Saturday, February 20, 2010

When Science & Poetry Were Friends - The New York Review of Books

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes, Pantheon, 552 pp., $40.00

The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:
Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
Byron saw a vision of darkness:
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air....

and less grim, more mocking -  but still critical, Byron writes in Don Juan)

This is the patent-age of new inventions
For killing bodies, and for saving souls,
All propagated with the best intentions;
Sir Humphrey Davy's lantern, by which coals
Are safely mined for in the mode he mentions,
Timbuktoo travels, voyages to the Poles,
Are always to benefit mankind, as true,
Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo.

The question that Byron raised, whether scientific advances and inventions truly benefit mankind, was answered dramatically in the negative by Victor Frankenstein, one of the most durable creations of the Age of Wonder. Mary Shelley, wife of the poet, was nineteen years old in 1817 when she wrote her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Originally uploaded by Alton @flickr
a regular feature if I can remember to keep up with it... something different, fun for me to look for weekly images of strolling, paseos, Spaziergangen, promenades and, of course, flânerie...

Monday, February 08, 2010

The Angel of History & Thoughts on Progress


Sent to you by Vanessa via Google Reader:


via Contexts Blogs: All Blogs by Kenneth M. Kambara at ThickCulture on 2/8/10

Paul Klee's Angelus Novus {1920}

What follows is an excerpt from Frankfurt School theorist Walter Benjamin's "On the Concept of History" {1940}::

My wing is ready to fly

I would rather turn back
For had I stayed mortal time
I would have had little luck.
– Gerhard Scholem, "Angelic Greetings"

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe's Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

When I was in graduate school at UC-Irvine, I was in a doctoral seminar where we pondered these words. What did Benjamin really mean with his Angel of History? I struggled with it then and scholars have pondered Benjamin's essays for decades.

I've been thinking of The Angel of History a lot these days, in terms of globalization, the financial meltdown, and the Big Recession. When Benjamin wrote this essay, he was thinking of the revolutions in France in of 1789, 1830 and 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1870. These "revolutions" are separated in time, but are part of a constellation. This is what the Angel sees when looking back at the rubble and the destruction of revolutions, but nothing can be done, as progress propels a trajectory. Benjamin's view of the world was non-linear and dealt in gestalts.

In a global sense, I wonder if we are witnessing a shift. Progress and history are moving along a trajectory punctuated by discontinuities that affect the entire globe. These discontinuities aren't isolated, but part of a constellation of ideas, concepts, events, actions, etc., such as::

  1. The fall of the Soviet empire
  2. The formation of the EU
  3. The rise of global financial flows
  4. The ubiquity of media
  5. The rise of fundamentalist Islam
  6. The rise of technologies and resultant efficiencies from IT and the web
  7. The rise of China
  8. The problem of property rights & their enforcement
  9. The rise of emerging technologies like biotechnology based on the genome
  10. The Big Recession of 2008-present*

What can be said of a constellation of the above? Are they isolated or interrelated? More importantly, how do these inform where we're heading?

*Is this a discontinuity or a merely a part of ordinary business cycles?

Twitterversion:: Thoughts about Walter Benjamin's Angel of History, as it pertains to the global economic meltdown. #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: Young Galaxy-"Long Live the Fallen World"


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Dear Incredibly Active Leftist Friend


Sent to you by Vanessa via Google Reader:


via The Faster Times by Joseph Cassara on 2/8/10

I am going to be brutally honest with you here. You are starting to make me feel like a bad person. I would like to think of myself as a good person, and in fact, I am a very good person. I am great with children and the elderly. But, dear friend, you have gotten into the habit of bombarding me with Facebook invites to events that I simply cannot attend. And this makes me feel incredibly guilty.

I greatly admire your activism on campus. Where ever there is a cause, you are there with your picket sign. You food strike every other weekend, it seems, for the people of Burma, for the people of The Congo, for the people of Darfur, for the people of Haiti. And quite frankly, I am better able to enjoy my hearty, warm meals knowing that your hungry stomach is single-handedly bringing justice to this cruel world. Fight the good fight. Power to the people.

But, you see, the reason I am writing to you, my friend, is to ask you to please stop with your overly generous Facebook event invitations. Sometimes I feel like you are inviting each one of your 889 friends on campus, because there is simply no way you are considering if the event is right for the individual. While I would love to partake in a dialogue on the shared experience of black single mothers living in the inner-city, I can't because—well—I am not black, a single mother, nor have I ever lived in the inner-city. I feel like every time I log-in to see what someone has written on my wall, there are dozens of event invites—and they are all from you.

Don't get me wrong, I love Costa Rican transgendered immigrant causes, I feel for the paraplegic lesbian farmers of the greater Pacific Northwest diaspora, and the human rights of one-eyed eskimos definitely pull at my heart strings. But if I were to attend an activist meeting for causes that are so foreign to me, I would have nothing of substance to provide. And this makes me feel like a horrible person.

You see, the very idea of a dialogue is one that is inherently specific to culture and history. One speaker in your group may feel safe knowing that a conversation is happening, while another person may not. Events on the shared experience assume that, after identity formation, there is such a thing as a shared experience. It assumes that agents occupy equal positions of power and that to speak about issues is what constitutes agreement and unity within a certain subculture.  We live in a society where racial stratification is an unfortunate norm, but dialogic-based events only continue the cycle by reinforcing this notion of shared experience, this notion that identity is socially constructed, and in essence, perpetuated by performative acts. These events are nothing more than a theatre for such acts.

I attended one such meeting two years ago on campus, dear friend. I'm not sure if you were there. We talked about the spread of HIV/AIDS in various socioeconomic populations. The conversation was very tangential and eventually, we all forgot that AIDS was the topic that originally brought us together. We talked about white guilt and post traumatic slave syndrome. At one point, a petite blond girl in the back started crying and personally apologized to the black kids for slavery. That's right, she personally apologized for slavery. And I remembered thinking, what the fuck is happening right now?

Dear friend, my challenge for you is to think about whether these unity-through-dialogue meetings actually free the individual, or whether they establish an exclusionary norm of false solidarity that rules out the possibility that the borders of identity formation can be disrupted, challenged, seen in a light other than your own.

Unfortunately, dear friend, I cannot attend your Facebook events because I believe that any effort towards singular identities is a reverse-discourse that mimics that very strategy you are working against: the strategy of the oppressor to offer you a set of terms to adhere to.

From Your Friend Who Dislikes Categorization


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Monday, February 01, 2010

A Dropout’s Guide to Passing As a College Graduate


Sent to you by Vanessa via Google Reader:


via The Faster Times by Frankie Thomas on 2/1/10

The other night I dreamed I had a threesome with Princess Kitty Shtcherbatsky and Varenka. Yes, I was reading Anna Karenina before bed. I'm reading Anna Karenina in bed and on the subway and while I eat; I am up to my ears in Kareniniana. My New Years resolution, you see, is to read and read and read — the classics, the greats, the hard stuff in every sense — until I can convincingly pass as a college graduate.

"Are you doing this for a boy?" was the reaction of one of my shrewder friends.

I stalled. "Well—"

And this friend, whose Bulgarian origins lend a delightfully cynical Old World wisdom to her girl talk, was frank: "Don't worry about it. I know his type, and he doesn't care how smart you are; he just loves to hear himself talk."

But then she added, "Read Anna Karenina first."

And so I am. But I'm not doing it for a boy — not, at least, for any particular boy. I'm doing it because, as a newly single college dropout, I'm dating my way up through the academic world I abandoned two years ago. Talk about killing two birds with one stone! I go out with teaching fellows, doctoral candidates, professors adjunct and assistant alike (none tenured yet, though that would be the Holy Grail), and I study their respective subjects until I can hold my own in conversation with them. Erotically and educationally, I'm making up for lost time — I'm à la recherche de temps perdu, I might say to a scholar of French literature, hoping he'll be too impressed with the allusion to notice how strained it really is.

Some might accuse me of overcompensating. Objection noted. But they surely can't deny that remedial self-education through dating is vastly cheaper than actually going to college — and a lot more fun, too.

I've never felt much shame about being a dropout, and yet something was always missing, or at least amiss. My ex was (shall we say) not much of a reader; after four years with him, it was a shock to be picked up by my first academic, who had been enrolled in various institutions of higher education since the Clinton administration.

"I'm a perpetual student," he told me.

"But then, in a larger sense, aren't we all?" I blurted out — afraid he'd think I was dumb for dropping out, and recalling my dad's advice that "But then, in a larger sense, aren't we all?" is a foolproof smart-sounding answer to just about anything.

"How deep," this fellow deadpanned, and I made a mental note to thank my dad. "Had we but world enough, and time—"

What followed was unprintable, and yet it was the printable part that shocked me into reevaluating my entire life. The good news: I got the reference. The bad news: I got the reference only because my English class had studied "To His Coy Mistress" in the eighth grade. It was sheer luck that I remembered it now — but what would I do about the next reference, and the one after that? Was I really relying on my middle school education to sustain my flirtatious banter with the academic élite?

Frankie, I told myself sternly, you've been coasting.

Hence Anna Karenina. Hence the Merriam-Webster website newly bookmarked on my browser toolbar; hence the sprinkling of delicious new words like apricity, sui generis, frangible, uxorious, brinksmanship, omertà, and viz. into my correspondence. Drop one of those suckers into a first-date conversation with an educator, and even if you're the kind of girl who combs her hair with her fingers and blows her nose into her cocktail napkin, I guarantee you won't go home alone. Take it from me, girls! (Seriously, though, always carry a handkerchief in the winter.) At my best, I can be as charming and glamorous and breezily brainy as the situation requires — "Surely Slavoj Zizek is more relevant here as an interpreter of Lacan than as a philosopher in his own right," I'll say, or "Ah, but the work of Wittgenstein can just as easily be used to argue in favor of language across the species barrier!" — and I go to bed brilliant.

By the light of day, however, I'm not so bright. Every morning, like Cinderella transformed back into a maid, I find myself once again a 22-year-old film school dropout — one who's terrified to call her landlord on the phone, who got goat cheese smeared all over her best shirt while making scrambled eggs at three in the morning, whose boyfriend left her after she used the bathroom sponge on the kitchen counter and who always chokes up at that freakishly earnest holiday ad for Coke and Wal-Mart. I live on the highest hilltop in Brooklyn, and I tell people that on a clear day I can see forever; but the truth is that even on the clearest of days I can't see past New Jersey.

No spoilers, please: I secretly don't know quite how Anna Karenina will end. I secretly don't know quite what I'm doing at all. As much fun as I'm having, I'm secretly playing a part, wildly out of my depth, struggling to pass as an adult.

But then, in a larger sense, aren't we all?


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