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January 31, 2008

Soon Selling Review Copies to Supplement My Income Will Be a Thing of the Past

Over the past couple of days, I have been corresponding with Mr. Kelch John of the Apex Bank in the Republic of Benin. It seems he is supposed to give me a very special ATM card that will allow me to withdraw up to $20k per day on an account his bank needs to disburse, for reasons I do not entirely understand.

There is some paperwork involved, and I am supposed to send him $103 via Western Union.

I have promised to do so just as soon as I have the ATM card in hand. He hasn't gone for that idea, and insists that the fees must be paid before he can FedEx it my way. He points out that I need to trust him. The only alternative, he says, for me to come to the Republic of Benin and handle the paperwork at his office.

At this point, I am taking him up on the offer and promising that he will be paid in cash after we go to the nearest ATM machine. Here's hoping that his schedule permits. I think my frequent-flyer miles should cover the trip.

As a gesture of appreciation, I have also offered him lunch at a restaurant of his choice, on the assumption that he will know what the good places to eat are, there in Benin.

Posted by smclemee at 9:56 AM | Comments (7)

January 30, 2008

Future is Now!

Nina Hagen's Nunsexmonkrock is one of the great albums of the early 1980s. I always assumed that her wild vocal shifts (from Exorcist-style growls to angelic soprano passages) were made possible by multitracking in the studio. But no -- a search for video footage of Hagen in performance shows that she could get that dissociated-personality effect live.

Here she is in 1980, doing an inspired cover of a David Bowie song:

Interesting commentary on some of her early records here.

Posted by smclemee at 8:43 PM | Comments (5)

"Atlas Shrugged" Kicks the Ass of "Fight Club"

The website Books That Make You Dumb seems designed to bring out the scolds among us. The methodology is dubious (use Facebook to determine the ten most popular books among students at various colleges and universities, then organize this data according to average SAT scores for each institution) and there is no reason to suppose the books cause stupidity, rather than serving to diagnoise a preexisting condition.

The creator of the site, Virgil Griffith, acknowledges the problems. "I'm aware correlation [does not equal] causation," he says. "The results are awesome regardless of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks."

Gripe if you must, but diverting the chart certainly is. The Book of Mormon falls right in the middle. There is probably a Mitt Romney joke to be plucked from this, like over-ripe and low-hanging fruit. Verily I say unto you, have a look. (via Librarian.net)

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at 10:24 AM

Not as Keen on "Mao More Than Ever," Though

Per today's column, I must confess to being pretty enthusiastic about the slogan "Revolution in the '80s -- Go For It!"

Posted by smclemee at 9:44 AM

January 29, 2008

Partially Disenblogged

Apart from being overextended on various fronts, I've been going through a little spell of uncertainty about what role blogging plays -- whether actually, potentially, or what have you -- in my work as a writer. Hence the slowdown here over the past two or three weeks.

When Quick Study launched a year ago, it was with an essay of sorts on the experience of finding myself both caught up in this medium and out of touch with the culture it is fostering.

Actually, rereading it now, that inaugural post still seems like a pretty good diagnosis of the confusion and ambivalence lately at hand. There may be very little to add to it. The situation it describes is not going to change -- or at least not for the better.

The experience of involvement/disconnection is probably structural. It is a matter of personality or sensibility, perhaps. But possibly there is also something more to it than that.

Once, people discussed the online world in terms that were more or less literally utopian -- the idea being that it was an emergent space in which power, hierarchy, etc. would be suspended. Of course it has been a while since anyone took that idea very seriously. Having read Bourdieu, I never really could -- so it wasn't surprising to find that the old distinctions reimposed themselves online, just as soon as everyone found their bearings. That's just the way the world works.

But beyond that, there is the way the medium itself works. I've been slow to understand that part.

For example, I've been writing the column for three years now and still have almost no sense of there being an audience for it. That there is one, I do comprehend. (They aren't paying me to write it out of sheer niceness.) But it doesn't seem to meet the needs of the digital culture. It doesn't "go viral."

At this point, I'm more or less resigned to such a state of affairs -- if only of necessity, because it's not as if complaining has done much good. The same baffled acceptance applies in a different way to blogging. It seems not to be a means (in my experiencing anyway) of constituting a "community," as another buzzword has it.

It's not that such things are impossible, of course -- just that I haven't figured out how to realize them, and probably won't. These are matters of having, or not having, knowing how to do things. A matter of habitus. (Which does not mean habit, but rather something like "a feel for how to play a game, apart from your knowledge of what the rules are.")

Which brings up the question of why anyone would continue to do something in the absence of any confidence of success.

No reason at all to continue, unless the doing itself is its own reward. Pretty obvious in some ways. But not always, it seems.

And so, exasperation or no, I'll resume here before long -- and probably on a somewhat different basis than has been the norm until now. Watch this space.

Posted by smclemee at 2:49 PM | Comments (11)

January 24, 2008

Why Complain about Homophobic Crap on Fox News When You Can Laugh at the Death of a Beloved Conservative Icon?

Some guy named John Gibson, who appears on the so-called Fox News Channel, has made homophobic remarks about the actor from Brokeback Mountain who died a few days ago. Well, that sure is surprising. Discussion of this is taking place on the radio as well as in the blogosphere. Example here.

Instead of complaining about Gibson being obnoxious, though, why not do him one better? Rather than gripe, let's respond with a rousing chorus of the MDC song "John Wayne Was a Nazi."

They first recorded this circa 1981, while based in Austin and playing as the Stains.Sure wish I still had the single. The flipside was something like "No War, No KKK, No Fascist USA."

Back when nobody could imagine that a black presidential candidate would ever try to make nice about Ronald Reagan. A certain clarity about things does seem to get lost over time.

Posted by smclemee at 6:57 PM | Comments (1)

January 21, 2008

Help Wanted

The third anniversary of Intellectual Affairs is coming up soon. The first column appeared on February 1, 2005, and it looks like the two hundredth will be published at some point within the next few months.*


Over the past several years, various people have suggested that it might be worth putting together a collection of my essays -- which would mean, among other things, making a selection of IA pieces, transferring them from cyberspace to the printed page.

The very idea has tended to induce a deer-in-the-headlights response on my part, at least in the past. The thought of rereading twenty years of my own stuff is not thrilling. All the biting of the tongue it would involve is disagreeable to imagine, and there is a real question whether the occasional pieces add up to some kind of whole. But maybe it's time to find out.

In any case, another more short-term prospect has come up, which is to create a webpage at IHE offering a "Best of Intellectual Affairs" selection -- maybe six or eight columns.

A few possibilities come to mind. But at this point, honestly, after writing about 180 columns, I can't even remember all of them.

So all of this is prologue to asking friends or regular readers for nominations. If you recall anything that made an impression, please either leave a comment here or send a note via the address thing over in the right-hand column. Don't worry about indicating the exact title or date. Just the topic ought to be enough for me to track it down.

Presumably this will also be helpful in putting together a collection of pieces, too, if it comes to that.

* Speaking of anniversaries: Quick Study is coming up on its first birthday. It seems like a lot longer. Then again three years of Intellectual Affairs feels like a decade.

Posted by smclemee at 9:32 AM | Comments (6)

January 16, 2008

There is a Spectre Haunting American Politics

Today's column tries to launch Erika Falk's new book Women for President: Media Bias in Eight Campaigns (U. of Illinois) into non-academic conversation. It has been linked at Media Bistro, and I'm told the piece has been sent around to other such venues.

Apart from whatever effect it may have on behalf of Falk's book, my great hope is that it will help relaunch the political career of Victoria Woodhull. Given that the two Democratic frontrunners are both creatures of the DLC, I figure you might as well vote for a dead candidate.

Posted by smclemee at 8:41 AM | Comments (1)

January 14, 2008

Go Tell It On the Mountain

Thanks to recent developments in the Democratic primaries, trivialization of Martin Luther King's legacy is off to an all-time early start this year. But Christopher Phelps has just published an excellent overview of recent historical work on MLK that knocks some of the ceremonial tinsel off -- the better to see the real figure, who would never get a word in edgewise today.

The latest volume from the King Papers Project, for example

comprises King's sermons from 1948 to 1963, which remind us of King's immersion in the black Baptist church and of the wide range of theological sources and social criticism he drew upon. For King, Christianity was the social gospel. His outlook was astonishingly radical, especially for the McCarthy era. In a college paper entitled "Will Capitalism Survive?" King held that "capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world." He concluded a 1953 sermon by asking his congregation to decide "whom ye shall serve, the god of money or the eternal God of the universe." He opposed communism as materialistic, but argued that only an end to colonialism, imperialism, and racism, an egalitarian program of social equality, fellowship, and love, could serve as its alternative. In a 1952 letter responding to Coretta's gift to him of a copy of Edward Bellamy's utopian socialist novel Looking Backward ("There is still hope for the future ... ," she inscribed on its flyleaf), King wrote, "I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry."

The volume's assiduous editorial annotation permits us to locate King in lived dialogue. We discover, for example, that his 1952 sermon on "Communism's Challenge to Christianity," delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, prompted a letter of retort from Melvin H. Watson, a Morehouse College professor and Ebenezer congregant, who attempted to set King straight on the virtues of Stalin. Watson, a holdover from the Communist-led Popular Front, helps us place King's democratic radicalism in bold relief while providing a concrete illustration of how black communities retained a strong left-wing presence even after the 1940s.

The whole article is available online from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Looking over the passage just quoted, I had a flashback to various hopeless arguments with Chron copyeditors -- for it is singularly absurd not to have capitalized the "c" in Phelps's line mentioning that King "opposed communism as materialistic."

The international Communist movement (corporate world headquarters in Moscow, later with rival franchise based in Peking) was indeed materialistic, yes. But would King have opposed communism, tout court? "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need"?

I doubt that very much: "And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need." (Acts 2:44-45)

(crossposted from CT)

Posted by smclemee at 3:50 PM

Jonah Goldberg? Why Bother?

Without going on hiatus, exactly, it looks like things will be slow around Quick Study for a week or two. I've got a backload of work, some of it now seriously overdue.

And in any case, the topics of the day of late seem to be Clinton v. Obama or Liberal Fascism. People are scrutinizing the latter and finding that it's by no means well-argued or deeply informed. Which is sort of like slicing open a cantaloupe and discovering that it is not, in fact, made out of cheese. Just how many demonstrations of this are really necessary?

The quoted excerpts show that the book is written in the same slobbish prose used for Goldberg's online performances. That much, at least, I find shocking. So much the worse for the thesis of his editor Adam Bellow that family inheritances of cultural capital bring huge advantages.

On Goldberg's background as nepotistic beneficiary, see this item. As for Bellow's argument, nothing new comes to mind beyond these earlier thoughts:

The image of a silver spoon on the cover of In Praise of Nepotism is an awfully cute touch, but to someone born without one, it looks like a weapon.

The premise and the consequences are ultimately not so distinct from the logic of The Bell Curve, the volume that Bellow edited at the pinnacle (or nadir) of his career until now. In short: Equality is an illusion and an impossibility. The very idea is pernicious. It saps the vital force of all that is good and necessary in the world. We need to square our meritocratic values with a realization that some people really do deserve the manor to which they are born. Or plantation, as the case may be.

The rest is here.

Posted by smclemee at 10:53 AM | Comments (4)

January 10, 2008

This Time Vote Like Your Whole World Depended on It

thanks to David Glenn for the link

Summer blockbuster advance notice: Nixonland by Rick Perlstein

Posted by smclemee at 5:23 PM | Comments (3)

January 9, 2008

The Grueling Weeks of Campaigning Have Come to an End

The National Book Critics Circle has announced the eight new members of its Board of Directors, elected amidst the heaviest voting in recent memory.

Imagine lots of bookish Iowans braving the weather to make their voices heard. Something like that, probably.

Previous item.

Posted by smclemee at 6:08 PM | Comments (8)

The Frenzy of Renown

Walking back from the Cliopatria banquet on Friday night (see photographs here), some of the participants had a brief experience of the leap from blogospheric glory to real-world fame.

A guy on the street -- in his early twenties, it seemed, and too casually dressed to be in town for the American Historical Association, probably -- saw a cluster of us approaching and seemed to take notice. As we started to pass, he stopped us.

"Are you Juan Cole?" he asked Juan Cole.

"Yes, I am," said Juan Cole.

Who, it turns out, is quite used to that kind of thing.

Posted by smclemee at 9:23 AM | Comments (1)

January 6, 2008

Indecision 2008

Catching up with the latest round of debates among the Democratic candidates, I cannot avoid a sense of deja vu.


It seems obvious that Hillary Clinton is, in fact, a space alien. It is difficult to believe that she has gotten this far without saying, "The politics of failure have failed. We have to make them work again."

Related thought: Barack Obama embodies Clintonism with a human face.

It's seeming more and more as if this might be the time to donate to the Moore-Alexander campaign....

Posted by smclemee at 4:48 PM | Comments (3)

Year-End Picks

At the end of each year, Newsday asks a few of its regular reviewers for a short comment listing some of their favorite recent books.

The resulting piece -- which ran a week ago, on December 30 -- will probably not be available online for all that long. And so

Here's my bit:

It's not that David Michaelis'"Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography" (Harper) is a flawless book. While reading it, I took my mental blue pencil to the repetitious bits. And I can well believe the complaints of some who knew the cartoonist that Michaelis' portrait underplays his more relaxed and amiable side. Even so, "Schulz and Peanuts" is an absorbing biography of one of the great figures in the history of American pop culture. I found myself thinking about it for weeks after reading it. You can never look at the strip the same way again.

Nor will you see the daily news in quite the same light after reading Tim Weiner's"Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA" (Doubleday). Weiner's account of six decades in the life of the American intelligence community is both riveting and chilling. Drawing on internal evaluations of activity by "the Company," Weiner traces a history of rather profound incompetence. I put it down with a suspicion that the crew in Langley, Va., heard about the end of communism via CNN.

While of narrower appeal, Julian Bourg's"From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and Contemporary French Thought" (McGill-Queen's University Press) is one of the best and most interesting works of intellectual history I've read in a while. The "events of May" were part of the worldwide upheaval in 1968: an alliance of students and workers came close to overthrowing Charles de Gaulle's government.

Over the following decade, numerous French thinkers moved from invocations of"the Revolution" to discussing human rights and moral responsibility; some undertook a complex and ambiguous return to religion. A few American pundits have written about this development - usually in a vapidly editorializing way. Bourg's account of it is richly researched and stimulating, and deserves a bigger audience than it will probably get.

Always a difficult call to make. It doesn't appear that the picks any of us made tended to overlap. But it's been surprising to find how much these particular books stayed in mind for weeks or months after I read them, so I'll stick by this choice.

Just got one of the copies of The Savage Detectives from the Library of Congress, so with luck I'll soon have some idea what all the shouting is about....

Anybody else have favorites books of 2007 to recommend?

Posted by smclemee at 4:30 PM | Comments (4)

January 3, 2008

Framing Theory's Empire

It seems as if the exhibit hall at MLA gets a little smaller each year. The one in Chicago took no time at all to cover -- even with a few impromptu discussions with editors and publicists along the way.

Since returning home, I've been drawing up a list of publishers who weren't there but ordinarily would have been. Maybe people just didn't want to go to Chicago in mid-winter? But the shrinkage (as it were) was evident last year at Philadelphia, too. It's probably just another sign of the "crisis in academic publishing," which just keeps rolling along.

One title I had hoped to see on display in Chicago is the Parlor Press book Framing Theory's Empire, about which more here. But it was nowhere to be found.


Upon returning home, however, I find that my contributor's copy has arrived in the mail. So yes, the book actually does exist as three-dimensional artifact. As John Holbo pointed out last month, you can get it from the publisher for less than Amazon will charge.

Posted by smclemee at 10:14 AM

January 1, 2008

To Whom It May Concern

The year starts with a bit of poison penmanship coming my way over the digital transom:

I really have never seen on AJ Blogs such a self-centered blog. Your hair, your schedule, your tastes...I hope that the new year brings a bit more interests in things beyond yourself.

Well, sure! Good point! The pile of stuff on my desk at the moment includes

-- at least five sets of galleys of new books, to be reviewed posthaste
-- several university press catalogs brought back from MLA
-- some Congressional documents concerning the subprime mortgage thing
-- a set of pamphlets from the 1920s by a renegade monk who became a propagandist for atheism
-- the revision of my introduction to a volume of George Scialabba's collected essays that will be published in a few months
-- several issues of Line of March: A Journal of Marxist-Leninist Rectification from the years 1981 to 1984 (long story)

Stuff that piled up in the final weeks of 2007 because, obviously, such things are all about me. Seems like '08 will finally be the year for me to starting developing a wider range of interests. And not a minute too soon!

First, though, an open letter. I've mostly ignored previous communications from this fellow. (It is a sound policy to treat such folks with the perfect contempt of silence.) But after almost a year of doing Quick Study, it might be appropriate to clarify certain basic distinctions, and to comment on where it fits in the continuum of writing from day to day.

So here goes:

You seem to be a fairly unintelligent person. Perhaps it would be best to explain things very simply. I will try. Still, you might want to read this two or three times -- even more, if necessary. Or don't read it and just go enjoy some other solitary vice. It is your call, totally.

I am interested in (and routinely publish articles on) topics in history, philosophy, literature, politics, and so on. That work appears in public venues -- in magazines, newspapers, and books, and also on the Web. I am paid for this work. There is quite a lot of it, actually. Over the past, say, ten years, it must have amounted to well over five or six hundred pieces.

None of it has involved writing about my hair. Were someone at the New York Times offer to a pay for an article about my hair, the matter could, of course, be discussed. (A lot would depend on the fee and the deadline.) Suffice it to say the possibility has never come up. They ask me to write about non-hair related issues, instead. So it goes.

A blog is something else. I am not paid to blog. A blog is someplace to let off steam, or jot down a stray thought, or make a recommendation or indulge in a remark or rant.

Should a topic interest me enough to write about it in an essay for a magazine or newspaper, then doing so is certainly an option. It involves more time and attention than these blog posts do. But even that is not the decisive distinction. The main thing about the blog is that it's a casual format, and utterly subject to my discretion, not to say whim. If I decide that Quick Study will henceforth be written in limericks, or in pig Latin (or as limericks written in pig Latin) then that is pretty much my call.

Other people approach the activity of blogging with far more seriousness than that. And good for them! To each his own. But in my sense of things, Quick Study is akin to what the sociologist Erving Goffman would call the "backstage area" of my public activity as a writer.

(Please excuse me for referring casually to something that is important to me, and that you will probably not have ever heard of, let alone understood. But then again, things could have been a lot worse. I might have indulged in a long digression consisting of quotations from Hetay Resentationpay Foway Elfsay Niway Verydayeway Ifelay.)

Now, the cumulative evidence of your various interventions here during 2007 would suggest you, yourself, do not have very much to say. And the only text by you appearing online that I can find is a review at Amazon praising a book for being one of the few serious works of history on the American colonial period.

It is rarely safe to generalize from such a small set of evidence -- but what the hell. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that "reading" or "writing" (or "knowing what you are talking about") is not really your "thing."

Instead, you turn up here from time to time to make pronouncements. For that is what they are, more than comments. You tell me to stop doing this....stop posting that...don't put up such-and-such a video link...etc. And to judge from the manner, it seems clear that you believe your opinion must necessarily be of very great significance. You evidently assume that you enjoy some kind of authority in my eyes.

This is puzzling, Let me assure you that it is not the case.

If you do not like Quick Study, feel free to go away. I will cry tears of manly self-pity at the thought, but must find a little consolation in the evidence that at least a few hundred people do turn up here on a regular basis.

I was willing to approving this guy's comments for a while, but finally decided that doing so made no more sense than posting stuff from the spam robots. I went back through and removed more or less all of his spoor. His contribution being so inconsequential, his complete absence seemed to count rather as an enrichment.

At some point, I contacted Doug McLennan (the AJ czar) to ask if he agreed with the complaints or gave them any weight. He dismissed them entirely and said he was okay with Quick Study's role here. And he pointed out that the traffic at Quick Study was actually pretty good.

So maybe the best way to face the new year is with a sigh of resignation at the truth of a comment here from a few weeks ago: "The internet often seems like one big cultural affirmative-action program for the bellicose, the ignorant, and the deranged."

Posted by smclemee at 5:22 PM | Comments (9)