Sunday, December 28, 2008

Camus wins Nobel prize

Le président du comité émet son avis : on attendait du nouveau dans la manière d'Hemingway, et "c'est arrivé avec Le Vieil Homme et la mer", paru deux ans plus tôt. Certes, il y a du cynisme et de la brutalité dans son écriture, ce qui s'accorde mal avec l'idéal Nobel, remarque Herr Österling, l'homme fort du comité. Mais il y a indéniablement une forme d'héroïsme qui le séduit. Hemingway, alors ? Ce n'est pas gagné. Herr Siwertz, un autre pilier du comité, objecte : Hemingway "n'a pas besoin d'un Nobel pour devenir célèbre ou riche". Il ajoute : "J'ai de plus en plus le sentiment que depuis trop d'années nous nous en tenons au baromètre de la célébrité."

Camus ? "Son dernier livre, L'Eté, a des pages d'une beauté classique, écrit Österling. Son nom peut être à nouveau actuel. Camus représente toujours l'une des meilleures promesses de la littérature française, et encore une oeuvre de la même qualité que La Peste mettrait sûrement sa candidature dans une position plus favorable." Comme avec Malraux, on sent que le jury Nobel n'attend qu'un "petit" effort de l'écrivain. Dans le secret du vote, Hemingway finalement l'emporte.

Le Monde on Camus's long and winding road, here.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Beast

The last post was No. 666. Dan Visel has just written to say that our interview is now online on Future of the Book. FOTB has a spectacularly handsome website which is, apparently, powered by Movable Type ; it's sad, sad, deeply sad that I don't have the technical expertise to move up to MT. Link

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

assessment exercise

The 2008 university Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), whose results have been announced with a mixture of fear, loathing and exhaustion, is a classic example of the self-defeating performance-management drive that is overwhelming the public sector.

RAE results determine the research funding allocated to institutions by the Higher Education Funding Council, according to a formula that changes each time. The official line is that the assessment - 2008's is the sixth since 1986 - is a success. It is "important and valuable", to quote one vice-chancellor, in providing an accepted quality yardstick and a means of promoting UK universities abroad. Others argue that it helps to ensure accountability for £8bn of public funding, the largest single chunk of university income. That sounds plausible: but as usual it conveniently airbrushes out other costs and consequences.

The first and most obvious of these is colossal bureaucracy. Government blithely assumes that management is weightless; but the direct cost of writing detailed specifications and special software, and assembling 1,100 panellists to scrutinise submissions from 50,000 individuals in 2,500 submissions, high as it already is, is dwarfed by the indirect ones - in particular, the huge and ongoing management overheads in the universities themselves. As with any target exercise, the RAE has developed into a costly arms race between the participants, who quickly figure out how to work the rules to their advantage, and regulators trying to plug the loopholes by adjusting and elaborating them.

The result is an RAE rulebook of staggering complexity on one side and, on the other, the generation of an army of university managers, consultants and PR spinners whose de facto purpose is not to teach, nor make intellectual discoveries, but to manage RAE scores.

Simon Caulkin in the Observer, the rest here.

Monday, December 22, 2008


1. Roz Tritton. Best Dentist in the World.
2. Julien Kwan. Best Apple Service Provider in the World.
3. Ed Park. Best Editor in the World.
4. Joey Comeau. Best Interviewer in the World.
5. Dan Visel. Second Best Interviewer in the World.
6. Extremely Fabulous Esmond. Bester Schlusseldienst in der Welt.

1. 2007 was a baaaaaaaaaaad year and 2008 was another baaaaaaaaaaaad year. Which meant that chunks fell out of teeth at times when the mind, maddened by publishing wankage, could not address tooth-related problems. For month after month after month after month. A filling came out at one point, and it was not possible to get to the Best Dentist in the World, so I went to a local provider, who said helpfully in German that there were two possibilities, one was that he could smooth out the tooth, the other would cost 50 euros, instead of elaborating on the 50-euro alternative (replacing the filling) he just ground down the tooth.... Time passed, time passed, I knew I should floss, I flossed and a chunk came out of said tooth. So then there was just a HOLE, and the tongue could feel gum, and this is the Beckettian life, the Beckettian tramplike life where teeth fall away and you accept that George Washington had a wooden tooth, but fortuitously I had booked an appointment with the Best Dentist in the World.

So I went over to Oxford, and the Best Dentist in the World did not put in a wooden tooth. She confabulated with Lucy, Best Dentist's Assistant in the World, and Lucy had a clever idea, and she manage somehow to build up this non-tooth and bond the build-up to the gum, using the substance proposed by Lucy (BDAITW), and miraculously there was an actual tooth in a place where no tooth was to be seen again. A second appointment was magicked out of thin air a week later, and another hole was transformed into tooth.

So, well. A commenter asked recently whether a writer needed an income and a room of one's own. What a writer needs is the ability to summon at will, for a book, the equivalent of the Best Dentist in the World AND the Best Dentist's Assistant in the World. You heard it here first.

2. Yeeeeeeeeeeears ago YT attempted suicide and was called back from the brink by heartrending messages on her cellphone. (She now has no cellphone.) She explained to her mother and sister that when things were very bad it was impossible to talk, but textual communication was still possible, it would help if reliable e-mail communication was in place. YT's mother has a horror of computers. Four years went by and e-mail communication was not in place. But MEANWHILE YT had accumulated many laptops (2C2E). What if YT's mother could use one of the laptops, whose only flaw was a damaged screen? YT persuaded her mother to come to Berlin, and meanwhile asked Julien Kwan, of, AKA, whether he could fix the dodgy laptop.

JK said, There'd be no point buying a new part, which would be 500 euros or so, but if you could get a defekt iBook off eBay I could swap the screens for about 70 euros.

So I checked out and bought a defekt iBook for 38 euros and took it in to Mr Kwan. Who turned it around in an hour and a half for 75 euros.

When I first met Mr Kwan, I was in Hornstrasse and his premises were the souterrain of a building in Grossbeerenstrasse. I sublet my apt in Hstrasse and moved to Crellestrasse, Mr Kwan coincidentally moved to Vorbergstrasse, just around the corner. So the Best Apple Service Provider in the World is just around the corner.

3. In autumn 2007, I think, Ed Park asked whether I would like to write something for The Believer about statistics. We talked back and forth and a film issue was in the works and I volunteered to write about Sergio Leone, having once spent 7 years on a book about a character obsessed with Leone. The piece was harder than envisaged, and my father was dying, and I proposed to Ed a different piece on the Realpolitik of the film industry. I sent the piece in, Ed liked it, had worries about word count, made suggestions, I revised, he rethought, the final piece was close to the submitted piece but better. Ed's first child, Duncan, had recently been born; he was fielding this among sleepless nights; remained helpful, charming, intelligent throughout. Wow. Wow. Wow. Pre-Ed I'd assumed there was no point trying to publish ANYTHING, EVER, because all editors were short-cuts to the cuckoo house. Post-Ed I misguidedly allowed many editors to see new work, under the impression that other Eds might be out there. Sadly, I think there's only one Ed. Ed, Ed, Ed, Ed, Ed, why don't they give YOU the top job at HarperCollins/Bertelsmann/Bla? We live in hope.

Ed's oulipian novel, Personal Days, has recently been published. Ed contributes to a blog, The Dizzies, Personal Days has its own blog, Personal Days, but if there are other Eds out there we have yet to be informed. (PD has had many, largely favorable reviews; bafflingly, none mentioned Oulipo. Was this because they thought readers would be put off by mention of Queneau, Calvino, Roubaud & gang or did they simply not notice? We think we should be told.)

4. Late last summer, I think, I got an e-mail from Joey Comeau of A Softer World, asking if I would give him an interview. Unusually for an interviewer, Comeau had read The Last Samurai AND Your Name Here. He sent four interesting questions. So giving this interview involved thinking at leisure about four interesting questions from a reader who had read two (count them, 2!) books. A Softer World is also an indispensable webcomic. Charmed, disarmed.

5. Later last summer I got an e-mail from Dan Visel, asking for an interview. Visel had also read The Last Samurai and Your Name Here, and he also sent some interesting questions. So giving this interview involved thinking at leisure about interesting questions. BUT Visel, who is allied with Institute for the Future of the Book, is hosted by NYU; there was some sort of problem; so the interview, to the best of my knowledge, has yet to appear. (In other words, things have gone wrong that are not DV's fault, so he is still Second Best Interviewer in the World, comes in handily ahead of the kind of interviewer who hasn't read anything I've written and knows nothing about me, but is sadly pipped to the post by Mr Comeau, who has total artistic control.)

6. Extremely Fabulous Esmond. Crossed my path, if memory does not deceive, back in 2007. When I had locked myself out of my apartment for the, hm, who's counting, well, latest of many times. Esmond cracked the lock of the apartment and was unimpressed, anyone could break in any time. He then saw that there was a better lock, a lock with a bolt. Asked if I had the key. I did. Spent about 20 minutes gouging detritus out of the hole in the floor where the bolt was supposed to go, lubricating, facilitating, end of story there was a bad-ass lock in place which no casual burglar was going to mess with. Charmed, disarmed.

Want to see my blacklist? Want to know how LONG it is? No, no, no, no no.


Great extended quotation from Jonathan Culler on Edmond Caldwell's Contra James Wood, here. Culler's comments are also pertinent to Zadie Smith's discussion of Netherland and Remainder in the NYRB a couple of months ago (here). (I am a great admirer of Remainder, but the fact is that its central device would have been familiar back in the day when Structuralist Poetics was young; it's hard to agree with Smith that it shows us something new.)

always the last to know

I have a feeling everyone else already knows about CapitalOne. No one else would have been stupid enough to sign up for a credit card with them in the first place. But no, that's paranoid, CapitalOne couldn't possibly survive on the ignorance of a single consumer, there must be other people who, for one reason or another, blunder into the tar pit.

Several years ago I had a credit card account with CapitalOne. I didn't use it much, but at some point I put a lot of things in storage in London; Big Yellow did not have a facility for payment by direct debit, so the only means of payment it would accept was a standing order on a credit card, and I misguidedly gave them the CapitalOne card.

Big Yellow rented out its unit in four-week increments, which meant that it charged the credit card every four weeks rather than at a fixed time every month. It was not straightforward to remember when they would be making a charge on the card. The way I generally found out was that a statement would arrive from CapitalOne listing the charge and giving the date for a minimum payment - a date which had already passed. On the next statement CapitalOne would levy a late fee of £20 for the late payment. I then came up with a cunning plan for outwitting CapitalOne: I would simply make a payment, out of the blue, without waiting for a statement! I would then be SURE to be in time for the minimum payment date, because I would have sent out the payment before CapitalOne even sent out the statement. Ha ha! Ha ha! Little did I know.

Sadly, these payments - even when covering the full outstanding charge from my storage facility - did not count as early payment toward the next statement. So a new statement would be issued; in the meantime the storage facility would have charged the card again; and CapitalOne, despite a recent payment of £80 or so, would once again levy a late payment fee next time round.

This was all pretty exhausting, and Big Yellow had a complicated procedure for changing card authorisations, so it dragged on, but I did finally switch the authorisation to Egg (who have, by the way, always been a pleasure to deal with). I was now living in Germany; it was inconceivable that CapitalOne would ever send me a bill in time for it to be paid on time, which meant that any time I used the card I might as well add an automatic £20 late fee, which meant, naturally, that this was a card I would never use again. So I did what any rational person would do: I terminated the other standing payment on the card, paid off the balance in full on May 9 2007 and terminated the account. (When I say 'paid off in full' what I mean is that, to the best of my recollection, I made a payment £20 over what I knew I owed them, to be sure of covering any fees that CapitalOne might have thrown in under its arcane accounting system.)

I then didn't hear from CapitalOne for over a year.

A few months ago I got a statement from CapitalOne. They had apparently made a payment of £12.83 or so to some entity or other under the account which had been closed the previous year; they wanted to be paid. Another statement came demanding payment and levying the familiar CapitalOne late fee. Letters came from Valerie Lipton, Director of Collections, threatening legal action. I wrote pointing out that I did not have an account with CapitalOne and had not had one for a very long time. A letter came from Sven Lagerberg, Customer Relations Manager, saying how sorry he was that I was closing my account, but pointing out that I could not close the account without paying the balance in full. Also further letters threatening legal action from Valerie Lipton, Director of Collections, and Michael Woodburn, Vice President of Collections. Today brings yet another letter from Valerie Lipton, Director of Collections, and a letter from Greg Mrkusic, Director, Debitas Legal Services, stating:

Capital One Bank - Account Number: 5460965760131389

Outstanding Balance: £77.43

We have been instructed to collect the outstanding balance you owe on the above Capital One credit card account.

Clearly, having an outstanding debt and a Default recorded on your credit file is upsetting. We understand that for many people the stress of having bad debt is a heavy burden and the stress this causes can be difficult to deal with.

Our aim is to help make sure that this situation does not get any worse. We want to work with you to resolve this situation as quickly as possible. From now on, we will be managing your account.

&c &c &c

The letter (dated 3/12/2008) goes on to say:

You must take one of the steps listed above within the next three days.

Ah, CapitalOne, CapitalOne, feels just like old times.

Anyway, I have already pointed out to Ms Lipton, Mr Woodburn and Mr Lagerberg that the account has been closed for over a year and there have, naturally, been no new transactions; if they have made a payment to some entity on an account which their former customer has not used for over a year it is, necessarily, unauthorised. What will they say if this goes to court? "We never received the notice of termination; the fact that we stopped sending statements for a year is just a coincidence." "The transaction for which we are billing the customer, one year after the alleged closure of the account, is NOT unauthorised. We don't have any independent proof that it was authorised, but LOOK, you can SEE it was authorised, it says so right here on our bill!!!!!"

And they want to run up legal costs chasing this?

Now, one of the threats brandished by CapitalOne is that they will destroy my credit rating. They will send details of this "unpaid" bill to Experian and all the other credit agencies, and if I ever need approval for a mortgage or some such thing I will look like a bad risk because, um, I didn't pay CapitalOne £77.43 when their computer made a mistake. I don't think this is an empty threat; on the contrary, I think it's the easiest thing in the world for CapitalOne to pass this garbage on to the credit rating agencies, and a really messy, long-drawn-out business to get something off your credit rating once it's on the record. But I don't take kindly to extortion. Not only do I not take kindly to extortion, I also don't hand over £77.43.

Anyway, as things stand CapitalOne has nothing to lose by firing off threats of legal action. I can't MAKE them look through their records for proof that the recent charge was authorised; I can't MAKE them spot the absence of authorisation and retract their bill. All I can do is watch them escalate their threats of legal action, until, presumably, we all go to court. Which is pretty tiring.

Mr Mrkusic does not mention the stress of being dunned by a credit card company to whom you don't actually owe any money. If I owed them money it would not actually be stressful, because I could just, you know, pay the bill. Hey ho hey ho hey ho.

Friday, December 19, 2008


In a café with a Hotspot that supposedly closes at 5. It's 3am. Someone is going around putting chairs upside down on tables.

How this happened.

I went to my gym at 12.30. The guy said the strom was kaput. (Roughly.) My gym has machines and also Internet access. Deprived of access to my cross-trainer I went to Kleisther, a café which advertises itself as closing, as I say, at 5.

And NOW look.

But I did catch the latest xkcd.

I am not getting as much work done as I thought because, as Maureen Howard once said, life gets in the way, but I have been reading a shockingly slipshod book on Durkheim on suicide and rereading Orlando Paterson's brilliant Slavery and Social Death. SSD came out in something like 1982, roughly the publication date of other books that dazzled me (Riddley Walker, Hawksmoor, An Insular Possession, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, If on a Winter's Night a Traveller), but I only discovered it in 1998 and now can't live without it. And I am not linking to anything, obviously, because someone is going around putting chairs upside down on tables.

I am not wanted. They want to close up. They want to go home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

For one thing, it worked

Owen Hatherley of Nastybrutalistandshort on Shirley Porter, Tesco heiress, gerrymanderer, Kissinger manquee, here.

Realising that Labour's base in Westminster's council estates meant that this 'flagship' council had a distinct possibility of 'going socialist', she undertook a systematic policy of emptying estates in marginal council wards of their working class tenants, moving yuppies in to take their place, or simply boarding up and refusing to re-let old properties until said yuppies showed an interest. The homeless were dumped in other boroughs or made to live in uninhabitable buildings. This policy, which she systematically recorded in endless communiques and minutes, was called 'Building Stable Communities'.

Yet it seems that her legacy has been remarkably unchallenged. For one thing, it worked - Westminster has, for years, been as safe as Tory councils get. And more to the point, without ever using her sledgehammer-unsubtle methods, local government has been emptying council estates of their tenants and getting in the young professionals for the last couple of decades.
[Since you ask, I came into Yorckschlößchen to see Mimi, because I have to go to London for a week and she's about to go to Australia, but she isn't here, so Claudius brings me a Jever without being asked, awwww, and here we are, dipping into the WWW and the indispensable OH]

OH goes on, indispensably

Yet the key, and very weird, point is one made early on in the book [Nothing Like a Dame - the Scandals of Shirley Porter, by Andrew Hosken] by one of Hosken's sources: the municipal politics of 1980s as a bizarre and unique time when class war was fought using housing as an instrument, with the GLC and other 'loony left' councils like Liverpool on the one side, and Porter's Westminster on the other. This use of housing as a party political instrument is akin to something BLDGBLOG might write about, the use of space in a strange, non-architectural manner, something only supported by the achingly bland non-architecture that both sides were producing - none of it even remotely as aesthetically interesting as the stylistic and political warfare of 1920s Berlin.

tulips, art, bubbles

Modern Missives on tulips and art and markets, here.

In the winter of 1636-37, ownership of tulips bulbs sometimes changed hands up to 10 times a day. But then the crash came from a single ill-fated auction in Haarlem, when the precious bulbs failed to fetch their running price. Panic spread throughout the lowlands, and the market instantly evaporated.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Arabic dictionary

A reader contacted me recently in connection with the mooted list of Top 1000 Words in Literary and Philosophical Arabic.

Those who have tackled Arabic will know how much time a novice can spend trying out one root after another in an attempt to track down a word. Rob Sides has responded to this annoyance by setting up a searchable Arabic dictionary in Excel, based primarily on Wehr (though other lexicographical contributions are welcome). The dictionary can be seen here; anyone interested in helping to add entries can contact RS here.

over there

Came across a fabulous blog, Humor Vagabundo, written by Luis Moreno Villamediana, a Venezuelan poet; here's part of his description of writing a journal in German for a class:

Nunca escribí en mi apartamento una sola línea de ese cuaderno. Lo extranjero no es un acto privado. Cada encierro consiste en una pila de gestos cuya repetición confundimos con la definición de pertenencia; únicamente afuera nos damos cuenta de los cambios de nacionalidad o de costumbres. Prefería caminar como veinte minutos a una cafetería y aplicarme a escribir con todos los ruidos de un lugar compartido. Las máquinas de espresso y su ecosistema tienen sonidos propios. En la preparación, el operador debe deshacerse de la borra con golpes secos en el pipote de basura; de inmediato debe pulsar algo parecido a un gatillo y volver a llenar, con café nuevo, el recipiente de metal; a eso se añade el siseo del vapor: todo un sistema de códigos fácilmente legibles. Allí escuchaba, además, retazos de inglés, cachos de charlas que no me importaban y acababan en polvo. Sobre esa superficie enredada pretendía sustentarse el idioma alemán.

No me afectaba usar una lengua extranjera para aprender otra. Usaba una gramática escrita en inglés y un diccionario inglés-alemán; de esa manera acentuaba la natural extrañeza de esa instrucción, y con ella mi concepto de idioma nativo. Era un exilio doble, sin heridas ni arrepentimientos. Eso no me hizo más fácil la escritura, como puede entenderse. Para llenar un par de páginas cortas me tardaba al menos dos horas. Era una empresa flaubertiana en busca del mot juste. Necesitaba confirmar cada palabra, cerciorarme de la corrección sintáctica, asegurarme de mostrar cierto humor, ser, incluso, coherente. Me gustaba entretener a Frau Angelika con historias ligeramente absurdas; según sus comentarios, la cosa cumplía con su objetivo.

The rest here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

man is the measure

Came across a post on Infinite Thought on, or rather quoting from and referring to Massimo de Angelis' and David Harvie's paper on [the road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began], immaterial labour and the measurement of academic productivity in the UK. OK, borrowing shamelessly, slothfully, here's, first, IT quoting from: ‘inefficient’ lecturer becomes one who is unable to meet or beat the norm, one who spends more than, say, two-and-a-half hours preparing their lectures, or someone who assigns ‘excessive’ value to the relational practices with students who do not match standard academic background and so need particular attention. An ‘efficient’ lecturer is one that uses the pittance of her research allowance and produces ‘measurable output’ without asking for more time off teaching. It goes without saying that unless such a lecturer is able to beat norms elsewhere, and recuperate time in this way, then they will be forced to extend their own working day and week. In this way, a quantitative definition of socially necessary labour time (SNLT) for the labour of a lecturer emerges as the result of ongoing process of norm definition.
["Cognitive Capitalism and the rat race: How capital measures ideas and affects in UK Higher Education" by Massimo de Angelis and David Harvie, 2006, available here]

[in fact I'm unable to refrain from quoting at greater length from MdA and DH]


To obtain a bachelor’s degree in a UK university one needs to achieve 360 ‘credit points’, i.e. 360 credit points = 1 degree. At least 120 of these credit points must be at ‘level 3’ (i.e. third year) and a further 120 must be at ‘level 2’ (i.e. second year). Degree courses (or ‘programmes’) are further broken down into ‘modules’ of between 10 and 40 credit points, depending upon the university. So, for example, in each of three years a student might study six 20-credit modules. The content of both a specific degree in a HEI and each module is framed by a set of ‘indicative learning outcomes’ (ILOs), [6] which take the form of statements ‘On completion of this degree/module, the student will …’ ILOs can be either ‘subject specific’ (e.g. ‘… have attained a knowledge of the ways in which social struggles drive capital’s development’) or ‘generic’ (e.g. ‘… be able to work cooperatively within a small rhizomatic network’). The set of ILOs for a particular module must be appropriate to that module’s ‘level’, while the learning outcomes for a degree must satisfy so-called ‘subject benchmark statements’. So ILOs for level-1 modules, for instance, tend to emphasise mere ‘knowledge’ of theories, whilst at level-3 students are expected to be able to ‘critically engage’.

Subject benchmark statements are produced by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA), which specifies the types of skills and ‘competencies’ which an economics graduate (say) should have acquired The amount of work required to attain a certain number of credit points is standardised across any particular institution. For example, a 20 credit-point module will be taught via two weekly one-hour lectures plus a fortnightly seminar over the course of two semesters, and will be assessed by a two-hour exam and a 2,500-word assessed essay.

OK, so cut and paste is not a girl's best friend, had we but world enough and time I would reformat. And reading on in MdA and DH I am unable to refrain from quoting further, because this is the kind of thing that drove a very close, very brilliant friend out of Britain, because he was so good he could get a job in America

Surveillance and standardisation

An elaborate set of procedures exists in order to allow the monitoring of these and other norms. For instance (and note that these are examples only):

* For each module, the ‘module leader’ (ML, i.e., lecturer) must complete various paperwork, in particular a ‘module specification’ (at the module’s start) which lists the module’s ‘aims and objectives’, ILOs, ‘modes and methods of assessment’, amongst other information; and a ‘module review’ document (at the end of the module), in which the ML reports their own assessment of the module’s strengths and weaknesses and their suggested changes for the following year; a summary of student feedback; and average marks and their dispersion.

* Across a degree programme as a whole (say BA (Hons) Economics) this information is collated into two important documents with similar structures. First, a ‘programme specification’, which will include the module specs for all of a programme’s constituent modules, plus rationale for the degree as a whole, its overall ‘aims and objectives’ and learning outcomes, and an inventory of the resources (academic staff, library and other facilities, etc.) available to ‘deliver’ the programme, Second, annual programme reports, which collate module reviews and summarise overall performance of a cohort of students, in terms of ‘progression rates’, ‘withdrawal rates’, location and spread of marks, etc.

My friend had, in the first place, the bad manners to ask what precisely the difference was between an aim and an objective. If funding depends on identifying your aims and objectives, surely the people asking for this information should be able to explain what they mean by terms which, to the untutored eye, look much of a muchness. Answer came there none - all the OTHER academics had just started out, it seemed, with a list of things that would be A Good Thing, tossed a coin for each Good Thing and allocated it accordingly to Aims or, as it might be, Objectives. (This is where all that training in analysis comes in handy.)

My friend had, in the second place, an objection to specifying learning outcomes. My friend's position was that no scholar with any claim to intellectual integrity can lay hand on heart and state that he knows the TRUTH. The scholar is not in possession of a body of wisdom, some of which he can impart in an undergraduate course, mastery of which portion constitutes the desired outcome of the course. It's possible to present material in lectures; it's possible to give reading lists and hand-outs; it's possible to explain methods of assessing evidence, go through some basic requirements if an argument is not to be logically incoherent - but the fact is, the instructor, no matter how brilliant, cannot specify what the learning outcomes of the course should be, because it is not in his or her power to assert that measuring up to his or her understanding of what is the case is the best outcome for the course. He or she may be wrong. It may be that providing tools for analysis will offer students the means to show that 75% of the instructor's lectures were WRONG. But if this were to happen, this would not mean that the course was a bad course, or the lecturer incompetent; it would simply mean that the lecturer had enabled students to take part in the business of academic inquiry, whose ends no one is in a position to foresee.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

the trouble with informants

My friend Ingrid is in Berlin. We were going to go to Badeschiff, a swimming pool-cum-sauna floating in the Spree, but she had to see her doctor and it was too much. So we met at Kleisther, a café down the street from my new apartment which has a Hotspot.

I had a grammatical question. Words like 'Wohnung' and 'Nutzung' are, of course, feminine, so the genitive looks just like the nominative. But if they're put in a compound an s is added: 'Nutzungsdauer'. What's going on? Other things being equal, I would have thought the compound required the genitive form (cf Altertumswissenschaft), but this isn't actually the genitive, so wha-?

Informant: Hm. I don't know.

We discussed an exhibition Ingrid had seen on political minimalism. I had another grammatical question (it's hell being an informant).

Why do you say KotbussER Tor but SchlesischES Tor? Tor is neuter, so Schlesisches Tor makes sense, but why is it Kotbusser Tor?

The informant mulls this over. She says: Well, Kotbuss is a town, Potsdam is a town (Potsdamerplatz), if you were putting Köln in a compound you'd say Kölnerstraße. Dusseldorferstraße. But it's Kleistpark and Alexanderplatz without an ending because they're people, Schlesisches Tor, well, schlesen is a verb.

This reminds me strangely of an episode in Winnie the Pooh.

Christopher Robin explains that the name of his bear is Winnie the Pooh.
Narrator: But I thought Winnie was a girl's name?
Christopher Robin: But it's Winnie THER Pooh.
Narrator: Ah. NOW I see.

(Note to American readers: THER: Brit for Thuh. The r is silent. Similarly, when the girls in Little Women call their mother Marmee, the pronunciation is, mirabile dictu, Mommy. The little women have a Boston accent. We thought you should be told.)

I say: OK, well, what about the sechsigER Jahre? (i.e. the 60s) Why is it 'er'?

Informant: Well, if you were talking about 60 years you'd say sechsig Jahre, but here you're talking about something in the past.

I say: So you wouldn't refer to the 60s of the 21st century that way? You wouldn't say 'In den sechsiger Jahren des 21. Jahrhunderts'?

Informant: It would sound funny. Maybe because we're used to using it of the past. You might say that, but it would sound funny.

I'm disheartened, demoralised. I completely forget to ask my informant whether she shares my instincts re the Australopithecus effect.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Books of the Year

Garth Hallberg of The Millions invited me to write about best books I'd read this year. He has just posted the result, here.

definite descriptions and such

I was having another look at Gerhard Antretter's Deutsch zu Zweit, and decided to see what he had to say about articles. The index gave only a single page for the subject, so I feared the worst.


Der Artikel

Was die Artikel ein und der betrifft, so stellt für bestimmte Lerner nicht deren Deklination das Hauptproblem dar, sondern die Tatsache, dass es sie überhaupt gibt. Neben sehr vielen anderen Sprachen kommt beispielsweise das Russische ohne solche Wörter aus und erfahrungsgemäß ist es das größte Einzelproblem russischer Lerner, sich auf die Notwendigkeit ihrer Verwendung im Deutschen zu besinnen. ... Wenn Ihr Partner zu diesen schwierigen Fällen zählt, suchen Sie sich gute Übungen zum Thema und legen Sie große Beharrlichkeit an den Tag. Wir gehen wegen der großen Komplexität der Materie und des im Verhältnis dazu doch nicht so großen Gewichts der Fehler nicht näher darauf ein. (!!!!!!!!!)

That is [rough and ready translation],

As far as the articles ein and der are concerned, it's not their declension that presents the main problem for certain learners, but the fact that they exist at all. Among many other languages Russian, for example, has no such words, and experience has shown that the single greatest problem[!!!!!!!] for Russian learners is remembering the need to use them in German. If your partner is one of these difficult cases, look for some good exercises on the subject [!] and show great perseverance [!!!!!!!]. Because of the great complexity of the material [?!] and the relative unimportance of the mistakes [hm], we shall not deal with this in greater detail. [punctuation fails me]

Now the thing is. The point of Deutsch zur Zweite was to provide a book that couples could use as a resource when one was German, the other not, so that the non-German could improve by practising with someone who was (probably) not a trained language teacher. A very large proportion of foreigners in Germany come, as it happens, from Eastern Europe; another substantial number come from Turkey; both groups have a first language in which articles are not used. And Antretter's right - for someone who is used to surviving quite happily without any articles at all, working out where to deploy them in a language which uses them with gay abandon is probably the single greatest problem they will encounter. So, um, wha-?

If your native language uses articles, TEACHING someone how to use them is probably one of the trickiest things you can tackle. It's not easy for professional language teachers; for an amateur it's unbelievably hard. So hard, in fact, that it's precisely the sort of topic the amateur might hope to find covered in, um, a book about teaching your partner to learn German. (Telling the reader 'Well, this is incredibly complicated and we can't be bothered so we'll just leave you to your own devices' is, to put it mildly, unhelpful.)

Is it really the case, anyway, that these mistakes don't matter much? In English, in popular imagination, the linguistic development of mankind matches that of the English speaker. Once, in the dawn of time, hominids roamed the earth, using primitive implements of flint. They had primitive terms with which to identify objects in their environment, yes: stone, knife, woolly mammoth. But not only did they have no notion of modern dentistry and supersonic flight, they also lacked the technology for definite and indefinite descriptions. The definite and indefinite article are the products of thousands and thousands and thousands of years of linguistic evolution... And in our infancy we retrace the linguistic development of the race. We too start with simple nouns and adjectives, the odd verb, and work our way up to articles, adverbs, tenses and other jollities. The non-native speaker who dispenses with articles sounds like someone at the stage of linguistic development of (at a guess) a two-year-old. Or Australopithecus.

Adam Smith, I think, said the basic requirements for human life include what is necessary to participate in society without shame. If you live in a society where all men wear hats, a man who does not have a hat lacks a necessity - he cannot appear in public without shame. Similarly, if failure to use articles slashes your apparent intellectual age to that of a toddler, the use of articles is a necessity; a book for couples confronting an article-heavy language ought to tackle them.

(It may be, of course, that the omission of articles in German does not have the Australopithecus effect. I've noticed, though, that Germans have a pronounced antipathy to teaching their system of articles to outsiders - it's always either jam yesterday or jam tomorrow, something either so simple you should have covered it in a beginners' course or so complicated it must be gone into at great length some other time.)

DzZ does have a good section on separable verbs, also normally jam yesterday/tomorrow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

new game new game new game

Language Hat quotes Remy de Gourmont in a post on The Writer's Capital Crime:

Conformism, imitativeness, submission to rules and to teachings is the writer's capital crime. The work of a writer must be not only the reflection, but the larger reflection of his personality. The only excuse that a man has for his writing is to write about himself, to reveal to others the sort of world that is mirrored in his own glass; his only excuse is to be original; he must speak of things not yet spoken of in a form not yet formulated...

(LH also gives the original French and a link to the post where he came across it.) One commenter asked how you can break the rules effectively if you have not mastered them first - a very common response to the sort of position Gourmont sets out, and one that misses the point.

Suppose I grow up in a family where people obsessively play Hearts. We switch around between different versions of the game - sometimes we play Black Maria, where the Queen of Spades costs you 13 points and you pass on three cards to the left before you begin play, sometimes we invent twists of our own. I also have four friends: A lives in a family of chess fanatics, B lives in a family of bridge fanatics, C lives in a family of go fanatics, D lives in a family of poker fanatics.

What I see at once is something remarkable. Languages are translatable, more or less; it may be more or less tricky, but it's intelligible to speak of Chinese being translated into Turkish AND Arabic AND English. Games are not translatable. Chess is a game for two players with complete information; you can't "explain" what's going on in a chess game in terms of bridge, which is a game for two sets of partners with imperfect information, a mixture of skill and chance which depends on skilful sharing of information between partners. And you can't "explain" either in terms of poker, which is a game for an indeterminate number of players, a mixture of skill and chance in which sharing of information between players would in fact be collusion and outlawed. A game is intelligible on its own terms - which means, paradoxically, that you can play a game with someone whose language you don't know, provided you both know the rules of the game.

You don't understand a game in terms of some other game, you understand it by learning to play it - but the more games you play, the more you will understand about the radical otherness of games. And this, it seems to me, is the sense in which Gourmont thinks each writer will develop his own aesthetics.

We don't have to agree with this position - it's perfectly possible to believe that a great writer may, on the contrary, be like a great chess player or a great bridge player, someone supremely gifted within the constraints of a particular established form. If originality is seen in terms of breaking rules, though, that presupposes that art is still comprehensible only in terms of constraints which already exist - originality is to be embedded in the sort of Oedipal drama at the heart of Bloom's Anxiety of Influence. It's as if one is actually incapable of understanding a form in which the rules one knows have no purchase. ("Yes, I realise it's a game for four people with cards, I know you don't have a board and you don't have pieces, but how can you expect to invent a game effectively if you haven't got the hang of the King's Indian?")

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lexique Pro

I sent an e-mail to Languagehat asking advice on elicitation for a book I was writing. LH passed the e-mail on to Claire Bowern of Yale, who has made many helpful suggestions and in particular called my attention to a program for creating your own lexicon, Lexique Pro.

A quotation from the homepage of the site gives some idea of the appeal of this resource:

You've spent years working on your dictionary, but how easy is it for others to make the most of it? Are the speakers of the language getting any benefit from it? Is it user-friendly enough for a non-linguist to look at? Are translators making the best use of it? Are partner organisations using it? Do university professors have it on their computers? Is it in local schools, government offices and cyber-cafés? Can people download it from your website? Or is it just lying on your hard disk or hidden away gathering dust in the corner of a library somewhere?

Needless to say, in my case the answer to all questions after the first is No, since I have not, as it happens, spent years working on a dictionary (how much more profitably the last 9 years might have been spent if I HAD, but regrets are vain). The site also includes a list of various languages for which dictionaries are available in Lexique Pro; I'm not sure how many of them can be opened at will in cybercafés. This is, obviously, great.

As it happens I've been working through Elisabeth Kendall's The Top 1000 Words for Understanding Media Arabic; I was thinking of compiling a similar work (1000 Most Important Words in Literary and Philosophical Arabic) for DSL, and frankly this is the sort of thing that is likelier to happen if one has the chance to play around at the same time with a new piece of software. (Lexique Pro is not currently available for use on a Mac; this is the one thing that gives me some chance of actually getting some work done before frittering away the hours on philosophical Arabic and Lexique Pro.)

Saturday, November 22, 2008

long days

Went to an amazing event in TARARTRAT's apartment last night. Vattenfall has cut off the electricity so it was lit with 200 candles. Arrived too late to catch Susanna Berivan but was in time for a great set by Laura Bean (playing with Charles Booth of the Cowboy Killers) and another in which a guy called Mike (whose surname I have on a piece of paper somewhere) read poetry with and without banjo accompaniment by another guy whose name I don't even have on a piece of paper. Tod Wodicka's two-year-old son Louis threw his plastic turtle. [According to Paul this was a plastic ninja turtle; I never got close enough to the actual object to make that kind of identification.] Tod: When he starts throwing the turtle it's all over.

TARARTRAT is the blogger responsible for my starting a blog, which in turn was responsible for my discovering just how many people are WRONG on the INTERNET. (Fatal. Fatal.) I have moved into an apartment with no phone and no Internet connection for 5 months so I can get some work done. I told Tod and he said he too had moved into a place with no Internet connection.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

intercostal clavicle

My mother is visiting Berlin. I've been preparing my apartment to sublet. Much running about. The second day of my mother's visit I was putting coal in the stove when the doorbell rang. It was the Post. A Pakett. I sign for it, tear it open - it's my intercostal clavicle! Well, OK, not really. It's Deepayan Sarkar's Lattice: Multivariate Data Visualization with R! I did not have the nerve to try to blag a review copy off Springer, given my bad habit of putting reviews in the drafts folder, so I ordered one online and now it is here. Have been getting my mother up to speed with e-mail and downloading new packages for R. Was reading Andrew Gelman's splendid Red State Blue State Rich State Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do before I went to Oxford and then got caught up in preparations to sublet / see mother and suddenly realised I was unlikely to write about it before the election, which is appalling but can't be helped, so I point readers shamefacedly to AG's blog...

Sunday, October 12, 2008

when is a hand-out not a hand-out

Currently waging a war against administration as the University have decided to ban students from accessing online resources until their fees are paid. One of my current courses has 120 students and is run entirely via 'e-learning' (whatever the hell that is). Basically, we can't use paper hand-outs, and all resources are on the intranet. Mmmm, lovely. However, given that a fair proportion of students are unable to pay their fees because their local authority has a backlog of loan payments, this means large sections of the class can't access the materials, or the exercises they are supposed to complete each week. It's as if the 'old-fashioned' lecturer with photocopies were to have intimate financial knowledge of their students and, on this basis, refuse to give copies to people in their class. It's immoral, and stupid, and cataclysmically time-consuming as I seek to find a way to get the oh-so-supposedly-bleeding-edge-of-technology materials to oh-so-old-skool-boringly-anxious students who are being punished for something that isn't their fault.

Infinite Thought

Friday, October 10, 2008


Before calling Luc, Pierre and I had talked about the place of silence, and more generally the question of time, in interviews and in their transcriptions. I told Pierre about my meeting with Hans Georg Gadamer a few years earlier. He was 101 years old, and he dozed off during the interview. For a few minutes I watched him sleep, without turnng the tape off. Later, Gadamer talked to me about the importance of silence in conversation, and about the impossibility of recording silence in a transcription.

The Tale of the One Thousand Signs, Hans Ulrich Obrist : Pierre Huyghe (Parkett 66 2002)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Lachmann Research Fellowship at LSE

Came across this Research Fellowship at the LSE website - I'm posting it in case it's relevant to any readers who for one reason or another haven't come across it elsewhere:

Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific Method

The Ludwig Lachmann Research Fellowship

Salary: £39,167 to £42,780 pa incl

This is a fixed term appointment for three years

Reference: 01/08/RES

Application deadline: 7 November 2008

The Department of Philosophy, Logic and Scientific is seeking to fill the Ludwig M Lachmann Research Fellowship, a research post in commemoration of the late Professor Lachmann.

The successful candidate will have a PhD and a record of excellence in research in economics and/or philosophy. Particular consideration will be given to candidates with a research interest in the philosophical aspects of economics or the Austrian School of Economics.

The Research Fellow will be expected to complete a piece of work forming the basis of a publication during his or her period of tenure.

Its is expected that the successful candidate will be appointed from September 2009 for a period of up to three years, though it is possible for the appointment to commence earlier in the year. The appointment may be made on a flexible working arrangement.

Informal enquiries can be addressed to Prof. Richard Bradley at

To apply, please see the instructions of how to apply, notes for applicants, the job description, the person specification and the personal details form.

If you cannot download the pack, email or call 020 7955 6183 quoting reference 01/08/RES.

Closing date for receipt of applications is 7 November 2008.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Caderno de Saramago

Mithridates has just sent me an e-mail. Saramago has a blog. (It's available in Spanish as well as Portuguese; hope that means most readers can read some.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008


David Crystal on trilingualism in children.

Three is an age where monolingual children first display serious 'normal non-fluency' (as the speech pathology world calls it). This is a phenomenon which sometimes causes parents anxiety, because with its pauses and repeated attempts at words it sounds like stammering, but in fact it's nothing like stammering at all. In particular, it lacks the tension one associates with that condition. What the child is doing is processing more complex language (notably, coordinate and subordinate clauses), and needing extra time to do it. So we hear such narratives as 'Daddy went in the garden and he - and he - and he - and he did kick the big ball'. There might be a dozen or more repetitions before the child sorts out what is needed to make a successful coordinate clause.

I've talked about all this before, in several clinical linguistic books and articles, but one thing I'd never thought of was the way normal non-fluency would be a sign of code-switching at this age. Mateo is at the stage now where he is realizing he speaks different languages. He has learnt the names 'English', 'Spanish', and 'Dutch', and is using them appropriately. Evidence? When watching Handy Manny on Play Disney - a repairman who switches between Spanish and English - Mateo shouts out 'Spanish' whenever he hears some Spanish words. And on the way back from the beach one day, as we passed a boy with a big bike, he looked at it, then at me, and said 'bicycle'. I didn't know he knew that word, so I must have appeared to be taken aback, because he then said - as if I hadn't understood - 'bicicleta' (the vocative 'prat' was in his intonation). He then added, for my benefit, 'Spanish'. 'I don't suppose you know it in Dutch as well?', I said, in a sceptical tone. He made a noise which sounded like a rude dismissal, so I queried it, and he said 'bike'. His mother told me later that he had probably said fiets, and that bike was common as a loan word in everyday Dutch. All this in a kid who's been on this earth for only just over a thousand days.

iterated polarisation games

[published this earlier, then wanted to think some more and put it in the drafts folder, got some e-mails from readers so I am posting again so people can comment if they want, though I should still probably think some more. Kevin Connolly, who sent in a wonderful Excel chart a few months ago, said he thought I was misrepresenting DFW: 'As I read it, the most important sentence in Wallace's speech is "The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day." I think he's asking for something more than 'keeping your head down' or swallowing the profoundly unjust and stupid system in which we live.' ]

The Guardian has published an abbreviated version of David Foster Wallace's speech at the graduation ceremony at Kenyon College.

Wallace seems to have had an abiding fear of solipsism all his life; fiction helps the skull-caged mind to believe in other selves. The speech, oddly enough, shows how easy it is to slip back into solipsism even one is trying to believe that other people and their concerns actually matter.

Wallace invites the audience to imagine a long hard day at work, at the end of which you're starving but there's no food at home so you have to go to the store and there are too many people and the lines are too long and then you drive home and there are too many people on the roads... but you can, he says, choose how you look at it:

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it's going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way?

DFW thought this way of looking at was our default setting. He proposed an alternative:

But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line - maybe she's not usually like this; maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who's dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible -

Well, hm. Let's just remember that this speech was in part about the importance of being serious about other minds. So let's look at the situation the way another mind would look at it.

The first thing that leaps out is that everyone in a crowded store is inconvenienced by everyone else in the store; everyone in a traffic jam is inconvenienced by the traffic jam.

The second thing that leaps out at this naysayer is the unhelpfulness of the serenity prayer. (Lord, give me the patience to the bear the things I can't change, the courage to change those I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.) Most of the time, surely, we actually don't know what we can change till we try - it's not a question of wisdom but of, well, a combination of the willingness to have a bash and decent methodology. (Oh Lord, don't give me a Mercedes Benz, just tell me whether I should use a folded-t, or a half-cauchy, or a uniform over the traditional inverse gamma. Please? Pleeeeeeeez?*)

The point being. Look. If crowds and traffic jams are unavoidable, we are definitely best off learning to live with them. But let's just remember, dreaming up improbable scenarios about my fellow shoppers/drivers really only helps one person: me. OK, it may help other people if I would otherwise be swearing or shooting, or if my new -improved unfocused beaming smile makes people feel good; is that really the best I can do? What if there is a solution, something that would make lines in stores move faster, reduce crowds? If there is a solution, a really good solution, surely it will be a successful meme - it will spread through overcrowded grocery stores across the city! the state! the country! the world!

So maybe I have to be driven berserk, maybe I actually have to be a prima donna maddened to distraction by the horror of my local Kroger's or Giant, to be goaded into looking for solutions. Maybe being driven berserk, maybe thinking this is literally a fate worse than death, is a prerequisite for trying to do something.

Suppose I'm stuck shopping at the busiest possible time. It's too late to have laid in supplies at some earlier time. But it's not too late to lay in supplies now. Would it be a good idea to pass up the superficial attraction of the '10 Items or Less' checkout? Say I buy 20 jars of peanut butter, 10 boxes of Ritz crackers, 50 packs of spaghetti, and 50 jars of Barilla's Pesto al Genovese. The spaghetti alone eliminates 49 emergency trips to the store at peak times!

Well, do I actually have enough storage space? I mull this over, dodging the madding crowd, and I realise that bulk-buying will actually enable me to make better use of the couple of cupboards I have at my disposal. Normally, when my cupboards are not bare, there's a lot of unused space above the head height of the jars: I don't want to stack them on top of each other, because it's a hassle to get them out, and then I can't see what's behind the front row. But I can stack 20 jars of peanut butter front to back, from the bottom of the shelf to the top, and I really only need to see the front row/stack. Same with the pesto. Same with the spaghetti. Same with the crackers. Good news.

At this point I become aggrieved. If I subtract a minimum of 49 trips to the store - 49 peak-time trips - I am making the world a better place for my fellow shoppers, who will benefit from my absence from the store on at least 49 occasions. Why is the store encouraging short-term shopping with its '10 Items or Less' line? Why isn't it encouraging people like me? Why don't they have a line for people who are bulk-buying a small number of types of item? 20 jars of Skippy can be rung up in almost the same time as 1. If we were given a shorter queue for buying in quantities of 20 or more, hundreds of people would be slashing dozens of trips to the store off their year. Wouldn't it be to the advantage of the store if more people bought in bulk? Or are they relying on impulse buys? Is it just that they make so much more out of getting people into the store and getting things they didn't mean to buy that they don't want people to make fewer trips?

I don't actually know the answer to the last question. I can see that everyone can't afford to buy in quantity. But it seems to me that I definitely have the power to make my own life less stressful, by the simple expedient of buying 50 jars of my favourite pasta sauce and something simple to put it on. Plus pb & crackers. If everyone who could afford it made their life less stressful in this way, they'd be better off, wouldn't they? So maybe I'm being selfish keeping this 'Hint from Heloise' manqué locked up in my skull? (Should I start a web comic?) Also... if I am really saving myself a minimum of 49 stressful trips to the store, maybe I could dedicate one to making a trip for someone else, someone who doesn't have a car or can't get heavy groceries upstairs (I'm still 48 trips to the store ahead...)? Also...

What if this were standard practice? What if we knew that most people kept supplies of some kind in bulk? We don't know what other people have, we just know that whatever they have, they have a lot of it. What if I knew that about other people in my building? What if I couldn't face a 35th last-minute meal of spaghetti with pesto al genovese, might I not feel more comfortable about knocking on somebody's door and asking if they'd swap anything, anything at all for s w/ p al g? And might I not feel pretty comfortable about occasionally having someone knock on my door and offering a swap? And might most of us feel somewhat comfortable even just asking or being asked for the makings of a simple meal (pasta with sauce or something) when the person asking had nothing to swap and maybe hadn't made it to the ATM? What if we knew most people had a stash of 10+ jars of peanut butter... Might a parent, caught short late at night, not feel more comfortable just knocking on a door and asking for a jar of peanut butter? Or if we live in a bad part of town, if we're nervous of strangers knocking at the door/knocking on strange doors, could we have a communal cupboard with a key to which we all contributed 1/50th of an occasional bulk buy? (This is a question that is likelier to present itself if one starts from the position of having 20 jars of peanut butter, 10 boxes of crackers, 50 packets of spaghetti and 50 jars of pesto al genovese in one's own personal kitchen.)

Well, I'm just going around and around in my head, but the point is, there are things I can do that will tell me more about the world than I already think I know. I can find something out by unilateral action; I can find out more by sharing ideas with my fellow man. And I can start with something that has an extremely high probability of being true: most people hate peak-time grocery shopping, most people hate traffic jams. To me that looks more attractive than making life bearable by inventing highly improbable backstories about the people I run up against in a crowd.

There are some problems that can't be fixed. If I get a million dollars today, I can't go back to the summer of 1996, when I was desperate for £1,000 to finish a book. I can't go back to the summer of 1979, when I was desperate for money to pay for Oxford. But there are problems that can be fixed. Young people who have just finished 4 years of college (US) or 3 years of university (Britain) may not be nicer than they were when they started, but they should be better informed, they should be smarter - they should see many more things that might be fixable than they did when they turned up on Day 1. So, well, hm, it's a bit demoralising that a speech cited for its inspirational qualities should be one that offers acquiescence as the first port of call (nothing to be done, might as well make the best of it).

A general comment. Americans live in a profoundly unjust and deeply stupid social system. Britons live in a profoundly unjust and deeply stupid social system that has the saving grace of a national health service. The French face institutionalised injustice and stupidity; so do the Germans; so do the Italians; we could go on, but let's not. And whenever injustice and stupidity are institutionalised, legitimised, there is enormous pressure on those caught up in the system to make it look good - and, of course, to avoid looking bad by failing to thrive. And humans are able to survive, at least, under astonishingly damaging circumstances.

What this means, unfortunately, is that the collective action of finding ways to survive, of making the system look bearable, makes the system weigh very heavily on those least able to bear it. I think that may mean that we shouldn't necessarily be looking for ways to get to the age of 30, or 50, without wanting to put a bullet through the head. Maybe it's a good thing to find circumstances absolutely unbearable; maybe we shouldn't look away. Maybe paying attention to what I myself find intolerable is a better guide to what is oppressive to others than, say, paying attention to what the system says are reasonable expectations for any individual.

We should note that David Foster Wallace, for all his public acclaim, was caught up in a machine that treats writers with contempt. In an interview with Dave Eggers he spoke once about the immense investment of time and energy involved in publishing a single book; he said this meant that he had to be very selective about the projects he was willing to see into print. So - if other writers had fought harder, if fewer writers had kept their heads down, if someone somewhere had insisted on submitting documents in LaTeX, for example, DFW might have published more books without feeling that his personal requirements were the mark of egocentrism. As might many other writers we haven't happened to hear of. It's hard to see how that wouldn't have been a very good thing.

*To the best of my knowledge, it's rare for this sort of question to be directed to God. Someone did recently fire it off to Andrew Gelman.

Friday, September 19, 2008

all change

Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve and Hank Paulson, the Goldman Sachs tycoon who became US Treasury secretary, have done more for socialism in the past seven days than anybody since Marx and Engels.

The Guardian's Larry Elliot on the world of that clinking clanking sound, the rest here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

fiddling while Rome...

It feels peculiar posting anything at all, why bother to link when everyone can go straight to the sources themselves, why bother to say anything when better-informed people have so much to say, but how strange not to say anything when this may actually be the worst crash since 1929. Lehman Brothers down the tubes, Merrill swallowed up the same day, AIG rescued by the Fed, HBOS needs a takeover, now Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are in the line of fire... Deborah Hargreaves of the Guardian says

The central banks have pumped in billions of dollars worth of money today, over $210 billion worth of money has gone into the financial system and yet no one wants to lend at all


Why we should all be taught bartending, lockpicking and bicycle maintenance at school.

that is not what I meant, at all

came across some videos of Douglas Adams on YouTube, including one in which Stephen Fry talks about his Wodehousian humour, then reads out this as an example:

The same sun later broke in through the upper windows of a house in North London, struck the peacefuly sleeping figure of a man.
The room in which he slept was large and bedraggled and did not much benefit from the sudden intrusion of light.
The sun crept slowly across the bedclothes as if nervous of what it might find amongst them, slunk down the side of the bed, moved in a rather startled way across some objects it encountered on the floor, toyed nervously with a couple of motes of dust, lit briefly on a stuffed fruitbat hanging in a corner, and fled.

which to this reader had more of a Prufrockian turn...

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night
Curled once about the house, and fell sleep

(very funny videos, as you might expect; you can see Douglas Adams with Richard Dawkins here)

Monday, September 15, 2008


DFW lies in the arms of sleep's cousin. I think suddenly of the work of David Lewis on modal realism. My friend Peter King summarises:

When I profess realism about possible worlds, I mean to be taken literally. Possible worlds are what they are, and not some other thing. If asked what sort of thing they are, I cannot give the kind of reply my questioner probably expects: that is, a proposal to reduce possible worlds to something else.
I can only ask him to admit that he knows what sort of thing our actual world is, and then explain that possible worlds are more things of that sort, differing not in kind but only in what goes on at them.
(Lewis [1973], p.85)

This passage contains, or implies, the heart of David Lewis's modal realism. It explicitly states three of his six central doctrines about possible worlds, and implies at least one of the remaining three. The three doctrines explicitly formulated are:

  • 1. Possible worlds exist -- they are just as real as our world;
  • 2. Possible worlds are the same sort of things as our world -- they differ in content, not in kind;
  • 3. Possible worlds cannot be reduced to something more basic -- they are irreducible entities in their own right.
From these three claims (and from the second in particular) we can see that, when we talk of our own world as being the only actual world, we cannot be asserting that our world has a special property not found in (or instantiated by) any other world - the property of actuality - but that we must be using the term `actual' much as we use the term `here' or `now' -- to indicate our position. This gives us Lewis's fourth doctrine:
  • 4. `Actual' is indexical. When we distinguish our world from others by claiming that it alone is actual, we mean only that it is ours -- we live here.
(more here)

Here, where we live, DFW wrote unselfconsciously about the elitism of professional tennis, the sport he knew best. Writing about Michael Joyce, then #64 in the world, at the Canadian Open, he said that he realised that he did not even play the same game as J; that he did not mention that he had played tennis, that Joyce, being a nice guy, would probably have been happy to hit a few balls back and forth, but to do so, to go on the same court with him, would have been obscene. (Here's DFW on Roger Federer as Religious Experience; an assessment of DFW as sportswriter can be found here.)

Here, where we live, DFW did not bring the same standards to writing. He disliked texts that show contempt for the reader, whether by being unabashedly avant-garde or unabashedly commercial. He wanted to write texts that would challenge readers but be enjoyable enough to encourage them to take up the challenge - no easy proposition.

I contemplate this; I then contemplate, with some bafflement, critical response to DFW's collection of stories, Oblivion, generally perceived as difficult. Wyatt Mason, in the LRB, described them as "uncompromisingly difficult", went on to gesture at the immense effort required of the reader to puzzle out what was going on:

Imagine a reader being schooled by Wallace. See the reader sit there, Oblivion in hand, already crafting an official complaint in his head, unconvinced before an apparently pompous narrator. Let’s acknowledge and appreciate this reader’s inability to see such a narrator otherwise. For why should the reader be swayed? Why should he grant Wallace any of his demands for surfeit goodwill, when the reader feels, not unreasonably, that Wallace is making unreasonable demands?

and concluded:

Wallace has the right to write a great book that no one can read except people like him. I flatter myself to think that I am one of them, but I haven’t any idea how to convince you that you should be, too; nor, clearly, does Wallace. And it might not be the worst thing in the world, next time out, when big novel number three thumps into the world, were he to dig deeper, search longer, and find a more generous way to make his feelings known.

This (just to be clear) was a sympathetic review defending DFW from misunderstanding and hostility from James Wood.

Well, this is the world we live in, brothers and sisters. It's a rum old place. Oblivion doesn't strike me as a difficult, never mind uncompromisingly difficult, book. Plato can be difficult; the speeches in Thucydides drive strong men to drink; Kant is difficult, Wittgenstein is difficult, David Lewis is not for the faint of heart. But Oblivion? DFW had a ravishingly lovely gift for voice; he took the sort of pleasure in variety that we see in (say) Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition or Debussy's Preludes. Why would a reader labour grumpily through the stories in search of hidden meanings? Let alone blame the profligate author for lack of generosity? I've no idea, but one thing is certain: in this world, here, now, there is no place for a Roger Federer among writers.

If David Lewis was right, there are an infinite number of possible worlds as real as this one; there are an infinite number of possible worlds with a person genetically identical to DFW. If you believe in modal realism, suicide in the particular world you happen to inhabit probably doesn't look like that big a deal: in this particular world, through circumstances beyond my control, I find myself cabined, cribbed, confined, but an infinite number of alter egos have different histories. If there is any set of circumstances at all in which a person genetically identical to me can be a great writer, that person actually exists in at least one other possible world. Perhaps there is no set of circumstances in which this person, here, now, can match that alter ego or even come close. But if those infinite others all exist, perhaps it doesn't matter if one dies here, now. (I'm not convinced that this is rational - it's a bit like saying that I don't mind dying as long as my twin has a wonderful life on Mars - why exactly does bringing my twin into the picture make a difference? Rational or not, the thought that this particular botched self might not be all that there is is strangely comforting. [I am not, of course, referring at this point to DFW.])

To the best of my knowledge, David Lewis was unique in being a true believer in modal realism. Most people who work in this field use possible worlds as some kind of figure of speech; they don't think they're as real as Canada or Mars. So there's no reason whatever to think that DFW was a modal realist. On the contrary, he probably thought that this world, here, now, was all there is. This world, here, now, was self-evidently not good for him; there were things he needed that it didn't give him. But he seems to have thought that in this world, here, now, many people had been cheated by the educational system into thinking they didn't like literature; that many people could be brought to surpass what they thought they could do, if someone was willing to take the trouble. We were lucky to have had him.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Over on Political Arithmetik, a post from August on age and voter turn-out.

In 2004 those 18-29 were 21.8% of the population, while those 58-69 were just 13.2%. Add in the 11.5% 70 and up, and you get just 24.7% of "geezers" over 58 vs. 21.8% of "kids". But the sly old geezers know a thing or two about voting. Shift from share of the population to share of the electorate and the advantage shifts to the old: 18-29 year olds were just 16% of the electorate in 2004, while those 58-69 were an almost equal 15.9%. Add in the 70+ group at 13.4% and the geezers win hands down: 29.3% of voters vs 16% for the young. That difference is the power of high turnout. It goes a long way to explaining why Social Security is the third rail of American politics.

Friday, September 5, 2008

against mimesis

All the reviews I’ve seen have mentioned Pierce Brosnan’s terrible singing, but I haven’t seen much criticism of Meryl Streep’s performance, which is much worse, and also does more to explain what’s wrong with the film.The problem with her acting in the film is precisely that it is acting, or rather Acting with a capital A, an emoting that suggests that the only way of conveying emotion is through mimesis.

Watching Mamma Mia made me think about what it is I like about Abba. Two common responses to the band are the deflationary one, to say they are “just a great pop group” (or a guilty pleasure); and the inverse, to reject the idea that Abba were a superficial pop group and emphasize the emotional depth of their songs. Neither of these responses is quite right, because it’s the pop elements, the glossy artifice of production, that give Abba their emotional charge. So much of the emotion resides in the carefully constructed production, while the voice, far from expressing emotion, is strangely blank; the effect is to produce an externalization of emotion, a sense that the music carries the emotion for the singer, perhaps because these emotions are so powerful that the only way to deal with them is to, as Jay-Z puts it, make the song cry.

from Voyou Désoeuvré


Jenny Turner has written a review of Your Name Here for the LRB, here.

Monday, September 1, 2008

chartjunk of the day

Andrew Gelman comments on a flagrant example of chartjunk over on The Monkey Cage.

Friday, August 29, 2008

in our thoughts lately

An old Language Log post (re the great gay sheep "story") had this great quotation from Harry Frankfurt's Bullshit:

What bullshit essentially misrepresents is neither the state of affairs to which it refers nor the beliefs of the speaker concerning that state of affairs. Those are what lies misrepresent, by virtue of being false. Since bullshit need not be false, it differs from lies in its misrepresentational intent. The bullshitter may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be. What he does necessarily attempt to deceive us about is his enterprise. His only indispensably distinctive characteristic is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.

This is the crux of the distinction between him and the liar. Both he and the liar represent themselves falsely as endeavoring to communicate the truth. The success of each depends upon deceiving us about that. But the fact about himself that the liar hides is that he is attempting to lead us away from a correct apprehension of reality; we are not to know that he wants us to believe something he supposes to be false. The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to report the truth nor to conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Aloha no!

TAR ART RAT talks back to our next Prez. (Luckily I was not on this mailing list.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Back in the dawn of time a young writer started a blog under the pseudonym Mithridates. I actually know who he is (we had already exchanged e-mails), but in my blog I took care not to blow his cover. Time passed time passed time passed and I suddenly noticed that Mith's posts on his blog were now being posted under the name Mifune. Since I was linking to the blog the potential for confusion was large. I enquired, and was told that Blogger was to blame: he had tried to relaunch the blog and been forced to assume a new identity. OK, OK, OK.... the blog has apparently been rerelaunched. Inspired by the wars between Britannia Pizza & Pasta and Britannia Pizza & Chicken, he is now operating under the new name of Mithirdates. And he has posted various clips from YouTube, including several of Mishima and one of the late, great Frank O'Hara, here.

big girl's blouse

(thinking of writing apologetic e-mail re still unfinished review, along the lines of 'sorry to be such a big girl's blouse', I wonder whether, as an American, I have really mastered the idiom, turn to our dear friends at Google and find....)

[Q] From Colin Alexander, New Zealand: “Big girl’s blouse. How did this extraordinary pejorative come about? It is usually applied to males and seems to mean a milquetoast, but how?”

[A] For those in other parts of the English-speaking world who have never heard of this astonishing idiom, let me explain that it is heard now quite widely in Britain (and elsewhere, too, it seems), though it originated in the North of England.

I’ve been vaguely dreading somebody asking this question, because it is one of a set of Northern idioms that are quite impenetrable in their origins. Others are the exclamation of surprise, “well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs!” and the dismissive “all mouth and trousers”.

People do indeed use it to mean an ineffectual or effeminate male, a weakling, though it is often used in a bantering or teasing way rather than as an out-and-out insult (“You can’t drink Coke in a pub, you big girl’s blouse!”; “Blokes who don’t take on dares are big girl’s blouses”). The American milquetoast isn’t quite equivalent (since it has a greater emphasis on meekness rather than on an unmanly nature), but it’s close.

the rest here

(the consensus seems to be that it is some kind of put-down delivered to men, but I first came across it when my friend Sue McCafferty, who had grown up in the Lake District, said, 'Oooooooh [oo as in cool] babes, sorry to be such a big girl's blouse', and I said '¿Qué?')

how did we get here from there?

Although Albert Camus died before baby boomers took charge of the world and placed their redoubtable imprimatur on the political scene, he foreshadowed their eventual devolution in this prescient statement: "Conformity is one of the nihilistic temptations of rebellion which dominate a large part of our intellectual history. It demonstrates how the rebel who takes to action is tempted to succumb, if he forgets his origins, to the most absolute conformity. And so explains the twentieth century."

Camus was right, of course. As a baby boomer, it doesn't make me happy to say this; however, how else does one explain the "absolute conformity" (not to mention hypocrisy) of my once-rebellious generation? How else does one explain the disgraceful situation in which our country now finds itself?

We can't blame Nixon any more, although it would be fun to still kick him around. No, we have to look inward. We're the ones who created this mess. We're the ones who abrogated our political idealism and slowly but surely conformed to establishment power and corporate materialism. And we're the ones who allowed George W. Bush, a baby boomer of the worst sort, to slime his way into the presidency and bankrupt the country both economically and morally.

John F. Miglio in Counterpunch, courtesy Wood's Lot, the rest here

Monday, August 25, 2008

Softer World 2

The Softer World interview is now online here. We talk about suicide, languages, games, a few other things.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

don't look now

XIII. The work is the death mask of its conception.

Walter Benjamin on writing, from Marginal Revolution

softer world interview

Joey Comeau of A Softer World sent me some interview questions a while back, which I finally got round to answering. I think he is going to post this some time soon. I was supposed to send him some links to link to and didn't; if I do this today it might happen sooner rather than later.


A few days ago Wyatt Mason posted a letter from Malcolm Lowry to Andre Barzun objecting to what he saw as an unfair review. This was the third time Mason had nailed his colours to the mast, coming out in favour of authors' responding publicly to their critics; the topic was first raised back in May, when Mason reported on a public dialogue at Harvard between James Wood and Jonathan Franzen. When the floor was opened to questions, Mason weighed in.

I asked if I might follow up. “Why then,” I asked, “is it that the back pages of the New York Review of Books are filled with non-fiction writers responding to the indignities heaped upon them by critics who [they believe to have] missed their argument, but fiction writers don’t feel the same liberty to respond to their critics and say: ‘You’ve missed it.’ Is it beneath the dignity of art to respond to your accuser?”

“You can actually dispute facts,” Franzen said, “but you can’t dispute taste. That’s the sorry condition of the artist. There’s no proving it.”


In Franzen's shoes, I would have been inclined to wonder whether lack of enterprise on the part of writers of fiction was really the only, or even more probable, explanation for the data. The editors of the NYRB may receive no letters from writers of fiction - or, of course, they may receive them and choose not to publish them. Or, of course, writers of fiction may notice that we never see letters from writers of fiction in the letters pages, assume that this represents editorial policy of the NYRB, and refrain from writing in on the assumption that they would not get published. In the absence of further data, we can only surmise.

Franzen, anyway, not only failed to make this point but let the side down even further by a variation of 'Well, it's all subjective, innit?' Mason might helpfully have suggested that Mr Franzen go away and read A C Danto's The Transfiguration of the Commonplace; sadly, he had more important fish to fry. He cites all the things Franzen has done to participate in critical debate, then goes on

Taking on faith—for a few more lines—that there is indeed an adequate supply of rigorous literary criticism of imaginative works of prose, I would dismiss as poppycock that “there’s no one out there responding intelligently.” Rather, the problem, and I do see it as one, is that too few serious readers and writers who are upset by the supposed absence of criticism are actually responding intelligently to—much less taking the time to notice—the very good criticism we have in abundance.

I do not mean that there exists a disappointing number of responses to criticism. The web is now fortunately full of blogs that take note—often very keenly—of such views and reviews. But a 50- or even 500-word post, however intelligent, in response to a 5,000-word essay (in response to an 85,000 word novel) can only be, by nature and degree, an inadequate response.

What can be done? To begin, if a novelist should receive a dumb review of his book, my belief is that he should feel not merely at liberty but honor-bound to respond intelligently, in public, in writing.... For those writers who do not feel that their special islands are similarly safe from tsunamis of critical stupidity; who themselves do not feel Nabakovianly above it all; who feel the culture is drowning what is better in waves of what is worse; who feel hurt and assailed and misread and misunderstood, who feel that a critic has failed to appreciate, failed to feel the full force of, the book the fiction writer believes he has written—I argue that he must engage with these inferior engagements....

“You can’t dispute taste,” said Franzen, and I would not ask him to. [He might also find Fowler's Kinds of Literature and Wayne Booth's Rhetoric of Irony helpful; these cover most of the kinds of mistake one sees in reviews.] I would ask, however, that he and his peers—when confronted with the insensate maunderings of someone they deem a dim bulb in the critical stoplight—respond nonetheless. If a review under-appreciates not merely one’s own book but that of a peer, respond. Not with hurt feelings but with strong arguments that showcase the rigors of construction, of patterning, of metaphor, of the myriad deliberate choices serious writers deploy to the end of making not tasteful works but artful ones. The Corrections, for example, was not a work of taste; rather one of Art. As such, in an era in which there is less shelf space for seriousness, fiction writers must take the responsibility of reprimanding their critics for their stupidity more seriously, more regularly.


I was rather surprised to see this professed passion for public debate on a blog which did not take comments. Insensate maunderings seems a bit harsh, but to the untutored eye there is a certain lack of consistency. The untutored eye was even more baffled to find Mason taking up the theme not once but twice, first writing of a letter from Philip Roth to Diana Trilling, then of one from Lowry to Barzun:

Though I continue to believe that what literary conversation we do have about fiction would be fortified were more creative writers to thoughtfully return critical fire now and again, I concede that the likelihood of such a craze sweeping through our novelistic ranks is low indeed. So low, in fact, that very richest example I’ve been able to find of a novelist adequately replying to a critic was written but, alas, never sent.


Lowry’s own reply only further confirms my sense that one can do better, even in this uncivil time, when receiving criticism however harsh (not to say when meting it out) than the hurling of insults. It is perhaps useful to be reminded that when people exchange words about art, we are witnesses not, as the lately popular coinage has it, to a “Literary Smackdown!” but to civilization—a term forever in need of definition.

Comments were still off, so I decided to go straight to the horse's mouth and contact Mason by e-mail.


You've said on your blog that a writer who thinks he got a dumb review should feel not merely at liberty but honor-bound to reply intelligently, in public, to the critic. I'm wondering what exactly you think writers should do who disagree with your reviews. "Ought implies can," says Kant; your blog doesn't accept comments.
Mason replied: he thought writers should send a letter to the editor. It was Harper's policy not to allow comments on blogs, but he didn't disagree with this: he signed his name to his posts, so it was reasonable to expect commenters to do the same. A writer can either send an e-mail to Harper's Replies, who will decide if it's worth publishing, or they can write to WM's e-mail address, in which case he replies privately.

Well, when people exchange words about art we witness civilization. How much better if the public could witness civilization in the form of an exchange of words about art between the acclaimed novelist and Guggenheim Fellow, Helen DeWitt, and the acclaimed critic, Wyatt Mason! Especially since DeWitt is, in her own opinion, so much better equipped for the debate than the hapless (though admittedly acclaimed) Mr Franzen!

I write:

I'm not sure I follow this - it may be that we have different understandings of what's meant by a public response. Sending a letter to an editor which is certain not to be published doesn't strike me as a public response. Sending a private e-mail to the reviewer is, of course, a private response. Leaving a comment on a blog is a public response, whether or not it is anonymous; it's hard to imagine that a writer who wanted to take issue with a reviewer would conceal his/her identity. It is, of course, perfectly possible to exclude anonymous comments if one wishes to do so.

How do you feel about letting me publish your e-mail on my blog, which does accept comments? It seems to me that some sort of public discussion would be more interesting than thrashing out personal points of difference. My understanding, from your various posts, was that you thought public debate on matters of criticism of some importance.

Well, um, hm. WM's position is, in a nutshell, that an author is honor-bound to offer a magazine the chance to decide whether his views are worth publishing, but the magazine is not honor-bound to make them public, nor is a critic honor-bound to make public letters (like those of Roth and Lowry) which are addressed to him. Nor is the writer who addresses him personally entitled to share the exchange with the public: Mason's responses are made in the context of a private correspondence. They are not public, they're private, and must remain so. So he did not want his e-mail published on the blog, because it was private.

Just to be clear, Mason seems to draw a distinction between the sort of discussion we had been having and a response to a review. The letters he quoted were written by authors about books they felt had been unfairly reviewed; he thought they would have been published if sent to the editor, and that was the forum where such responses should appear. My e-mail, obviously, doesn't fall in that category. It doesn't count as someone in the novelistic ranks returning critical fire, because it's not a response to a review, either of me or anyone else; it's just someone in the novelistic ranks taking issue with Mason's assessment of the opportunities for those in the novelistic ranks to return critical fire, if he and those like him fail to provide them. So we weren't actually exchanging words about art, we were just in talks about talks. And he never said that when we witness talks about talks about art we witness civilization. He never said that when we witness talks about talks about talks about art we witness civilization.

I think most writers don't engage much with critics because they suspect this kind of thing is on the cards.

Anyway, as always, the moral of the story is that I would have been happier as a statistician.

You'll remember that WM thought a letter to the editor was the correct way to advance critical debate. You'll also remember that he thought blogs weren't up to the job, because a 50- or 500-word post is an inadequate response to a 5000-word review. So I decide to see whether there is any evidence that 'Letters to the Editor' is a plausible forum for the sort of letter written by Roth and Lowry. Roth wrote a 2209-word letter that he didn't send. Lowry sent a letter that was 2405 words long. Might these have reached the public if sent to an editor?

I don't have an online sub to Harper's, so I can't do word counts on their letters. I turn instead to the NYRB (you'll remember that WM was surprised that its back pages had no letters from writers of fiction). In the 20 issues published in the last year, the NYRB published 73 letters to the editor (not including replies and letters by the editors); 62 were under 500 words long. The longest was 1100. The following little table is horrible, but shows the distribution:

(No, since you ask, this was not a sensible use of time.)

The longest letters tend, in fact, to be responses not to reviews but to political events: an open letter to the Attorney General, an open letter to Bush, an open letter on events in Tibet. A couple of longish letters (upper 300s) were tributes to the dead (Walcott on Hardwick, Epstein on Mailer).

This actually strikes me as a perfectly reasonable allocation of space in the NYRB. If an open letter with distinguished signatories can influence US policy in the Middle East for the better, it's not easy to see why a novelist's response to an ill-judged review should take precedence. Still, that's not to say that public debate on fiction couldn't be a good thing; the question is, is this a plausible choice of venue? Both Lowry's letter and Roth's were more than twice as long as the longest letter published in the NYRB in a year - and that letter was itself an outlier. (After the 1100-word letter, the next longest was 895 words long.) If one genuinely wants to see this sort of letter in the public domain, and one is unhappy with the standard of debate currently on offer in the blogosphere, one needs to push for some other space where such letters can be seen.

(The LRB, since you ask, seems to publish more letters per issue, but the distribution in length is not strikingly different from that of the NYRB.)

Anyhoo. Moving right along.

In The Transfiguration of the Commonplace A C Danto raises the question, how can physically indistinguishable objects be different works of art? How can it be that physically indistinguishable objects can fall in different categories, one a work of art, one not? In Borges' story The Quixote of Pierre Menard, Borges imagines a text written by a 19th-century Frenchman which is identical to that of the Quixote of Cervantes; while the two are indistinguishable, they have different literary properties. (Cervantes wrote in the Spanish of his day, Menard achieved dazzling verisimilitude and so forth.) Duchamp selected a urinal and christened it Fountain; the object continued to be white, shiny, made of porcelain, like its humbler brothers, but it also possessed attributes which were inapplicable to them (impertinent, witty, iconoclastic and so on). And yet, while some artistic properties could be ascribed to it, others would be inappropriate: though Fountain looks exactly like a urinal, to say that it is an accurate representation of a urinal would show a profound misunderstanding of how it functions as a work of art. To describe it as an inaccurate representation of a fountain would, again, show that one had missed the point. And on the other hand again, one can desecrate Fountain in a way that one cannot its siblings, simply by using it for the purpose for which it was originally intended. But someone who does so clearly understands the work; whereas if someone were to wander an art gallery in desperate need of a pee, spot Fountain and think, Oh, GREAT, that's really convenient -- it would be hard to know where to start.

Critics of fiction do often make the various sorts of category mistake sketched out above. So it would have been nice if Franzen had explained that this was why it was more complicated to respond to reviews of fiction than to reviews of non-fiction. It would have been nice if he had pointed out that this would be difficult to achieve in under 500 words. It would be awfully nice if reviewers were allowed to start their reviews with a brief reminder of the wisdom of A C Danto rather than a plot summary. Plato's Socrates goes gallantly into the fray, taking on such fine clever speakers as Gorgias, Protagoras and Thrasymachus; it bothers me that I don't have the intellectual stamina to follow his example, but I don't, or at least not today.