The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument

March 10 2001 12:00 AM

The Daily Digest of Arts and Argument


As Inside reports, talks between the Writers Guild of America and the Hollywood studios have not produced an agreement of any kind. A strike is therefore likely. In a New York Times op-ed, Salman Rushdie argues that a strike may have some beneficial consequences—fewer bad films on screens and an opportunity for Americans to see more films from abroad. "In the 1960's and early 1970's, a flood of great non-American filmmakers pried Hollywood's fingers off the cinema's throat for a few years. The result was a golden age, the time of the great films of Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray; of the French New Wave; of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman. Now, once again, world cinema is blossoming—in China, in Iran, in Britain. And it may just be that the mass audience is ready, at long last, to enjoy rather more diversity in its cultural diet. After all, there are plenty of dreadful American films we could all cheerfully do without."


David Brooks
of the Weekly Standard recently went to Italy to view the Milanese fashion runways. "For when you actually look at the fashion world, you see two things. First, and most obviously, you see what is indeed a decadent floating party cycle for Eurotrash. One of the perplexities of my week in Italy was that I repeatedly found myself deep in cocktail chatter with semi-beautiful women with no fixed address and no clear occupation, talking about, say, the wonders of homeopathic jet lag remedies. But second, and more ominously, you see the shape of things to come. For underneath the glitter, fashion is a highly competitive industry. In fact, this is the quintessential industry of the Information Age."


OH, WHAT TO DO ABOUT THE L.A. TIMES BOOK REVIEW? According to Scott Timberg of New Times, Los Angeles' book scene has blossomed, yet the book review of the city's main paper fails to reflect the passion so many Angelenos have for their books. Is this merely professional griping or jealousy—in cities where people talk about books, almost everyone seems to have an idea of how they would run a book review—or a serious allegation? Since no book review attempts to be comprehensive (for example, the New York Times Book Review doesn't review all of the books on its best-seller list even if a certain title is wildly popular in Staten Island, while the New York Review of Books chooses to assess the merits of a book only when it informs a theme that the editors believe is of interest), Steve Wasserman, editor of the L.A. Times Book Review, can be forgiven for his partiality. The same cannot be said, however, for Timberg's employers at Los Angeles' New Times, who do not have a books section on their Web site.

In last Sunday's L.A. Times Book Review, Caroline Fraser wrote about James Merrill, whose Collected Poems has even been talked about in New York. Fraser writes, "As early as 1972, in a review of Merrill's Braving the Elements, critic Helen Vendler defined the expectations his work had summoned up in what has become one of the most oft-quoted characterizations of it: ‘The time eventually comes, in a good poet's career, when readers actively long for his books: to know that someone out there is writing down your century, your generation, your language, your life—under whatever terms of difference—makes you wish for news of yourself, for those authentic tidings of invisible things that only come in the interpretation of life voiced by poetry.' " It is no surprise at all that the indisputable queen of poetry criticism, the very same Helen Vendler, writes about Merrill's Collected Poems in this week's New Yorker. In 2001, Vendler says: "By the end of his life, a broad democracy of suffering replaces both the youthful isolation of the earliest work and the somewhat larger, but still restricted, social compass of the middle poems. … The poet can admit that his emotional life doesn't differ very much from that of other people." Daniel Mendelsohn wrote about Merrill for the New York Times Book Review.

The sociologist Erving Goffman, author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life and Interactive Ritual, made a career of cataloging and interpreting gestures. If he were alive today, or if his books were better remembered, one can safely say that his name and his work would be a familiar refrain on chat shows of a political or social nature. What happens, however, when governments rely more on gesture than policy and when journalists ask more questions about presentation than content? "What can and should governments do?" asks the historian Eric Hobsbawm in the current issue of the New Statesman. "More than in the past, they are under unceasing pressure from a continuously monitored mass opinion. This constrains their choices. Nevertheless, governments cannot stop governing. Indeed, they are urged by their PR experts that they must constantly be seen to be governing, and this multiplies gestures, announcements and sometimes unnecessary legislation. And public authorities today are constantly faced with decisions about common interests which are technical as well as political. Here, democratic votes (or consumers' choices in the market) are no guide at all. … Moreover, these ways may prove to be unpopular, and in a democracy, it is unwise to tell the electorate what it does not want to hear. How can state finances be rationally organized, if governments have convinced themselves that any proposals to raise taxes amount to electoral suicide, when election campaigns are therefore contests in fiscal perjury, and government budgets exercises in fiscal obfuscation? In short, the ‘will of the people,' however expressed, cannot determine the specific tasks of government."


In Germany, the demand for newsprint, despite vast supplies of fresh paper from Canada and Russia as well as the locally recycled variety, outstrips supply. As the {{Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung#2:{B1311FD3-FBFB-11D2-B228-00105A9CAF88}&doc={AE44CC11-0A14-11D5-A3B3-009027BA22E4}&width=1011&height=741&agt=explorer&ver=4&svr=4}} explains: "The liberalization of the power and telecommunications markets indirectly boosted consumption as utilities booked more and more ad space in the hope of gaining new customers or of convincing people to switch from other companies." Germany is not unique in this respect; nor are newspapers. Printers the world over have witnessed paper shortages and higher costs. Perhaps, as Technology Review reports, plastic "paper" will become the publishers' savior. "The book of the future, e-paper researchers like to say, will look just like a regular book. It will have a hard cover and a spine and several hundred thin, white, flexible pages. But the spine will be filled with electronic circuitry and a wireless data port and maybe a stylus; the pages will be electronic displays. Readers will open the cover and—here the vision gets a little fanciful—be confronted with a list of the works contained in the book, arranged by title, author or subject matter. Because this is 10 or more years from now, data-storage devices will have shrunk even further, and thus embedded in the spine of this single volume may be a hundred novels, even a thousand, all downloaded through the data port." Perhaps, in 10 years' time, when technology has truly taken over the world, there'll be nothing else to do but read and read and read.

As Luke Harding  reported a few months ago, art treasures from Afghanistan have turned up at New York galleries and auction houses, though the profiteering in religious objects did not lead to outraged protests. Now, with the Taliban destroying (and perhaps profiting from) Buddhist statuary, the protests are deafening. and the Guardian columnist Isabel Hilton say the outrage at the Taliban's actions is misplaced. As Hilton writes: "Afghanistan's cultural heritage, belatedly, has our attention. For the sake of the statues of Bamiyan, as well as the people of Afghanistan, perhaps we could find a more constructive response than another round of sanctions. Unless we do, the giant Buddhas will be remembered as the latest victims of a crisis the west contributed to then tried to forget." (To read "International Papers" on the Taliban's actions, click here.)

Conrad Black, proprietor of the Jerusalem Post, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, the Spectator, and the Chicago Sun-Times, has accused one of his columnists of being an anti-Semite. "Writers," Black says in the pages of the Spectator, "like everyone else, have the right to dislike individuals and whole nationalities and ethnic groups. They have the right to express their dislike if they do so rationally, are not legally defamatory, and if they are within the bounds of civilized taste. Unfortunately, last week in this magazine, Taki's reflections were indefensible. He expressed a hatred for Israel and a contempt for the United States and its political institutions that were irrational and an offence to civilized taste. In the process, I am afraid he uttered a blood libel on the Jewish people wherever they may be." In the New York Press, Taki comes to his own defense, mainly by repeating his assertion that the financier Marc Rich is, in his view, a bad Jew. "Marc Rich is a crook who knows the value of nothing and the price of everyone. Clinton is a political Marc Rich, and unscrupulous Jews … took full advantage. … Conrad Black has been snookered by his love for an embattled country. The trouble is that I haven't. I have chosen to remain a Spectator columnist because if you dish it out the way I do, you should be able to take it."

Hysterical technophobia
is said be the scourge of Europe. Yet as another food crisis   bears down on the continent, who can blame Europeans for rejecting the prevailing wisdom about the food supply when neither governments nor the European Commission seem able to inform the public about the nature of, for example, mad cow disease, foot-and-mouth disease, and the long-term implications of genetically modified animals and crops? In an assessment of British reactions to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, Felicity Spector, a British news producer, posits that a new "Medievalism" has swept through Britain (though why distrust of a secretive government and suspicions about a fickle press should be considered "medieval" is a mystery). In the absence of a convincing explanation for why hundreds of thousands of animals should be slaughtered to counter a disease that kills barely five percent of those it infects, let's be clear about who is medieval. Burning carcasses, which European governments insists upon, may get rid of the disease for now, but it does nothing to prevent a further outbreak. Nor does it eradicate it in parts of the world, such as South Africa or Hong Kong, where it's endemic. What's surprising about the outbreak of foot-and-mouth is not that it happened, but why it hasn't happened more often, which leads one ask whether farming methods (and government strictures) contribute to the disease's impact by diminishing an animal's ability to resist the disease and whether commercial concerns receive priority over the long-term health of the food supply. As a Sunday Times editorial explained: "Foot and mouth is not the Black Death: the current virus has been around for the past decade. An American report last week explained the reality of what is happening in Britain. Foot and mouth, it said, is ‘a relatively mild livestock ailment and it is no danger to humans—but once a farm animal has been exposed to infection, it is killed to safeguard international trade.' Precisely. It's all about trade, as the French showed by banning Irish meat exports even though the Irish republic was free of the illness."


In an interview in John Brockman's Edge, Anthony Giddens, one of the draftsmen of the so-called "Third Way," says that a re-evaluation of the slippery concept of risk is the most pressing concern of the new century. Risk, Giddens says, "is very crucial to scientific innovation. … You obviously need risk; no one lives a life without actively embracing risk. Science is about boldness, is about innovation. And the question for all of us is how you find an appropriate balance between these two, especially when you don't know in advance what the consequences of scientific innovation will be."


If, as ex-tobacco scientist Jeffrey Wigand told 60 Minutes, the cigarette is a delivery system for nicotine, then the French fry might be considered a delivery system for fat, and though the effects of smoking and eating fat are quite different, a diet consisting of large quantities of fries may have serious consequences for your health. Malcolm Gladwell reports on the issue in this week's New Yorker: "As many Americans now die every year from obesity-related illnesses—heart disease and complications of diabetes—as from smoking, and the fast-food toll grows heavier every year." Not that every fat is bad—some are essential to good health—but the fat in fries, so-called "trans unsaturated fat," can, as Gladwell writes, "wreak havoc with the body's ability to regulate cholesterol."Walter Willet, the scientist who identified the substance, says this fat leads to at least 30,000 unnecessary deaths in America each year. Junk food is also the subject of Eric Schlosser's new book Fast Food Nation, which was reviewed by Slate's Rob Walker in the New York Times. (A chapter about abattoirs was published by Rolling Stone.)


Currently, McDonald's has 28,000 restaurants in 120 countries, yet as the company's Web site points out, "on any day, even as the market leader, McDonald's serves less than one percent of the world's population." Room for growth, indeed, and according to a report published by the United Nations' Population Division, there will be 9.3 billion people on the planet by 2050—though who's to say whether McDonald's will be tending to one percent of humankind in 50 years' time. (Assuming normal service continues, McDonald's can expect to sell almost 34.8 billion meals a year—not the numbers Woody Allen anticipated in Sleeper.) Asia and Africa will witness the biggest population increases, while Europe's numbers will whither. Asked by the New York Times to explain why America's population is expected to rise, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute said: "The U.S. is the most fertile of developed nations. …My pet theory—and you can't prove this—is that it has to do with greater religiosity than in Europe or Japan."

Catesby Leigh of the Weekly Standard believes it is "politically correct" to say "I hate war." The words are Franklin Delano Roosevelt's, and they appear on the FDR memorial in Washington, D.C., though the sentiment has been expressed by many people on many occasions—and, one imagines, by almost anyone who has fought in war. Leigh, however, believes that the presence of these words reflects a larger confusion about the nation's war memorials, though he refuses to believe that they may resonate with a public that is mightily ambivalent about warfare. "This confusion," he writes, "this anti-monumental monumentalism—is the overwhelming feature of memorial architecture today, and it is ruining America's public spaces. Modernism failed, in large part, because it could not satisfy our need for monuments: To be a human being …is to desire the monuments that modernism could not provide. … Every memorial and public building seems to be at odds with every other, and time and again one finds architects trying to duck the problem of monumentality by hiding their memorials…." The solution, so Leigh argues, are big sunny arches, just like those built by the Romans to commemorate a triumphant victory over those ghastly savages in northern Europe or the Middle East. One can only wonder which will be first the first war to receive the triumphal treatment—Korea or Vietnam or that hollow victory in the desert commonly known as the Gulf War?


If you (or someone you know) suffer from a rare genetic disease or affliction, how can you use your condition or illness to your best advantage? As the New Scientist suggests, you could follow the example of Patrick and Sharon Terry who founded PXE International after learning that their child had Pseudoxanthoma elasticum, which, as their useful Web site explains, is "a heritable connective tissue disorder. Calcification of connective tissue occurs in various places in the body, especially the skin, eyes, and arteries." As the NS reports: "In the 1990s, they set up blood and tissue banks and convinced patients with PXE to donate samples. These, they offered to scientists on the strict understanding that PXE International would receive a stake in any intellectual property that emerged. Fortunately, enlightened researchers and universities accepted their offer. Last year, when the gene for PXE was discovered with help from the group's samples, PXE International took control of the patent rights. The disease affects only 1 in 100,000 people, and no company is going to invest heavily in developing drugs that will sell to only a relatively few customers. Here, the Terrys have a plan. The PXE gene is implicated in wrinkling of the skin and in heart disease, areas that cosmetics and drugs companies are falling over themselves to research."

Foot-and-mouth disease
, a virulent virus that attacks animals with cloven feet (for example, hogs, cattle, sheep, deer, and goats), has broken out in Britain. (The aptly named  explains the nature of the disease.) There's no cure, and inoculation is impractical for a variety of reasons. The origins of the outbreak remain uncertain, yet commentators have ransacked all the big and familiar questions about the modern food supply in the hope of finding something to blame. The Financial Times says the outbreak is a reflection of a farming industry tethered to the idea of producing pork, lamb, and beef at the cheapest possible price, while the BBC and various other news outlets blame the disappearance of the rural abattoir. The head of Britain's farmers union fingers globalization. "Is it a coincidence that we had classical swine fever in East Anglia last year of an Asian origin, and foot and mouth now, also of an Asian origin? It raises questions about freer world trade." Since it's possible that FMD has traversed the English Channel, the European Commission and member governments have adopted measures to halt the spread of the disease. According to the {{Frankfurter Allegeimene Zeitung#2:{B1311FCC-FBFB-11D2-B228-00105A9CAF88}&doc={AE44CD31-0A14-11D5-A3B3-009027BA22E4}}}, German Consumer Affairs Minister Renate Künast "called for an end to the mass shipment of live animals throughout the European Union and said Europe's regional markets should be strengthened instead." But with no firm evidence as to how foot-and-mouth arrived in Britain—not only can FMD be carried by infected animals and animal feed, it can also attach itself to clothing and be found in food for human consumption (as the Times reports, in Germany "all uneaten on-board lunches found on aircraft from London are being taken away and incinerated")—blaming one part of the food supply or another seems premature.

Among the people presumed to have written The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation—an anonymous book on evolutionary theory that preceded Darwin's The Origin of the Species—was Ada, Countess of Lovelace and Byron's daughter. She was not the author (years later, a Scottish publisher Richard Chambers   was so identified); nor was she, as many Ada fanatics believe, the inventor of the computer. In The New Yorker, Jim Holt writes about the Lovelace myth. Ada was a colleague of sorts to Charles Babbage, who developed a never-realized plan to build a "Thinking Machine," and her notes on Babbage's contraption became a sensation when they were published. But as Holt says: "It is doubtful whether Ada herself ‘originated' any of the ideas contained in her notes, except perhaps some of the more exuberantly speculative ones. On all technical and scientific points, regardless of how trifling, her letters show that she deferred to Babbage. Babbage, for his part, had good reason to connive in the fiction that the work was primarily Ada's: it not only made her notes a more effective piece of propaganda for his Analytical Engine but also enabled him to escape responsibility—on the pretense of not having been consulted—for some of her more hyperbolic claims."


One of the subjects discussed at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting was wine connoisseurship—" Wine and Conversation: The Semantics of Talking About Taste." As billed by the AAAS, the symposium addressed "the problem of how linguistic semantics connects with sensory experience, the fundamental neurobiology and psychophysics of the human sense of taste, the vocabulary used to describe wines and the consistency with which it is applied, and the chemistry of wine tasting as it forms part of the professional discipline of Oenology." According to Wine Spectator, one of the participants, Ann Noble of the University of California at Davis, objects to the idea that a wine can be described as either masculine or feminine. "The problem I have with that is you need a linguist to translate and guess what someone means. It also often comes from a chauvinistic perspective." If a wine should therefore be neither full-bodied nor lithe, it nevertheless has an unavoidable ancestral spirit, although the origin of certain grape varieties has until recently remained mysterious. As the Economist reports, there's more bastard in the bottle than you might think. "By applying genetic techniques more familiar in the courtroom than the pressing house, [Carole Meredith] has been able to clarify the relationships between many of the great wine-making grapes that dominate both the old and the new worlds. On the way she has shown that a number of noble grapes have some surprisingly vulgar ancestors."


Much of this week's Los Angeles Times Book Review is devoted to the future of book publishing—a question that has, over the last three decades or so, developed a genre all of its own. Indeed, hardly a year goes by without someone pronouncing that the book trade is just about to enter rigor mortis. Marian Wood, a well-known and well-respected New York publisher, identifies the chief problem: Management—more specifically, the corporate management imposed by large media conglomerates. "What may surprise some is that the immediate impact of the bottom line was not some ruthless hacking away at literature. The truly important effect was that this was the moment when management ceased to be drawn from editorial or even marketing ranks and publishing houses began to be headed by MBAs, men with little or no connection to, or knowledge of, the product or the customer, and when middle management ceased to be a bookkeeper and a contracts manager and became bloated with hundreds of financial officers all dutifully engaged in doing the numbers ... But neither could publishing any longer ignore the imperatives of modern management. Problems … of management, leadership and finance have been with us for quite a while, though perhaps not as prominently as today."

In Saturday's "Arts and Ideas" section of the New York Times, Emily Eakin wrote about a vogue for everyday objects that's sweeping through humanities departments across the country. "In fields like art, architecture, history and even English, a growing number of experts are turning to things in an effort to better understand the past. … The academic name for the stuff of everyday life is material culture." As if to emphasize its own interest in quotidian things—or perhaps not to be outdone by the academy—the Times published an article about marginalia  in the same issue and in the same section. According to Edward Rothstein, there's much significance in the notes readers write in the margins of books. "Marginalia create a form of extended argument in which the reader has the upper hand, taking over the text. But the text also stakes its claims: it determines (literally) the boundaries within which a reader's reactions are to be constrained."