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Remembering Paul Alpers

November 25, 2013 - 05:24

For those interested in slow reading: The Spenser Review has run an issue remembering Paul Alpers, who sadly passed away last May, and I am one of the six contributors.  I have a great fear (I hope I’m wrong) that Alpers is not so well known to those new to the profession of criticism.  He was a giant, and is very much missed.  I'm pasting in the first three paragraphs of my essay, "Perdita's Flowers," below: 

Why should you read Paul Alpers’ What Is Pastoral?  For many readers of The Spenser Review, that probably seems like a stupid question: Spenserians all know Alpers is the critics’ critic of the poets’ poet.  Yet to the broader world, to undergraduates or graduate students or the mildly curious, it might not seem so obvious why they should read a nearly 20-year-old book that was conspicuously untrendy when it arrived.  Those are, however, the readers to whom Alpers’ book is finally directed, because those are the readers, he will insist, that pastoral tries to imagine.  Finding future readers: that will be the moral of What Is Pastoral?

Insisting upon a future through reading pastoral, though, is not an easy case to make.  Undergraduates immediately notice that pastoral may be the silliest form of poetry ever invented: how can you take seriously poems in which shepherds, and upper-class people dressed up as shepherds, stand around complaining?  Worse: how can you take seriously literary criticism written about such absurd poems?  Future readers, Professor Alpers hears your gripes.  Here is his reaction to Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (1559), the work that set the terms for Renaissance pastoral: “One can hardly believe that such nonsense carries conviction, and there is no way to become a believer short of reading [it].”[i]  Nonsense: that is pastoral in a nutshell.  Nonsense about nonsense: that is literary criticism of pastoral.  But look carefully again at the second part of that sentence: “there is no way to become a believer short of reading [it].”  Where does the conviction of pastoral come from?  It comes from you, from reading in the future. “Short of reading” means “only after reading.”  What Is Pastoral? is a book that shows you how to read—not only how to read pastoral, but how to read literature.  And it tries to make you a believer in the claim on life that pastoral literature can make.  But it is a book whose arguments—for pastoral, for literature, for literary criticism—always depend upon reading in the future.  To become a believer in pastoral, to become a believer in literary criticism, is to become a believer in the future.  That is why you should read Alpers—now maybe more than ever.

What sort of belief is a belief in the future?  The claim of literature on future lives is not exactly a new argument.  Alpers gets his version mostly from Reuben Brower’s now-famous course “Hum 6” at Harvard, where Alpers had been a teaching assistant (he later called Brower his “most important influence”[ii]).  What Brower terms “reading in slow motion”[iii] emphasizes that you read not knowing exactly what is going to happen.  And since you don’t know what is going to happen, slow reading requires a lot of trust on your part.  Alpers’ debt to Brower is clear in the very first sentence of his 1967 book The Poetry of the Faerie Queene: “The purpose of this book is to bring The Faerie Queene into focus—to enable the ordinary reader and student to trust Spenser’s verse.”[iv]  You have to trust the poem to say something, to come into focus, to make its claim.  Alpers writes to help you trust literature.  By believing in the future he does not mean adhering to a metaphysical certainty or treating literature as religion.  He means trust.  Trust happens when there are no certainties...

You can read the rest of the article here.

[i] Paul Alpers, What Is Pastoral? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 123, henceforth referred to parenthetically as WIP.

[ii] See “A conversation with Paul Alpers,” The Sophian, October 24, 2002.

[iii] See Reuben Brower, “Reading in Slow Motion,” in In Defense of Reading: A Reader’s Approach to Literary Criticism, ed. Rueben Brower and Richard Poirier (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1962), 3-21.

[iv] Paul J. Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967), vii.


Tags: slow readingPaul AlpersEdmund SpenserSocial Network: Picture description: 

Photo courtesy of Stephen Orgel

Listening to Huck Finn

November 14, 2013 - 11:38

Who me, listen to audio books? That was my attitude until recently, a prejudice of my profession that literature is better read than heard. But on a solo road trip this summer I took along the ten-disk set of Marc Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the ride.

I had my doubts about this experience, not believing that I could follow the entire book. But I was mesmerized by the auditory world hitherto mute to me as I hurled through the Midwestern landscape. If literature is supposed to defamiliarize our perception of life, then hearing Huck Finn defamiliarized my understanding of literature. First of all, my sense of attentiveness was different. Rather than focusing on tactility of the pages (or of an electronic reader) and the optical arrangement of the words into lines, paragraphs and pages, my awareness was principally aural. Saddled into my seat, I had the sensation of penetrating a continuous narrative, interrupted only by the narrator’s announcement of a new chapter or the necessity of changing the disk.

What struck me as strange was the way I had to reorient my approach to and then my position within the novel. With my ears as guides, I concentrated on the sonic nature of the story, on pitch, pause, cadence, intonation, accent, and breath. It was as if, robbed of my capacity to read by a stroke or some other catastrophic event, I had to rely on my auditory apparatus to feel my way through the narrative. I appeared to be compensating with my ears for something I could no longer do – process the words visually. Staring at the road ahead, I was eavesdropping on the conversations of Huck and Jim.

As the waves of the story reverberated through the car, I felt myself pulled into Twain’s world, incapable of maintaining the critical distance permitted by writing. When reading you gain perspective by closing your eyes, even for a second, moving them up or down, daydreaming perhaps, or concentrating on the distinction between your universe and that imagined one. The latter is particularly important in Huck Finn for it continually plays with the difference between representation and reality. This is less possible when listening.

For this reason, I could keep the CD on only when the drive was smooth and uneventful. Upon hitting heavy traffic, or commanded by Doris -- the name our daughter had given our GPS -- with her metallic inflection to exit Highway 94, I had to turn it off.

Of course, this experience was not entirely new. I had attended readings of literature before. But these were public events not affording the intimacy of the car. At home I read to our three children, a daily activity that taught me to go over lines slowly and with a sense of purpose and drama. And I speak passages out loud in class or have students declaim them. 

But this was the first time I was a sustained listener, and the object of the experience was pleasure itself, rather than politely hearing colleagues or guests reading from their work. Although I had read Huck Finn a number of times, had used the work in my own writing, and had taught it in class, I had always conducted the reading in silence with words triggering concepts, images, or situations in my mind.

For this reason, when I slipped the disk into the CD player I had expected the narrator, Norman Dietz, to recite the novel in one tone. But in reality he acted it out in the various voices, giving expression to the “polylalia” of Twain’s work.

This was the main difference for me. I finally heard the dialects clashing and clamoring. The novel had gained a hitherto unperceived dimension. And it was the first time that I had understood Jim. I had struggled in the past with his speech, sometimes skimming over his words, silencing him in a way. And I remember when, as an immigrant whose native language at home was not English, I was severely challenged by the various linguistic registers. Had the novel not been assigned in my high-school class, I doubt that I would have finished it. Moreover, because parts struck my teen-age ears almost like a foreign language, I had feared returning to it as an adult.

Hearing these different idioms of the demotic play themselves out in the car, I understood internally what I had always known that this was a carnivalesque work in the Bachtinian sense. The words and conversations popped out at me.

In saying this, I am not suggesting that writing silences the voice. I am not arguing that print confines reading into a linearity of direction. Our imagination can’t just be imprisoned in this way.  

But I am saying that the institution of literature, which is partly a product of print, has converted the orality and aurality of human expression into written text. Derrida has argued that the logocentric tradition of the West has privileged the living voice over the dead letter. But with respect to literature the opposite is true. The critical practices of the last two centuries have transformed diverse artifacts from epic to lyric, originally functioning as oral poetry, into material for private reading. For two centuries, the “authentic” high literary experience has been hushed, austere, and monastic. 

Perhaps what we have is less logophobia than graphomania, a tendency that continues with the Internet. We hear much that electronic writing is eroding the characteristics of print such as copyright, the self-contained text, and autonomous author, yielding a more fluid textuality. But at the same time, it is creating a rising tide of writing, ever-expanding into texting, email, and the web-archive. The world is turning into text in a Mallarméan and Derridean sense.

So it was with pleasure and relief that for a couple of hours I gave into a very ancient experience.

Tags: literatureMarc TwainAudio booksSocial Network: Picture description: 

(Images via Flickr Commons, Wikimedia Commons, and Flickr [I, II])

Optimized Health

November 12, 2013 - 08:34

Reaction to the roll-out of has taken many predictable forms, among them the false equation whereby Grand Tech Failure = Evidence of the Unconstitutionality of the Affordable Care Act itself.  The desperate illogic of that equation aims to insure (pun intended) that Obamacare’s effort to distribute health care more equitably in the United States will fail.  And that it will fail so spectacularly as to seem to justify continued denial of access to health care to poor, unemployed, previously ill, and chronically ill people.  Rather than parsing the improvements—incremental, not ideal—mandated by the Affordable Care Act, this post intends to start thinking about the grand tech distraction of media coverage of in relation to three admittedly disparate things:  a consumer product, the Quantified Self movement, and (in a later post) the letters of a poet. 

How, everyone from ProPublica to the Heritage Foundation seems to be asking, did they not test the whole website? How did they not anticipate the traffic? How did this become such a mess? And so forth.  But tech failures are familiar:  think unstoppable pinwheel or the series of old-school computer meltdowns that, as reliably as tired motherhood clichés, propel director Alfonso Cuarón’s visually mesmerizing film Gravity.  It’s not the failure itself of that’s unusual, it’s the scale and publicity of the failure. 

As against that very familiarity of tech fail as daily annoyance or narrative plot point, much of the coverage of the episode (perhaps especially in the left-leaning news outlets on which I rely) bespeaks an implicit confidence in how communications technology and digital marketplaces might streamline health care reform.  “If the design, construction, and testing of the website had just been better” the thinking seems to go, “everything would’ve been fine!”  Such “if… then…” optimism about technology and optimal health only gains ground, or bandwidth, in what is now routinely called the digital age.

Witness the logic of “If I measure myself more effectively, I will optimize my health.”  This is the logic of such consumer technology products as the Fitbit.  At its root, there’s nothing new about such logic, as anyone who has ever counted calories or logged exercise or monitored sleep patterns will tell you.  Gadgets like the Fitbit simply enhance or exacerbate, depending on your point of view, their users’ tendencies to quantify health, to associate wellbeing with acts of measurement, and to apply both language and behaviors of consumerism to the monitoring of health—or, less holistically and perhaps more frequently in the United States, to the monitoring of one’s weight.  According to its website, Fitbit makes sleek devices that track “your steps, distance, calories burned, and stairs climbed.”  The popular Fitbit One “never rests,” even while you do: “come nightfall, it measures your sleep quality, helps you learn how to sleep better, and wakes you in the morning.”  If knowledge is power, then data, it seems, is empowerment in the name of personal health.  You just have to buy it, in the fullest sense of the phrase “buy it.”  You have to buy the logic and the product.

The Fitbit offers an apt metonym for a much larger movement, based in the Bay Area, called Quantified Self (QS).  (QS tagline: “Self knowledge through numbers.”)  The most recent QS Global Conference, held in San Francisco last month, included talks with titles like “What I Learned from 30 Days of Continuous ECG,” “Data Cartography: The Journey to Existence Mapping,” and “How Six Months of Tracking Everything Increased My Awareness.”  (You can view the full conference program here.)  Incidentally, the bio for Ernesto Ramirez, the Program Director at Quantified Self Labs, tells us that he “has recorded more than 9 million steps on his Fitbit.”  Beat that!

Both the gadgetry associated with QS and the habits of mind that QS endorses and enables would make a fascinating study.  I’m intrigued, for example, by QS interest in what we might think of as the analog prehistory of digital self-tracking, as evidenced in the video “Grandma was a Lifelogger,” and in how QS work might help patients manage chronic pain or illness.  Nonetheless, the recent context of the debacle, and of protracted Republic resistance to the Affordable Care Act, highlights the fundamentally private and market-driven character of QS, a character that lines up uncomfortably well with resistance to any change in a private, market-driven health care system. You buy these products.  You collect this data. You optimize your health.  What public health or social change progress might result from such individual, purchased empowerment remains to be seen.  Much less measured.

Tags: health careQuantified Selfdigital ageself-trackingSocial Network: Picture description: 

(Image by Michelle Jia)

1942-2013 = LOU REED = ∞

November 6, 2013 - 10:35

“It always bothers me to see people writing ‘RIP‘ when a person dies. It just feels so insincere and like a cop-out. To me, ‘RIP‘ is the microwave dinner of posthumous honors.” — Lou Reed

There's this moment at the end of Lou Reed's Berlin concert film when his face changes from a sphinx-like scowl into a gracious glow. It's after Antony sings a cover version of the Velvets' "Candy Says." Transformed in the hands of his protégé, Lou rewards Antony with a warm smile—all the more precious for its rarity.

I'm not big into mourning celebrity deaths. There was a day in 1990 when Jim Henson died (almost simultaneous with Sammy Davis!). That was memorable—it made it seem possible my culture heroes would one day go. Kurt Cobain's suicide was a big deal. But I can't remember a passing I've spent more time thinking about than Lou Reed's. Maybe because I think "live fast die young" is bullshit and say what you will about Lou he led a long, great life and died of natural causes. (However much his intense living caused those causes.)

I am writing this just after coming home from a tribute screening of Berlin in Queens. It wasn't that good, except when it seemed perfect, like that moment where he smiles. And that's what Reed's music & person seemed to be like—definitely to his fans and (from what I've heard) also to those who knew him: hard to explain & justify logically until he hit upon an emotion in a fashion so plainspoken and real it made you wonder why anyone else even tried turning thoughts into expression.

Well, here's one small reason some people kept trying: If you happened to live & make art in New York City, it seemed possible Lou might notice & cast his rare smile in your direction. Lou Reed continued to pay attention. Throughout the decade I've lived in his city, he was an impersonal but consistent presence in my bohemian New York. I'd hear through the grapevine that he visited the Ditmas Park restaurant out by where some of The Nationals lived. Once or twice I turned around in a Chelsea gallery to see him looking at the same art I was. He'd be wearing leather pants and pulling them off (sort of)—a man in his 60s wearing the same cooler-than-thou gaze on his face he practically invented in the '60s.

Or then there was that time Lou & Laurie showed up to a Buke and Gase gig at the Mercury Lounge and surprised them not only by liking it but inviting them out afterward to hang. A few months later, in February 2011, the two duos reconnected for a benefit show at the Stone just after Valentine's Day. (That's where the picture at the top of this post comes from. Note the rare Lou Reed smile.) A few months later Reed invited the Bukes to open a pair of shows for him in Paris and London. Amazing.

Lou Reed cared about art long after he could have stopped caring. Art is what drove him & fueled his work, what inspired him & made him so inspiring. And in this cultural moment where fame & page views often trump all other claims to attention, that is huge.

I firmly believe we'll look back at the Pure Fame one could achieve in 20th century pop culture as a world-historical anomaly. It's been an Age of Fame presaging our newfound Era of Niches. That makes the early 21st century twilight of the gods time for Iconic Pop Musicians. The artists I grew up loving, the artists I have grown to love most deeply, well, they are older now: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, et. al. It's unclear if new gods will ever rise up to replace them.

For now, though, we are in a unique position. We can each build our own pantheon, but all of us get to use figures anyone can recognize. If my little label Brassland is, in part, a monument to something other than itself, well, it's a pantheon dedicated to Lou Reed. Sure, in some abstract sense, Michael Jackson was more important, and Jackson's passing more epic & universal. But anyone who uses "importance" as an excuse to minimize Reed's work has betrayed how little they understand what he did. There's that famous Brian Eno quote which I'll paraphrase: “The Velvet Underground & Nico sold only 30,000 copies during its first five years but everyone who bought one started a band.” It's a statement which recognizes Lou Reed's true level of influence.

On his own, Reed recorded a lot of music that is easy to dislike—but, for those paying attention, he also recorded more memorable, meaningful songs than almost anyone ever will. "Perfect Day" > "Some Kind of Love" > "Satellite of Love" > "Walk on the Wild Side" > "Vicious" > "Waves of Fear" > "Dirty Blvd"! The hard to explain brilliance of The Blue Mask! And don't' forget the weirder ones: "Sad Song" > "Street Hassle" > "Like a Possum"! Holy fuck! One guy made all that. (Often times with one amazing bassist.)

Brassland is a tribute to Lou Reed if for no other reason than it's built around the idea that you can't judge art entirely by sales figures. Just as you'd be laughed at for comparing J.D. Salinger's or Woody Allen's "numbers" to those to 50 Shades of Grey or Despicable Me 2, you can't look at Reed's legacy in the same terms as those of contemporaneous best sellers. Yes, his work never sold as quickly as Bad Company in the 70s, or Duran Duran in the 80s, or Candlebox in the 90s. Point being, while Herman's Hermits had two big hits in 1965—the same year VU took their name—there aren't many 21st century musicians who trace their lineage back to the creative vision of Mickie Most, whereas there've been thousands who would have had no context without the work of Lou Reed. And though VU's albums may have only sold a few thousand copies when first released, their music has continued to sell (or get passed around) just as strongly today as it did back in their day, 50 years ago. And, more importantly it is shared insistently, as a relevant example, as music so progressive & alive it sounds as fresh today as it must have back then.

A final word about poetry. For a long time, it was the ultimate compliment to a rock lyricist to say they were like a poet—viz. Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith. Similarly poets blush when compared to rock stars. The thing about Lou Reed is that he makes these sorts of comparisons fail because he was a poet and a rock star equally—audacious as anything, but able to drop a beautiful phrase that would stick in your mind forever. And, last but not least, his music nearly always had a great beat and you could dance to it.

This blog entry is cross-posted from

Tags: Lou ReedKurt CobainBuke and GaseNew York CitypoetrySocial Network: Picture description: 

Lou Reed smiling

Living, loving, and party-going in Shakespeare

November 5, 2013 - 08:18

Here's a song by John Ashbery, or maybe a poem about song, or both, entitled "Song":

The song tells us of our old way of living,
Of life in former times. Fragrance of florals,
How things merely ended when they ended,
Of beginning again into a sigh. Later

Some movement is reversed and the urgent masks
Speed toward a totally unexpected end
Like clocks out of control. Is this the gesture
That was mean, long ago, the curving in

Of frustrated denials, like jungle foliage
And the simplicity of the ending all to be let go
In quick, suffocating sweetness? The day
Puts toward a nothingness of sky

Its face of rusticated brick. Sooner or later,
The cars lament, the whole business will be hurled down.
Meanwhile we sit, scarcely daring to speak,
To breathe, as though this closeness cost us life.

The pretensions of a past will some day
Make it over into progress, a growing up,
As beautiful as a new history book
With uncut pages, unseen illustrations,

And the purpose of many stops and starts will be made clear:
Backing into the old affair of not wanting to grow
Into the night, which becomes a house, a parting of the ways
Taking us far into sleep. A dumb love.



I've always disliked facile talk of the green-world/real-world distinction in Shakespeare. Belmont, the Athenian woods, the Forest of Arden, Bohemia. As though Shakespeare was acknowledging fantasy while gently tutoring us in the reality principle that moralist critics, each a mini-Leavis, valued most.

Of course there's something to the contrast of moods that Shakespeare is after, a contrast to which locale contributes. But I think the contrast is temporal: it's a different kind of experience of time that he's after, the suspension of action, the ritardando slowing the impetus with which cause attempts to burn the stages of effect to achieve its final purpose, that I wrote about here. It's how Shakespeare manages theatrical time, makes theatrical experience into something other than a causal nexus. Our relation to time changes, we live (to alter Beckett slightly) a Shakespearean pause. That's the point: not the contrast between green and real (urban, ordinary, everyday, whatever) world, but the access to that pause.

Here's the moment in Beckett I was I alluding to, the narrator's description of Belacqua in More Pricks Than Kicks:

He lived a Beethoven pause, he said, whatever he meant by that.... He was an impossible person in the end. I gave him up in the end because he was not serious.

The pause is where the serious is suspended. It's not unlike (especially in More Pricks Than Kicks) Deleuze's evocation of alcohol as the world of the passé composé, the suspended, timeless, lost and present-in-its-loss world that is other than the careening, unfolding, continuous, exorbitant present. It's the achievement of a non-serious relation to time.

The achievement, that is to say, of parties. Proustian parties we know about, but it's been striking me how many parties there are in Shakespeare, how (as in Proust) they seem to occur mid-play. Not only in the green-world comedies (the "green world" is the place they occur), but in the histories and tragedies as well: the Mousetrap—and the graveyard—, the feast to which Banquo so unexpectedly returns, Pompey's feasting of the triumvirate (among many others in Antony and Cleopatra), drunkenness in Cyprus, the hovel scene in Lear, the various strange gatherings in Titus. Parties in Shakespeare generally include us: we're not watching for some underlying dynamic (James Bond avoiding the noose tightening around him as he plays Baccarat against his antagonists), but spending time with the play, which gives us, allows us to share, a "time which is our own," to quote Shelley in his great poem of suspension, the "Lines Written in the Bay of Lerici."

Shakespeare's plays tend to follow the dynamic of the convergence of all surviving characters which Dan Decker describes so well in his great book Anatomy of a Screenplay. But the really interesting thing is the two-step rhythm of that convergence: first at a party mid-play (the Mousetrap, Cyprus, even the hovel, where the joint stool can't deny that it is Goneril), and then again at the end. The party is a false-ending, often (as it certainly is in the Mousetrap), but in another sense it's the other possible ending, the one came there for, the experience of the play and not of its resolution. The duration of that experience, in all genres, takes shape as a party.

These thoughts are partly inspired by listening, elegiacally, with just this sense of suspension, to Lou Reed's "Heroin," which is of course about what it's like to be moved to sing "Heroin." All true songs are about what it's liked to be moved to sing them: The old way you lived, relive it,* at least during the song: tomorrow is just some other time. As Ashbery suggests, what the song promises—a promise it keeps in making it, and doesn't break by not keeping it in any other way—is that you can always bring it with you, always sing it again tomorrow. Blanchot finds sublime the moment that Achilles offers Priam bread or death, hospitality or the end of things. Plays have to end, but no one so well as Shakespeare understood how to use them to offer the hospitality of time, the interim of friendship.

*Children, while you can, let some last flame
Coat these walls, the lives you lived, relive them.

—Merrill Tags: BlanchotBeckettSongLou ReedHeroinhospitalitypartiesShakespeareProustLines Written in the Bay of LericiSocial Network: Picture description: 

Image adapted from "The Play Scene In Hamlet," Edwin Austen Abbey (1897)

Occupy: the view from Tehran II

November 4, 2013 - 09:11

Part II of the article by Arash Beidollahkhani published on Arcade (Part I).

"The Middle East Revolutions: courageous uprising of the youth against the current and entrance into the area of public policy" by Arash Beidollahkhani


Finding solution to the problems of the social world: thinking beyond the official structures

Commercialization of the world and the dominance of commercial and capitalist firms over the social and political structures in the modern world have all made it very difficult to solve structural problems. Strict and inhibitive regulations not only provide no opportunity for creativity and going beyond these structures but also have undermined people’s self-confidence accustoming them to the governmental benefits and social insurances and making people dependent on social benefits either from the government or non-governmental institutions considering the structural financial disasters. This situation has taken away from the people their bravery and their opportunity to think independently and move against the current. In addition, these official and legal structures have made the costs of independent thinking and moving against the current really heavy. But protest movements by the youths for the purpose of fighting for social equality and protection from being humiliated by official structures point to the fact that if people move against the official current not individually but in large groups and networks and base their work on mass bravery, nothing can really stop them. Certainly solving the problems and disasters of the world today is not possible only by legal structures; it requires individual and mass bravery so that all the people are awakened by criticizing and revolting against them .

The official structures can no longer help recognize and solve social problems and disasters. Youths’ uprising in Europe and America showed the authorities and decision-makers that modern capitalist structures can no longer bear the heavy load of many of the problems and cannot solve many of the issues and problems afflicting the youth.[13]

Furthermore, the youths’ uprising in the Middle East and north of Africa against their despotic governments was in the form of a bravery beyond the official structure which gave them the self-confidence to decide for their future and country.[14] In addition to these factors, this kind of moving against the current headed by the youth during the recent decades (as can be observed in the recent movements) has a number of differences with other movements that move against the current; in comparison with the youths’ movements in the 1960s in which they displayed bravery to protest against unequal legal structures, the movements originated in 2011 by the youth in the Middle East and other parts of the world were basically different. [15]The youth at that time wanted a world with more justice and without war and discrimination and sometimes expressed their dissatisfaction in the form of ideological and revolutionary schools which did not practically lead to democracy. The youths’ protest in the 1960s did not have only political motivations; sociologically, these movements were to express the youths’ presence as one of the newly-found social groups with a special culture and certain characteristics. Finally, these movements not only caused political changes in Western countries but also led the youths and especially the girls to acquire a special and new position and be recognized in the society; the youths’ culture and new behavioral patterns or sexual freedom became normalized.[16]

The movements in 2011, on the other hand, cannot be defined within the same framework as those in the 1960s. Some specific characteristics related to these movements distinguish them from other movements:

First of all, the youths created these movements on their own without being dependent on any party, groups or traditional organizations (syndicate, union, etc.) or any other popular methods of organization.[17]

Second, these new movements were not under the leadership any party or charismatic characters (intellectual, religious, political, etc.). The existence of a new generation of “intellectual mediators” including the journalists, weblog writers, civilian activists and also virtual social networks made it possible for the youth to become connected and converse and operate with each other in a joint attempt.[18]

Third, the girls (in the case of Arabian countries) had a very active role in the movements which was a kind of innovation in those patriarchal areas.

Fourth, these movements are against violence and attempt to demand their civil rights via civil movements. For the first time, in some of the Arabian countries a generation has come to the scene that presents a new culture instead of violent revolutions and without using the arms, bombing or any other violent movement and in this way, displays its future noble ideals in its bravery today.[19]

Finally, the political plans and demands of the uprising youths are simple but central. In Arabian countries the youth want free elections, an open and pluralistic society with freedom of expression and respect for human beings and equitable development; these are the demands ignored during the recent decades by the closed and despotic governments.[20]

In Northern countries(Europe and North America), the youths’ movement demanded a society full of justice, without poverty and social security in which financial capital is not allowed to dominate over people’s lives in the society.

All the features and characteristics are indicative of a new form of bravery in the people which is not longer dependent on individuals. It teaches bravery to all its members using public spheres and modern media and in the form of a comprehensive network movement.

Enhancing people’s courageous; the mission for international institutions

Although official and legal structures within the country have inhibited individuals’ sense of creativity and their bravery for moving against the current, international institutions can create optimal structures and help to enhance the sense of bravery and creativity in them in different countries so that they can move against the official and legal currents in their countries and in this way find workable solutions to their structural, political and economic problems because the legal and governmental structures are not able to provide solutions to many of the structural problems. The revolutions in the Arab world and the youths’ movement at the head of social movements in these countries are indicative of bravery enhancement in unofficial atmospheres and social networks because planning for criticizing the governments’ policies and demonstrating against them started from social networks. Different international institutions that are active for promoting freedom of expression and democracy development can help enhance bravery within official frameworks by supporting the growth and development of social networks and by supporting freedom of the media in countries under the rule of despotic regimes. Besides, international financial organizations such as the IMF, United Nations Development Fund, etc. can set certain conditions such the growth of individual creativity and bravery enhancement in deviation from the official structure for more assistance to the countries that promote it. Besides, the democratic countries in the world should support the youth and the social movements in despotic and authoritarian countries, those who are moving outside the official and legal framework and display bravery to criticize the government and discuss the main problems afflicting their countries beyond the official structures and present solutions to them in order to lower the costs of these movements for those who commit themselves to the movements so that the bravery outside the official framework would be enhanced among different individuals and the social networks to express their problems and present solutions. Providing financial and spiritual support for the social and political movements that move beyond the official frameworks and structures and international institutions’ support for these movements can lead to the development of courage because when the rewards for bravery increase, the costs for the protesting group and individual will decrease. However, it should be noted that people’s bravery against the despotic and authoritarian structures should be result-oriented and provide good solutions for the social disasters so that the global society and international institutions can support them correctly. In this respect, it should also be added that powerful countries in the world that have dominance over the international institutions should support these movements and help find solutions to the local political and economic problems in areas where bravery has been demonstrated by the people without being conservative. Certainly, their support (which is kind of a reward) for political and protest movements of the youth in different countries which is a sign of bravery can help solve these economic and political problems and disasters more quickly.

[13] For more information, see Zach Zill, "Dimensions of the global youth revolt," International Socialist Review, 81 (2012).

[14] Rama Halaseh, Civil Society, Youth and the Arab Spring, 264-66.

[15] Year 2011: return of Youth with new social movements (2012).

[16] For more Information see to Andrew B. Lewis, The Shadows of Youth: The Remarkable Journey of the Civil Rights Generation (Hill and Wang  Press, 2009): 34-54

[17] Halaseh, 264-66.

[18] Farhad Khosrokhavar, The New Arab Revolutions That Shook the World, (Paradigm Publishers, 2011): 43-53.

[19] Stephen Zunes, "Arab revolutions and the power of nonviolent action," National Catholic Reporter, November 25, (2011): 26-28.

[20] Joshua Muravchik, Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring, Commentary Magazine 9 (2011): 3-34

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Remembrance Day and the Case of the $400,000,000 Poem

November 2, 2013 - 12:04

I like to think of John McCrae's "In Flanders Fields" as the $400,000,000 poem, and not just because its first stanza has appeared on the back of the Canadian $10 bank note—a fact that, all by itself, makes McCrae's World War I-era verse one of the most widely circulated poems in history. I also think of it as the $400,000,000 poem because, shortly after it appeared in the December 8, 1915, issue of Punch magazine, the Canadian government made "In Flanders Fields" a central piece of its public relations campaign advertising the sale of the first Victory Loan Bonds, printing it, or excerpts from it, on billboards and posters like the one pictured here. According to Canadian Veterans Affairs and other sources, the campaign was designed to raise $150,000,000 but ended up netting—wait for it—more than $400,000,000.

Whoever said that "poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper" clearly wasn't thinking of McCrae's rondeau, which is the centerpiece of Remembrance or Veterans Day (November 11) activities worldwide and turned the red or "Buddy" poppy into the day's icon, manufacture and sale of which has been a regular source of funding for disabled and needy VFW veterans as well as for war orphans and surviving spouses of veterans in the U.S. since 1923. It is memorized by school kids, recited at Remembrance Day events, has elicited all sorts of reply poems and been put to music, and resulted in the restoration of McCrae's birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, as a museum. In Ypres, Belgium, there's even a World War I museum that takes its name from the poem.

By most accounts, McCrae composed "In Flanders Fields" in 1915, the day after witnessing the death of his 22 year-old friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, and legend has it that McCrae ripped the poem out of his notebook and cast it aside amongst the blood-red poppies on the battlefield where it was rescued by an onlooker and sent to Punch, which printed it anonymously:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly.
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

By 1917, the Canadian government had paired "In Flanders Fields" with the painting (by British-born Canadian artist Frank Lucien Nicolet) of a soldier standing in the poppy fields and was raising its millions of dollars in Victory Loan Bonds.

In the most famous piece of literary-critical commentary on "In Flanders Fields," Paul Fussell (see The Great War and Modern Memory) doesn't have too many good things to say about the poem, claiming that the "rigorously regular meter" makes the poppies of the poem's first stanza "seem already fabricated of wire and paper" (249). Nevertheless, he finds the verse "interesting" for the way in which it "manages to accumulate the maximum number of [emotion-triggering] motifs and images ... under the aegis of a mellow, if automatic, pastoralism" (249). In the first nine lines alone, Fussell explains, you've got "the red flowers of pastoral elegy; the 'crosses' suggestive of calvaries and thus of sacrifice; the sky, especially noticeable from the confines of a trench; the larks bravely singing in apparent critique of man's folly; the binary opposition between the song of the larks and the noise of the guns; the special awareness of dawn and sunset at morning and evening stand-to's; the conception of soldiers as lovers; and the focus on the ironic antithesis between beds and the graves 'where now we lie'" (249). But Fussell saves his most damning critique—what he calls "[breaking] this butterfly upon the wheel" (250)—for the poem's final lines, which devolve into what he calls "recruiting-poster rhetoric apparently applicable to any war" (249). "We finally see—and with a shock—" he writes, "what the last lines really are: they are a propaganda argument—words like vicious and stupid would not seem to go too far—against a negotiated peace" (250). (For another examination of the poem in relation to McCrae's Canadian national identity and the rondeau form, see Amanda French's paper "Poetic Propaganda and the Provincial Patriotism of ‘In Flanders Fields'" first presented at the 2005 SCMLA conference.)

Fussell's right, isn't he? As the slogan "If ye break faith—we shall not sleep" in the "Buy Victory Bonds" ad indicates, McCrae's poem was in fact pitch-perfect "recruiting-poster rhetoric," wasn't it? Well, almost. I would submit that it's worth noting how the Canadian government didn't exactly quote "In Flanders Fields" word for word. Instead, it excised the four words ("with us who die") that separate "If ye break faith" from "we shall not sleep" in the original poem—an act that works to repress the war's human costs and thus redirect the expression of faith to its financial ones. That is, in staging the purchase of Victory Bonds as an act of remembrance, the Canadian advertisement actually erases the object of the McCrae's memorial ("us who die"). In this bowdlerized version of the poem—and I don't use the term bowdlerize facetiously, as it means "to remove those parts of a text considered offensive, vulgar, or otherwise unseemly"—the poster sanitizes the war by silencing the voices of its dead, depicting war as a financial commitment rather than a human struggle and thus making the "propaganda argument ... against a negotiated peace" that Fussell describes.

But the repressed has a way of returning, just like the dead do. Consider, for example, the awesome item pictured here—a used ink blotter with Canada's "Buy Victory Bonds" ad featured on front. On the reverse, the ink stains grimly read like blood stains. And on the "front" (where the pun asks us to also read it as the battle line of war), the artifact's owner Vivian Hogarth signed her name in the upper right corner and corrected Canada's version of the poem, restoring the phrase "with us who die" and thus—in an act of what we might think of as zombie poetics—effectively writing the dead back into existence. Thank you, Vivian Hogarth. That's the type of memorial we would do well to keep in mind this Remembrance Day.

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(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

The Gannet of Thought

November 1, 2013 - 23:18

Stories of voyage are also stories of loss; this is why the Old English poem The Seafarer feels elegiac. In a column for The Nation, Joshua Clover considers (through allusions to The Seafarer) what kinds of losses the current crop of voyage movies are marking. Posing the question "What's up with all the boats?" he triangulates three Hollywood movies about misadventures in elements high and deep. All is Lost, Captain Phillips, and Gravity, he suggests, together track "the shipwreck of capital." These films, along with Sekula's The Forgotten Space, register the anxious realization of overwhelming losses of power, money, security. I think that two of these movies reveal anxiety about another kind of loss as well, one that is related to what Clover points out but that may have other implications as well. in a crushing, constraining way, Gravity and Captain Phillips show us that the cerebral, imaginative dimension of voyage is also lost. Voyage can sometimes be motivated by things other than the desire for knowledge, especially if its end is to claim and colonize. But I think that even as recently as the 1990s, we could still discern a heroism in the intellectual project of journey, the force of curiosity and philosophy. Now, in Gravity and Captain Phillips, that is gone; ideational content has vanished like a gull over the water.

in order to make this point, I'd like to set Gravity and Captain Phillips in dialogue with two other movies. One, Apollo 13 (1995), is old by the standards of popular cultural criticism. The other is preoccupied with oldness within the context of its boldly-go-where-no-man-has-gone-before narrative: last year's Kon Tiki, based on Thor Heyerdahl's 1948 account of his expedition. Some connecting vectors are obvious: Tom Hanks, space disasters, capsules with striped parachutes like the one in I Dream of Jeanie, cranky men on a tiny boat, the dire calculation of a landing trajectory. Others are perhaps less self-evident, like the fact that the director of Kon Tiki cited Apollo 13 as a major structural influence.

In different ways, Apollo 13 and Kon Tiki celebrate the cerebral dimension of exploration. I think it's hard not to experience geeky Mission Control as the real hero of Apollo 13, especially when they have to jerry-rig square filters to fit in round holes using spaceship detritus dumped on the table before them (a scene iconic enough for The Big Bang Theory to parody). Showing Gary Sinise puzzle out a solution in a Houston flight simulator also effectively conveys that those guys on the ground are dreamy, brainy heroes. Even Kevin Bacon does some math in the shuttle. Intelligence of various kinds plays an important role in the viewer's experience of the mission. When Hanks' Jim Lovell has to captain the ship safely to earth, we get the sense that he is simply drawing on reserves of high competence that he had throughout the movie; he was a thoughtful guy to begin with. We know this from the way he uses his thumb to blot out the moon and then the earth, symbolic gestures that may seem ham-fisted right now but turn out, I will suggest, to be exquisitely lyrical compared to later galactic disquisitions. Kon Tiki wears its conceptual investments even more brightly on its sleeve because Thor Heyerdahl was, in fact, testing Theories. There was the the big diffusionist one, of course. My father tells me that his own dissertation adviser was an "anti-diffusion fanatic" who debated Heyerdahl's ideas energetically. But there were so many other interesting concepts at work on that voyage, too! New historicism! Historical phenomenology! Reenactment theory! Heyerdahl anticipated those paradigms when he built his pre-Colombian raft replica, questioning constantly what concessions to modernity he could and could not make. I think the recent film made all this evident in a suggestive, dextrous way.

Viewed in this light. Gravity and Captain Phillips depict a rushing evacuation of intellect out into the void. Sandra Bullock sure looks fantastic in the movie, but she is Tom Buchanan-like in her ruthless health and stupidity, her too-easily restored comfort in her own body. When confronted by the awesome oblivion of space, Bullock wields no philosophical thumb; in fact, she can't muster much that's more incisive than howling like a dog. Her character's outburst makes Hal's stark performance of "Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do" in the ethereal loneliness seem Pindaric by comparison. And consider Hanks' Lovell against his Captain Phillips. Unlike Lovell, quippy and quick from the get-go, Phillips becomes preternaturally ingenious only after the pirates board. Before that he's the unimaginative company man, following regulations and giving his crew the hairy eyeball for prolonging their coffee break. It isn't a priority to be thinky on that voyage until necessary.

This is not to say that we are all becoming stupider any more than it is to say that Gravity and Captain Phillips are stupid movies. Rather, it is quite likely that both these movies are aware of and even drawing attention to an intellectual emptiness that they might themselves lament. Indeed, Gravity makes much of the contrast between the canniness of its special effects and the inanity of its movie star dialogue. But it seems too simple to say that the genius now lies in the representation rather than the voyage. Instead, I think that these four movies form a Bermuda quadrangle that reminds us of what it's possible to lose. In coping with shipwreck, we mustn't choose instead the landlocked state the Seafarer disparages, or be the man unable to know what voyage means, where it takes the gannet of thought.

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("Gannet", Plate 326 of Birds of America by John James Audubon, via Wikimedia Commons)

A Bombastic Book: "Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts"

October 27, 2013 - 08:40

Published in an open-access format by punctum books, Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts, by L.O. Aranye Fradenburg, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at UC Santa Barbara, is "part-scholarly monograph, part-poetic-activist desiring-assemblage" (xix). Edited by Eileen A. Joy, it includes companion essays by Donna Beth Ellard (Rice University), Ruth Evans (Saint Louis University), Joy (BABEL Working Group), Julie Orlemanski (University of Chicago), Daniel C. Remein (New York University), and Michael D. Snediker (University of Houston).

Coming from a very different set of academic issues in Brazil (a world attacked by quantitative-silly-parodies of the "developed nations-and-markets," but which also offers an energetic ambiance for Literature and the Arts), I'm still too foreign to US academia to comment on all the arguments and historical facts presented in this book. But what I can say is that Staying Alive, from its title on, is a refreshing—and radical—(also refreshing because radical) perspective on the "crises of the Humanities," an expression that remains as a knife over our heads (or, in Fradenburg's first sentence: "Today, all around the world, the future of the humanities stands on the edge of a knife") (1). Part of "university studies," it is a great companion for debates such as the ones commented on in Arcade's blogs by Roland Greene and David Palumbo-Liu, among others.

Besides, the book’s format coincides with its fresh spirit: each chapter by Fradenburg is echoed, rephrased and put forward by a series of commentators, following the musical form of prelude and fugues. Joy's prelude, for instance, as her name suggests, joyfully brings back the life and heart forces at stake and on stage at the Humanities, neglected or forgotten nowadays.

Put another way, desire and the sorts of passions and compulsions that lead to certain intensely ecstatic experiences are integral to the work of the academy, which often does not admit the importance of (disorganized) subjective life to its “proper objects” of study. (Joy ix)

As experts on medieval literature, Fradenburg and the co-authors show us how to fight old battles again, and they also offer us some classic armors to combat with jouissance the assault of technical utilitarian rhetoric, the majority of them depressing (i.e. offering no "cure" but contributing to killing the patient). Orlemanski, employing Thomas Pynchon's phrase, calls these combatants "the army of lovers,"—"naming those who would defend and support the humanities and fine arts, or fight for speculative thought and the study of the past"; and Joy sustains "the development of a certain institutional amour fou..." (56, xxvi). But the book is not at all an idealized version of the Humanities versus the Sciences, on the contrary, Fradenburg, who is also the director of a specialization in "Literature and the Mind," presents a comprehensive discussion on shared thoughts between neuroscience, evolutionary biology, biosemiotics, psychoanalysis and literary-historical analysis.

The following passages reminded me of a similar argumentation presented and developed in Joshua Landy's How to Do Things with Fictions (Oxford, 2012):

The humanities are important not only for the content that they convey but even more so for the techniques of living—the “life-skills”—they teach. ... The most important purpose of the humanities and fine arts is to refine the brain’s ability to do innumerable real-time things necessary for surviving and thriving: to perceive color keenly; hypothesize about the intentions and direction of moving shapes; listen with sharp ears for changes in tone, or the slightest rustle in the bushes; read faces and para-language; model fictions and possible futures; and understand, in however limited a fashion (the miracle is that we can do it at all), the wishes and intentions of other beings (see Gallese 2007). These are priceless abilities, and we need to refine them (now more than ever—but when have we not?), owing to the vulnerability of the lives of mortal creatures...Neuroscience is now establishing, however (at times) unintentionally, the importance of artistic and humanist training to mental functioning. But, as noted, these discoveries have sadly done little to protect the academic disciplines of the arts and humanities from budget cuts and closings. (Fradenburg 93)

This is a book that, for sure, has an appetite for poetry, music, the arts, and thoughts that make us alive and excited in spite of all controversies and actions to the contrary. Dismantling the rhetoric of the "discourses of crises" by showing how they enhance the same crises they intend to solve seems to me one of the key aspects of this book's crucial contribution. It is also a practical and effective example, reminds readers of the right of freedom of speech, and extends an invitation to cross-disciplinary experimental thoughts practiced within the academia.

In the disciplinary imaginary of contemporary discourse on the academy, the sciences are self-evidently utilitarian, and the humanities somehow lofty and lovely and loveable, but useless and impossible to evaluate. (Fradenburg 94)

The fact that the notion of the “useful” has so often been used to attack imaginative work (and pure science) does not mean that it should not be reclaimed, and I believe it should be reclaimed now. (Fradenburg 99)

Finally, the book’s main force and arguments are not in the side of a well behaved defense of the Liberal Arts, but, according to Daniel C. Remein, it is an "offense," an offensive attitude that does not ask permission for breathing to keep "our common aliveness" (Fradenburg 257). In other words, the beat pulsation, intellectual and passionate, that emanates from this book is a clear example of its (and our) utility: "In this way, it signals possibilities for going forth, together, depending upon where we stand here and now in traumatic proximity to the elsewhere of home" (Ellard 277).

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Pascal Rochette, "Bacabinha," 2013

Coppola's Girls, Coppola's America: Guilty/Not Guilty

October 20, 2013 - 12:34

It's hard to watch Sofia Coppola's 2013 The Bling Ring, which came out on DVD about a month ago, without feeling like you're at the end of a chain (no, I didn't say human chain) of recycled celebrity worship. The film tells the story of a group of vapid and glamour-obsessed teens in LA who figure out just how easy it is to break into celebrities' houses and abscond with their blingiest objects: their antique Rolexes, their Alexander McQueen sunglasses, their Louboutin heels. Rather than covering their tracks, they post appalling selfies on social media, displaying both their intimacy with the celebrities and their rool-breaking teen fearlessness. When they're caught, they act with a maddening sense of clueless entitlement, asking if they can just give all the stuff back. The teens then become mini-celebs themselves, fawned upon by local media because of their famous victims.

The kids are mostly horrible. Emma Watson's character is especially vile, pouting "I want to rob!" in one scene and then, when she's caught, excusing herself: "I think this situation is a huge learning lesson for me." But the movie gives you no easy position of moral judgment, because it of course replicates the very glamour it criticizes, down to the list of luxury brands thanked in the credits. The movie's pleasures are the same as the teens': the supernatural ease of breaking into beautiful homes (it seems no harder than clicking on a link), the pleasure of the stolen glitter and silk, and the fact that they get away with it for so long despite their obvious stupidity. The LA night is soft with marine haze, and celebrity houses in the Hollywood Hills are lit up like transparent gems. Moreover, the real "Bling Ring" teens, fictionalized with different names in the movie, were in some cases let off with probation because (as I learned from the DVD extras) the case's LAPD detective served as a consultant on Coppola's film. Simply by watching this movie, you've helped pervert justice.

And yet, of course, you can't really blame kids for growing up in a fantasy-addled society with no sense of moral accountability, a.k.a. America. The movie is clearly a satire, perhaps no better than we deserve, of a society where unfair amounts of riches are lying around for the taking. The kids get off with minimal jail sentences, yet they're longer (must I say it?) than those served by any of the bankers who caused the 2008 financial crash. Parts of the satire are quite delightful, especially the scenes in which a mother, played by Leslie Mann, attempts to home-school her coke-snorting daughters according to a religion based around the greedy magical thinking of The Secret. The movie's emotional core, such as it is, is pity for the group's lone male (Israel Broussard), who yearns for human connection. When he gets adopted by a clique of bad-news party girls, he's never been happier in his life.

Sofia Coppola's movies about luxury, and the luxurious moods of regret and anomie, are sometimes dismissed—altogether wrongly—as self-indulgent, when in fact they crackle with timely self-awareness. Her 2006 Marie Antoinette is one of the loveliest and most knowing 9/11 allegories of the oughts: for how could you blame the sad pleasure-seeking Queen for the injustice of the ancien régime? She's guilty—of having enjoyed herself—and yet she's not guilty, since she was merely the most visible symbol of a whole system of inequality. When America was attacked, we were similarly shocked, and felt like, and were, innocent victims; and yet were we not also guilty of eating cake while others starved? We both were, and were not, guilty of those crimes. The fun-loving Marie Antoinette is punished excessively, and yet she was raised to do exactly what she did, and so had really no way out.

Casting a naïve young person as an allegory for American decadence is an ambiguous gesture that gets to the heart of what it feels like to live with consumerist blindness, and how we exonerate ourselves from amorphous feelings of guilt. I have mixed feelings about this: I think that in pop culture terms, most of the last decade has been about trying to ignore the consequences of American mistakes at home and abroad by either retreating to a childlike world of wonder, or pretending life is an endless dance party. You can't charge children for the bills rung up by their parents, can you? Morally you can't, and yet economically apparently you can. The adults got away without paying, so maybe if young people don't think about it, and distract themselves with partying, the stolen goods under the bed will just magically go away.

The color schemes of Coppola's movies have charted the evolving moods of baffled, quasi-blameless American overprivilege. Lost in Translation (2003) was rootless, pale, bleached by anxiety; Marie Antoinette was full of delicious pastels and false hope. The Bling Ring goes for neon: the opening credits are chartreuse, and the shiny rolling suitcase that Rebecca steals from Lindsay Lohan and wheels off into the sunset is hot pink. Neon is no longer anxious: it's shameless, it's fearless, YOLO. It's the death of alternative culture, in which youth adopts a pose of alienation from the market: these kids are happy conformists. They're criminals, and they know it, and they sort of get away with it.

The moral framework of self-loathing in The Bling Ring is both inadequate to the nature of the problem, and a step in a new direction. While the death of Marie Antoinette is tragic, these kids are just corrupt, and the corruption of their culture is not enough of an excuse.  Should they have to pay? Will we have to pay?

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(Image via Flickr)

A Critic, His Life, His Age: A Tribute to Joseph Frank (1918-2013)

October 14, 2013 - 11:55

Great musicians, it is said, do not choose their calling—music chooses them. Reading and rereading Joseph Frank’s writings after his passing, it seems that the spirit of modernity itself chose him to be its voice among literary critics—in the age when brute force remaking the world was matched and animated by a titanic struggle of ideas.

How else to explain, then, that Frank’s debut in Scholastic,[i] bore an impossible title, one he used to chuckle about, “Prolegomena to All Future Literary Criticism”? The year was 1935. Frank was seventeen and an orphan. He had lost his father (Glassman) when he was five; Frank, his stepfather, who adopted him and his younger brother Walter and with whom he lived in a wealthy Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn, died when he was a teenager; soon thereafter, he lost his mother, Jennifer Frank (née Garlick). Somewhere on the Lower East Side of New York, there was still his Yiddish-speaking grandmother, who was taking care of Walter, but Joseph was already on his own, finishing Erasmus Hall High School and preparing to enter New York University. A mere decade later, while he worked as a reporter for the Bureau of National Affairs, came entry into the big leagues: “Spatial Form in Modern Literature: An Essay in Three Parts.”[ii] His last book, Responses to Modernity, with a telling subtitle Essays in the Politics of Culture,[iii] was published just a few months before illness claimed him. In between, there are almost three hundred essays and reviews, some in French, and a monumental biography of a Russian writer whose fictional characters come alive even as they reenact the metaphysical mystery play of the modern era.

Even Frank’s stutter that he struggled with all his life (but this writer remembers with fondness) looks in retrospect like a mark of election. The affliction struck a child who was born with an extraordinary aesthetic talent and a gift for empathy. It  forced him to develop, while still in his teens, a powerful voice as a writer of critical prose. Authoritative and subtle, uncompromis­ing yet forgiving, the voice was so resonant and expressive that had Hollywood come calling, it would have taken an Orson Welles (with the strut of John Wayne) to have filled the bill. The force of this voice is already present in his  “Dedication to Thomas Mann,” published in the NYU student journal in 1937[iv]; it is undiminished in “Thinkers and Liars,”  one of his last pieces in The New Republic about Eliade, Cioran, and Ionesco,[v] and it reverberates throughout his entire Dostoevsky pentateuch, the five volumes of his unsurpassed biography of the great Russian author and prophet.

Frank’s own writer’s voice was the Aaron to his Moses, except that it was inflected with a natural aesthetic intelligence and its corollary—empathy. The world picture that this voice invoked was complex and “impure” in the same way that a poem for T.S. Eliot, as Frank once wrote assessing Eliot’s critical legacy, had to “preserve some ‘impurity’,” if it was to be humanly meaningful.”[vi] It took Joseph Frank to fish out a statement out of T.S. Eliot to highlight the poet’s genius while showing that Eliot’s politics, which Frank despised, went contrary to the poet’s own aesthetic intuition. What better illustration can there be of the Underground Man’s conviction that two and two never add up to four.

As a critic, Frank entered the fray in the mid-1930s, when the world was rent by a clash among the all-too-imperfect democracies and the perfection-mongering regimes of Communism and Fascism. Like many in his generation, he appreciated Marx and identified with the Popular Front politics, but up to a point. As Frank recalled later, a close friend of his, the son of a prominent Menshevik, provided him with unvarnished accounts of what was going on in the USSR. This was a factor in Frank’s reluctance to join the CP USA, and he stayed out even though many of his friends counted themselves among its members.[vii]

Nevertheless, when his NYU professor of English Samuel Sillen, then the book review editor for New Masses and a recent convert to communism, invited  Frank to review books for the journal, Frank did not demur and became a regular reviewer for a communist magazine, though one that was not directly controlled by the party. [viii] His first review appeared in March 1 issue of New Masses in 1938. The journal was then at the peak of its circulation and attracted some of the most prominent names in American letters (among the book reviewers were Kenneth Burke, Philip Rahv, Theodore Draper, and another of Frank’s NYU English professors, Edwin Berry Burgum). What was decisive for Frank, however, was the journal’s unequivocal anti-fascist and anti-Nazi stand, then central to the agenda of the Popular Front. In this regard and up to the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, New Masses contrasted favorably with the isolationism of much of the American press, including the left-wing The Partisan Review and The New Republic.

By the end of 1938, however, unhappy though he was with existing order of American capitalism, Frank broke with his Red book-review outlet. His last piece came out on the November 29, 1938. There may have been other factors that precipitated the break, but the change of mind was prompted, no doubt, by his studies with another of his NYU instructors, the strongly anti-communist philosopher Sidney Hook and, perhaps even more meaningful for Frank, the course he took with the American historian Henry Bumford Parkes, the author of Marxism: An Autopsy (1939). Along with them, Frank found prescriptive Marxism dead, its historical calculus—the ends justifying the means—odious, and its sacrifice of the arts on the altar of political expediency, unacceptable. Russia, the birthplace of Dostoevsky and Lenin, now ruled by Stalin, was Exhibit One on both counts, as was, of course, Nazi Germany. Parkes’ Marxism: An Autopsy, which offered both a profound critique of Marxism and a vaguely socialist statist program for humanizing capitalism, became a vehicle for Frank’s profession of a new and liberal social and philosophical creed. It offered “An Economic Basis for Liberal Values,” as Frank called his long and sympathetic review of the book. When it became clear that New York’s publishing venues were uninterested in his change of direction, Frank turned toward the South where Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate, two Southern Agrarians, lent him a sympathetic ear.

Frank’s review essay of Marxism: An Autopsy was published early in 1942, in the last issue of Southern Review to come out during the war years.[ix] By then, Frank, exempted from military service because of his severe stutter, was already busing books at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where he relocated for personal reasons. While there, he proceeded with his education, if under informal circumstances, with, among others, philosopher David Baumgardt, then a consultant for the Library of Congress, whom he befriended in the Library stacks.[x] The former holder of the Hegel Chair at the University of Berlin and an expert of Franz von Baader and Gottfried Ephraim Lessing, Baumgardt became Frank’s informal intellectual history tutor and introduced him to a  circles of other exile intellect­uals from Nazi Germany, who were then residing in Washington, D.C. The entry into this circle allowed Frank to continue his informal studies of great continental writers and thinkers. Soon he was hired—on the strength of his Southern Review publication—as a labor reporter by the Bureau of National Affairs. At the BNA, he had to turn out copy on a weekly basis, explaining in plain English the complex new regulations and statutes then being issued by the Roosevelt Administration. The work was challenging, Frank was good at it, and before long, he was promoted to editor. Remembering this almost decade-long stint at the BNA (1942-50), Frank thought of it as enormously valuable for his growth as a writer.

By the time “Spatial Form in Modern Literature, An Essay in Three Parts,” appeared in Sewanee Review in 1945,[xi] Frank’s critical stance had been fully formed: it combined the intellectual tradition of Western liberalism, including a search for social justice and thus elements of Marx, with a commitment to abiding ethical and aesthetic values, rooted in Western individualism, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and, significant for Frank, modern literature and art. As an autonomous sphere of human activity, modern art had as much to say about the human condition as religion, politics, philosophy, and economics. A historical-materialist conception of art, went the main thesis in “Spatial Form,” missed the very essence of modernism, namely the spatial remolding of human experience in time in all of its moral, aesthetic, and existential complexity.  “Spatial Form” thus echoed “The Economic Basis of Liberal Values,” providing, in a manner of speaking, a aesthetic basis for the expression of liberal, humanistic values in literary criticism. In Frank’s critical imagination, the disparate, sometimes mutually exclusive, elements of the world picture are bound together by his unstinting belief in the power of art and ideas, coupled with his instinctive humanity—appreciation for human suffering, frailty, and contingency—the very pathos of the sculpture Laocoön and his Sons, so important for “Spatial Form,” or the condensed colloquialism of “pity for man” in Dostoevsky. Lack of this “pity for man” was unforgivable. “It is unseemly,” Frank once chided an historian and a biographer whose work he admired, “even for a social psychologist to kick a man when he is down.”[xii]

Frank’s magnum opus on Dostoevsky was thus preordained, indeed over­determined. Already in college Frank was “really passionate about Dostoevsky,” as his NYU professor Sidney Hook remarked to him, then a young book review contributor of New Masses, after a class discussion.[xiii] Then came his critique of Marxism, his post-war immersion in French Existentialism, his admiration for Albert Camus, whose side he took in the famous Camus-Sartre polemic,[xiv] and the realization of the deep ideological and aesthetic kinship between one of Russia’s great writers and the most recent iteration of the clash of ideas precipitated by modernity. In 1948, Frank was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to go to France. He spent two years there, attending the Sorbonne where, among other subjects, he studied Hegel with Jean Hyppolite, but most important for him, appearing regularly at the informal Collège philosophique, founded by Jean Wahl, where he met his future wife and life-long intellectual interlocutor, the mathematician Marguerite Straus. It was there, at the Collège philosophique, an informal discussion group that included Alexandre Koyré that Marguerite introduced him to,[xv] and the cafes and caves of St. Germaine-des-Prés, that the ideas animating European politics since the dawn of modernity were once again coming alive and resonating with the early salvos of cold war.

In those days in Paris, Dostoevsky loomed ever larger: from Albert Camus’s oft-repeated debt to the great novelist[xvi] to the explosive popularity of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a self-consciously Dostoevskian indictment of Marxist dialectic, that  sold half a million copies in France in the two years since its controversial publication there in 1945.[xvii] No surprise then that the subject of Frank’s first Gauss Lecture at Princeton University in 1955 was “Existentialism and Dostoevsky.” And the association is further reinforced in his doctoral dissertation he wrote for the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago, “Dostoevsky and Russian Nihilism: A Context for Notes from The Underground” (University of Chicago. 1960). 

Frank’s “Dostoevsky,” however, evolved, not just into a scholarly study of the writer’s thought or device, but after a long germination into a full-fledged critical biography. What was to be volume one of the five-volume sequence came out in 1976 after two decades of teaching as professor of comparative literature and director of the Christian Gauss Seminars Criticism at Princeton University. A genre as capacious as the novel, biography allows one to embrace historical context, ideas, psychology, along with all manner of human contingency. And just as for Dostoevsky, his novels recapitulated his own commitments and dramatized the ideological and metaphysical conflicts of his age, so for Frank, his biography of the great Russian was called forth by Frank’s own life, his own commitments, and the historical struggles of his own age. Neither author turned toward fiction and biography by accident: for both, only art (and critical biography is the novel’s closest cousin) was capable of giving these disparate elements a coherent and human form.

Reading Frank’s Dostoevsky is to hear the challenge and response of two giants, towering like sentinels, each over his own century.  No better tribute for a critic is possible.

This is how, then, to borrow a phrase from Frank’s Idea of Spatial Form, “the time world of history becomes transmuted into the timeless world of myth” or to paraphrase W.H. Auden, a great man of letters becomes his admirers. The mark that Joseph Frank’s legacy left on the study of Russian literature and culture in the larger Euro-American context is deep and indelible.

Paris. June 2013

© 2013 by Gregory Freidin

[i] Scholastic: A national magazine for high school students. 1935. See Andrei Ustinov, “Joseph Frank’s Works: A Bibliography,” Stanford Slavic Studies Vol. 4: Literature, Culture and Society in the Modern Age: In Honor of Joseph Frank. 1991-1992, in 2 parts, part 2, p. 11.

[ii] The Sewanee Review 53, nos. 2, 3, and 4 (1945): 221-40, 433-56, 643-53.

[iii] Joseph Frank, Responses to Modernity: Essays in the Politics of Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012).

[iv] Joseph Frank, “Thomas Mann: The Artist as Individual,” The Washington Square College Review 1.7 (May 1937):5-6, 22-23. Frank, a freshman, was on the editorial board of the journal.

[v] A version is reprinted as “Eliade, Cioran, and Ionesco: The Treason of the Intellectuals” in Frank’s Responses to Modernity.

[vi] As Joseph Frank, “T. S. Eliot’s To Criticize The Critic,Commentary 42, no. 3 (September 1, 1966): 87.

[vii] The Oral History Project: Four Interviews with Joseph Frank, conducted by Gregory Freidin and Steven Zipperstein in the spring of 2010.

[viii] Samuel Sillen (1911-73), a graduate of NYU, held a Ph.D. in English (1935, University of Wisconsin), taught composition at NYU from 1935 until he resigned in 1944, published in The Nation and The New Republic before beginning his association with New Masses, where he assumed the post of the book review editor in 1936. His literary and political views grew progressively less tolerant through the end of the 1930 and the war years; in 1948 an orthodox Stalinist and CP USA literary functionary, Sillen became the editor of New Masses successor journal Masses and Mainstream (1948-63); he left the post after Khrushchev’s Secret Speech in 1956. On him, see Allen M. Wald, The Literary Left of the Cold War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 61-68 and elsewhere.

[ix] “An Economic Basis for Liberal Values,” The Southern Review 7, nos. 1-2 (Winter 1941-42): 21-39. The essay offers an extensive discussion of Marxism: An Autopsy (Houghton Mifflin: NY, 1939) by Henry Bumford Parkes, and Anglo-American historian and one of Frank’s professors and mentors while he was an undergraduate at NYU in 1937-38.  Reviewed favorably in Time by an anonymous reviewer (Vol. 34.17[10/23/1939]:82), the book produced barely a ripple elsewhere, and Frank’s essay seems to be the only serious discussion of Parkes’ thesis. The essay refers to the outbreak of the Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940 but does note mention the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, 1941, which suggests it had been finished and typeset in the interim.

[x] See Horizons of a Philosopher: Essays in Honor of David Baumgardt, With a pref. in German by the eds. Joseph Frank, Helmut Minkowski, and Ernest J. Sternglass. E.J. Brill: Leiden, 1963. Baumgardt’s epistolary legacy includes correspondence with Ahnnah Arendt, Walter Benjamin, Leo Strauss, Isaiah Berlin, Martin Buber, John Dewy, Arnold Zweig, and Arthur Schlesinger, among others. See his archive at the Leo Baeck Institute. Access: 05.20.2013.

[xi] Sewanee Review 53, nos. 1, 2, and 4 (1945). The journal was then edited by Allen Tate.

[xii] “The Birth of ‘Russian Socialism’,” in Joseph Frank, Through the Russian Prism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 223.

[xiii] Interview with Steven Zipperstein and Gregory Freidin, Stanford, 2010.

[xiv] Joseph Frank, “Paris Letter,” The Hudson Review 5, no. 4 (Winter 1953):582-592. In private conversations, he often suggested that it was via Camus and French Existentialism that he arrived at his study of Dostoevsky..

[xv] Personal communication from Marguerite Straus Frank. GF

[xvi] Ray Davidson, Camus: The Challenge of Dostoevsky (University of Exeter Press: Exeter, UK, 1997).

[xvii] Michael Scammell, Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic (New York: Random House, 2009). Kindle edition, loc. 6504 (Chapter 26: Adventures among the Existentialists).


Tags: Joseph FrankSartreCamusNew MassesCommunismEliotSpatial FormSocial Network: Picture description: 

Image courtesy of the Frank Family.

Occupy: the view from Tehran I

October 11, 2013 - 13:52

The article below was written in late 2013 by Arash Beidollahkhani, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at the University of Tehran. It was originally submitted to the journal I co-edit, New Middle Eastern Studies (NMES), and is included here on Arcade with the permission of the author.

I wanted to give Beidollahkhani's paper this forum because it provides an important corrective to the issues I discussed in both a previous Arcade blog ("Turkey is Occupy not Spring"), and a recent short talk I gave at Stanford's Abbasi Program ("Summer of 2013: A Focus on Egypt and Turkey"). I had in both places downplayed the connections between the Occupy protests, the Arab Spring, and the protests in Brazil and elsewhere, while also remarking on the dangers of eliding the dynamics between each individual discourse; "Occupy" connects the protesting Turkish/Brazilian other to ourselves, whereas "Arab Spring" pushes Turkey and Brazil into a non-white liminal space of failed and failing states. Beidollahkhani, writing from Tehran, sees things very differently. He wants to connect all the protests, and he argues that they are all characterized by youth and bravery.

I have pasted the article Beidollahkhani submitted to NMES here in its entirety, unedited. I have not made any changes because the purpose of this re-publishing process is to give a different perspective virtual (!) presence in the Arcade space; my purpose is not to make Beidollahkhani's English meet the standards usually required in this space, or more accurately - to make his English sound like ours. In doing so, I am guided by a recent Arcade post by Irakli Zurab Kakabadze. Kakabadze wrote, when sharing the words of Georgian writer and critic Naira Gelashvili, "I will purposefully not change a word in the Georgian-English version of the address of one of the countries of Global South—this is the language—do we want to call it anti-colonial, or anti-modern, or alter-modern, it is for a reader to decide.  This is the voice as it is.  It is not edited in any PR or GR company—this is what it says".

Beidollahkhani's own blog, in Persian and English, can be found at:, and he can be reached at Arash_khani<at>

The Middle East Revolutions: courageous uprising of the youth against the current and entrance into the area of public policy

Arash Beidollahkhani*


Most of Analysts have considered the public movements of 2011 and 2012 in Middle East are originated from political and economical factors and then they have ignored the role of humanistic Variable and foundation of identity. Then, the critical point or the important factor in the public movements of the last two years has been the participation of some revolutionary youth of these countries in the front line of these movements. The commencement of these protests was ignited by the self-burning of a Tunisian youth.  By having a close look to the events we come across this fact that the common and linking factor of these movements has been the maximum participation of youth as the main actors and leaders as the main demands of these movements. Thus, the public movements of 2011 in the Arab world can be considered the outcome of the youth courageous and awareness and their anew presence in the arena of public policy.  This paper with examination of the Arab world movements as the rebel of courageous youth, the growth and progress of public spheres in civil society such as the media and social network has been the fundamental factor of youth awareness and their anew entrance to the spheres of public policies and their share wanting for life in the modern life. This is worth mentioning that that the media and the press have played the role of providing a political field for the youth toward the critique of policy.   

Keywords: Middle East, Youth, Policy, against the current


Nowadays, under the conditions in which the main areas of political act have experienced inactivity and there is a low possibility for individuals to become directly involved in policy and organizing the social life, the urban society itself resorts to creating new public spheres under the politically stagnant conditions and social oppression. Today, in the urban society, a concept that has attracted the public attention more than anything else is the public spheres as suggested by Jurgen Habermas.[1]

The existing tyrannical governments in developing countries and their oppression of the urban society has led to the growth of social movements in public spheres including social networks. These public spheres in developing countries lead to creativity and the rise of courageous people in the movements headed by protest movements crossing the official borders and not being bound by governmental structures.[2] This has enabled them to move against the current using different areas of the public spheres. In a world in which everything has become commercialized and bravery has become simply part of financial management due to conservativeness of the capitalist and commercial systems, the public spheres has provided open and free spaces for the people to show bravery. Overall, the following characteristics can be mentioned for the new public spheres which are active in political areas and fights against the governments:

These spheres are like a new field for the people to gather in. Class differences and distinctions have no place in them. All the people are free and are encouraged to be present there. Politics appears in the mass form. The middle-class youth are more successful due to their higher cultural competency and awareness and self-regulation; therefore, they take over leadership of the mass very fast and readily. Policy remains at the mass level. The main purpose and goal is to change the overall structure of the policies by taking power back from those who are believed to have usurped it. They mainly demand is the establishment of democracy and promotion of urban and political freedom. These spheres also lead to the rise of bravery individual and public bravery movements against the main political current.[3]

The 2011 revolutions in the Middle East area and Northern Africa which are referred to as Arabian Spring were also originated by the ordinary people and from these public spheres. Arabian Spring was a set of public protests in the Middle East countries and Northern Africa which started at the end of 2010 and is still continuing. However, the type, method and result of these protests are different in the countries with the same language and the neighboring countries. But despite the differences, they have a lot in common; the most important commonality is their reliance on modern media and social networks. In addition, economic problems and demands had also an important role in starting these movements and revolutions.[4]

In all these revolutions, there was one important commonality: the strong presence of the youth in the front line of these protests.[5] The protests were first started in Tunisia by self-immolation of a young educated itinerant person and was spread in other countries as well. In Tunisia, a young man called Bu Azizi who self-immolated himself in city hall in protest against the difficult life conditions and the inhumane treatment of the police became the symbol of generational revolt which would groove no humiliation, poverty, and suppression.[6] Tunisian youths demonstrated against a corrupted and inefficient government by simple words and demands. They made Bin Ali quit power and open the path to future developments. In Egypt, the protest movement originated by the youth gained a global and local reputation. Altahrir Square in Cairo became the scene of gathering for the unhappy generation. Using creativity and without resorting to using the known strategies and to step up its demands, this generation used the virtual world and city as a symbol of protest against lack of democracy and humiliation of the civilians.[7]

After this event, the big turn-out of all the youth from different political groups and the use of modern media and social networks directed the protest movements towards changing the ruling systems.

Official structures and social suppression; uprising of the courageous youths against the current

In fact, 2011 is undoubtedly the time of the youth’s return to policy and society on the four angles of the world. The youth who seemed to have lost their role in forming protest movements after the 1960s, were once more at the center of new emerging movements in 2011 in many countries. Unlike the previous movements, the direction of these social movements was from public spheres of the southern countries (the Middle East and North of Africa) towards northern countries. These movements have some characteristics that distinguish them from the previous social movements in the history.[8] Many of the new social movements at the center of which are the youth are some novel  forms of protest which can open up the horizon for the human society in the 21st century.

What gained reputation about the Arabian Spring more than any other aspects of it is all the young people in the tyrannical countries of the Middle East. In Tunisia, Egypt and some other Arabian countries the people spontaneously and via Internet social networks and demonstration on the streets formed comprehensive social movements revolutionizing the conditions in these suppressed countries.[9]

In a rather short time, protest movements in Tunisia and Egypt managed to put aside the closed and tyrannical governments who had been able to maintain their undemocratic power via suppression.[10]

In these countries, the youth could display bravery through rioting against the official structures, what others had not been able to do. They rose against the current and the government by finding the causes of the recent problems such as poverty, tyranny, etc.

The domain of these protests by the youth in the Middle East countries was extended to Western countries as well and protests such as the Wall Street movement and The Spanish Indignados movement are referred to as the movements that have been formed inspired by the Middle East youths. In Spain, a movement called M 15 (15 of May, 2011, the starting date of the movement) which started in Madrid and was extended to other cities in Spain demanded attention to the critical conditions of the unemployed and low-income young people.[11] The protest movements of the Spanish Indignados were against the negative effects of the current economical disaster on the young people’s lives. In America, the Wall Street movement which started on 17 of September in 2011 was going to speak and protest on behalf of those who are poor and unemployed in rich Northern countries and are financially under pressure, deprived of educational facilities and services and feel the heavy load of the current disaster on their shoulders. The youths protested against the financial performance and the problems caused by it and the negative effects of the economical disaster and economical anti-welfare policies on the lives of the middle-class and poor families. The protest movement of the young people in advanced countries against injustice in these capitalist societies especially in critical conditions afflicting the economy of the developed countries in the North should be understood and considered deeply.

These young people have one thing in common in that the official and legal structures could not solve their problems and they had to express themselves using social spheres such as social networks and protest locations and symbolic protest movements and demonstrate an exceptional bravery and generated a movement against the official structures with their demands being exactly opposite direction of the ruling official government.[12] All the youths, in the Middle East, Europe or America displayed bravery to simply say that they want to live a life of justice in this world and not to be humiliated.

Part II of this article will be published in a subsequent installment. 

* Ph.D. Student Political Science, Faculty law and Political Science, University of Tehran, Iran.

[1] Jurgen Habermas, The Public Sphere: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 2005): 53-4

[2] John. R, Ehrenberg, Civil Society: The Critical History of an Idea (NYU Press, 1999)

[3] Mohammad Mahmodian, Midan Besan sahneye Konesh siaasi (Persian Paper, 2012) linked available at:

[4] Michelle Pace and Francesco Cavatorta, "The Arab Uprisings in Theoretical Perspective: An Introduction," Mediterranean Politics 17 (2012): 126-8

[5] Rama Halaseh, Civil Society, Youth and the Arab Spring, in Change and Opportunities in the Emerging Mediterranean, ed. Stephen Calleya and Monika Wohlfeld (Malta University press, 2012): 254-273

[6] Mohammed Nuruzzaman, "Human Security and the Arab Spring," Strategic Analysis 37 (2013): 52–3

[7] For more information see: M. Abdelrahman, "A hierarchy of struggles? The economic and the political in Egypt's revolution," Review of African Political Economy 134 (2012): 614–628.

[8] Mohammad Mahmodian, Midan Besan sahneye Konesh siaasi (Persian Paper, 2012)

[9] For more information see: Alexander Kazamias , The ‘Anger Revolutions’ in the Middle East: an answer to decades of failed reform, Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 13 (2011): 146-148.

[10] For more information see: Arash Beidollah khani , Role of Islamic Aboriginal Identity in the New Islamic Movements in Arab World, (Persian Paper) Intercultural Studies Quarterly 18( spring 2012) Intercultural Studies Research Institute:59-88.

[11] For more information see: Year 2011;return of Youth with new social movements(Persian Paper 2012) , linked available at: _world_arab_spring_ youth _movements_democracy_civil_rights_2011/24436376.html.

[12] Tobias Thiel, "After the Arab Spring: power shift in the Middle East?: Yemen’s Arab Spring: from youth revolution to fragile political transition." IDEAS reports - special reports, Kitchen, Nicholas (ed.) SR011. LSE IDEAS (London School of Economics and Political Science2012).


Tags: occupyIranArab SpringSocial Network: Picture description: 

(Credit: AK Rockefeller via Flickr)

'I move into the gates, demanding...': A Tribute to Kofi Awoonor

October 10, 2013 - 11:47

I first met Kofi Awoonor as an excitable 17-year-old high school student then in the Sixth Form.  We had been set Awoonor’s This Earth, My Brother as one of our A-Level texts, and needless to say no one, including the English teacher, seemed to have the faintest clue what the novel was about.  I decided to set off to find out for myself and took a bus from school to Cape Coast University, some 50 miles away to speak to the big man himself.  Without cell phones or internet there was no chance of booking an appointment at the time so I just showed up on the university campus and asked around until I was pointed to his office.  He was at a lecture so I sat down patiently outside his office to wait.  The man materialized in what seemed to me like hours later and kindly ushered me into his office, where I was completely dazed at the number of books pressed closely together on his bookshelves.  “We are studying This Earth My Brother, and I want to know what really caused Amamu’s madness at the end of the book,” I blurted out in a complete haze of bewilderment and awe to be finally speaking to THE AUTHOR. 

Can you imagine!  Rather than answer me directly, he asked me several questions first to ascertain that I had actually read the novel and then to prod me into finding an answer for myself.  I left as unenlightened as when I arrived, but with one firm conviction: Kofi Awoonor was not just a writer, but a superb human being for having taken the time off what I later discovered to have been an incredibly busy schedule to attend to an absolute imbecile that I then was, and likely still am now.  It took me at least another fifteen years or so to fully understand the novel, and I now rate it as one of the best examples of modernist alienation in African literature, to be read alongside Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North, Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger, Ngugi wa Thiongo’s A Grain of Wheat, Yvonne Vera’s Without a Name,  and Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, among various others.

But there was another tie that I had with Awoonor, and perhaps not a very happy one.  Jeebo and I used to run away from school most Tuesdays to go and lie on the beach reading poetry and eating bananas with canned sardines.  Jeebo was just a grade above me, but that didn’t prevent me from seeing him as by far the most advanced consciousness in the entire school and even greater than our teachers. Jeebo read everything including Karl Marx but was especially interested in poetry and the short story, which he promoted with the idea that you could pack more of them into a day than you could novels. We read Ring Lardner, Edgar Allan Poe, TS Eliot, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Leopold Senghor and Kofi Awoonor, among many others.  Lots of Kofi Awoonor, including “At the Gates”, the first lines of which seem eerily appropriate on his sudden death: 

At the Gates

I do not know which god sent me,
to fall in the river
and fall in the fire.
These have failed.
I move into the gates
demanding which war it is;
which war it is?
the dwellers in the gates
answer us; we will let that war come
 who knows when evil matters will come.

I declaimed the full poem from memory in the dinning hall at school once in protest over something or other and was promptly hauled before the Headmaster and threatened with suspension.  I saved myself by saying that well, I couldn’t have possibly been inciting a riot if I didn’t start my speech with “chooooo-boi”, which is typically the popular call to arms in my country.  It was just a poem, I said, and by one of the authors on our A-Levels reading list who also happens to be a respectable professor at the University of Cape Coast (I had to pull out all my cards; I was pretty desperate by that point!).  The Headmaster was somewhat skeptical, but could find no riposte to what I had said so let me off with a very stiff warning.  “I have my eyes on you, Ato” he shot at me, as I left his office in some degree of hurry and no small trepidation.

I was later to meet Kofi Awoonor several times in different contexts after high school, and each instance gave me further confirmation of my first impressions of him.  Awoonor was no ordinary writer but a man of absolute principle,  a committed Pan-Africanist and a soul of both effervescent passion and magnanimous intellect.  An absolutely inspirational human being.  This is not just Ghana’s loss.

May his soul Rest in Peace.

Tags: African literatureKofi AwoonorSocial Network: Picture description: 

Kofi Awoonor (Credit: FH Communications Bureau via Flickr)

A Surprise Guest

October 3, 2013 - 16:40

I just finished reading Edgar A. Guest: A Biography—Royce Howes's very swell, 1953 account of the one-time Detroit Free Presscopy boy who went on, in Horatio Alger-like fashion, to become probably the most prolific and popular poet in U.S. history. I'm certainly no stranger to Guest—check out an Edgar Guest Calendar here, Chrysler's Edgar Guest television spot here, and a scrapbook full of Guest's poetry here—but the biography stunned me nevertheless. In telling the story of how Guest's "ascent to fame has kept absolute step with Detroit's march from provincial city to industrial capital of the world," Howes (a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and crime novelist) is at points possibly even more saccharine than the "people's poet" himself was, but the facts are simply astonishing. Consider, for example:

- Guest wrote a poem a day seven days a week for thirty years.

- Guest had a mansion "staffed with servants, fine automobiles, the so-handy golf club [and a] big summer place at the Pointe."

- He had radio, film, and television contracts.

- At one point, when his verse was syndicated to 250 newspapers, it was estimated that his poems had a circulation of about 10,000,000.

- At one point, probably after World War II, Guest reported an annual income of $128,000—the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $1.6 million.

- Guest's first two books (Home Rhymes and Just Glad Things) were self-published and printed by Guest's brother Harry in editions of 800 and 1,500, respectively, and on the basis of those books and his newspaper verse, Guest started getting wooed by the agents of Harper, Scribner, and William Randolph Hearst. Eventually, his publisher Reilly & Britton (later Reilly & Lee) would print his books in editions of 100,000.

- Guest couldn't go out on the streets of Detroit without getting hailed down by enthusiastic readers.

- Guest was good friends with Henry Ford, who regularly gave the poet cars including a Model T and a Lincoln.

- Guest was pegged as a possible replacement for Will Rogers and even set up in Hollywood for $3,500 per week while studios tried to figure out how to use him.

- A handwritten copy of Guest's poem "America" once sold for $50,000 as part of a war-bond fundraising event in 1942.

Guest's poetry maintains some of its popularity among people of a certain age today, but he has otherwise been almost entirely written out of histories of modern poetry in part because, even though his life and career were propelled by the very forces of modernity that modernist studies scholars love to dwell on, his simple presence in a conversation contradicts all sorts of ideas about the cultural marginalization of poetry in the twentieth century that those same scholars love to perpetuate: that poetry had a small readership; that no one could make money by writing poems; that poetry happened in bohemian enclaves and small cliques involving beret-wearing coffee drinkers; that poetry primarily responded to the forces of modernity and consumer culture in an oppositional or counter-cultural way; that poetry was a print-based form inherently at odds with "new" and popular media forms like radio, tv, and film; that even if a poet were to make himself or herself available, consumer and popular culture would have no use for him or her. You know what I'm talking about.

It is possible, I suppose, to explain away Guest's success as the exception that proves the modernist rule, but if you take even the smallest peek down the rabbit hole his story opens up, you start seeing that that's not even the case. Not only was Detroit able to support one famous poet, for example, but it also supported a second: Anne Campbell, sometimes called "Eddie Guest's Rival" who, for the crosstown Detroit News, wrote a poem a day six days a week for twenty years, producing in the process more than 7,500 poems and making up to $10,000 per year from her poetry's syndication (that's about $140,000 per year adjusted for inflation). Other poets like Helen Welshimer, Berton Braley, James Metcalfe, Ethel Romig Fuller, Don Marquis, and Walt Mason seemed to have little trouble making money off their verse as well.

Guest is not only a compelling figure in his own right, then, but he's also compelling because paying even a smidgen of attention to him opens up a window onto an entire sphere of literary activity that has been all but erased from the history books and that challenges all sorts of academic assumptions about the cultural place and function of poetry in modern America. We look at Guest and see Campbell, Welshimer, Braley and crew, but then we also see that Guest's publisher—based in Chicago and virtually right down the street from Poetry magazine, that supposed center of all things modern in modern poetry—was also making a pretty good go of it; Reilly, for example, also issued the poetry anthology Tony's Scrap Book, an annual print spin-off of Tony Wons's popular CBS poetry radio show R Yuh Listenin' that sold over 225,000 copies in 1932 alone. (Wons, btw, reported making $2,000 per month including royalties from Tony's Scrap Book, or the inflation-adjusted equivalent of $400,000 per year.)

When we figure in Reilly's activities and Tony's radio show alongside Guest's various endeavors, we start sketching out the contours of a modern poetry landscape composed of affluent celebrity poets, large-scale and for-profit poetry publishers, and multimedia distribution, a picture at odds with how we imagine the workings of poetry in the first half of the century. I’ve written about some of this before, but I’m still stunned every time I think seriously about it, and—at risk of appearing as swell, enthusiastic, and boosterish as Guest himself—I can’t wait to see what scholars of modern poetry are going to make of it when they start realizing and taking seriously the stories and archives available to them if they just take a moment to look.

Tags: Edgar GuestModernist StudiesSocial Network: Picture description: 

Edgar Guest (Credit: NBC Radio via Wikimedia Commons)

The Opposite of MOOC

October 3, 2013 - 16:38

MOOC seems to have swept us up in its wave. Dazed, many of us don’t know which way to turn. To put MOOC in perspective, let me describe a program that sails against this tide.

This week I joined an innovative enterprise at my institution, Ohio State, that, unlike MOOC, seeks to minimize the distance between faculty member and student. Known as STEP, “Second Year Transformational Experience Program,” its aim is to keep sophomores at the university.

Like many big public institutions, Ohio State, with an enrollment of about 56,000, can be bewildering to young people. Classes in the first year and unfortunately in the years following can be inhumanely huge. And the sophomore year is the weak link in a student’s undergraduate career.

For instance, when previous sophomores were asked what they mostly missed in their freshman year, their number one complaint was lack of contact with their professors. Indeed, it is not unusual for sophomores, indeed for juniors, not to know a professor well enough to ask her for a letter of recommendation.

STEP was launched in the third week of August of this year with these hurdles in mind. A thousand sophomores living on campus have been divided into Houses of 100. Each House is broken down into Cohorts of 20 students, which are headed by a faculty member. My House has six colleagues representing Art, English, Engineering, Chemistry, Classics, and Journalism.

In the first semester we meet either in our Houses, as a large group, or in our smaller cohorts, to get to know each other and discuss the six objectives of STEP: Study Abroad, Internships, Undergraduate Research, Service Learning and Community Service, Leadership, Artistic and Creative Endeavors.  While the aim is to consider the six categories, the overall purpose is to establish links among the students and between students and their teachers.

The six themes are designed to help the students think about the academic program they will undertake either in the summer of 2014 or during their junior year. Students receive $2,000.00 for their academic project. (Every faculty member is given $5,000.00 to cover social expenses—snacks, dinners, lunches, special activities—and as an honorarium.)

So for one of my sessions I have invited some former students who have done research abroad or studied in other countries. For another meeting, “Social Justice,” alumni will describe their work with anti-sweats-shop unions or environmental organizations.

There are many possible projects for students to design. One may wish to do an internship at the Smithsonian Institution. Another may work on a documentary film. If others wish to volunteer with a labor union in El Salvador or a nature preserve in Kenya they may use their award for that purpose. Students may invest the money in learning Chinese or taking courses overseas. (Those going overseas may need to apply for additional financial aid.)

In the second semester faculty members help students draft their individual projects.

In a way, STEP levels the field for students of public universities, making it possible for them to participate in unpaid internships and service projects that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

So does STEP cancel MOOC? No. But neither will MOOC kill the traditional classroom. While MOOC understandably captures the headlines, the tiny STEPs of the world do not. And yet this says so much about the give-and-take between the universal and the local that has characterized human history. For every MOOC that seeks to bind millions of people in an digital community, there will be students clamoring for a coffee with their professor or to form a service group to fight hunger in their community.

It is because of this dialectic between the global and the individual that I for one—and you may accuse me of arrogance or ignorance – don’t believe that the university will be swamped by the waves of MOOC beamed from the sky. For this reason also nations will continue to exist in the era of our globalization. Let’s bear in mind that many states today are the results of struggles against global empires. And nationalist conflicts in Europe emerged in the early nineteenth century partly as a response to Napoleon’s attempt to impose the universal message of the French revolution upon everyone else. So the transnational and national co-exist, each feeding off one another. You can do STEP and MOOC in the same semester. Contradictory phenomena can coexist in our lives.

Moreover, new technologies don’t always crush their precursors. When television was introduced, people feared it would destroy radio. Yet in the age of Twitter we still listen to radio. In the same way, artists continued to paint after the introduction of photography. For every huge MOOC there will be a small STEP but you just won’t hear about the latter.

All this seems to give credence to the profundity of that old cliché: the more things change ….

Tags: globalizationLong-distance learningMOOCSophomoresSTEPThe Ohio State UniversitySocial Network: 

Automatic Ciphers

October 3, 2013 - 16:23

First something obvious, and then a meta-comment.

One thing I sometimes post are duh-moments: instances of the obvious that weren't obvious to me. Here's one from the other day. In Paradise Lost Adam describes to Raphael his first experience of experience, his finding himself in the world. There he was:

But who I was, or where, or from what cause,
My tongue obeyed, and readily could name
Whate’er I saw. ‘Thou Sun,’ said I, ‘fair light,
And thou enlightened Earth, so fresh and gay, 
Ye hills and dales, ye rivers, woods, and plains,
And ye that live and move, fair creatures, tell,
Tell, if ye saw, how came I thus, how here! (8.270-77)

I'd long realized that Wordsworth ("And, O ye Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves, / Forbode not any severing of our loves!" and Shelley ("Show whence I came, and where I am, and why") must both be remembering this moment (and other resonating moments in Paradise Lost).

But what struck me the other day was the idea that this is perfectly autobiographical, that what Milton is describing here is poetic vocation, the combination of ease (of style) and wonder (about existence itself, including the fact of ease) that make a poet a poet. He can describe the world as he found it, including his own being in the world, and the fact that he can describe the world. Unlike Wittgenstein's self, his blank, Sartrean opacity is part of his world too: part of the world a poet thinks about (even when living a skeleton's life).

As I say, completely obvious, and yet I'd never realized this before, being too absorbed in the plot, and also perhaps in my own memories of my 1.75-lingual childhood: I remember one day noticing that I could understand Yugoslav, noticing, then, that it was a different language from English, and noticing therefore that I could understand English as well.

So my meta-comment is this: there's a way in which everything you see in a poem should be obvious when you see it, should be a duh!-moment. Even if you can't or didn't readily name it in your first or fifth or hundredth reading, that would have been a failure of attention, not of intelligence.

That's what Stanley Cavell means by "the ordinary," the things that escape notice because you just don't pay attention to them, because it's an essential, ordinary part of what they are that you don't pay attention to them.

One place that I think you can see this at work is in canonical titles, the way they become "automatic ciphers." Why, for example, Reservoir Dogs? Well that's easy: it's the name of Quentin Tarentino's movie. It's called Reservior Dogs. Before you see the movie, you assume you'll understand the title when you see it, so that's fine; and after you see the movie, you know what the title designates: that great, violent, grueling picture you've watched. But at no time does the meaning of the title explain itself. The title is always ordinary, in Cavell's sense: always just the perfect, obvious, transparent designation of the movie. Similarly, who's Hoon in Stevens's "Tea at the Palaz of Hoon"? His answer to Norman Holmes Pearson (I wonder if he knew that Pearson had been a leader in the O.S.S.):

You are right in saying that Hoon is Hoon although it could be that he is the son of old man Hoon. He sounds like a Dutchman. I think the word is probably an automatic cipher for "the loneliest air", that is to say the expanse of sky and space.

For Cavell, the late Wittgenstein (and J.L. Austin) is like the Kant of the Third Critique in paying attention to the ordinary. One of Cavell's great insights is that aesthetic judgment shares with Wittgenstein's grammatical remarks (Bemerkungen, as he always calls them) the fact that you can't prove something beautiful or sublime (or whatever). There's no philosophical argument for beauty. It's something you have to see. In the same way, ordinary language, ordinary things, aren't amenable to an analysis that moves beyond the visible or apparent. The visible or apparent is all that counts, all that can count.

So all you can do is pay attention, and the idea is that if you do pay attention it might be obvious to you too. That's how reading should work, and how I think it does work in the great critics: they draw your attention to the automatic ciphers, which (as Kant says of the "pure reflective judgment" that is aesthetic experience, experience which isn't the application but the observation of a judgment) will then just decode themselves to you, and make you happy.

Tags: KantMiltonQuentin TarentinoReservoir DogsSartreShelleyStanley CavellWallace StevensWittgensteinWordsworthSocial Network: 

Imagining an Age of MOOCs

July 13, 2013 - 21:34

The MOOC era has dawned with a rush of utopian and dystopian bombast, much of which is bound to be wrong.

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Connecting in the Andes

July 8, 2013 - 11:04

Having devoted the last couple of years to the study of empathy and the need to stand in someone else’s shoes, I tried to imagine how our host felt as we appeared unannounced in her courtyard.

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Whitman's Grandchildren: Becoming and Unbecoming Walt Whitman

June 28, 2013 - 16:57

The January 2013 issue of PMLA has a pretty cool article ("Whitman's Children") by Bowdoin College English Professor Peter Coviello that takes as its starting point a couple of babies born after the U.S. Civil War that were named Walt—a nominal tribute that two veterans paid to Walt Whitman after receiving Whitman's care during the war.

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Don Quixote as a Topographic Poet

June 27, 2013 - 11:30

In addition to his signal achievements as a knight errant, Don Quixote de la Mancha produced a small but noteworthy body of poetry.  Samples of this poetry appear at different places in the history that Miguel de Cervantes wrote about the great knight.

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