Hello all! Hope all are well. It's May first! A new month! A happy month!! Classes end for us this coming week. All are ready for the summer to begin, or at least the spring semester to end. Wherever you are, I hope you are looking forward to coming months as well.
Here's Appiah's review of Graeber and Wengrow from this January. “Graeber and Wengrow appear to cherish their thesis a little too much and, like overprotective parents, tend to keep it away from the chilly drafts of adverse evidence." Exactly: my worry is precisely about the truthiness of books like this, and the ease with which they confirm the leaders prior biases, and become a matter of wish fulfillment. (And here, by the way, is a recent collection of responses to the book from some more quantitatively-minded scholars. Some are cranky, sure (upset esp about the modes of argument the book employs), but I found esp the Archaeologist Michael Smith on cities very good. All are worth checking out, anyway.)
Great collection of philosophical pieces on Steven Sondheim, who died last fall. Worth reading, and watching the clips they use to illustrate their points, whether you like philosophy, or are just a Sondheim fan. And also great on Sondheim:
Sondheim’s songs — including the ones that have become standards, like “Send in the Clowns” and “Losing My Mind” — have this fundamental complexity, but they have another shared quality on top of that, too. When you listen to a Sondheim number, you feel that the singer is totally embodying whatever is going on with them but also standing slightly outside of it. They are distanced from themselves, don’t quite know their desires, and are often caught between some expression of the idealized past and the more compromised present.
…In their worst cases, Sondheim’s characters can risk becoming ghosts in their own lives, obsessed with their inability to connect, preoccupied with failure. But Sondheim’s insight partly is that we’re all haunting our own lives, both in the mark our real choices leave and in the possibilities our lives have contained. If we didn’t contain this internal conflict, this multiplicity, we would be something less than human. Saying that the things in life that make us suffer are also the things that bring us joy feels a little trite, but the reason that it feels that way is because it is difficult to really believe. When I listen to Sondheim, I do believe it, at least as long as the song runs.
Sondheim’s ability to observe these qualities in his characters comes from paying sustained and loving attention to others. There’s nothing cold or cruel about it, even when what the characters are saying or doing is degrading or wrong.“
TS Eliot, archetypal modernist poet of impersonality, perhaps a-personality, even anti-personality, and some of the revelations afforded by his finally opened correspondence with Emily Hale. This piece is on Elliot‘s relationship with Virginia Woolf.
“Eliot is the famous poet of modernist impersonality, the father of the New Critical maxim that we don’t need to know about a poet’s life to appreciate his poetry. And yet Eliot himself becomes immensely personal as we read these letters — as he explains sources, struggles with drafts, and longs for Hale’s understanding.”
Interesting on Confessions of the Flesh:
Foucault’s detractors are not wrong about the extent of his influence—even if they tend to mischaracterize it. Over the past fifty years, he has exercised a broader impact on the academic humanities and social sciences than almost any other thinker. By some measures, he is the most cited author across those fields. In late 2020, however, some began to observe that Foucault’s citations, as reported by Google Scholar, had dropped precipitously over the course of that year, even as the global pandemic and the unprecedented political responses it generated would seem to make his account of biopolitics more relevant than ever.
Given long academic publication timelines and the likely role of random fluctuation, we probably shouldn’t read too much into Foucault’s 2020 citation slump. Nevertheless, it is emblematic of a curious absence. Even though the elite university graduates who shape media narratives and policy discussions are highly likely to have encountered his ideas, his critical account of the politics of public health has had essentially no impact on debates around Covid-19 policy. The simplest explanation of this omission is that while he is largely embraced on the political left, his account of biopolitics is at odds with many views now prevalent on that side of the spectrum.
The irony of Foucault’s current status, therefore, is that the implications of his work are at odds with many of the views of the degree-holding professional class among whom his influence is putatively the strongest. Conversely, despite the widespread derision of Foucault that has long prevailed on the right, his skeptical perspective on the politics of expertise resonates with the attacks on liberal-dominated expert institutions and the propagandistic weaponization of “science” lately heard in conservative precincts. This unacknowledged realignment is newly evident in the Covid era. But even before last year, the peculiarities of Foucault’s U.S. reception obscured certain valences of his work that might have troubled many of his erstwhile admirers.
In 1977, the philosopher Jean Baudrillard exhorted the public to Forget Foucault in a polemic published under that title. Judging by his far larger impact in academia in subsequent decades, Foucault seemed to get the better of his rival. Nevertheless, his almost total absence from public debates around the Covid pandemic, and the political responses to it, suggests that, in spite of his massive influence, we did forget Foucault—or at least the parts of his work most challenging to our guiding political assumptions. The Left, which has spent decades poring over his oeuvre in its academic redoubts, has in the past year largely acquiesced to a dictatorship of expertise that might as well be using the Foucauldian account of biopower as an instruction manual. Its abandonment of the tools of critique offered by his work has been sudden and almost total.”
Are academically trained humanists experts? Do aesthetic judgments have value beyond opinion? This is a thoughtful review of Michael Clune’s argument in the affirmative. I think this is roughly correct.
If music is to have a bright future, as well as a storied history, today’s composers — impressive voices like Andrew Norman, Kate Soper and Daniel Bernard Roumain — will take us there. It’s dismaying that, of some 100 pieces that the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center will perform on its main series this season, just two are by living composers, and neither was written in the 21st century.
Anthony Tommasini said farewell last December, and that Classical music must conserve some things, but definitely be open to the new. Also good on the struggle to retain the ambience of the actual performance of music with “natural acoustics” in an age of digital reproduction and enjoyment—how listening and performance have pulled apart in modernity. A quasi-Benjaminian moment, for sure.
Neat story of a man who had an almost 40-year career in the Vatican library. For some of us, this would be an amazing career. For him, I bet it was.
Very thoughtful brief piece on the question of the US Dollar’s role in geopolitics, and the recurring debates about whether the dollar-based system is going away. And another, larger-picture piece on the economics of the war.
Yeah, the New Yorker seems to be a bit cowardly on this one. Or evasive? And which one is worse? Is there a difference? Serious questions.
So many things to learn! Or at least to read.