main: January 2010 Archives

From Phil Nugent:

Note [South Carolina Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer]'s confidence that anything that oozes from his mouth will be taken for folk wisdom so long as he makes clear that he is extrapolating from the teachings of his grandmother, who, since she wasn't "highly educated" (i.e., corrupted by book learnin'), must have had her every utterance informed by the higher wisdom of the heart. Because of the failure of his own family to prepare him for his moment in the sun by spending their lives sitting by the outhouse eating dirt, George Bush, Jr. had no earthy forbears he could point to and had to prove that, despite his diploma from Yale, he was himself a self-made idiot.
January 27, 2010 11:17 AM | | Comments (0)
My review of a newly translated book by Cornelius Castoriadis is up at Bookforum, with certain changes that are causing my teeth to grind. The word "obscure" in the first line is not mine; I said "small," which is another matter. And CC's group Socialisme ou Barbarie was commonly abbreviated SouB, which has somehow been renderred SOUB. It sounds like the name of a corporation producing something toxic.

On the other hand, the piece is in Bookforum, which makes up for the aggravation, and not a little.

That'll teach me to get my work in earlier, so that there is time to go over proofs.

UPDATE:  In a very generous blog post, Arthur Goldhammer passes along an account of another, even more unfortunate rendering of the group's name.
January 26, 2010 1:41 PM | | Comments (4)
I spent nine hours on Saturday in a conference room in New York with fellow members of the board of directors of the National Book Critics Circle, discussing last year's titles and voting on the lists of finalists. It was a spirited and at times very contentious process. I served on three committees covering various categories, plus chairing the one for the Balakian. Nobody gets paid for serving on the NBCC board and it demands a tremendous amount of work. We have two marathon argument meetings a year. Of course I don't agree with all of the results. But it's worth it, for some reason I can't quite put into words.

Then again it isn't necessary to do so, because I see that one blogger has figured it all out:

The finalists for the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced Saturday night in New York. Once again, the titles that made NBCC's final cut seem to comprise a list more intended to make a small group of people feel erudite rather than making a large group feel passionate about books and reading.

Man, it's like she was a fly on the wall! That is all we ever talk about.

We spend months and months looking for books to make ourselves feel erudite, of course, but that's the easy part. Then we have to make sure no titles get through that might make someone feel passionate about books and reading.  That happened one year and the whole board felt just terrible about it.

Making sure that mistake is not repeated is not easy. At the face-to-face meetings, it brings out the worst in us. Things get ugly at times.

"I can't believe you want to nominate something that will make a large group feel passionate about books and reading!" someone will hiss, between sips of tea and bites of crumpet. "What are you, Oprah?" Sometimes, in response, crumpets and tea cups are thrown. By the time announcements were made on Saturday night, three people were limping from shrapnel; one lost the use of her right eye. (I believe this was the worst year on record for casualties.)

But keeping "a large group from feeling passionate about books and reading" is a struggle, and you know when you enlist that you might not survive every battle.

On reflection, I'm not sure I should publish this; someone will take it literally.

For the record: The arguments over books during the meetings I have attended never address the response of the public at all. They are always about the qualities of the books as such. That is what makes the debates so intense. It is hard to make comparative assessments in the first place, let alone to respond to challenges to how adequately you've characterized a given book -- and all of it while the clock is ticking.

Maybe we should try to get a reality TV show out of this.

PS. Note that the blogger offers no grounds whatsoever for implying that the NBCC finalists would not appeal to "a large group" of readers. The logic here (if you want to call it one) is that since the titles don't spark immediate recognition in one person's mind, they must have been selected by a cultural elite to snub the hoi polloi. This is the literary equivalent of Palinism.(How's that for an oxymoron?)
January 25, 2010 7:08 AM | | Comments (6)

This is it -- succinct, timely, and absolutely to the point:

January 16, 2010 10:39 AM | | Comments (3)
Now that I have your attention, check out my footnote to folly over at Crooked Timber. Its title is a nod to Byron.
January 15, 2010 3:25 PM | | Comments (2)
The website of International Viewpoint, the English language journal of the Fourth International, announces that Daniel Bensaid has died. He was for many years a leader of the LCR, a French Trotskyist organization that recently fused with other formations to create the New Anticapitalist Party. (See his article on that development here.)

Verso has just reprinted his Marx for Our Times in paperback, and I'm now reading his newly translated  book Strategies of Resistance, with an introduction by my friend Paul Le Blanc

From the obituary, which I am going to guess was translated very quickly:

The quality of Daniel's intelligence was to combine theory and practice, intuition and political understanding, ideas and organisation. He could, at the same time, lead a stewarding force and write a theoretical text.

He was one of those who inspired a fight which combined principles and political boundaries with openness and a rejection of sectarianism. Daniel, his own political convictions deeply rooted in him, was always the first to want to discuss, to try to convince, to exchange opinions, and to renew his own thinking....

Although seriously ill he overcame it for years, thinking, writing, working on his ideas, never refusing to travel, to speak at rallies or attend simple meetings. Daniel set himself the task of checking the solidity of our foundations and passing them on to the young generation. He put his heart and all his strength into it. His contributions, at the International Institute in Amsterdam, in the summer universities of the LCR and then of the NPA, at the Fourth International youth camp, made an impact on thousands of comrades. Transmitting the experience of the LCR to the NPA, Daniel decided to accompany the foundation of our new organisation with a relaunch of the review Contretemps and forming the "Louise Michel" society as a place for discussion and reflection of radical thought.

Daniel was all that. And in addition he was warm and convivial. He loved life.

Although many "68ers" turned their coats and abandoned the ideals of their youth, Daniel abandoned none of them; he didn't change. He is still with us.


I always regarded him as something like the heir to Ernest Mandel. My own attitude towards that tradition is a mixture of heterodoxy and fidelity. Watever its limitations, it is infinitely preferable to the prevailing cynicism. It is sad to learn of his death; his persistance and patience were an example it will be hard to replace.

January 12, 2010 2:51 PM | | Comments (0)
I spent part of Sunday going through my CD collection in a ruthless purge. One has been necessary for some time, given that there is just not enough room for what I already have, let alone anything new.

The tribute albums fared worst of all. Countless things bought on impulse testify to the days when I did that sort of thing. It is also possible that I still have far too many CDs by the New York Dolls and the MC5 -- who, after all, did not produce all that much material to begin with, and the distinct charm of live performance is usually not that rewarding given the limited space. (Some of the Dolls stuff sounds like the mic was planted in the nightclub's toilet.) I will probably thin those sub-sections out a bit next time around.

On the other hand, my collections of hillbilly, Western swing, skinhead reggae, and Benny Goodman recordings all remain intact. Likewise, the anthologies of British-invasion imitation bands from Fort Worth circa 1965 are staying put. The craving might return and it's not like replacing them is an option.

In the meantime, I learn that Peter Terzian has just started a blog called Earworms. "Each post will be about a song," he says, "and there will be videos and, once I figure it all out, streaming music." Peter edited a collection of essays called Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed Their Lives, published last summer, which I highly recommend.

But just to be clear, this does not mean that I am going to be getting any more CDs now just because there is actually some room on the shelves. No, it does not. I will take note of Peter's enthusiasms from a distance and leave it at that. Being too prone to enthusiasm is how I ended up with all those Ventures albums. That'd better not happen again. 
January 11, 2010 3:26 PM | | Comments (3)
My first column of the year is about First of the Month, edited by Benj DeMott et al., which has a website but has now also moved into the format of an annual anthology.

So as not to go too far afield, I didn't mention in the column something that came up when talking with DeMott -- that, in a way, a predecessor for what he's doing is The Scene Before You: A New Approach to American Culture, which Chandler Brossard edited in the mid-1950s.

A predecessor maybe, but not an influence: DeMott told me he'd never heard of it. But I stick by the characterization, even so.  


January 7, 2010 11:40 AM | | Comments (0)
My employer reports that other employers are not absorbing the output of Ph.D.'s:

Coming just weeks after the Modern Language Association revealed historic drops in the availability of jobs for English and foreign language professors, the data show that while new English and foreign language Ph.D.'s may have a particularly tough time finding employment, they are by no means alone.

The number of jobs listed with the American Historical Association fell 23.8 percent in 2008-9 and the total jobs listed -- 806 -- was the smallest in a decade. And the 23.8 percent figure doesn't reflect the extent of the drop: A survey by the AHA of those departments that posted jobs found that about 15 percent of searches were called off after positions were listed.

And the American Economic Association, which started its annual meeting Sunday, is reporting a drop in new academic jobs listed of 19 percent in the 2009 calendar year. While plenty of new Ph.D. economists seek employment outside of academe, many of the companies that hire them are also facing financial turmoil. The drop in the association's job postings for work outside of academe was even greater: 24 percent.

Both fields are reporting stable or increasing production of Ph.D.'s, so demand for openings that do exist is expected to be particularly intense. Not all academic jobs are listed with disciplinary associations. But the associations' data -- which use slightly different time frames -- are considered excellent proxies for hiring trends; many of the jobs they do miss are off the tenure track, and thus are not those most sought by those on the market.

As it happens, a couple of people who know my work quite well made arrangements about three years ago under which I would (in spite of having no degrees at all) be admitted into a Ph.D. program in history at a prominent university. I was appreciative, and for a while did consider the possibility very carefully. Either of two long-term research projects I have been working on for some time now would make for a viable dissertation. It is kind of a pain to do them all by my lonesome, and I'd get something for the effort.

As things shook out, I let the idea lapse, in spite of feeling deep gratitude to the parties involved. It's complicated. I might change my mind and go ahead with it. But honestly, what is the incentive to do so at this point?

It isn't simply a matter of wanting to maintain fidelity to a certain model of intellectual life (neither Kenneth Burke nor C.L.R. James had more formal education than I've had). That, too, probably.But the whole market in credentializing seems profoundly dysfunctional, if only too stable, in some ways.I have friends who are on the track and obviously can't recommend any any alternative course. All I can do is worry about them. 

The only reason to hold back from the conclusion that things can't go on like this is the absence of any particular reason to think they won't. Sort of like capitalism in that regard.

January 4, 2010 10:11 AM | | Comments (2)

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