Should we trust Amazon to create our future?

September 22nd, 2018

Its power is troubling, she says.

New York Times writer David Streitfeld leads a double life: he is a literary journalist (which is how I came to know him) and also a technology writer. We wrote about him in the first role a few days ago, on his recollections of David Foster Wallace‘s “worst friend” in the recent Times Literary Supplement. In last week’s New York Times, he combines the roles with a very fine piece of journalism on the world’s mega-bookstore, “Be Afraid, Jeff Bezos, Be Very Afraid.

Amazon now employs more than half a million people and earlier this month briefly became second company to be worth a trillion dollars. It powers much of the internet through its cloud computing division. “As consumers, as users, we love these tech companies,” says lawyer Lina Khan. “But as citizens, as workers, and as entrepreneurs, we recognize that their power is troubling. We need a new framework, a new vocabulary for how to assess and address their dominance.”

An excerpt from the article:

If competitors tremble at Amazon’s ambitions, consumers are mostly delighted by its speedy delivery and low prices. They stream its Oscar-winning movies and clamor for the company to build a second headquarters in their hometowns. Few of Amazon’s customers, it is safe to say, spend much time thinking they need to be protected from it.

But then, until recently, no one worried about Facebook, Google or Twitter either. Now politicians, the media, academics and regulators are kicking around ideas that would, metaphorically or literally, cut them down to size. Members of Congress grilled social media executives on Wednesday in yet another round of hearings on Capitol Hill. Not since the Department of Justice took on Microsoft in the mid-1990s has Big Tech been scrutinized like this.

Power man (Photo: Seattle City Council)

Amazon has more revenue than Facebook, Google and Twitter put together, but it has largely escaped sustained examination. That is beginning to change, and one significant reason is Ms. Khan.

Many think it should be exempt from federal intervention.  She disagrees, arguing in a Yale Law Journal article that that “the company should not get a pass on anticompetitive behavior just because it makes customers happy. Once-robust monopoly laws have been marginalized, Ms. Khan wrote, and consequently Amazon is amassing structural power that lets it exert increasing control over many parts of the economy.”

Amazon has so much data on so many customers, it is so willing to forgo profits, it is so aggressive and has so many advantages from its shipping and warehouse infrastructure that it exerts an influence much broader than its market share. It resembles the all-powerful railroads of the Progressive Era, Ms. Khan wrote: “The thousands of retailers and independent businesses that must ride Amazon’s rails to reach market are increasingly dependent on their biggest competitor.”

The paper got 146,255 hits, a runaway best-seller in the world of legal treatises. That popularity has rocked the antitrust establishment, and is making an unlikely celebrity of Ms. Khan in the corridors of Washington.

She’s a woman to watch. Politico just named her one of the Politico 50, “its annual list of the people driving the ideas driving politics.”

Read the whole thing here.

Hilbert remembers Donald Hall: “Always beginning again. Always knowing he’d fail. Always beginning again.”

September 20th, 2018

Sometimes the best comes last. A lyrical and moving retrospective of the poet Donald Hall, who died last June, by his friend and fellow poet Ernest Hilbert, writing in the pages of The New Criterion: “It is a commonplace to claim that we will not see the like of one poet or another again. In the case of Hall, it may almost be said that he stood in for an enormous span of history and a way of life that has become almost impossible. The literary realm he inhabited, and in which he toiled so hard for so long, no longer really exists.”

Hilbert writes of America’s eloquent bard of old age, scouting out the territory for the rest of us:

In his celebrated essay “Poetry and Ambition,” Hall explained that when striving to create durable poems, poets are “certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and, if we succeed, we may never know it.” His tireless ambition resulted in memorable poems of the natural world, the contours of family life, the joys of love and sex, and, perhaps most compellingly, the pains of irremediable loss. Though always determined to succeed, Hall knew to avoid the kind of ambition that proves baleful. In a 1991 Paris Review interview—accompanied by a photograph of a full-bearded Hall tilting back to pitch a baseball—he relates a story about playing softball with Robert Frost in 1945, when that particular titan was seventy-one years old: “He fought hard for his team to win and he was willing to change the rules. He had to win at everything. Including poetry.” Hall learned a lesson and handled his own career more graciously.

It was a career unusually long-lived and rewarding for a poet of any era. It is nearly impossible to overstate the profound changes that affected the discipline of poetry between 1952—when Hall’s poetry first landed in print, in an installment of Fantasy Poets at Oxford—and 2018, when A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, his last collection of essays, appeared, not long before his death. Over that span Hall remained popular with readers and critics alike. He was a regular on radio and television, most notably Bill Moyers’s documentary A Life Together in 1993, which invited viewers into Hall’s life with his wife Jane Kenyon as they traveled to poetry festivals and spent their days writing at Eagle Pond Farm.

He concludes with some very sage advice – indispensable, really:

Friend and fellow poet Hilbert

In what amounts almost to an aside, Hall observed in one of his last essays that “anyone ambitious, who lives to be old or even old, endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment.” As a young man, Hall learned about patience and the art of happiness from the English modernist sculptor Henry Moore, whom he interviewed for a New Yorker profile, later published as a book. Moore instructed that “the most important thing about . . . desire is that it must be incapable of fulfillment.” Hall adds to this advice that “life should be lived toward moments when you lose yourself in what you are doing. You have to have something you really want to do.” Hall showed us how a life may be fulfilled when devoted to the work one loves, even as one strives always to improve, and when spent with those one loves, even knowing they will one day be lost. His philosophy may be summed in a further remark he made about the sculptor—that he would wake each day “with the same ambition in his mind, with total absorbedness. Always beginning again. Always knowing he’d fail. Always beginning again. Amen.”

Read the whole thing here.

Best American Poetry: the movie and a launch on Thursday, Sept. 20!

September 18th, 2018

We’re on the road (in New York City, in fact), but wanted to let you know about the “Best American Poetry Reading 2018” on Thursday, September 20, at 7 p.m.

The event will take place at the New School’s auditorium (Room A106), the Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall. Series editor David Lehman and Dana Gioia,  guest editor for the Best American Poetry 2018 volume, will headline an all-star cast of poets to launch the volume. I’m told this is an annual rite of fall in New York.

Dana is also former chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts and now California’s poet laureate (and always, always a cherished friend). In the video below, he calls his guest editorship  “a privilege and a challenge.”

The book includes poets we’ve written about before – A.E. Stallings, Kay Ryan, Dick Davis, David Mason, Tracy K. Smith, Robin Coste Lewis and more.

We’ve run an excerpt from his introduction, “A Poet Today is more Likely to be a Barista than a Professor,”  here.

Below a sampler of the Thursday event. It was filmed by Dana’s son, Michael Gioia.

David Foster Wallace’s worst friend

September 15th, 2018

He got what he didn’t want.

I wasn’t the only link with René Girard in the current Times Literary Supplement, which included a review of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard  (read about it here). David Streitfeld‘s own book David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview Expanded with New Introduction was generously excerpted. Since the Pulitzer prizewinning New York Times journalist was one of the blurbers for Evolution of Desire, our co-appearance in the TLS was a pleasant coincidence.

The journalist admits that he was David Foster Wallace‘s worst friend – he says so in the first sentence, so my headline isn’t just clickbait. “He would send me letters and I wouldn’t answer them. He would send works in progress with forlorn notes.”

For the most part, he discusses a central paradox in Wallace’s life: “For twenty years, his entire career, Wallace wrestled with a question: How much of myself am I willing to give away to get what I want?”

It wasn’t a choice in the end. And David … Streitfeld, that is … describes what happened:

He got what he wanted and didn’t want. One way to measure his posthumous fame is to note an interview he did with Rolling Stone, which was never published in 1996 but became the basis for a story after his suicide that won a National Magazine Award in 2009. The interview transcript became a bestselling book in 2010 and then a very unlikely movie – who ever heard of a movie about an interview with a writer? – in 2015. The Wallace estate firmly distanced itself from The End of the Tour, noting quite accurately that it would have horrified Wallace as a trivialization of everything he believed, but Wallace was dead and what he would have thought didn’t matter anymore. The movie got excellent reviews.

I wrote about the movie here. David … Streitfeld again, that is … tells how twenty-one of Wallace’s letters were auctioned at Sotheby’s five years ago. “They were, as usual with Wallace, explicit and entertaining. … Sotheby’s estimated the package would fetch as much as $15,000. Instead, it made $125,000.”

Worst friend? Perhaps not.

He continues: “Wallace in 1996 had to reveal himself to interviewers to sell copies of Infinite Jest, and seventeen years later the auction house had to reveal Wallace to sell his letters, which in this case fetched $70,000. The guy who always cringed at publicly showing himself was having his deepest secrets divulged, not only to the winning bidder but to anyone with an internet connection. He wrote in Infinite Jest about a future in which everything was for sale – the years are rented out to corporations; part of the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment – and now, as that future was relentlessly transformed into mundane reality, he himself was for sale.”

“That, perhaps, is what happens if, instead of trusting no one, you trust everyone.”

Here’s the good news: David’s piece is fully online … unlike the review for Evolution of Desire (so far). The excerpt is here. Read it, and be glad you aren’t famous.

Is this man the “godfather of like”? The TLS thinks so. Praise for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard

September 13th, 2018

A screenshot from one of our conversations, now on Youtube.

Nothing like a mid-week surprise to add some luster to the daily routine, and we got one this week with a long, wise, and insightful essay on Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard in the brand-new issue of the Times Literary Supplement. 

The reviewer, Jonathan Benthall, is a former director of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1974-2000) and founding editor of Anthropology Today. So, un très grand merci to the smart anthropologist and the TLS.

He begins:

No drama. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

There were dramatic contexts to the development of René Girard’s ambitious thinking about violence and conflict. Some bleak years as a student in Paris, where he had moved from Avignon, his birthplace, near the end of the German occupation, followed by liberation and the épuration, in the course of which some 20,000 women suspected of collaboration had their heads publicly shaved. A year (1952–3) spent teaching French literature at Duke University, North Carolina, just before the United States Supreme Court ruling that segregated education was unconstitutional. A professorship (1968–76) at the State University of New York, Buffalo, which was a focus of campus  protest against the Vietnam war. But his biographer Cynthia L. Haven notes Girard’s “affectless reaction” to such experiences. He never intervened in politics. He and his wife Martha, an American from the Midwest, were a devoted “no-drama couple” until his death at the age of ninety-four in 2015 in Stanford, California, where they had made their home since 1981. [Actually, he died at 91 – ED.]

Given the apparent serenity of Girard’s personal life, Haven, a colleague at Stanford University and a close family friend, might have confined herself to hagiography. Readership would have been guaranteed among the six or more associations and foundations set up to promote and develop Girard’s work internationally, producing an extensive secondary literature across many academic disciplines: not merely history and literary criticism, his starting points, but also religious studies and all the human sciences. Fortunately Haven’s Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard is exemplary in its sensitivity.

She expresses openly her affection and admiration for her friend, who comes across as more of a teasing humorist than his public persona might suggest. Yet she recognizes the various intellectual arguments against Girard and the girardiens. Her readers are challenged but left free to make up their own minds.

Well, you can read the rest here, but it’s behind a paywall.

You may wonder on the title: “Godfather of Like.” Benthall explains: “One of Girard’s students at Stanford was Peter Thiel, now a billionaire philanthropist, who credits Girard with his decision to make a key initial investment in Facebook: Girard has been called ‘the godfather of the Like button’.” Well then, he has a lot to answer for.

Benthall makes a couple missteps on details. For example, René’s writings didn’t take hold in the Solidarity days and Velvet Revolution of Eastern Europe because “Christianity was under attack,” or at least not only, but primarily because the mechanisms of conflict, violence, and scapegoating were everywhere apparent to the Poles, the Czechs, the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians as communism rule was overthrown.

He concludes:

In the years since his death, political developments in many countries have resonated increasingly with his scapegoating model. Girard’s seriousness and range assure him of a posthumous following, not necessarily limited to fellow Christians. One admirer, interviewed by Haven, spoke of his work as “like a rock: it will be there and it will last”. But there will be dissenters. In old age, he confessed to “academic narcissism”, a self-diagnosis that hits his own fingernail on the head. Moreover, though in some ways a most perceptive reader (having been trained in historical sciences at the École Nationale des chartes), he treated language as a vehicle for ideas and showed no interest in the craftsmanship of words – as noted by Haven, who herself writes with acuity and wit. Reading Girard’s publications is indeed like climbing a rocky promontory, but only to find at the summit a road and a coach park. Those not yet ready for the climb on foot may take advantage of a stimulating drive to the top in Cynthia Haven’s air-conditioned Californian limousine.

I’d settle for this.

I’d quibble a bit at that, too: René’s writings are enormously polished and droll – but I’d never heard him admire a passage of Proust for the loveliness of his prose, or Hölderlin’s poem for a masterful image, rather than the concepts behind them.  But it’s the closing image tickles me.

Moi. An air-conditioned limousine? I would have settled for a nice little silver Citroën, skirting the circular highway around Avignon’s ramparts.

Was Hölderlin nuts? The jury is out. Maybe.

September 11th, 2018

He preoccupied interesting men.

One statement had been repeatedly spray-painted onto a turret in Tübingen, beginning way back in 1981, as an unusually bitter winter warmed into spring. Over the years, the words, in Swabian dialect and usually written in the old Sütterlin script, became a part of the tourist attraction, so no one scrubs off the paint anymore. “Der Hölderlin isch et verrückt gwae” translates roughly into “Hölderlin wasn’t nuts.”

The insanity of Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843), who died in obscurity but who has since become a towering presence in German poetry, had long been accepted—so the idea that he was in his right mind was still a minority opinion. But the cause found an unlikely champion in René Girard. He had never taken much of an interest in poetry, except for a short-lived interest in Saint-John Perse at the beginning of his career. He would finish his life with Hölderlin.

So begins the fourteenth chapter of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardAnd my point was, well, René Girard really thought Hölderlin wasn’t nuts. But he wasn’t the only man to round out his life with the German poet. A fellow poet, Wilhelm Waiblinger, was another.

Waiblinger visited the older poet and wrote a record of his visits. Friedrich Hölderlin’s Life, Poetry and Madness has just been republished by Hesperus Press (translated by Will Stone) – the the third time the Waiblinger biography has been translated in recent years.

Elizabeth Powers writes about him in “When Winter Comes: A Poet’s Descent into a ‘Twilight Existence,'” in the August 21 Time Literary Supplement, where it shares a smashing double-page spread with Hans Christian Andersen and Sigrid Unset.

René Girard’s life story was long and unusually serene. The Waiblinger story, however, didn’t have a happy ending. Waiblinger’s misfortune and mishaps ended the life of “a man of considerable native refinement, unworldly sensibility, and an absolute lack of self-parody,” according to Powers.

She writes:

Like many German writers, Waiblinger was the son of a parson. By 1822, when he was eighteen, he too displayed considerable gifts in the Greek and Latin classics and began to study philosophy and theology at the same Tübingen seminary where Hölderlin had studied alongside Hegel and Schelling. Waiblinger was ambitious and not lacking in self-belief, but it was the age of Metternich, a quiet time for geniuses. He began to visit Hölderlin regularly, perhaps drawn by a perceived relationship between the genius and madness. (Hesse’s “In Pressel’s Garden House” of 1914 charmingly recreates one of their outings.) The visits ceased when Waiblinger was expelled from the seminary in 1826 for apparently reprehensible conduct. He departed for Rome where he wrote accounts of Italian sites and a novella called “The British in Rome”, as well as transcribing the notes he had made of his visits to Hölderlin. Having climbed Etna and contracted malaria in the Pontine marshes, he suffered a lung infection. Eight haemorrhages and fourteen bloodlettings later, Waiblinger died in Rome in 1830 at the age of twenty-six and was buried near Keats and Shelley in the Protestant Cemetery. Friedrich Hölderlins Leben, Dichtung und Wahnsinn was published a year later.

The link is here, but it’s behind a paywall. Enjoy the first one-and-a-half paragraphs, then look for the August 21 Times Literary Supplement, with Andersen and Unset thrown in for good measure.

The spat over the Nation poem: if these are snowflakes, why aren’t they melting?

September 9th, 2018

Lionel Shriver calls fraud. (Photo: Tony Sarowitz)

Last month, The Nation published a poem that upset a few people. Well, more than a few. The poet adopted an African-American dialect, and he used the word “cripple,” too.

The Nation backed down, and the editors said they were sorry. Even the poet apologized for his poem. Katha Pollitt, a columnist for magazine, called the apology “craven,” “a letter from re-education camp.”

Grace Shulman, a poetry editor at the magazine from 1971 to 2006, wrote in The New York Times: “I was deeply disturbed by this episode, which touches on a value that is precious to me and to a free society: the freedom to write and to publish views that may be offensive to some readers.”

But now the U.K.-based American author Lionel Shriver has taken off the gloves. In The Spectator, she has called the protest a “screaming emotional fraudulence in the public sphere.”

A few excerpts:

“Employing today’s prescribed lexicon, those apologies regretted the ‘pain’, ‘harm’, and ‘offence’ this sad-ass little poem had caused to stricken communities. But let’s get real. None of those poetry readers felt any pain. (Remember pain, actual pain? Drop a brick on your foot in sandals. Yeah. That’s ‘pain’.) No one suffered any harm — either tangible or psychic. Why, I wager that those irate chiders in the peanut gallery were no more genuinely offended than the magazine editors doing damage control were genuinely sorry.”


“I don’t buy into the notion that the ‘snowflake’ generation is all that sensitive, either. Antifa protestors in balaclavas can be quite violent for little specks that melt. ‘Snowflakes’ may have induced institutions to employ the language of fragility, but I think a lot of these kids are tough as old boots.”


“When during that Evergreen foofaraw a rabid convocation of students cowed the college president into lowering his arms at the podium because they found his hand gestures ‘threatening’, those students didn’t feel jeopardised; they were dominating and emasculating a man supposedly in authority. The students cowering in ‘safe spaces’ don’t feel endangered; they’re claiming territory. In protecting the faux-helpless from noxious opinions via no-platforming, they’re exercising power. The experience of exercising power isn’t scary, except on the receiving end; it’s supremely gratifying. These people aren’t frightened. They want you to be frightened of them. And we’re not talking ‘microaggression’. PC police often prefer macroaggression, the kind that can get people sacked.”


“Reliably entwined with self-deceit, the problem isn’t solely among the young. When American liberals my age claim to suffer from white guilt over slavery and the slaughter of Indians, I question whether they really feel guilty. They weren’t personal agents of these crimes, and they know it. Nothing wrong with being historically aware. But white guilt is often a blind for moral vanity.

“We keep hearing about the terrible ‘distress’ caused by, say, a Canadian production that uses whites to sing slave songs, or a straight actor playing a trans role. But bullies on the left ply weakness to conceal aggression, and today’s torrent of touchiness is bogus. No one’s truly in distress. No one’s feelings are hurt really. This stuff is all about pushing other people around.”

You can read the whole thing here. It’s worth it for the use of the word “foofaraw” alone. However, I don’t think Millennials should take the rap. I sense a lot of aging Boomers on a tear. Thoughts?

And you thought your rejection letter was wiggy? Take a look at this!

September 7th, 2018

This letter, to Gertrude Stein, comes to us via Paul Holdengräber, director of public programming at the New York Public Library (at right, he tips his hat back at us). I wonder if Arthur C. Fifield ever regretted it.

A poet today is more likely to be a barista than a professor.

September 4th, 2018

Dana Gioia and Doctor Gatsby. (Photo: Star Black)

American poetry is full of contradictory trends. “That’s one reason why the articles announcing poetry’s demise are usually right and wrong at the same time,” says California Poet Laureate Dana Gioia, who is also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. He has edited The Best American Poetry 2018. The Los Angeles Review of Books has published an excerpt from his introduction, on the state of American poetry today. As always, Dana has spotted a number of trends that hadn’t quite crystallized in my own thinking – or perhaps, in this case, it’s simply that I live in an academic environment, and the fish doesn’t notice the water.

An excerpt of the excerpt:

The university’s role in poetry may be the most complicated paradox of all. For decades, the expansion of academic writing programs provided a home for poets, first as students and later as instructors. Academia gave thousands of poets secure, paid employment — something unprecedented in the history of Western literature. It was the United States’s version of the imperial Mandarin system, which once employed poets as bureaucrats across China’s vast empire. Our system was even better. Poets got summers off.

Then, like most booms, the surge ended. The university system stopped expanding, especially in the humanities. Job applicants greatly outnumbered job openings. Rather than address the problem by cutting back graduate programs, universities chose to exploit their junior personnel as cost-savings. Tenure-track careers became adjunct gigs with low pay, no benefits, and minimal job security. The academic situation is old news, but it is still awful to young and often not-so-young people trapped in crappy jobs or unemployment. The tale of this city depends on what side of the tenure track a poet lives.

With Dana at the inaugural Sierra Poetry Festival, 2017.

Academia’s problems, however, had an unexpected cultural benefit. The legions of young writers, artists, musicians, and scholars who met with disappointment in the academic job market haven’t all vanished. Most of them just moved. Not finding a place in one world, the academic refugees sought new lives in another. As old bohemian neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan, San Francisco, and other cities were being destroyed by gentrification, tourism, and rising real estate prices, a steady stream of unemployed and underemployed artists helped enlarge or create new communities in places such as Oakland, Austin, Portland, Jersey City, Astoria, and Downtown Los Angeles. Here they joined and revitalized preexisting local communities. Bohemian communities have also emerged in smaller towns, but in such cases their size makes them vulnerable to tourism and development. Witness the stultifying impact of money on Aspen and Carmel or, on a larger scale, the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Thirty years ago, the typical young poet taught in a university. Today’s new generation is more likely to be living in a big city and employed outside academia. They work as baristas, brewers, and bookstore clerks; they also work in business, medicine, and the law. Technology has made it possible to publish books without institutional or commercial support. Social media connects people more effectively than any faculty lounge. An online journal requires nothing but time. An iPhone and a laptop can produce a professional poetry video. Any bookstore, library, cafe, or gallery can host a poetry reading.

New circumstances create interesting possibilities for poets. In the new bohemia, a poet doesn’t need to worry about tenure, peer review, or academic fashions. A poet doesn’t even need a degree. Audience is not an abstract entity; the poet sees a diverse crowd face to face at readings. Those faces are not the same ones found at a research university. The new communities include large parts of the population unlikely to participate in academic literary life because they are blocked by poverty, language, and race. Those groups have brought new perspectives and new energy to literary life. Minority authors and audiences often share a conviction that literature and literacy are fundamental to the identity, advancement, and even survival of their communities. When creating your own literature becomes a life-or-death issue, different sorts of poetry emerge from what one commonly finds in an English department.

The new bohemia is no demi-Eden. Writers struggle to balance their art with practical exigencies. Their situation is complicated but exciting. Existing outside both the academic and market economy makes these poets marginal in society, but their circumstances also give them freedom from commercial and academic conventions. Most boho writers, with or without degrees, probably still dream of snagging a professorship, but they also recognize that as outsider artists they represent an important cultural enterprise. Together they have created a vigorous alternative culture that has broken the university’s monopoly on poetry. They have diversified, democratized, and localized American poetry.

Read the whole thing here (and Dana answers a question in the combox, too).

Postscript on Sept. 6 from David J. Bauman: “I want to be careful to respond to the article and not the headline. It’s actually a very positive and open assessment of where American poets are today and (mostly) why. The only tiny tidbit I question is when Gioia says: “Most boho writers, with or without degrees, probably still dream of snagging a professorship.” I don’t think that’s true. As a public library director, I can honestly say, my interest in joining the university ranks died off long ago. And while he happily argues that today’s young poets don’t need to go the university route, he does not seem to be aware of the fact that many don’t, or even never, wanted to. While I have nothing against MFAs, I still think their biggest blind spot was the fact that there are plenty of artists, poets included, who have zero interest in teaching at a university. It makes sense for many, but it is not a good fit for all. And our poetry as a nation is better for it. I’m happy that folks, including Gioia are waking up to that realization.” (See David’s own blog here.)

Another postscript, on Sept. 10 from essayist, filmmaker Rick Segreda: I don’t blame anybody from fleeing academia these days, hostage as it is to polarized politics, but when have artists in any medium in any age been entitled to live, and live well at that, off their art? This brings to my mind Isaak Dinesen’s gourmet French chef, Babette, who sacrifices her life savings to win over the hearts, minds, and appetites of a puritanical Danish community. At the end, she explains “a true artist is never poor.”

And we missed this Sept. 6 note from the inimitable Jeff Sypeck, in the combox: Good piece by Gioia. Even though he was trying only to describe the situation rather than judge it, I’m inclined to find it a positive development, in the long run, that poetry is no longer confined to the academy. As someone who tries to find spare moments to write and read poetry while holding down an unrelated full-time job and part-time job, I can’t help but think that the profs who have the luxury of being full-time poets should be turning out much better work than they ultimately do. I don’t mean for that to sound as snide as it likely does, especially since I can name several professor-poets whose work is fresh and exuberant, but there tends to be an awfully safe, prim aura about “campus poetry,” hewing as it does to conventions that have had a century to congeal. Anyway, I appreciate Dana Gioia’s generous spirit; I think he’s wise to see that even terrible Instagram poetry holds the promise of new audiences, readers who are hungry for something they can’t quite name.

Hippies, cyberculture, fascism – and the point where it all comes together

September 3rd, 2018
He started in journalism. (Photo: Kathleen Hinkel)

A journey that began in Vietnam. (Photo: Kathleen Hinkel)


Fred Turner had just finished a Echoes of Combat: The Vietnam War in American Memory when he moved to San Diego in 1996. He had seen technology used as a tool of war, and he thought that “hippies were against technology — computers especially.” Then he saw a copy of Wired.

“It was all psychedelic colors, a big picture of ‘Whole Earth’ on the front and daisies. All this iconography I recognized from the counterculture in the 1960s.” In fact, he learned that countercultural dreams of shared consciousness had found a natural home in the computer world, where cyberspace was seen as a new electronic frontier. Former “communalists” had found new hope in “virtual communities.” He discusses his revelation in an Entitled Opinions conversation with Robert Pogue Harrison in a podcast over at the Los Angeles Review of Books here.

“I thought the Cold War was a black-and-white world and then everything turned into technicolor hippies. That turned out not to be true,” said Turner, a former journalist and now an intellectual historian at an important moment in our history.

“I started reading my way into the 1940s and 1950s. I began to see a much more radical period than I ever knew about. I began to see a very direct protest against mass media and mass culture.” The result was The Democratic Surround: Multimedia and American Liberalism from World War II to the Psychedelic Sixties.

With the rise of fascism in the 1930s, people worried about how mass thinking and mass media worked together, focusing our attention on a single media point and a single magnetic leader – thus feeding our longings for control, leadership, and submission. The antidote? “The notion that has run through 30, 40, 50 years of media theory, is that you have to decentralize ownership, decentralize media technologies, give everybody a microphone, and suddenly we will all be in a free space. That turns out not to be the case.”

Our multi-sourced multimedia “surround” has been mass marketed for us in a dispersed and globalized media environment, infiltrating even our attempts to create such “free” spaces. “I’ve done a lot of work at Burning Man, and that’s a very Dionysian place, in which the ecstatic impulse to dance naked in the desert and build giant bonfires meshes very nicely with high ticket prices, the transportation system, and the politics of personal display that also animate Facebook.”

Our politics, too, have been turned upside down by media dispersal – especially by Donald Trump. “He becomes the embodied voice of grievance, and that’s what Adolf Hitler was. He speaks that grievance into Twitter, which is a hyper-personalized medium. It then gets amplified by a whole series of other media, which interact in the ecosystem that is decentralized and yet, ironically, because it is decentralized, tends to be an ever larger megaphone for the very charismatic forces that decentralization was meant to combat.”

Listen to the whole podcast here.


Potent quotes:

Fred Turner:

“Apple has always been the single most secretive non-military company … You don’t crack Apple.”

On California: “It’s been the object of migration forever and ever… there’s a high density of scientists, a low density of non-adventurous folks, and everybody is packed up together.”

“Consumer choice is beginning to become the expression of politics.”

“Ideas flow through communities … Lives of earlier groups shape the possibilities of our own.”

Robert Harrison:

“Ideas are the incubators of history – not always, but often.”

“The deliberate invasion of solitude – everyday solitude, being left alone – and having something reverberating inside your head so that you can’t do the prosaic business of putting thoughts together – this is what totalitarian propaganda amounts to.”

“Our democratic surround is so saturated with images and voices – even more with Twitter. And all the chatter is one of the unintended wars on thinking.”

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