Category: Cultural history

Isadora

An excerpt in Guernica from Amelia Gray's new novel
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Amelia Gray’s new novel Isadora is based on the life of dancer and choreographer Isadora Duncan. This excerpt in Guernica explores the childhood of one of Duncan’s mentors, Max Merz. 

The story of a Viennese boy who became a German man, thanks in unlikely part to Benjamin Franklin.

When Max Merz was a boy, he wanted nothing more than to grow up to become an intellectual. He was ten years old when he first had this idea, studying English under the casual tutelage of an American student who found in Max an eager pupil and extra income every other weekend at the Merz family grocery. To teach the boy clauses and tense shifts, the student loaned him a copybook featuring the writing of Benjamin Franklin. The words were designed to be traced, to hone penmanship rather than theory, but Max found utility in both. And so his very first experience with philosophy came to him in a new language. Florid and lush, Franklin’s paragraphs bloomed in his own hand, the central tenets half obscured by his own understanding but slowly revealing themselves, the curtain drawing aside.

He began to take an immodest pleasure in his book each night, arranging himself by the lamp and touching the silver nib of his pen gently to his lips as a serious scholar might before tracing Franklin’s words with passion and vigor, pausing at times as if he were inventing the ideas and then noting them swiftly, before they flew away. He repeated the action, laying sheet after sheet of parchment over the original and tracing until the words were etched onto the page.

Max loved the feeling of writing more than the process of thinking, and it was immaterial to him that the words he put down were not his own. He copied another page from memory, daydreaming of long nights at the dinner tables of his future professors at university. He would communicate with these men as equals and love them as brothers. Late into these intellectually rousing nights, the professors’ young wives would pour themselves another thimble of port and smile at Max with the same tender look of sentimental pride they had once given their husbands.

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How to Write About Authoritarians Without Getting Arrested

Saba Imtiaz for LitHub
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Saba Imtiaz writing for LitHub on truth, fiction, and fake news in Pakistan.

Every time I travel through Karachi airport, I stop by its bookshop. It’s not the best organized store in the world. The titles are jumbled together. Fiction merging with non-fiction, biographies next to self-help; books that travelers have opened, flipped through, and put back in the wrong section. Sometimes, I surreptitiously hide a biography or two in the fiction section.

Occasionally, the staff will recommend a book about a topic with a selection of fiction and non-fiction. It’s all the same, piled together on one rack, and treated the same way: If it’s written and it is published, it must be true.

In Pakistan, people are constantly looking for some version of the truth, browsing through their smartphones and the fiction racks of bookstores. There is a stream of rumors repeated on talk shows and forwarded on WhatsApp by people citing “sources” claiming to know the “real story” behind a militant attack or a political controversy. There are missives about impending doom: imminent security threats, crime statistics, and public health crises; tailored to suit one’s preset narrative. If you believe in x, y message—or novel—makes perfect sense.

In his latest novel The Party Worker, the Pakistani cop-turned-writer Omar Shahid Hamid depicts a political strongman called “Don” and a linchpin member in his network determined to bring him down. It has all the makings of a crime novel: cops on the hunt for blood and glory, Mafioso, bloody crime scenes, loyalties and betrayals.

But this isn’t an ordinary crime novel. The Don is a thinly-veiled caricature of a real-life Pakistani politician who lives in exile, and whose political party ruled Karachi for decades because of its broad urban appeal—and alleged violent tactics. Allegations against the party range from targeted assassinations to extortion, and writing about the politician, until recently, was largely off-limits. Reportage that critiqued the party’s exiled leader or mentioned the allegations led to sharp rebuttals and full-fledged tirades. Journalists covering the party were limited to reproducing sanitized press releases and transcripts of speeches. It was the party’s facts, period.

The Party Worker crosses that line drawn in newsprint, depicting the Don as an obese, power-hungry figure with a proclivity for sex workers and ice-cream soda mixed with vodka, whose party uses brutal tactics to control Karachi, while he is protected in exile and has a soft corner at the CIA. Hamid combines the tactics and behaviors of political strongmen to turn the characters in the novel into surreal figures. The book takes on from where reportage ends, imagining how to bring the Don to justice, creating a number of revengeful characters to take on the task. One of them, in truly irreverent Karachi fashion, is called “sisterf***er uncle.”

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Will London Fall?

Sarah Lyall writing for The New York Times, photography by Sergey Ponomarev
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Writing for The New York Times, Sarah Lyall explores London’s future as a multicultural capital in the wake of Brexit:

London may be the capital of the world. You can argue for New York, but London has a case. Modern London is the metropolis that globalization created. Walk the streets of Holborn, ride an escalator down to the Tube and listen to the languages in the air. Italian mingles with Hindi, or Mandarin, or Spanish, or Portuguese. Walk through the City, the financial district, and listen to the plumbing system of international capitalism. London is banker to the planet.

London is ancient yet new. It is as much city-state as city, with a culture and economy that circulate the world. London manages to be Los Angeles, Washington and New York wrapped into one. Imagine if one American city were home to Hollywood, the White House, Madison Avenue, Wall Street and Broadway. London is sort of that. 

Modern London thrives on the idea that one city can be a global melting pot, a global trading house, a global media machine and a place where everyone tolerates everyone else, mostly. The thought is that being connected to the rest of the world is something to celebrate. But what happens to London when that idea unexpectedly falls away?

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An Extract: Notes from No Man’s Land

From Eula Biss's forthcoming essay collection on race and racial identity
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Read an extract from Eula Biss’s forthcoming essay collection Notes from No Man’s Land, published 19 April 2017:

TIME AND DISTANCE OVERCOME

“Of what use is such an invention?” the New York World asked shortly after Alexander Graham Bell first demonstrated his telephone in 1876. The world was not waiting for the telephone.

Bell’s financial backers asked him not to work on his new invention because it seemed too dubious an investment. The idea on which the telephone depended—the idea that every home in the country could be connected by a vast network of wires suspended from poles set an average of one hundred feet apart— seemed far more unlikely than the idea that the human voice could be transmitted through a wire.

Even now it is an impossible idea, that we are all connected, all of us.

“At the present time we have a perfect network of gas pipes and water pipes throughout our large cities,” Bell wrote to his business partners in defense of his idea. “We have main pipes laid under the streets communicating by side pipes with the various dwellings…. In a similar manner it is conceivable that cables of telephone wires could be laid underground, or suspended overhead, communicating by branch wires with private dwellings, counting houses, shops, manufactories, etc., uniting them through the main cable.”

Imagine the mind that could imagine this. That could see us joined by one branching cable. This was the mind of a man who wanted to invent, more than the telephone, a machine that would allow the deaf to hear.

For a short time the telephone was little more than a novelty. For twenty-five cents you could see it demonstrated by Bell himself, in a church, along with singing and recitations by local talent. From some distance away, Bell would receive a call from “the invisible Mr. Watson.” Then the telephone became a plaything of the rich. A Boston banker paid for a private line between his office and his home so that he could let his family know exactly when he would be home for dinner.

Mark Twain was among the first Americans to own a telephone, but he wasn’t completely taken with the device. “The human voice carries entirely too far as it is,” he remarked.

By 1889, the New York Times was reporting a “War on Telephone Poles.” Wherever telephone companies were erecting poles, home owners and business owners were sawing them down or defending their sidewalks with rifles.

Property owners in Red Bank, New Jersey, threatened to tar and feather the workers putting up telephone poles. A judge granted a group of home owners an injunction to prevent the telephone company from erecting any new poles. Another judge found that a man who had cut down a pole because it was “obnoxious” was not guilty of malicious mischief.

Telephone poles, newspaper editorials complained, were an urban blight. The poles carried a wire for each telephone— sometimes hundreds of wires. And in some places there were also telegraph wires, power lines, and trolley cables. The sky was netted with wires.

The war on telephone poles was fueled, in part, by that terribly American concern for private property, and a reluctance to surrender it for a shared utility. And then there was a fierce sense of aesthetics, an obsession with purity, a dislike for the way the poles and wires marred a landscape that those other new inventions, skyscrapers and barbed wire, were just beginning to complicate. And then perhaps there was also a fear that distance, as it had always been known and measured, was collapsing.

The city council in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, ordered policemen to cut down all the telephone poles in town. And the mayor of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, ordered the police chief and the fire department to chop down the telephone poles there. Only one pole was chopped down before the telephone men climbed all the poles along the line, preventing any more chopping. Soon, Bell Telephone Company began stationing a man at the top of each pole as soon as it had been set, until enough poles had been set to string a wire between them, at which point it became a misdemeanor to interfere with the poles. Even so, a constable cut down two poles holding forty or fifty wires. And a home owner sawed down a recently wired pole, then fled from police. The owner of a cannery ordered his workers to throw dirt back into the hole the telephone company was digging in front of his building. His men threw the dirt back in as fast as the telephone workers could dig it out. Then he sent out a team with a load of stones to dump into the hole. Eventually, the pole was erected on the other side of the street.

Despite the war on telephone poles, it would take only four years after Bell’s first public demonstration of the telephone for every town of more than ten thousand people to be wired, although many towns were wired only to themselves. By the turn of the century, there were more telephones than bathtubs in America.

“Time and dist. overcome,” read an early advertisement for the telephone.  Rutherford B. Hayes pronounced the installation of a telephone in the White House “one of the greatest events since creation.” The telephone, Thomas Edison declared, “annihilated time and space, and brought the human family in closer touch.”

*

In 1898, in Lake Cormorant, Mississippi, a black man was hanged from a telephone pole. And in Weir City, Kansas. And in Brookhaven, Mississippi. And in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the hanged man was riddled with bullets. In Danville, Illinois, a black man’s throat was slit, and his dead body was strung up on a telephone pole. Two black men were hanged from a telephone pole in Lewisburg, West Virginia. And two in Hempstead, Texas, where one man was dragged out of the courtroom by a mob, and another was dragged out of jail.

A black man was hanged from a telephone pole in Belleville, Illinois, where a fire was set at the base of the pole and the man was cut down half-alive, covered in coal oil, and burned. While his body was burning the mob beat it with clubs and cut it to pieces.

Lynching, the first scholar of the subject determined, is an American invention.  Lynching from bridges, from arches, from trees standing alone in fields, from trees in front of the county courthouse, from trees used as public billboards, from trees barely able to support the weight of a man, from telephone poles, from streetlamps, and from poles erected solely for that purpose. From the middle of the nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century, black men were lynched for crimes real and imagined, for whistles, for rumors, for “disputing with a white man,” for “unpopularity,” for “asking a white woman in marriage,” for “peeping in a window.”

Raucous, Disorderly Downtown

Richard Hell for The New York Review of Books
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Richard Hell writes on artist-run galleries in New York during the 50s and 60s

Following the mid-twentieth-century triumph of New York’s Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, and their cohort of Abstract Expressionists and Color Field painters, what could the next generation of American artists do? New York had become the new capital of art after a hundred years of Parisian dominance: Could we sustain? “Inventing Downtown: Artist-Run Galleries in New York City, 1952–1965,” an exhibition at NYU’s Grey Gallery (through April 1), captures the fertile tumult of this period.

The focus of “Inventing Downtown” is not on a type or trend of art-making, but rather on an inclusive range of galleries, fourteen of them, formed by artists for themselves in storefronts, lofts, and church basements. The galleries were downtown, mostly in the Lower East Side, because that’s where rents were cheap and where the artists lived. (Commercial galleries were in midtown.) Most of the artists were young. Some of them would become famous, most not. Melissa Rachleff, the show’s curator and author of its exceptional catalog, gives us a rare presentation of the robust roots of art-making, rather than only the flowers.

The Grey Gallery rooms are a patchwork miscellany of wildly various works, but Rachleff has adeptly organized the disorder. She divides the fourteen galleries into five categories. The first, “Leaving Midtown,” focuses on three galleries, two of them among the earliest and longest-lived, the Tanager (1952–1962) on East Fourth Street, and later East Tenth Street; the Hansa (1952–1959), named for influential Abstract Expressionist teacher Hans Hoffman, on East Twelfth Street and later Central Park South; and the Brata (1957–1962) on Tenth Street—all of which were pure artist run co-ops, financed by dues-paying member artists, which showed their members’ work and that of others they deemed interesting. The artists—such as Lois Dodd, Philip Pearlstein, Jean Follett, Allan Kaprow, Ed Clark—range widely in both aesthetic aims and levels of eventual renown. Most show the influence of de Kooning and, to a lesser extent, Pollock.

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Sudeer Hazareesingh on the decline of French thought

In the Guardian
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Cultural historian Sudeer Hazareesingh’s new book was excerpted in the Guardian recently. It’s a tired old subject, the decline of French thought, but he’s at least given it more thought than Time magazine did. The section on ‘the pessimistic turn’ takes us right up to Piketty, Zemmour and Houellebecq’s Soumission:

Since the late 20th century French thought has lost many of the qualities that made for its universal appeal: its abundant sense of imagination, its buoyant sense of purpose, and above all its capacity (even when engaging in the most byzantine of philosophical issues) to give everyone tuning in, from Buenos Aires to Beirut, the sense that they were participating in a conversation of transcendental significance. In contrast, contemporary French thinking has become increasingly inward-looking – a crisis that manifests itself in the sense of disillusionment among the nation’s intellectual elites, and in the rise of the xenophobic Front National, which has become one of the most dynamic political forces in contemporary France. Nora, writing in 2010, concluded despondently that France had become the land of “shrinking horizons, the atomisation of the life of the mind, and national provincialism”. Time magazine proved him right in 2015 when it included Marine Le Pen in its list of the world’s 100 most influential figures (the only other French person on the list was the economist Thomas Piketty, the author of the best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century).

How is this transformation to be explained? Among the most important factors is a collective recognition that France is no longer a major power. The complicated condition of the European project, which was decisively shaped in the past by a string of French figures (from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors), bears witness to this decline. This change in the nation’s collective psychology also stems from a delayed recognition of the devastating character of France’s military defeat in 1940, and the impact of two further catastrophes that were not fully internalised: the loss of Indochina and the withdrawal from Algeria. For most of the post-liberation decades, these events were cushioned by the reassuring fiction that the French had behaved heroically during the war, and that France still represented an alternative force in world politics, thanks to its seat at the UN security council, its messianic Gaullist leadership and its distinct political and cultural values (as De Gaulle once observed: “I prefer uplifting lies to demeaning truths”). This myth was largely intended as a replacement of the (equally fabulous) ideal of the French mission civilisatrice in the colonies. Yet this collective confidence has been seriously damaged by the unravelling of the myth of the resistance and the emergence of a “Vichy syndrome”, which in the last two decades of the 20th century detailed the extent of French collaboration during the years of occupation.

This pessimistic sensibility has been exacerbated by a widespread belief that French culture is itself in crisis. The representation of France as an exhausted and alienated country, corrupted by the egalitarian heritage of May 68, overrun by Muslim immigrants and incapable of standing up for its own core values is a common theme in French conservative writings. Among the bestselling works in this genre are Alain Finkielkraut’s L’identité malheureuse (2013) and Éric Zemmour’s Suicide Français (2014). This morbid sensibility (which has no real equivalent in Britain, despite its recent economic troubles) is also widespread in contemporary French literature, as best exemplified in Michel Houellebecq’s recent oeuvre: La carte et le territoire (2010) presents France as a haven for global tourism, “with nothing to sell except charming hotels, perfumes, and potted meat”; his latest novel Soumission (2015) is a dystopian parable about the election of an Islamist president in France, set against a backdrop of a general collapse of Enlightenment values. A major underlying consideration here is the perception of the decline of French as a global language, and its (much-resented) replacement by English. A variety of groups and associations have long been campaigning vigorously against the importation of English words into French. The linguist Claude Hagège referred to the invasion of the English language as a “war”, claiming that its promotion “served the interests of neoliberalism”. Since 2011, the website of the Académie Française has a section dedicated to weeding out anglicisms from the French language. Among the expressions recently singled out for censure were conf calloff record, donner son go (authorise), chambre single,news and faire du running (notwithstanding this crusade, the word “selfie” is set to be included in the 2016 edition of the Larousse dictionary).

A more profound cause of the current malaise relates to the ways in which French elites are recruited and trained. For much of the modern era, the nation’s republican and socialist leaders were grounded in a meritocratic and humanist culture typically provided by institutions such as the École Normale Supérieure: among its most famous graduates were the likes of Jean Jaurès and Léon Blum. However, since the 1960s French elites have increasingly come from technocraticgrandes écoles such as the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). Most of the recent leaders of the Socialist party, including prime ministers Fabius, Rocard and Jospin; and president Hollande, are énarques. Their intellectual outlook reflects the strengths of this type of technocratic education, such as a capacity for hard work and for mastering complex briefs. But it also illustrates its endemic weaknesses: an inability to think creatively, a tendency towards formalism and rule-following, a socially exclusive and complacent metropolitan outlook, a corporatist, bunker mentality (as the joke goes, “Spain has the ETA, Ireland the IRA, and France the ENA”). Above all, it shows an overwhelmingly masculine style and ethos. Women in France struggle even more than in other advanced industrial societies to assume leading positions in politics (the law on parité, for example, is openly flouted by all parties) – and when they do break through the glass ceiling, female politicians face an exceptional barrage of hostility: Édith Cresson is the only woman to have served as prime minister, and she lasted less than a year.

This ascendency of technocratic values among French progressive elites is itself reflective of a wider intellectual crisis on the left. The singular idea of the world (a mixture of Cartesian rationalism, republicanism and Marxism) that dominated the mindset of the nation’s progressive elites for much of the modern era has disintegrated. The problem has been compounded by the self-defeating success of French postmodernism: at a time when European progressives have come up with innovative frameworks for confronting the challenges to democratic power and civil liberties in western societies (Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s notion of empire, and Giorgio Agamben’s concept of the state of exception), their Gallic counterparts have been indulging in abstract word games, in the style of Derrida and Baudrillard. French progressive thinkers no longer produce the kind of sweeping grand theories that typified the constructs of the Left Bank in its heyday. They advocate an antiquated form of Marxism (Alain Badiou), a nostalgic and reactionary republicanism (Régis Debray), or else offer a permanent spectacle of frivolity and self-delusion (Bernard-Henri Lévy). The sociologist Bruno Latour clearly had this syndrome in mind when he observed: “It has been a long time since intellectuals were in the vanguard. Indeed it has been a long time since the very notion of the avant-garde …passed away.” But we should remember that in France especially, there is always the potential for a sudden reversal: regeneration is one of the essential myths of French culture.

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