Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Dostoïevski était raciste, son antisémitisme s’inscrivant dans un racisme foncier ; ses lettres ont, en plus, un caractère hystérique qui fait que, sur le même sujet, au même moment, il peut écrire une chose et son contraire en fonction du correspondant. Ce qui compte n’est pas ce qu’il dit, mais sa volonté d’épouser le désir supposé de son destinataire. C’est pourtant la même personne qui a écrit des romans sublimes. Mais lorsqu’il reprend, par exemple, dans L’Idiot, les propos réactionnaires qu’il tient comme journaliste ou épistolier sur l’envahissement de la modernité, c’est à Lébédev, le bouffon, et non pas à Mychkine ou Rogojine qu’il les prête. En somme, la personne Dostoïevski devient là le bouffon de l’écrivain Dostoïevski. C’est comme ça : Dostoïevski avait la particularité d’être et de ne pas être la personne qui écrivait ses romans.

Dosteyevsky was a racist, his anti-Semitism a part of his fundamental racism; moreover, his letters are so hysterical in character that as a correspondent he is capable of expressing one opinion and then its opposite on exactly the same subject, at just the same time. What counts is not what he says, but his determination to embrace what he imagines that the addressee wants to hear. And yet this is the same person who wrote those sublime novels. But when, in The Idiot for instance, he picks up on the same reactionary ideas on the invasion of modernity that he expresses as a journalist or in his letters, he puts them in the mouth of the fool Lebedyev, not of Myshkin or Rogozhin. In other words, Dostoyevsky the person becomes the fool of Dostoyevsky the writer. There you have it: it’s characteristic of Dostoyevsky that he both was and wasn’t the person who wrote his novels.


Au premier roman traduit, la polémique a flambé, ensuite, elle s’est ranimée plus faiblement, et elle a fini par s’éteindre faute de combustible car tout avait déjà été dit : le Dostoïevski chaotique, à la syntaxe bousculée, que j’ai donné à lire n’est pas Balzac — encore Balzac passait-il lui-même pour mal écrire… On peut préférer un auteur plus policé mais ce qui m’a passionné, moi, dans cette expérience, c’était de passer outre l’idée de faute.

The first novel I translated was greeted with a raging polemic, which flared up again at the next one, but not so fiercely, and in the end died out altogether for lack of fuel, because everything had already been said: the chaotic Dostoyevsky I was offering to readers, with his jumbled syntax, he’s not Balzac – mind you, they said Balzac couldn’t write, either… One might prefer an author to be more polished, but what I myself was so excited about, in the whole experience, was going beyond the concept of error.

André Markowicz on translating Dostoevsky, ht Languagehat (English here)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

During a recent visit, it was clear that for every marijuana seller and physician who thinks that the rules are too strict, murky or fluid, there are others who can hardly wipe the smile off their faces.

“When I visited in September, I looked around and saw that there were only four dispensaries in Boulder, and they were all right on campus,” says Bradley Melshenker, co-owner of the Greenest Green and formerly a medical marijuana seller in Los Angeles. “We went into one and saw like 30 kids in the waiting room, and I thought: ‘This is crazy. We’ve got to come.’ ”


With a couple of exceptions — Mr. Bellingham among them — interviewing pot sellers is unlike interviewing anyone else in business. Simple yes-or-no questions yield 10-minute soliloquies. Words are coined on the spot, like “refudiate,” and regular words are used in ways that make sense only in context. One guy kept saying “rue” as though it meant “reluctant,” as in “I think the state was rue to act.”

David Segal on medicinal marijuana in the NYT
Somewhat terrifying discovery.

Have been writing lots of posts and putting them in the drafts folder. Something to do with lack of belief in what is called serious fiction. I guess. Anyway, you know interviewers always ask: What is your writing routine? Wake up at 5, start writing a 'post' (can these be genuine posts if they always end up in the drafts folder?), keep writing. All day. Go to bed at midnight or so. Wake up and repeat.

The feeling is, of course, that I'm not writing. 'How's the writing going?' 'I can't write. I can't write. I can't write. I'm completely paralysed. I may never write again.' Tragic case of writer's block. The kind of writer's block you get when you're writing 6000 words a day. And putting them in the drafts folder. Am I alone in being reminded of Perec's La Vie: Mode d'emploi?

How does it work? Why does it work?

Well, we always hear about writers whose unfinished work was published against their wishes after their death. How does this work? A rational explanation would be something like this: It's hard for a writer to destroy work on paper, because there's always the possibility, however remote, that it might be finished. But I don't think that really is how it works. I think there is a desire for the work to exist, even if it is not in a state to be seen. It is possible to have hundreds of posts in a drafts folder, under password protection. If one dies, they will go on existing, but they will not be seen: the password dies with the author.

Hackers will undoubtedly sneer. I'm not talking about the actual security of these posts, though, but about the feeling that they can exist, survive the author, not be seen.

Cormac McCarthy says you have to trust where it comes from. Something like that. Shakespeare never bothered to see his plays into print; Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were the things he thought of real literary value. I think you can't interrogate yourself too much. You can't tear your hair because literary prestige attaches to a published novel rather than to a series of posts in the drafts folder. If something wants to write 19 hours a day and put the results in the drafts folder, you have to trust where it comes from.
But the idea that somebody might choose not to publish—or might choose to publish in a small circulation magazine rather than a large circulation one—can look downright bizarre in the age of the blog and the tweet. The space between the writer and the reader is evaporating.

Jed Perl, Alone with Words

I think Perl might see this differently if he had a blog. The ratio of posts to drafts no doubt varies dramatically from blogger to blogger - but after all, the simple fact that all blogs offer the facility of a drafts folder implies that bloggers may not choose to publish everything they write.

I think my ratio of drafts to posts is about 9:1; it's embarrassing, in a way, because the word count would probably add up to a couple of books, but I think it's a way of thinking things through before bringing them into a book.

Most bloggers have access to some kind of analytics, so they know how many readers they have - for the vast majority, surely, well below that of a small circulation magazine. And if you don't want to feel as though you're addressing any audience at all, it's easy enough to have a blog where no one ever goes. (You could make it private, but you don't actually have to.) My other blog isn't a secret, but I haven't linked to it on my website and nobody else ever links to it either. I put things there that I may want to find later; if something is in a language other than English I'd feel I should translate if I put it here, but since it's for my own reference I put it there.

I recognise the thing Perl talks about, the difference between writing for yourself and writing for others - having the other blog actually helps to clarify that difference, which I do think an important one.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Contemporary culture has eliminated the concept and public figure of the intellectual. A cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheerled by hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their stupor.

Zer0 Books
has a website.

(ZB publish Owen Hatherley's Militant Modernism and Nina Power's One-Dimensional Woman.)

another 20

On Emerging Writers, Dzanc Books has an alternative list of 20 writers to watch.

The way the books industry is interacting with digital media is developing faster than many had foreseen, with the latest example an attempt to offer fans of author Iain M Banks exclusive unseen chapters, his original notes and commentary for his latest novel.

Mobile software company TradeMobile has worked with Banks's publisher Little, Brown to develop the free application for the iPhone, which launches this Thursday (1 July). Readers who have bought the paperback of Banks's latest novel, Transition, will be able to scan a unique barcode on their edition with their iPhone, and companion features for the novel will be transmitted to their screen.

This sounds absolutely amazing. Think how different Infinite Jest might have been if Wallace had been able to release his footnotes in an app - none of that angst over who shall be saved.

Alison Flood at the Guardian.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


And yet the Lost and Found series has an irony about it too: what were once intended as ephemera, or as the most informal of documents, to be circulated in private or not at all, by poets who set themselves laughingly against the academy and its liking for monuments, are now little monuments themselves, with plain rectangles on their covers like old offprints, or like tombs.
Steven Burt at LRB blog.

Britain Britain Britain

Andrew Gelman has a post in which he links to an old post of mine on Seth Godin. Andrew took me to endorse the position of Seth Godin. (Divided by a common language, Bill, divided by a common language.)

I went back to look at my old post. What I said was that Seth Godin had a fresh perspective.




Oh Lord.

When I say that Seth Godin has a fresh perspective on an issue, what I mean is something like, Seth Godin is a monster raving loony who has boldly gone where no man has gone before; you and I, not being paid-up members of the Monster Raving Loony Party, had never in our wildest dreams imagined that anyone could put this forward as a serious position, we can now feel that we are not alone in the world because standing shoulder to shoulder in gobsmacked amazement.

Yes. All this conveyed in the simple phrase 'fresh perspective'.

Britain. Britain. Britain. You have destroyed my career, Britain, but I am unable not to love you.
Andrew Gelman on Christian Robert on classics of statistics.
Perhaps a tendency toward adulation and loathing comes naturally with the weakness for great causes. Politicians and people Hitchens disapproves of are never simply mentioned by name; it is always the “habitual and professional liar Clinton,” “the pious born-again creep Jimmy Carter,” Nixon’s “indescribably loathsome deputy Henry Kissinger,” the “subhuman character” Jorge Videla,2 and so on. What this suggests is that to Hitchens politics is essentially a matter of character. Politicians do bad things, because they are bad men. The idea that good men can do terrible things (even for good reasons), and bad men good things, does not enter into this particular moral universe.

Something to be said after all, maybe, for the American educational system, under which everyone has to study history. I don't think - I don't think - anyone could see the world this way who had been made to look at the effect of the well-intentioned Woodrow Wilson on Europe after the First World War.

Ian Buruma
reviews Hitch-22 at the NYRB
Languagehat has a terrific account of Martha Ackmann's Curveball: The Remarkable Story of Toni Stone: The First Woman to Play Professional Baseball in the Negro League.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

tired dad soldiers on

When things went wrong with BC I told SMcD I thought I'd spent too long in Britain.
Tired Dad is the kind of thing I LIKED about Britain.

Spend enough time in the country, you can consign 10 emails a day to the drafts folder before hitting send and still feel like Edward Scissorhands.

Here's Tired Dad on a man of the cloth who sets up a brothel.
Back in 2000 I went down to London for a photoshoot at Interview magazine.

I had a minder. I said something euphemistic to the minder. Something about needing to talk to someone. She recommended a shrink.

I came back to London to talk to the shrink. He asked questions about my family, so the mind was mired down in things I try not to think about. He said something euphemistic. The euphemism was: Do you think you might harm yourself? What it means is, Do you think you might kill yourself? I have no idea why a shrink would be mealymouthed. I said, Do you mean, commit suicide? Well, sure. The shrink said he thought we should have an appointment the following day.

I had been thinking of moving back to London and renting a place with a piano. I thought I might have a better chance of finding such a place at one of the music schools, so I went over to London Guildhall. There was a masterclass that day with Murray Perahia!

I went to the masterclass.

Four students performed. You know they had killed themselves to prepare. A British boy played something by Schumann. Two Korean girls played pieces by Chopin - the Fantaisie-Impromptu in C-sharp minor and another piece. An Argentinian boy played the Goldberg Variations.

Perahia had at one point had an injury and been unable to play for, I think, two years. Before that he had never bothered with analysis, but during the two years he immersed himself in the subject; afterwards he never worked on a piece without analysing. So his questions and comments to the students related primarily to analysis rather than to execution. In the case of the two girls - this is predictable - he said each time: Well, this is a performance. That is, it was of concert standard. He had a few minor comments. (He had more re the Schumann, but I forget.) The Argentinian was different.

You know, of course, that Perahia had himself been working on the Goldberg Variations. The boy had performed the piece in a style that is not at all fashionable - with much use of the pedal. Perahia asked him a couple of questions along the lines of what is the triad here, and the boy said What? He had no idea what Perahia was talking about.

If you know nothing about the British system of musical education this won't mean much to you.

In Britain, musical education is constructed as a progression through a series of grades, 1-8, each of which is examined. There are pieces of increasing levels of difficulty. There is sightreading of increasing difficulty. There are technical tests of increasing difficulty - scales, arpeggios and so on. And there are questions about theory. (The system was at one point exported to Canada; Glenn Gould is funny and scathing on the subject.)

It is absolutely inconceivable that a British student who had passed Grade 8 and gone on to the London Guildhall would turn up for a masterclass and be unable to answer a simple question about a triad. This WOULD NOT HAPPEN. So for a boy to sit at the piano and play the Goldberg Variations and be asked a simple question and say ¿Qué? is unbelievably humiliating. There is NO ONE in the audience who could not answer the question with aplomb.

Perahia explained what he was talking about. He said: You have to learn this. Humiliating. But this was the one who interested him. The boy's approach to the piece was quite different from his own, but this was the one who interested him.

I had been pretty crazy but sitting in the room I felt all right. Perahia said he practised 6 hours a day; practising was the best part of the day. There was something no one questioned: that you would devote 6 hours a day to a piece, that you would spend countless hours analysing a piece, trying to understand what the composer had in mind. BACH merits this level of dedication. CHOPIN merits this level of dedication. SCHUMANN merits this level of dedication. Perahia is a very great musician, and yet -- or rather not and yet, this is what it means to be a great musician -- Perahia is willing to spend hundreds of hours thinking about BACH.

Oh God.

I was thinking, you know, of the meetings I had had. About the fact that there was something no one questioned: that anyone, however ignorant, had the right to brush aside as irrelevant not only the author's express wishes but the author's contract.

Here was a place where composition was taken seriously.

I had a meeting the next day with the shrink. I had nowhere to stay in London. I took night buses. I went to Victoria and took a night bus to Walthamstow. I took the night bus back to Victoria. I took another night bus back to Walthamstow, and now it was early morning. I walked around and fell in with some boys who had been out all night. They were looking for a newsagents where they could buy cigarettes. One had a Staffordshire terrior. They were going to the Tube station. I went with them while they talked about the Staffs. I took the Tube into London and went to my meeting with the shrink and explained: I think the thing that would be good for me would be to have a musician explain a Bach fugue for an hour a week.

I was not able to line up a musician but this struck me as an insight of real genius. A shrink gets $100+ an hour. Young musicians are poor, they sometimes have to teach to make ends meet, they don't get $100+ an hour - how much better if we had a society where a young musician could get $100+ an hour explaining a Bach fugue rather than teaching recalcitrant children. If we had a society in which people were as likely to hire a young musician as a shrink, surely there would be a larger, better-educated audience for music. Whereas I could not see any larger social benefit whatsoever to channeling $100+ an hour to a shrink.

I did not, of course, share this thoughts with the unwanted shrink, but I indicated that I was unlikely to want further appointments. He told me I should send him a cheque and decide for myself what I thought was an appropriate amount.

Poor head, poor head. If a session with a shrink has been completely useless, what is an appropriate amount to send him for his time? The question can only be settled by reference to social standards which I don't know. I consulted with David, who suggested, I think, the amount of £70.

I recently told this story to Jeff Treviño, who has just talked me through Bach's Fugue in C minor, Well-Tempered Clavier Book 1. For 2 hours. I have actually played this fugue (not well). The whole thing was unbelievably amazing. Tyler Cowen! Berliners! Pay Jeff 100 euros to talk to you about a Bach fugue! Jeff is about to go to Paris. Parisians! Pay Jeff 100 euros to talk to you about a Bach fugue! Or if you don't have 100 euros, make Jeff an offer! This is unbelievably amazing. Instead of talking about your childhood, you can have access, via Jeff, to the workings of one of the greatest musical minds the world has ever known!

Jeff, btw, talked about Anton Reicha, who he hopes will be revived as the next Bach - a composer of extraordinarily interesting fugues. Get Jeff to tell you about Anton Reicher!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Perhaps nothing has been more influential in determining the popular perception of the Italian game than furbizia, the art of guile... The word ‘furbizia’ itself means guile, cunning or astuteness. It refers to a method which is often (and admittedly) rather sly, a not particularly by-the-book approach to the performative, tactical and psychological part of the game. Core to furbizia is that it is executed by means of stratagems which are available to all players on the pitch, not only to one team. What are these stratagems? Here are a few: tactical fouls, taking free kicks before the goalkeeper has finished positioning himself, time-wasting, physical or verbal provocation and all related psychological games, arguably even diving... Anyone can provoke an adversary, but it takes real guile (real furbizia) to find the weakest links in the other team’s psychology, then wear them out and bite them until something or someone gives in - all without ever breaking a single rule in the book of football.

But if gamesmanship is so rewarding, why are some teams reluctant to embrace it? Why do the Spanish play such a clean version of the game and consider these tactics to be beneath them, while their closest neighbors, the Italians and Portuguese, have no such qualms? Here is Tallarita's explanation:
Ultimately, these differences come from two irreconcilable visions of the game. The Spanish style understands football as something like a fencing match, a rapid and meticulous art of noble origins where honour is the brand of valour. To the Italians, football is more like an ancient battle, a primal and inclement bronze-age scenario where survival rules over honour.
But this just begs the question: why are the visions of the game so different in nations that are geographically and culturally so close?

Tallarita on furbizia at Rajiv Sethi

crash blossoms

I figured that my example, a news headline containing the extraordinarily garden-path-leading word sequence proposed to by a lightning strike, met the definition squarely. But your mileage may differ (you can comment below). I'm merely a linguist; nobody put me in charge of the development of the lexicon or the emergence of new words or phrases. Even with phrases coined or publicized here on Language Log (eggcorn, snowclone, etc.), ultimately all I can do is follow wherever I am led by the sure tread of the expert native speakers who give words and phrases their currency and their stability.

Geoff Pullum at LL

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

For friends who've read LR:Link

The harassment allegedly culminated in an outright assault at the Frankfurt Book Fair last October when, according to the claim, Mr. Davidar appeared at Ms. Rundle’s hotel room door, “wearing excessive cologne, with buttons on his shirt undone down his waist.”

“Lisa stood in her hotel room into which Davidar had bullied his way, with her arms crossed, still near the door, and asked what he needed to discuss,” it said. “He told her to relax and just let him come in. She refused and said she wanted to go to sleep.”

Ms. Rundle claims she climbed on a windowsill to avoid her boss and again asked him to leave. “He forcibly pulled her off the ledge and grabbed her by the wrists, forcing his tongue into her mouth,” it said.

Until this week, Mr. Davidar was widely regarded as the golden boy of the Canadian publishing industry, leaving many in that close-knit community dumbfounded by his sudden departure.

globe and mail

Friday, June 18, 2010

Bernardo Moraes, Brazilian author of Minimundo, has an interview of me up on his blog. Minimundo can also be downloaded in Portuguese and English.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I got a text message last night from Jeff Treviño, a musician living in Berlin, suggesting I meet him and a friend at Nollendorfplatz. Tired, depressed, in no mood to go out and talk to people but what good is sitting alone in your room. Went over to Nplatz. Found JT and David Levinson standing outside the U-Bahn. We went down to Winterfeldplatz in search of a place with no zuzuvelas.

Talked at breakneck speed to DL while JT explained that this was the first time he had been out with me that people at a nearby table had not moved away. DL enlightening on terrifying biz and just generally very very funny. We went off to Bilderbücher for coffee. DL said I talked like David Mamet (or possibly a Mamet character) - either way, this had to be the nicest thing anyone has said to me ever.

JT told a story about playing Webern's Variations for Piano Op. 27 for an audience which turned out to include Charles Rosen. At the end there was a Q&A at which Rosen raised his hand and said, first, that he liked JT's performance better than any he had heard, including that of Peter Stadlen.
Rosen then said JT was playing a dotted 16th note (I think) too long.

Went home happy, excited, full of energy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

• Patients are less likely to die in the bigger, busier hospital units where surgical teams are more skilled because they do more of the operations. The results strongly suggest that smaller units should close. This presents a major challenge to the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, who has stopped all hospital reorganisation.


Some leading surgeons believe that for best results, a hospital needs to carry out at least 50 AAA operations a year. Yet very many hospitals across the UK see less than 20 cases a year. Dartford and Gravesham had just five in three years, Mid-Staffordshire had nine and Scarborough had 14. Of the 116 hospitals that gave the Guardian data, 35 did fewer than 20 operations a year and 76 did fewer than 50.

Guardian on disparity in NHS death rates

Friday, June 11, 2010

a mortuis nil litterarum

June 2010 David Markson died in.

It would be fitting if his gravestone had "Wittgenstein" misspelled on it.
As he suggested The Recognitions was misspelled on Gaddis'.

As soon as it was established that I had an enormous, blush-inducing crush on David, he promptly pulled a salacious book from the sexuality section, written by an old Playboy Bunny, in which she describes not only how cool and smart David was, but how impressive a lover.
Said Theresa, five decades his junior.

Pretty much the high point of experimental fiction this century, David Foster Wallace called Wittgenstein's Mistress.

It is and it is not a sad day when an old man passes away. But I will remember him wonderfully, well, and long.
Remarked Hannah.

Jeff Laughlin obit of David Markson at the Awl

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I once got to second base with a basketball player

[Cliff Notes for one of my books in regress]

[Why Bill & I needed more than 3 hours]

mind-reading fatigue revisitedl

Researchers at Cornell University conducted a series of tests to gauge people's reactions when exposed to four background noise settings: silence, a monologue, a conversation between two people and half a conversation (called a halfalogue). The study participants were seated at computers and asked to perform various cognitive tests while exposed to one of the three sounds or silence.

The study showed that hearing the halfalogue was the only background noise that distracted the study participants and lowered their scores on the cognitive tests. For some reason, our brains are unable to tune out half a conversation. Researchers believe this is because we can't predict the speech pattern of a halfalogue the way we can with a monologue or two-way conversation — making it harder to ignore. […]

LA Times ht Language Log

Sunday, June 6, 2010

These latest volumes of The History of Parliament are the fullest file on Old Corruption ever likely to be compiled, and they finally make it possible to decide how guilty the sweating night-toilers of St Stephen’s really were. They recapitulate everything we already knew and add a lot more besides about the anatomy of power and the mechanism of politics in that bizarre universe of rotten boroughs, pocket boroughs, hustings, open polls, potwallopers, burgages, scot and lot, split votes, straight votes and plumpers. Biographies of the 1367 MPs who sat in the Commons in these years, and histories of the country’s 383 constituencies, fathom the reality behind the polemics of Cobbett and the satire of Dickens and Thomas Love Peacock. These six volumes are crammed with comédie humaine and the parliamentary puppetry that seems, as Blake said, something other than human life. There’s also a masterly volume of summary and analysis by the editor, David Fisher, who dislikes paragraphs and believes in calling a bastard a bastard.


There were no convictions for bribery in this period, but ‘treating’ was pushed to and beyond legal limits. The word ‘tipping’ is reckoned to derive from Tipping Street in Stafford, one of the most venal (and violent) constituencies in the kingdom. ‘Having voted,’ the unsuccessful candidate in the 1826 general election claimed, ‘the voter had a card, which he carried to an adjoining public house, and which instantly produced him eight guineas.’ Rewards of between two and ten guineas were common; in some places a vote was worth 40 or even 60 guineas. The cost of all this could be astronomical, especially in the counties, where electorates were large. In 1826, two contests in Northumberland cost Lord Grey’s son £40,000 (£4 million in today’s money), and his father had to sell an estate to raise the cash. A by-election in Dorset in 1831 is reputed to have cost £80,000: the Whig spent £30,000 and still lost.
John Pemble at the LRB on Georgian Westminster
For those who don't follow these things, Lorin Stein, former editor at Farrar, Straus, Giroux, is now editor of the Paris Review, and the Paris Review now has a blog. Link
Terrific piece by Drew Johnson on O. Henry at the Rumpus. Much of interest re OH, but it's the drive-by shootings that cheer:

As a fake-memoir it can stand with anything our own era has produced but since the book is largely unconcerned with the inner life of Al Jennings, it’s considerably more bearable. Perhaps what gives Jennings and his book their bona fides is the nearly open sense of being on the make—contemporary memoirists take note.

[And who, you say, is Al Jennings? Exactly.]

But the Chekhov comparison strikes me a stretch no matter how generous I want to be to O. Henry. Much closer is another formerly famous now generally neglected 19th century short story master, Guy de Maupassant, a writer whom Chekhov has supplanted for us in many ways, and whose reputation advocates are always trying to revive. When they make their case, it’s often cast in the terms of how Maupassant was moving away from his summarizing plots and toward a more modernist, psychological approach. When NYRB books brought out Richard Howard’s translation of Alien Hearts, this was the tenor of the reviews, “Look not at what he was, what made him famous, but where he was headed.”
[not sure I entirely understand the conjunction of modernism and psychology, but since M, as far as I can make out, can be applied both to Pound's personae & to stream of consciousness, and Ψ, as far as I can make out, has very little to do with the stuff of introspection [as Barthes says, 'je' ne peux parler de 'moi'], what I take from this is precisely that various texts that have little in common apart from their nextness can look motivated in their nextness if one throws a couple of blankets over them which leave something that came before exposed to the air]

[Could not contact Saving and pubishing may fail. Retrying...]

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[Could not contact Saving and pubishing may fail. Retrying...]

Saturday, June 5, 2010

My notes are voluminous because my interests have never been very narrowly focused. My subject is what I think of as the historical ethnography of early modern England. Equipped with questions posed by anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers, as well as by other historians, I try to look at virtually all aspects of early modern life, from the physical environment to the values and mental outlook of people at all social levels. Unfortunately, such diverse topics as literacy, numeracy, gestures, jokes, sexual morality, personal cleanliness or the treatment of animals, though central to my concerns, are hard to pursue systematically. They can’t be investigated in a single archive or repository of information. Progress depends on building up a picture from a mass of casual and unpredictable references accumulated over a long period. That makes them unsuitable subjects for a doctoral thesis, which has to be completed in a few years. But they are just the thing for a lifetime’s reading.


It is possible to take too many notes; the task of sorting, filing and assimilating them can take for ever, so that nothing gets written. The awful warning is Lord Acton, whose enormous learning never resulted in the great work the world expected of him. An unforgettable description of Acton’s Shropshire study after his death in 1902 was given by Sir Charles Oman. There were shelves and shelves of books, many of them with pencilled notes in the margin. ‘There were pigeonholed desks and cabinets with literally thousands of compartments into each of which were sorted little white slips with references to some particular topic, so drawn up (so far as I could see) that no one but the compiler could easily make out the drift.’ And there were piles of unopened parcels of books, which kept arriving, even after his death. ‘For years apparently he had been endeavouring to keep up with everything that had been written, and to work their results into his vast thesis.’ ‘I never saw a sight,’ Oman writes, ‘that more impressed on me the vanity of human life and learning.’

Keith Thomas at the LRB

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

These powerful, simple explanations are often married to an almost monastic skepticism of narratives that can’t be substantiated, or that are based in data—like voter’s accounts of their own thinking about politics—that are unreliable. Think about that for a moment, and the challenge to journalists becomes obvious: If much of what’s important about politics is either stable and predictable or unknowable, what’s the value of the sort of news—a hyperactive chronicle of the day’s events, coupled with instant speculation about their meaning—that has become a staple of modern political reporting? Indeed, much of the media criticism on The Monkey Cage is directed at narratives that, from the perspective of political science, are either irrelevant or unverifiable. In the wake of the special election in Massachusetts, Sides wrote numerous posts noting the weakness of the data about voter opinion there and faulting journalistic efforts to divine the meaning of Scott Brown’s victory. “Yes, I know political science is a buzzkill,” he wrote in one. “And no one gets paid to say ‘We don’t and can’t know.’ But that’s what we should be saying.” This is the sort of thing that John Balz—the son of veteran Washington Post political reporter Dan Balz, and a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Chicago—might be referring to when he says the field produces what are, “from a journalistic perspective, unhelpful answers.”

Unhelpful to journalism as it’s traditionally done, at least. But for someone like Ezra Klein, who now fills a hybrid blogger/reporter/columnist role for the Post that didn’t exist even five years ago, political science represents “the most significant untapped resource” for journalists. He and a group of bloggers, reporters, and opinion-shapers increasingly trade links not just with The Monkey Cage but with other poli-sci writers—one of whom, Jonathan Bernstein, landed a plum guest stint at Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish barely six months after he began blogging (and more recently filled in at Klein’s blog). A modest new feature at Salon, meanwhile, suggests another model for how to bring poli-sci insights to a broader audience. The Numerologist uses a chart or graph to make a point that pushes back against accepted political wisdom. (Salon’s News Editor Steve Kornacki said he borrowed the idea from the sports page at The Wall Street Journal, which has been bringing the statistical revolution in sports analysis to a mass audience.)
Embrace the Wonk, Columbia Journalism Review, Greg Marx