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Saturday, December 11, 2004

Studying History
Friedrich von Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards, Since my retirement from active blogging at 2Blowhards, I’ve spent most of my leisure time reading history. Mostly, that’s meant reading European history, with a focus on those periods and locations that produced interesting visual art. My ultimate goal is to better understand the general cultural conditions surrounding the creation of great visual art, a subject I’ve long been curious about. Well, that’s my ‘highflown’ goal, anyway. Speaking in more lowdown terms, I get a kick out of the out-and-out weirdness of the past. By weirdness, I of course mean many things. One form of weirdness I enjoy consists of examples of just how the past was really not the same as contemporary society. For example, I read the other day that 12th century aristocratic factions in Florence more or less ‘owned’ (very much in the street-gang sense of the word) neighborhoods in the city. They symbolized their dominance over their ‘turf’ by building observation-and-fighting towers that stood as much as 150-200 feet tall (manned, in times of tension, by crossbowmen). At the peak of this phenomenon, roughly the year 1200, something like two hundred of these towers bristled up out of the Florentine skyline. (And remember, medieval Florence was a pretty small place.) How’d you like to be a middle-class shop-owner trying to assert your civic rights at street level with all those crossbow platforms looming above you? So if you read about the faction-politics of medieval Florence, thinking that it is just one more typical fight over who would run City Hall and hand out the patronage jobs, you might not be catching all the nuances. (My reading also makes me wonder if people studying political theory have spent enough time looking at medieval Italian city-states. They would seem to offer laboratory conditions for examining societies functioning in an environment that approximated a Hobbesian ‘state-of-nature’ and yet which also managed to be hotbeds (if rather scary hotbeds) of cultural and economic creativity. Warning: I may revisit this thought in a subsequent posting.) Another form of weirdness I treasure is pretty much the polar opposite of the first: spotting highly recognizable personalities operating in cultures and thought-systems rather alien to those of the present day. One is a personality type I would call ‘The Plain-Talking Engineer’ which I found inhabiting the body of one Walter of Henley, a farm-manager and author of a treatise on agriculture in 13th century England. According to Jean Gimpel in his book, “The Medieval Machine”: Walter of Henley is, quite rightly, often quoted in history books as one of the first men known to have applied experimental methods to agriculture. His writings reveal a very independent character bound by no tradition; he never hesitated to defend the unorthodox views resulting from his personal observations, and he sometimes invited his audience to verify these theories for themselves: “…Change yearly your seed corn at Michaelsmas[. For] more increase shall you have of the seed that grew upon another man’s land... posted by Friedrich at December 11, 2004 | perma-link | (22) comments

Friday, December 10, 2004

Fact Attack
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- A few amazin' fact-nuggets from recent issues of The Economist: In rural Peru, 24% of young women say they lost their virginity to a rapist. In rural Uttar Pradesh (in India), 83% of married women surveyed said that before they moved in with their husbands, they didn't know how women become pregnant. Average life expectency in Zimbabwe has plunged from 61 years in 1990 to 34 years today. AIDS is the most important cause of this decline. Jamaica has laws on the books that punish gay sex with up to ten years in prison. At political rallies two years ago, Jamaica Labour party supporters played a recording of "Chi Chi Man," a song about killing and setting fire to gay men. "The 4.9% of families in America with net worth of $1 million or more accounted for 42% of all donations to charitable organizations ... As the size of the estates rises, the proportion going to heirs shrinks and the share left to charity increases ... The estates of $20 million and more left an average of 49% of their value to charity and 21% to heirs, the rest going in taxes." The Economist's website is here. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 10, 2004 | perma-link | (11) comments

Crooked Timber
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- No posting from me today (so far anyway) because I've been having a good (if long-winded) time over at Crooked Timber. The brainy and genial John Holbo posted about academia, lefties, conservatives, and diversity; along with a zillion other people, I left a comment on his posting. John posted anew; and along with a zillion other people I left another comment. The first back-and-forth is here; the second is here. Many thanks to John Holbo -- I'm looking forward to more such. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 10, 2004 | perma-link | (15) comments

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Pop Quiz o' the Day
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Get out your pencils. Is a Barcolounger an example of good design? Is a papasan? Do you own, or would you buy, one or the other? Why or why not? (max. one page, single spaced) Best, Dr. Moop Ron Popeil "Endowed" Professor of Practical Design and David Brooks EZ-Chair of Department of Late Capitalist Pop Sociology College of the Nacirema... posted by Fenster at December 9, 2004 | perma-link | (44) comments

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

1000 Words -- The Fartiste
Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- Have you ever run across the 19th century French music-hall star Joseph Pujol? He was quite a phenonemon, a huge star who was known as "le petomane," or "the fartiste." That's right: Pujol was a specialty act, and virtuoso farting was his specialty. He had a long and busy career, and performed his act all over France. He had his greatest success at the Moulin Rouge, where he outgrossed (if that's the right word) the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt. Here's a description of Pujol's opening night at the Moulin Rouge: Then Le Petomane performed some imitations, using the simple, honest format of announcing and then demonstrating. He displayed his wide sonic range with tenor, baritone, and bass fart sounds. He imitated the farts of a little girl, a mother-in-law, a bride on her wedding night (tiny), the same bride the day after (loud), and a mason (dry-- "no cement"). He imitated thunder, cannons ("Gunners stand by your guns! Ready-- fire!!"), and even the sound of a dressmaker tearing two yards of calico (a full 10-second rip). After the imitations, Le Petomane popped backstage to put one end of a yard-long rubber tube into his anus. He returned and smoked a cigarette from this tube, after which he used it to play a couple of tunes on a song flute. For his finale he removed the rubber tube, blew out some of the gas-jet footlights from a safe distance away, and then led the audience in a rousing sing- along. Here's one account of Pujol; here's another; here's a third. Those funky Frenchies: Marseilles even commemorates its native son with a "Rue Pujol." All this reminds me of a passage in Jean Renoir's biography of his painter father. (A wonderful book, by the way.) Jean, who spent many childhood hours hanging around his father's bohemian models -- lucky boy -- wrote that one thing he recalled about the bedrooms of these legendary 19th century love goddesses was that they often smelled of full chamber pots. Best, Michael... posted by Michael at December 8, 2004 | perma-link | (23) comments

Michael Blowhard writes: Dear Blowhards -- * Blogging wannabes who have been holding back might want to eyeball MSN's new "Spaces" feature -- free and easy blogging, apparently. DesignObserver's Jessica Helfand reacts to the "Spaces" templates. * How do you guys respond to "Outsider Art"? Me, I even tend to like art that's merely in the Outsider style. I wonder if I find this kind of work so cheery because it has the DIY spirit. Garage-band rock makes me feel cheery in the same way. * Intellectual megastars Richard Posner and Gary Becker have started their own blog here. * The Village Voice's Wayne Barrett takes a peek behind the curtains of the showboating, charismatic charlatan that is Al Sharpton. Did Sharpton help take down Jesse Jackson, and how? Who is Marjorie Fields-Harris, and why was she able to buy both a new Cadillac and a new Mercedes? And has man-of-the-cloth Sharpton ever done anyone any selfless good? Sample passage: Strangely enough, it was Falwell in the TV debate who boasted that he operated a home for unwed mothers, an AIDS hospice, an adoption program, and a clinic for drug addicts, all in tiny Lynchburg, Virginia. When he asked if Sharpton was "involved" in even one similar effort, the reverend who's never had a church, or run a substantive social program, changed the subject. * Are you as amazed as I am by how often many leftists and libertarians refer back to first principles? I understand that we all need to check the compass from time to time. But there's a fanaticism about adhering to principle at all moments in some of the left and much of the libertarian world that gives me the willies. What are they afraid will happen if they stop policing their thoughts? I thought John Ray's discussion about the difference between always working from principle and ... well, the way life is usually lived was on the money. * Thanks to Dave Lull for pointing out Susie Bright's reaction to Toni Bentley's memoir, "The Surrender." Bright is amusing and appreciative even though she isn't wild about the book. Don't skip the comments on the posting. * Vdare's Bryanna Bevens delivers the bad (if predictable) news that Arizona's political class is doing its best to shoot down the state's recently-triumphant Proposition 200. Aren't our political elites supposed to be serving our interests, not defying them? The NYTimes reports that, despite being 10% of the population of France, Muslims are now in a majority in French prisons. * Jesse McKinley's piece about the finances of Broadway theater is an eye-opener. Startling fact: "No new play that has opened on Broadway in the last two and a half years has turned a meaningful profit." * I found these Flash ads at Nike's site amusing, and far more creative than most of what I see in movie theaters these days. * OGIC has discovered Kenji Mizoguchi's masterpiece Sansho the Bailiff, and is impressed. "Sansho" is one of my all-time... posted by Michael at December 8, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Tuesday, December 7, 2004

Without Preconceptions
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, Some years back, I was fortunate for a time to have a film critic as a friend and was therefore able to get into some opening night, and pre-opening night, screenings in New York. These were really interesting because they let you approach the film with virtually no preconceptions. Obviously there was "buzz" to contend with, but at least you didn't go in with the plot memorized and with a mental crib sheet firmly in place as to what the major reviewers thought. Also, these events gave you an unvarnished look at how the attendees themselves reacted. * I recalled this the other day with a slight shock when I read that Michael B. attended the opening night of Heaven's Gate. Darned if I wasn't there as well. Small world, Mike! It was a fascinating experience. I came to the film expecting the best, having fallen head over heels for The Deer Hunter, Cimino's earlier hit (I had not seen, and still have not seen, his first, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot). I recall the intermission, at which the champagne flowed freely, to be extraordinary sociology: all these semi-bigwigs walking around not knowing whether to trust the "buzz" or their own instincts (as the old saying goes "who are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"). And to tell the truth, I found myself having the same ambivalent reaction myself--"hmmm, Christopher Walken wearing a ton of makeup in the old West, maybe this is somehow . . . significant????" Anyway, just for the record, I saw 1941 this way, too, at a pre-opening night screening. And my reaction was much the same. Initial excitement, anxiety and confusion as the film unfolded and a final determination by the end that it was indeed a disaster. At the time I chalked it up to a feeling that comedy is simply ill-served by a big budget approach. While I still think there's some truth to that, it strikes me now that it was more the case that Spielberg himself just has a limited comdedic sense. So, while Michael may have found the original, long-version Heaven's Gate to have significant redeeming qualities, I ended up concluding that the problem with the film went way beyond the version. But, in the absence of preconceptions formed by critical commentary, not without some doubts and some heavy reflecting on my own instincts. Which reminds me that the best film critics must be very brave indeed. Best, Fenster * [note: the use of the term "you" in first paragraphs cribbed from Kael.]... posted by Fenster at December 7, 2004 | perma-link | (14) comments

Bad Writing. Obscure or Just Babble?
Fenster Moop writes: Dear Blowhards, As admirers of Denis Dutton, I am sure you are aware of the Bad Writing Awards he's given out in the past for academic writing that lacks that certain je ne sais quois of intelligibility. That's the award that was given to Judith Butler for the now-famous line: "The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power." But enough with the sarcasm, already! Now the empire strikes back with the publication of Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Sphere, a collection of essays that sets out to redeem a certain style of academic writing from its detractors. A review of the book summarizing its various arguments can be found here. So the challenge has been laid down. Is this writing dense-but-for-a-damn-good-reason, or just dense? Worse, is it babble, signifying (next to) nothing? As a non-academic, and a non-initiate, I wouldn't know. I suspect the worst, but I have only my common sense to guide me and, Lord knows, that's not nearly enough to get through the thicket. Maybe this stuff really is coded for a good reason? And in any event, while Dutton's award was hugely effective in puncturing pretensions, fair is fair, and the countercharge that non-initiates just don't get it deserves a response. So why not be empirical about it and put it to a test? It would seem to me to be a relatively easy matter to present academics wedded to this style of writing with some very dense passages from their own kind, asking them to "translate" back into standard English the best they can. We can then examine the "translations" to determine if in fact a significant measure of actual meaning made the synapse jump from brain to page to brain. Sort of like an academic version of the old children's game of whispering a message from one ear to the next to check for accuracy of transmission. I think it's a fair challenge. While scientists can make the claim that some of their ideas are simply untranslatable into standard English, I don't think pomo theorists go that far. Rather, I understand the claim to be: you may not understand it, but this dense code is simply a better, and more elegant, way for us to communicate with one another. If that's true, then some reasonable translation back to standard English ought to be possible, and we can measure accordingly whether the passages represent tough prose or gibberish. C'mon Denis! I have fifty... posted by Fenster at December 7, 2004 | perma-link | (21) comments