversy, 1901-1903" conclude, "[The Boston epidemic] illustrates the importance of applying modern medical science (in this case, vaccination) to an acute public health problem, educating the medical community and the general public about the benefits of prevention, and having public debate on the pros and cons of public health policies aimed at prevention. Some aspects of the epidemic remain disturbing. The Board of Health's policy toward the homeless and the challenge to those who opposed vaccination to expose themselves to smallpox showed a disregard for civil liberties and for ethical concerns. Such abuses underscore the importance of an ethical framework for public health and medicine that includes the oath to 'do no harm,' respect for individual autonomy, and the requirement of informed consent." For the Boston Globe's report on the smallpox epidemic, click here.

A woman's right to choose invariably refers to abortion. Perhaps it should also include the right to breast-feed a child. As the Los Angeles Times reports, health authorities believe they can determine at what age a child should no longer be allowed to suckle. "When the American Academy of Pediatrics urged in December 1997 that all babies be breast-fed for at least the first year of life, a 29-year-old mother in Champaign, Ill., cheered: The woman's son, then 2 1/2, was still nursing at least once a day, and seemed a rosy-cheeked testimonial to the health benefits of breast milk. He recovered quickly from stomach flus and colds, and seemed bright, happy and well-adjusted. The little boy was hitting developmental milestones and climbing the growth chart right on track. But [last] July, the applause suddenly stopped. The woman's son, by then 5 years old, was removed from her home after caseworkers responded to a baby-sitter's complaint. Judge Ann Einhorn approved the separation, declaring that the woman's continued breast-feeding had created a situation with 'enormous potential harm to this child.' To protect the boy, the judge has ordered the woman's name withheld and has barred her from speaking to the media."


In the London Review of Books, Mark Mazower assesses the advance of genocide and Holocaust studies, and in particular the controversy that has arisen over the Armenian genocide. "In the universities, a new sub-field of genocide studies has developed over the last few years and scholarly journals are devoted to the study of massacres and atrocities. What is astonishing is how far an academic dispute about terminology has pushed itself into the public domain. The question of whether they were victims of genocide now matters intensely to the Armenians, whose lobbying has brought this issue to the fore again and again in the past few years; and it matters equally to the Turkish authorities, who do not seem to blanch at the term 'massacre' but are beside themselves when the G-word is mentioned. … Why does it matter whether or not the massacres are 'officially' a genocide? Does it have something to do with claims to land, money, property? This is not clear."


It seems that philosophers are coming to live and work in or close to New York in much the say way that bats come to inhabit an empty attic. As Dinitia Smith writes, among the first major philosophers to head to New York in recent times was Jerry Fodor. "When I came down here, there was not much doing in philosophy," Fodor tells Smith. "People used to ask me what the difference is between New York and Boston when it comes to philosophy, and I would say: 'In Boston, if you started a philosophical argument it tended to go on until you died. In New York, you talk an hour or two and say it's very interesting, but I've got theater tickets.' … Unfortunately, half the philosophical universe [moved] down here in the past 10 years. I take the greatest pleasure in having all these people, but it's getting almost as noisy [as Boston]."


MODERNISM'S MASTERMIND The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has opened the doors to its exhibition "Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries". (Over the course of this year and the next, the gallery will broadcast tours of its Alfred Stieglitz collection on its Web site.) According to Hilton Kramer, the show "not only illuminates a crucial chapter in the history of American modernism on a scale never before attempted, but it also serves as a model of what our museums can still achieve when they remain faithful to the highest traditions of aesthetic connoisseurship and historical scholarship in their most ambitious endeavors." Though impressed by the endeavors of the curators, Michael Kimmelman is skeptical about the overall affect. "It's a serious, straightforward show, which adds much new detail and a phone-book-thick catalog to an important and familiar chapter of history without exactly breaking ground." Meanwhile, Henry Allen seems a bit puzzled at how best to describe his experience on the Mall. He pronounces it "…an elusive and seductive show, full of instruction and beauty. Strange: It's huge and subtle at the same time, both jarring and nostalgic—glorious little fish pulsing along an invisible but powerful reef made of Stieglitz's dreams of a new American art, and of artists who would make a new, true America rise from the mausoleum of 19th century conventions."


Writing about last year's exhibition of Chinese calligraphy at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Holland Cotter wrote: "By image-obsessed Western standards, one picture is worth, absolute minimum, a thousand paltry words. But in China, where words are images, writing has traditionally been the highest art form of all, and a source of profound political and emotional power." The latest news from China suggests that the nation's handwriting tradition is under considerable strain thanks to the computer, as Jennifer Lee reports. " 'There are some characters that I can't write with a pen, but if you give me a computer I can type it out,' said Mr. Li You, a 23-year-old computer teacher who lives in rural Yangshuo in Guangxi province, in southern China. It has been more than six years since Mr. Li started using a computer for Chinese word processing. It has been just under six years since the characters started slipping away. He estimates that more than 95 percent of his writing is now done by computer. 'I can go for a month without picking up a pen,' Mr. Li said."


Laws governing the shipment of alcohol from one state to another have always seemed overly restrictive. With the advent of the Internet, and of clicking and shopping, they now seem absurdly antiquated. For example, it's illegal for Francis Ford Coppola's Californian vineyard to ship a case of red wine to a customer in Manhattan. Only licensed wholesalers are allowed to transport alcohol. Such laws penalize producers and consumers but benefit wholesale companies and tax authorities, who, as Wine Spectator reported last October, welcomed "legislation sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that puts federal enforcement power behind states' bans on interstate shipments of alcoholic beverages to consumers." There are, however, some encouraging signs of change. As WS explains: "As the 2001 legislative sessions get under way across the United States, five states so far have drafted new bills addressing the issue of whether their residents should be allowed to have wines shipped directly to their homes from out-of-state sellers. The Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts and Mississippi houses of representatives are considering legislation that would permit interstate direct-shipments of wine." Meantime in the good state of Montana, "a bill pending in the [state] Senate would make home deliveries a felony for shippers—punishable by fines and up to five years in prison." For Wine Spectator's overview of the laws governing the transportation of wine, click here. For a Slate piece on buying wine on the Internet, click here. To visit the Americans for Responsible Alcohol Access Web site click here; for the American Vintners Association click here; for the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers Association click here, and for the Wine Institute, click here.

Colin Powell has suggested that many American embargoes of foreign countries should be abandoned, though whether the new secretary of state will end the most significant embargo of them—the 38-year-old embargo of Castro's Cuba—is not certain. (If the Hoover Digest  article co-authored by one of Condoleezza Rice's former colleagues is any indication of the new national security adviser's thinking on the matter, then one might be led to believe that the restrictions will, indeed, be lifted.) Not that the embargo has worked well recently: Hordes of Americans travel to Havana each month. Last November Robin Cembalest, executive editor of ARTNews, was one of 3,000 Americans who visited the Havana Bienal, the most important Cuban art show. "There was the sense that the Bienal, which featured mostly installations by artists from more than 90 countries, wasn't what the Americans had come to see (and they certainly didn't come for the only one-person show devoted to an American, 'Jean-Michel Basquiat: Fiction or Reality'). ... The real action was not in the exhibition spaces, but rather in the studios, as air-conditioned buses and vans fanned out to ateliers across the city. ... In Havana, an American can pay for a $5,000 drawing with the wad of bills in his sock, roll it up, and carry it home. It's perfectly legal—art is exempt from the U.S. embargo."