Toledo has seen better times. But it does have an art museum left over from its glory days that can go toe-to-toe with just about any museum in the country. Seriously. Come and see it if you can.
I was there yesterday with my department to look at the new Shakespeare exhibit and, as a side trip, to show off some of the Etruscan and early Roman work we had been discussing in my lecture on the history of the alphabet.
But there was a wonderful surprise waiting for us. A new installation from Gabriel Dawe called Plexus no. 35.
The work is doubly exposed because there’s no behind to it and because it’s just bundles of thread attached from floor to ceiling by little, open hooks. Destroying the whole thing would be the work of a moment. There were two museum attendants at all times to make sure no one–child and adult alike–gave in the the temptation to run their hands along the threads. For my own sake, I’m glad they were there.
Plexus no. 35 is a pretty thing. And I suppose when we come across a pretty thing, the other organs get jealous of our eyes. It’s natural to want to touch, if not taste and smell it. I put a lot of things into my mouth as a child.
But standing in front of Dawe’s work was extra frustrating. It isn’t a light show or a new media work in any sense we’re use to. But it’s clear that light is the object. The light isn’t affecting the thing; the thread matter is there to affect the light. So that even if you did give into the burning temptation to run your hands along the thread, it wouldn’t satisfy. Perhaps the museum attendants weren’t there to keep us from destroying the work, but to save us from the disappointment. You can’t touch something that creates its own spatial frame.
The point of Harmanian object withdrawal is that there is always something in reserve which reason and sense cannot touch. But standing in front of a Dawe installation, repressing the toddler’s urge to touch it or to put it in your mouth is about as close as you can get to seeing what withdrawal looks like.
Columbia professor who sabbaticaled in France for a year reports that Europeans take a much more nuanced approach to things.
Take a look.
I am well aware of the excesses of so-called identity liberalism; but out here in the provinces, it is not just a play thing of the bored, hyper-privileged kids who populate Professor Lilla’s classroom (who will be fine no matter what they look like, no matter who is president). Out here, being black and female and gay and poor and Muslim still burns white hot with political energy. Identity politics was not the undoing of the Clinton campaign, but perhaps the failure to address geographical identity was. Lilla is from Detroit. He should know better.
Yesterday I reached for my Marx but found myself holding Tolkien. Tolkien himself preached against using fantasy as an escape because doing so makes your own mind a prison. So let’s say I was looking for some simple wisdom and perspective. I wasn’t disappointed. Here’s one pearl:
‘I cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than your hints and warnings,’ exclaimed Frodo. ‘I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect it in our own Shire. Can’t a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?’
‘But it is not your own Shire,’ said Gildor. ‘Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourself in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.’
There are two myths about literacy which refuse to die. The first is that writing is simply recorded speech, and the second is that since the emergence of so-called “Internet 2.0,” we are moving back to an oral culture.
I’m sorry to say that linguists are among the main propagators of that first myth. Linguists are always quick to point out that writing came along at the eleventh hour in the overall story of human language, and that any impact writing has on speech is minimal. Both of those things are true, but neither of them warrant the further assumption that writing is just a derivative of speech. If that were true, writing—particularly alphabetical writing—would be much easier to do than it is. (As I always tell my students, writing never gets easier but you do get better at it.) More to the point, as David Olson argued, writing is a model of speech which therefore involves interpretation rather than coding and decoding.
I recently came across Zizek’s (with apologies for the inappropriate orthography) post on The Philosophical Salon, in which he defends himself from tweeters and comment sectioners. I’m not terribly interested in the specifics of his rebuttal, except to say that it’s a fascinating state of affairs when the likes of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift seem far better equipped to defend themselves than Slavoj Zizek. “The medium is the massage” and all that.
As always, though, Zizek has a way of turning the perfectly intuitive into something worth arguing. I’m referring to the following passage from Part Two of his defense:
The stance that sustains these tweet rejoinders is a mixture of self-righteous Political Correctness and brutal sarcasm: the moment anything that sounds problematic is perceived, a reply is automatically triggered—usually a PC commonplace. Although critics like to emphasize how they reject normativity (“the imposed heterosexual norm,” etc.), their stance itself is one of ruthless normativity, denouncing every minimal deviation from the PC dogma as “transphobia,” or “Fascism,” or whatever. Such a tweet culture, combining official tolerance and openness with extreme intolerance towards actually different views, simply renders critical thinking impossible.
Again, I have nothing to say about the specifics of this, as I have neither the expertise nor the ethos. But in general terms, he points to something I’ve been struggling with for a while: How does one separate an authentic political movement from just another iteration of populism? Although populism goes hand-in-hand with reactionary thinking and so mostly afflicts those who identify with the Right, that’s not always the case. Badiou has devoted much of his career to figuring how to draw the distinction between a properly transformative Event and a reactionary episode. However, Zizek points to something much simpler. Perhaps populism is just a multitude with an orthodoxy (which of course is a contradiction).
Or maybe I’m just looking to preserve my own ego, for instance, for having been a wheaty Bernie Sanders supporter without being a chaffy BernieBro.
I’ve started working out at the gym again. This is primarily because I can’t stand the thought of other people getting fit because of a fun internet phone application. How dare they?!? Fitness is supposed to be about envy and shame, not whimsy. Everyone knows that.
I’m sure the renewed exercise is healthy for me, but it does feel a little unwholesome.
Usually, whenever a publicity starved celebrity incites an internet indignation orgy with an off-color comment, I give it the old Lucille Bluth eye roll (see image above). And I’m tempted to do the same with Martha Stewart’s latest one about millennials’ ignorance and lack of initiative. It’s a blip in the news cycle. There are much more important things going on. Martha Stewart’s cultural megaphone doesn’t have much amp anyway. But I’m happy to steal her kairos to say something I’ve been wanting to say for a while.
My contemporaries and I live in a shadowy space between generations. We’re too young to be GenX and too old to be Millennial. The terms GenY and Nintendo Generation have applied to us, but we never got assigned a definite character like the boomers, Xers, and millennials got. In the classroom, I’m usually young enough to get my students’ pop culture references but too old for them to get my references (I’m guessing no more than 25% of them know what a Lucille Bluth eye roll is, for instance). It’s a strange asymmetry, but I believe that at this brief moment I’m on a sweet spot where it’s possible to have both an insider’s empathy and an outsider’s perspective. Or at least I have enough millennial narcissism in me to think so.
Si kanagodi bilasho te del vorbis chorres pe mulende, mai kana o mulo sas ekh Nobel laureate, kaske vorbe, mai but ke fersave, delas la lumjake maturo ke mai baro beng ande manushikane historia. Numa vi sa peske zor i sa peske lashimos, sas maturo biperfekto. O Wiesel delas leske zurale literakani i rhetorikani butchi, kusa lesko zuralo ethos, nai feri kaste e lumja chi bisterel le Porrajmos, numa kaste e lumja serel le Porrajmos vi purposa. Chi zhanav kai kerelas le phraso “Never Again,” numa trobul te thol ekh faca angla peste, kam avel faca le Wiesel. Ke le Wieselske, “Never Again,” mothol nai palo karingodi–ande Bosnia, ande Rwanda, vor ando Darfur. Deke, si sostar Wieseleske legacia le Rromensa del mange but pushimata tai but problema.
It’s never good form to speak ill of the dead, especially when the dead is a Nobel laureate whose words, more than anyone else’s, gave the generations a witness to the worst evil in human history. But for all of its power and all the immeasurable good it has done through the years, Wiesel’s witness was an imperfect one. Wiesel dedicated his incomparable literary and rhetorical skills, along with his undeniable ethos, not just to making sure the world never forgot the Holocaust for its own horrors, but also to guaranteeing that the world would remember those horrors with purpose. It’s not exactly clear who coined the phrase “Never Again,” but if you had to put a face to the phrase, that face would most likely be Wiesel’s. For Wiesel, “Never Again” meant never again anywhere, whether it be Bosnia, Rwanda, or Darfur. And that’s why Wiesel’s legacy with regards to the Roma is so confounding, if not troubling.