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  1. Teaching Company Lecture Series on Sale
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Saturday, November 22, 2003

Teaching Company Lecture Series on Sale
Dear Friedrich -- I've blogged before about The Teaching Company, which sells recorded versions of college-level lecture series. I've tried a lot of their products and am super-enthusiastic about some of them. Happily, The Teaching Company puts nearly all of its courses on sale at some point or other. At the moment, many of my favorites can be bought at amazingly good prices. Click on the link that follows the lecturer's name to find a page with links to all his courses. Patrick Allitt (here): I found his "American Religious History" series fantastic, raved about it here, and am looking forward to listening to his "Victorian Britain." Alan Charles Kors (here): He lectures about the intellectual history of 17th and 18th century Europe. I thought both "The Birth of the Modern Mind" and "Voltaire and the Triumph of the Enlightenment" were blazingly good. My thoughts about them are here. Timothy Taylor (here): I can't imagine a better way for a mush-headed LibArts type to finally crack Econ than by starting with this short series here, then moving on to this one here. But listen to all his courses eventually; I have, and I got a lot out of each one. I've expressed enthusiasm for Taylor's work here and here. Robert Greenberg (here): He's the Teaching Company's go-to guy for music history, and he's sensationally good. I've listened to both his general intro to Western classical music (here) and his Bach series (not currently on sale) -- it'd be hard to better either one. If prices like $34.95 or $64.95 strike anyone as stiff: well, for Pete's sake, get real. These are fabulous courses that are many enjoyable and informative hours long, and that are far better than anything I took at an expensive, if lousy, Ivy university. Plus, hey, when you're done with them you can generate some good karma for yourself by passing them along to a friend or by donating them to your local public library. Spread the knowledge -- and the pleasure. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 22, 2003 | perma-link | (15) comments

Friday, November 21, 2003

King vs. Hazzard
Dear Friedrich -- A couple of people have written in asking what I think about the Hazzard vs. King dustup at the National Book Awards. Hey, imagine that: people who mistake me for someone with an interesting opinion. Fools! (You can read about the comments Hazzard and King made here. Terry Teachout was on the awards committee; you can read his accounts here and here.) In case you didn't follow the news: Stephen King, who was receiving an honorary award, urged the audience to give popular fiction more respect, while Shirley Hazzard, the novelist receiving the award for best fiction of the year, delivered a highbrow scolding. But I'm in a mood to indulge my pomposity, so ... I may be an odd one, but generally speaking I root less for one side or the other in a debate than for the debate itself. I want it to be a good one. (I'm like this even watching sports; I want the game to be a good one far more than I want one side or the other to win.) I want sparks to fly and brains to sharpen. I want to walk away thinking fresh thoughts and noticing new things. Still, in this case, if I absolutely-absolutely, gun-to-my-head had to pick a side, I'd go with King. He's as smart as can be (I've interviewed him a couple of times), he's unquestionably supertalented, and Hazzard makes a prissy case, thereby proving everyone who resents highbrow art correct about its prissiness. But my real feeling in this case is simple: this is a debate I'm very, very tired of. And I wish it would end. Art vs. business; literary fiction vs. popular fiction ... -- really, what conversation could be more tedious? Haven't the arguments on both sides been made often enough and well enough? And many times already? Why rehearse them again? The main reason I groan at the debate is that it supplies (IMHO, of course) a lousy picture of how American culture works, let alone what culture more generally is. When I scan the horizon, I see lots of cultures. I see folk cultures, international cultures, regional cultures, popular cultures, pop cultures, commercial cultures, traditional cultures, cutting-edge cultures, and many kinds of high cultures -- and beyond that, lots of individuals leading all kinds of lives, as well as making and enjoying all kinds of things. Categorizing is a necessary (and inevitable) cognitive exercise, but narrowing this rich vista down to "business vs. art" does a disservice to almost everyone; it also, needless to say, promotes a kneejerk view of business as automatically bad and art as automatically good. (As if the movies could exist as an artform without also being a business.) It also makes me wonder: what sort of person is it who visits the cultural sphere and comes back describing what he saw as "business vs. art"? I'm suspicious of this person; I suspect him of tunnelvision and of projecting an agenda; and I'm pretty... posted by Michael at November 21, 2003 | perma-link | (29) comments

Coming to Grips with Nietzsche, Part I
Michael: As you probably remember from our student days at our Lousy Ivy University, I was a fan of Nietzsche—I read all his books in the university library and I wasn’t even taking the Nietzsche course. (Hey, what greater love can an undergraduate show?) The Big "N" Himself Granted, Nietzsche hasn’t been a big part of my daily existence in the intervening decades. But while writing for this blog over the past year or so I keep coming across intellectual problems or concepts that remind me of something the terrible Teuton wrote. So the other day at a bookstore I did something I haven’t done for nearly thirty years; I picked up the Modern Library edition of “The Basic Writings of Nietzsche” and started leafing through it. It suddenly dawned on me that I’m now older than Nietzsche was when he went insane; it seems like I ought to be old enough to formulate an adult opinion of his thought. This is easier said than done. Nietzsche wrote a good deal on quite a wide variety of subjects, and his tendency towards writing in aphorisms and fragments makes it hard to speak definitively about his thought. And that’s not the full extent of the problem. Nietzsche delighted in throwing intellectual bombs at received opinion, which—while a groove and a gas—doesn’t make getting a handle on his overall program any easier. But since this is about my response to him, I have to do things the Friedrich way. So, following my own instincts, I'm going to try to ignore his surface brilliance, wit and juvenile delinquent ways while (1) trying to identify his positive goals, (2) surveying the intellectual program he set himself in pursuit of those goals, and (3) discussing what aspects of his thought still engage me and where he strikes me as a sort of brilliant lunatic. The results will of course, only constitute a blogger’s personal musings--I'm well aware of, and utterly disinclined to engage, the whole academic Nietzsche industry and its products. My first observation is that it’s useful to keep in mind exactly when and where Nietzsche wrote, because his work now seems to me to be very much a reaction against the situation of his time and place—i.e., Europe in the 1870s and 1880s. He was the German son of a Lutheran minister (who died when his son was only five). He was a brilliant student and became a professor at the then-astounding age of 24. He started writing in the wake of the Darwinian revolution, only a decade or so after the “Origin of the Species” was published and immediately after “The Descent of Man” came out in 1871. During this same period democracy and egalitarian social concepts were gaining traction. In the U.S. the Civil War led to the elimination of slavery in 1865; in England the parliamentary reforms of 1867 widened the British voting franchise; in France, the Franco-Prussian war led to the replacement of the 2nd Empire with a republican-style... posted by Friedrich at November 21, 2003 | perma-link | (19) comments

Thursday, November 20, 2003

Greats I Don't Get
Dear Friedrich -- Aaron Haspel's good posting here about Henry James and the movies (a response to some postings over at About Last Night, here and here) reminded me that, years ago, when I still had a little zip and fire, I looked into starting up a magazine of my own. I was pretty serious about the project and ditched the idea only when I learned what a horror it is to get a small magazine decently distributed. But before crapping out, I'd thought the magazine through pretty thoroughly. One of my favorite ideas for it was also one of my smallest ideas. It was to feature in every issue a medium-sized boxed talk with someone prominent and/or interesting about great art he doesn't get -- kind of a reverse Desert Island Discs thing. A talk with Daniel Dennett about his inability to respond to Mozart and Kleist, for instance -- an entirely made-up example, by the way. I was fond of the concept mainly for being mischievous and rowdy; there's little I like better than blowing stale air away from the arts. But there was a semi-serious idea at the core too, which was to convey the point that it's OK not to get some great art. This is art, after all, not science or history, and doin' the art thing is as much about exploring your own responses as it is about exploring the world. I had a few subpoints in mind too: 1) You don't have to love everything you're told is great, 2) You don't have to claim greatness for everything you love, and 3) You don't have to dispute the greatness of the works and artists you dislike. Explore a lot of great art, give yourself the experience of it, have whatever response you have to it -- and then let it all go. What does it matter, really, whether you agree with the so-called experts? (I can get vexed when I see people try-try-trying, oh so very hard, to "appreciate" a work in exactly the way they've been told to. Why do they strain with such determination to have a particular great experience? Why not have the experience they're having instead, whatever it is?) It matters only that you give the work a try and take note of what the experience was like for you. But don't be such a self-pleasing fool that you avoid what's been deemed to be great. That's crazy too. Hey, it's cool and fun to challenge yourself. Anyway, the rules of this game: You aren't disputing the greatness of the artist or the artwork. You can see the point of the work or the artist, and you understand what's there to be gotten. You understand the greatness of it too -- the range of its influence, what other artists have taken from it, etc. It's impressive, and you're impressed. And you've given the work or the artist a decent and earnest try. But you've found that when you look... posted by Michael at November 20, 2003 | perma-link | (107) comments

Back-Home Accents
Michael: Have you ever tried to summarize what makes the accent of your home town unique? Since my ear for such things is terrible, I've never been able to do it, just as I've never managed to blend in with the locals even when on extended sojourns in other parts of the English-speaking world, whether that has been London or Southern Californa. When pressed (particularly by the British, who seemed to find my accent hilarious) I had to fall back on the old dodge of explaining to people that the speech patterns of the Upper Midwest are the foundations of "standard educated American English." (Hey, say something with a straight face and you'd be surprised what nonsense you can get people to believe.) Well, someone else has finally accomplished what I could not: they have provided the world with a "how-to" manual for talking like me: A little bit Fargo, a little bit Nasal Chicago, and a little bit Canadian, the Michigan Accent was derived from a lot of the linguistic influences of its early settlers: Irish, Finnish, Welsh and Dutch. In some areas, particularly around blue collar parts of Detroit, hordes of poor Southerners who came up the Dixie Highway to work on the assembly lines in the early-to-mid 1900's have also injected a bit of Southern twang into our Northern European heritage. The resulting mix is similar to a pirate with a head cold... something my friends give me a hard time about quite frequently. Here are some tips ta help ya soun' like yer from the Moder Ciddy. You can read the full discussion, which is pretty funny, here. You have some facility with languages (unlike me). Do you try to adjust your accent to your surroundings, or like what? Cheers, Friedrich... posted by Friedrich at November 20, 2003 | perma-link | (22) comments

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

High Pitched Voices
Friedrich -- I've been out in California, thus spending a lot of time in the car, and thus listening to the radio, something I otherwise almost never do. And OK, yes, sure, when I'm alone in the car I sometimes sing along to pop and country songs. Doesn't everyone? Huh? Well, anyway, I was once again reminded of something I've often been puzzled by: how very high-pitched the voices of most male singers are. As you well know, no one would accuse me of having a Barry White range (let alone any vocal talent), but when I sing along I often find myself having to do so an octave below the song's lead vocalist. Any theories that might explain this phenom? Do we hear higher voices better? Do they grab our attention more effectively? Is it related to the way adolescent girls often fall for girlish boys? I finally found a couple of singers whose range is pretty close to mine: Bobby Darin, and the c&w singer Toby Keith, who I'd never heard of before. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at November 19, 2003 | perma-link | (32) comments

Dear Friedrich -- I've spent the last week with blogging crippled not just by in-law hospital challenges but by a dial-up AOL connection. How is blogging life even possible without broadband? More than ever I marvel at Lynn Sislo, here, who does some of the best linking of any cultureblogger and who does so via a 56K connection. Downright heroic. * British scientist Mae-Wan Ho, reviewing Christopher Alexander's four-volume summa, "The Nature of Order" here, does an amazing job not just of describing Alexander's thinking and originality but also of conveying the impact reading Alexander can have on a person. Volume One is buyable here; volume Two, just out, is buyable here. Be sure not to miss the very interesting and informative Amazon reader reviews of both books. * Laurance Aurbach passes along a link to a fascinating paper by Charles C. Bohl (here) about urban development in Europe, which doesn't seem to be proceeding along inspiring lines. The compare-and-contrast photos are very well-chosen. Nate Davis will appreciate some shots of the place where his own store is located, Mashpee Commons, an oldtime shopping mall that's been reworked along New Urbanist lines. * Swapping emails, Laurance and I discovered that, in addition to being New Urbanism fans (Laurance a much more serious and well-informed one than I am), we're also genre-fiction buffs. I got a chance to lay a couple of my more tiresome theories on Laurance, the first one being that genre-fiction forms (crime, romance, etc) are the equivalent of vernacular and folk architecture, while contempo literature is best compared to the swoopy, jagged, anxiety-making bizarreness that the official architecture press tries to make us swallow. In other words, if your idea of interesting and worthwhile architecture tends more towards comfy houses, Adirondack cabins, roadside architecture, and neighborhoods that make you want to sit and have a coffee than to standalone, gleaming avant-garde jewelboxes, then you may well prefer the best genre writers to most of what contemporary "literature" is producing. My other theory is that genre-fiction forms are like such poetry forms as sonnets and villanelles -- rewarding both for writers (whose ingenuity and imaginations are stretched) and readers, who can have the fun of matching their knowledge and expectations against what the author is actually doing. Laurance responded much more sensibly, passing along a bunch of alluring-sounding tips and recommendations. I just finished reading one of them, Dan Simmons' Hardcase, a tiptop Buffalo-set hardboiled crime tale (buyable here). I loved the book: roughhewn and engaging, with tons of momentum, humor and brutality. Kurtz, Simmons' protagonist, is a dandy invention. If there's a hardboiled continuum ranging from Spenser on the more civilized end to Mike Hammer on the psychotic end, Kurtz certainly tends towards the Hammer-esque. He seems meant to embody an idea of Buffalo, really -- a creature from another time, burly and none-too-fashionable or suave, but with moxie to spare. Plus, man, can he take a lot of punishment; he reminds me of those old bunched-up,... posted by Michael at November 19, 2003 | perma-link | (5) comments

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

True Art School Tales
A new installment in John Leavitt's ongoing True Art School Tales, his irregular, illustrated diary about life as an art-school student. John's currently studying at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology. His own website -- where he shows off his witty and elegant art, as well as his prowess as a designer and cartoonist -- is here. *** True Art School Tales A Taxonomy of Art School Professors The Feeler: Wants you to dig deep into the core of your being to express your personal uniqueness. Thinks teaching interferes with the flow of personal expression. Paints lots of flowers. Other Job: Housewife/kindergarten teacher. Quote: "Your colors really bring out the Youness of you." The Prickasso: Smells like Scotch. Calls the girls "baby." Tells you to "Murder the canvas! Paint with yer dick and blood." Paints lots of women in questionable poses wearing leather boots. Other Job: Long-lost gallery painter. Quote: "When that whore of a model comes back, I'll show you how to do an undercoating, you bastards." The Ghost and the Dozer: Different yet oddly similar. The Dozer gives an assignment then drifts off. The Ghost takes roll, goes for coffee, and never comes back. Both have tenure. Other Jobs: None. Quote: "Zzzzzz." The Cause-Head: Made career in political art and doesn't want you to forget it. Assigns lots of work on The People's Plight and The Struggle. Has lots of buttons. Other Job: Flag-waver. Quote: "Now let's try something on the Pain of Oppressed Women Everywhere." The Visiting Teacher: From another school or foreign land. Has high standards, and doesn't know why you can't meet them. Wonders aloud why you're so lazy. Wishes he could hit students. Other Job: Professional Painter. Quote: "You think art is hard? Try working in coal mine." The Working Professional: Makes a living in the field, wants to teach you how. Assigns mock projects, practical lessons, and passesa long lots of tricks. Knows actual art directors. Other Job: Illustrator. Quote: "Correctional fluid is your friend!" The Human Manifesto: The Gods of art have given her a Theory that explains all art and how to make it, yet somehow it always involves finger-painting. Wants you to follow the Glorious, Shining Path, or else. Other Job: NEA grants-board member. Quote: "Art is pain!" -- by John Leavitt... posted by Michael at November 18, 2003 | perma-link | (7) comments

Monday, November 17, 2003

The LA Times Book Review and Me
Dear Friedrich -- Do you follow the LATimes Book Review Section? It's edited by Steve Wasserman, who's quite the serious fellow; the section is earnest and intellectual, furiously intelligent and morally-bullying -- ie., far more New York in tone than West Coast. This week's issue strikes me as typical; its informal theme appears to be "leftists vs. the left." A few examples (none of them available online, unfortunately): * From a review by Michael Kazin of Susan Braudy's new book about Weather Underground gal Kathy Boudin: How many know that one of the ringleaders of the failed insugency, Kathy Boudin, was the daughter of a brilliant, philandering lawyer, Leonard Boudin, once famous for defending accused Communist spies as well as Paul Robeson, Benjamin Spock and Daniel Ellsberg? Or that her mother stuck by her man, even inviting his lovers to cocktail parties, then tried to commit suicide? Or that her brother Michael rebelled by becoming a federal judge with strongly conservative views? ... From the 1930s through the 1950s, Leonard Boudin used his talents to serve a party that blinded itself to the awesome butchery of Lenin and Stalin. Then his daughter persuaded herself that the cause of liberation required her to blast apart a bathroom in the U.S. Capital. .. The whole New Left was a movement famously led by privleged young people who clashed with their parents. Many, like Boudin were 'red-diaper babies.' * From a Christopher Hitchens review of a new David Horowitz book: Quarrels on the left have a tendency to become miniature treason trials, replete with all kinds of denunciation. There’s a general tendency -- not by any means confined to radicals but in some way specially associated with them -- to believe that once the lowest motive for a dissenting position has been found, it must in some way be the real one ... No matter what the shortcomings of U.S. policy may have been in the post-2001 crisis, it is clear at least to me that much of the left has disgraced itself either by soft-headed neutralism or, in the case of a very noticeable minority, by something rather like open sympathy for the enemies of civilization ... There really is a cultural layer, in academia as well as outside it, that considers Joseph McCarthy to have been far more opprobrious than Josef Stalin... Well, heaven praise Hitchens for being so sensible. But still: There's nothing quite like lefties when they start blazing away at each other, is there? Back when we were kids dipping our toes in the NYC arts-and-ideas worlds, did you expect to find this kind of thing to be quite as common as it in fact turned out to be? All these vicious, often ad-hominem debates over minuscule pieces of leftist turf -- I found it hard to believe that anyone could take them seriously. Hey, it's a big country; room enough here for plenty of points of view -- such was my initial reaction. But these people seemed... posted by Michael at November 17, 2003 | perma-link | (8) comments