Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

“God Bless Us, Every One!” — NYT, Ian Morris, and a postscript to the Berkeley concert

Monday, December 13th, 2010

"Hey, mom!"

At Berkeley’s “Slavic Choral Concert Christmas in Kraków”, described yesterday, I had to scour the rows to find a vacant chair, even as a singleton.  It seemed that the entire Slavic population of the Bay Area was in the crowded Hillside Club.  Naturally, I went to the front, first: I never underestimate people’s unwillingness to be close to the action.  Two African-American matrons, dressed to the nines for the occasion, were holding down the front seats in the lefthand corner.

“Well, you don’t look Polish!” I said to them.  They laughed.

“We’re all part of Mother Africa!” said one.

It’s true.

Don’t believe me (or her)?  Listen to Ian Morris, who received a very good review in yesterday’s New York Times Book Review (Orville Schell calls him “a lucid thinker and a fine writer,” with the tone of “an erudite sportscaster”):

“Historians like giving long, complicated answers to simple questions, but this time things really do seem to be straightforward. Europeans do not descend from superior Neanderthals, and Asians do not descend from inferior Homo erectus.  Starting around 70,000 years ago, a new species of Homo — us — drifted out of Africa and completely replaced all other forms.  Our kind, Homo sapiens (“wise man”), wiped the slate clean: we are all Africans now.  Evolution of course continues, and local variations in skin color, face shape, height, lactose tolerance, and countless other things have appeared in the 2,000 generations since we began spreading across the globe.  But when we get right down to it, these are trivial.  Wherever you go, whatever you do, people (in large groups) are all much the same.”

So, as Tiny Tim said, “God bless us, every one!

Or, in the words of the cheerful African-American woman at the Slavic gig:  “We’re everyone!” she said, waving toward the crowd on the darkening Thursday evening among the Christmas lights, the mulled wine, and the decidedly un-African decor.

Postscript on 12/15:   was named one of the top ten books of 2010 by the New York Times.  Tk it out here.

NYT: “Do colleges need French departments?” Josh Landy thinks they do.

Friday, December 10th, 2010

My recent article on Joshua Landy‘s rousing defense of the humanities built on an earlier New York Times article:  “Do Colleges Need French Departments?”  The Proust scholar addressed the question with his students in the video above, and to the rest of the world here.  The NYT focus is once again the Albany Massacre, which we wrote on the Book Haven here and here.

Josh told me that he’d made a similar spirited defense on Arcade, “SUNY Albany, Stanley Fish, and the Enemy Within.” It’s worth a look.  Inevitably, perhaps, Josh also attacks Stanley Fish‘s much-blogged post, “The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives“:  “Let’s put it this way: if the most prominent humanists are publicly proclaiming their belief in the utter uselessness of what they do, what reason could a cash-strapped administrator possibly have for not shutting down their departments?” he asks.

Fortunately—as many excellent Arcade posts, among other things, have shown—not all of us feel the same way our “friend” Stanley does.  But it’s time for all of us to get just as vocal as him.  Yes, it may be embarrassing for us to make positive claims for what we do (we’ve specialized for quite a while in making negative claims about more or less everything), but we may just have to accept a little embarrassment.  Perhaps it’s the price we’ll have to pay for heading off future Albanys.

What can we say? Plenty. Here are his talking points:

  • Yes, the humanities do enhance our culture. … In fact, it’s hard to know what culture is if it’s not things like Picassos and Pink Floyd albums and Toni Morrison novels.  Not to mention the people, like Henry Louis Gates and Michael Fried and Helen Vendler (or for that matter Sister Wendy or Benard Pivot or the makers of Art21), who help us to love those works even more.  This may not be an exciting thing for us humanists to say to each other, but it’s straightforwardly true.

    "Has he not read his Bakhtin? Has he not read, well, anything?" (Photo: L.A. Cicero"

    "We need every voice we've got." (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

  • Yes, some of those books that people teach do contain “the best that has been thought and said.”  It should be remembered here that Fish has a very hard time distinguishing between the humanities in general and literary study in particular.  But the rest of us, I think, understand that the humanities also include, among other disciplines, that of philosophy.  Who wants to say that W. E. B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, to take just one example, is not among “the best that has been thought and said”?  I’m not in any way arguing for a core curriculum (it’s part of Fish’s polarizing thinking that you’re either a hip value-denier or a pathetic canon-defender; let’s resist that false dichotomy).  I’m just saying that people who teach DuBois (and Lao-Tsu, and Nietzsche, and de Beauvoir…), in whatever context, are doing everyone a favor.multidisciplinary minds and a broad spectrum of experiences.” (qtd. in Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind, 132.)  These are not humanists.  These are business people.
  • What is more, the humanities expose us to—and, very often, cause us to fall in love with—other cultures, both within our country and outside it.  Is it embarrassing to say this out loud?  Certainly.  Does it need to be said?  Apparently so.
  • And then there’s the fact that exposure to the humanities changes us, enriches us, expands our imagination, clarifies our thinking, gives new depths to our being.  Yes, even the literary humanities manage this.  Fish appears to believe—stunningly!—that great literary works could help us only if they provided examples for emulation in the form of heroic characters.  Has he not read his Bakhtin?  Has he not read, well, anything?

Josh concludes:  “There’s much, much more to be said; please help me in saying it.  We need every voice we’ve got.”  A lively discussion follows — check it out.

“Non-consumptive research”? There must be a catchier word for it.

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Jockers: Definitely "non-consumptive" (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Patricia Cohen ran a post on the “Arts Beat” at the New York Times spotlighting my recent piece on Matt Jockers‘s and Franco Moretti‘s “non-consumptive research” — that is, they shovel books into a computer, which allows researchers to make more empirical judgments on books, if you ask the right questions and look in the right directions.  It’s “non-consumptive” because the researchers don’t actually read the books — heaven help anyone who tried to read thousands of Victorian novels; it would do something to the brain. It’s a fascinating line of research — though not quite my thing.  I’m interested to see what they turn up.

Cohen’s beef?

Did the folks at the Literature Lab try to come up with a particularly un-catchy phrase? Readers, I’m sure you can do better. Send in your suggestions for a more felicitous phrasing.

For those of us who have read a lot of Victorian novels, the word “consumption” certainly does have other connotations.  Jockers is a strapping young man — definitely not “consumptive.”