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John Holbo

Le Père Goriot

by John Holbo on July 16, 2014

My recent caricature researchs got me in the mood for more of Daumier’s Paris. I listened to an audiobook version of Honoré de Balzac’s most famous novel. Good, but I’m not exactly rushing out to read the rest of the series. I understand that “la comédie humaine” is not a promise of lots of laughs, but I was expecting more laughs. I had been expecting a prose Daumier. Instead Balzac is a mix of cynical realism and gothic or sentimental melodrama. (I am sure I am not the first to notice this!) [click to continue…]

Dreams and Plagiarism

by John Holbo on July 16, 2014

Been traveling. Bit of jetlag. Woke. I had been having the most exciting dream and was at the most thrilling part when … I woke up. I couldn’t remember anything, except I had exited at a total cliffhanger point in a very elaborate story. Like knowing your favorite tv show has been cancelled before the final season, but not knowing what your favorite show is. I tried to go back to sleep, without hope, or success. Damn.

File this one in: annals of oddly objectless intentionally. Wanting to know how it ended.

Maybe I could start a Kickstarter campaign.

If only Joss Whedon had written and directed my dream, I’d have his fans on my side.

But he didn’t, and other people’s dreams are boring, I know. In other news: Zizek isn’t looking like an especially responsible scholar. I find the explanation that ‘a friend’ sent him a long passage cribbed from a white supremacist book review and told him ‘he could use it freely’, in addition to being insufficient, rather incredible. With ‘friends’ who trick you into plagiarizing white supremacists, who needs enemies?

Ben Smith has a good suggestion, but I think I can improve it. The conservatives he wants to call ‘liberty conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-freedom conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘freedom conservatives’.) The conservatives he wants to call ‘freedom conservatives’ should be called ‘anti-liberty conservatives’ (to signal that they are opposed to the people Smith calls ‘liberty conservatives’). [click to continue…]

Vast, Conservative Literary-Persecution Complex

by John Holbo on July 8, 2014

It’s lazy days of summer, so here’s some low-hanging fruit: a long essay by Adam Bellow at NR, advocating for a conservative literary counter-culture to the totalitarian thing we’ve got now.

What is it that Bellow actually wants? Is it: let a thousand flowers bloom, so long as they are all paranoid dystopias about the liberal fascist not-so-distant-future? Surely not. A new T.S. Eliot? But what’s stopping him? Ignatius P. Reilly, but not treated like some sort of dunce? What? Consider this bit: [click to continue…]

Let Freedom Ring!

by John Holbo on July 4, 2014

Well, that didn’t take long. It’s been 72 hours, and the Supremes have flipped from arguing that the administration could have been more accommodating to signing a temporary injunction on behalf of a plaintiff, refusing the terms of the accommodation. Kevin Drum has it about right: “It’s worth noting that quite aside from whether you agree with the Hobby Lobby decision, this is shameful behavior from the conservatives on the court. As near as I can tell, they’re now playing PR games worthy of a seasoned politico, deliberately releasing a seemingly narrow opinion in order to generate a certain kind of coverage, and then following it up later in the sure knowledge that its “revisions” won’t get nearly as much attention.”

Then again, as PR, this seems doomed to backfire generally. Whatever one makes of the legalities, there’s no missing the spirit in which these decisions are being celebrated on the right. It’s hard to believe many women voters will be inclined to say ‘well, if religious liberty means my boss gets to interfere with me getting what the law says I have a right to, in ways that feel very private and non-work-related, without that technically being a violation of my rights, I guess that’s alright. I guess my boss is exercising his rights, even though it feels like I’m taking a little symbolic walk of shame here!’ Conservatives are working hard to console themselves for recent cultural and legislative losses by building a relatively small, largely symbolic patriarchal dominance display out of ‘religious liberty’. But I’m guessing most women voters are not interested in playing the role conservatives want to cast them in here – i.e. being the loose woman rightfully, if only symbolically, scourged by the spiritually superior employer, all in the name of ‘liberty’. There is no way to make this little morality play palatable to conservatives without making it unpalatable to most women. A lot of conservatives are taking a ‘what’s the big deal!’ line, while at the same time making it clear that, to them, this is a big deal. It’s really not realistic to suppose women will be more immune to the symbolism of the drama than conservatives themselves, however it plays out in terms of provision of birth control to women who need it.

Happy 4th of July! Freedom is a great thing, if only we could agree what it is!

UPDATE: it occurs to me someone is going to complain that I’m cruelly indifferent to the real harm done to some poor women by these recent decisions. In fact, I’m aware of that. It’s really bad and I hope some workaround is found. It’s not clear one will be, which is a damn shame. Nevertheless, the point of the post is that people are getting exercised by the symbolism of the victory, one way or the other. There is no possible symbolism, along these lines, that will please conservatives, that won’t displease most women, because conservatives are in the market for a way to dominate women, in as public a way as possible, while reassuring themselves this is all just ‘liberty’. And most women aren’t in the market for some way to be publicly subordinated, under cover of ‘liberty’, I’ll bet. In the best case, it will just be symbolic. Who has to sign what piece of paper, etc., rather than women actually not getting certain goods the law promised them. But the very thing that makes it acceptable to conservatives, even if it’s symbolic, is going to make it unacceptable to women, even if it’s symbolic. So: good luck with that outreach to women, conservatives.

Belle and I are on vacation, with intermittent internet. But sea and sun are lovely.

Crooked Timber needs a Hobby Lobby thread, since everyone’s got one. (But don’t expect to hear from me in comments. Wi-fi could die any minute.) You will not be surprised to hear I am sympathetic to Ginsburg’s much-quoted ‘startling breadth’ assessment. Here’s my semi-original question, bouncing off this assessment, via the dissent’s footnote 1.

“The Court insists it has held none of these [startlingly broad] things, for another less restrictive alternative is at hand: extending an existing accommodation, currently limited to religious nonprofit organizations, to encompass commercial enterprises. See ante, at 3–4. With that accommodation extended, the Court asserts, “women would still be entitled to all [Food and Drug Administration]-approved contraceptives without cost sharing.” Ante, at 4. In the end, however, the Court is not so sure. In stark contrast to the Court’s initial emphasis on this accommodation, it ultimately declines to decide whether the highlighted accommodation is even lawful. See ante, at 44 (“We do not decide today whether an approach of this type complies with RFRA . . . .”).”

So: Hobby Lobby wins because Obamacare is not compliant with RFRA because of a less restrictive route not taken. But it could turn out that this less restrictive approach is itself not compliant with RFRA, i.e. is not a route after all. (Cases concerning this are still pending, as I understand it.) What if the Supremes decide this is so (as they are expressly reserving the right to do)? Could it turn out that there is no ‘least restrictive’ RFRA option, due to a sort of judicial uncertainty principle, arising out of the order in which the cases are taken up? That is, the court is really now saying, not that there is a less restrictive option, but that they are not yet sure there is NOT a less restrictive option? Either the cat will be dead when they open the box of their own pending decision about the accommodations for religious nonprofits, or it won’t be. But, until we open the box, there isn’t a legal fact of the matter. But surely there is no chance that they will decide in favor of the plaintiffs in pending religious nonprofit cases and thereby retroactively falsify the basis for their decision in favor of Hobby Lobby?

Or possibly I’m jetlagged.

The Rhetoric of Having Been Wrong

by John Holbo on June 19, 2014

There’s a meta-ish debate going on about who should and shouldn’t have rightful standing to opine about whether the US should do something about the horrible situation in Iraq. Meta-ish debates have a tendency to make things sound complicated, when this is pretty simple.

Either the neocons know they were wrong last time, or they don’t.

If you are The Boy Who Cried Wolf, and you don’t know it, you are useless, for wolf crying purposes.

If, on the other hand, you know you were wrong before, and you know everyone else knows, but you think you are right this time, and you want to warn everyone, you won’t say ‘now is not the time to re-litigate whether I was perfectly right in the past concerning each and every last wolf.’ No, you will say something reasonable, like: ‘I know you have no reason to trust me, given how wrong I was before in a case that looked an awful lot like this one. I am so sorry for the damage I have done, but I will be even sorrier if the fact that you can’t trust me means even more damage is done. That will be my fault, too, if it happens, so please …’

There is, after all, such a thing as common sense.

I was wrong about Iraq. I was one of those Kenneth Pollack-reading liberal queasyhawks, to my ongoing shame.

Genre Police, Arrest This Man

by John Holbo on June 14, 2014

More bits that came up, researching caricature. No chance in hell this is going to squeeze into the final piece, but Judith Wechsler, A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th Century Paris [amazon], tells a good story.

OK, just one detail. Wechsler makes the correct point that caricature goes with mime. She writes about the Théâtre des Funambules. Thus we learn:

The Funambules was a silent theatre. Legislation of 1806 obliged theatres to stay within their assigned genres: pantomimes were forbidden to use dialogue … The silence of this theatre became its trademark and strength. In the prolonged period of censorship until 1830 and from 1835 to its demolition in 1863, it was able to introduce subversive notes through ‘gait, glance, and gesture’. (44)

I love the idea of genre police. The idea that you would get arrested for violating genre rules. Genre jail. ‘What’re you in for?’ Also, I think someone should make a movie – possibly a silent movie – about ‘Mouthy the Mime’, a Parisian Pierrot who simply will not shut up, being chased all over Paris by the genre gendarmerie. I recommend he be played by Bobcat Goldthwait.

What’s The Score?

by John Holbo on June 11, 2014

Wow, Cantor out.

So I click over to see the joy at RedState. Erick Erickson is explaining that it’s less crazy than it seems for primary voters to boot a guy with a 95% rating from the American Conservative Union. “Heritage Action for America takes a more comprehensive approach to its scorecard, it does not try to help Republican leadership look good, and is a better barometer of a congressman’s conservativeness.” Cantor only got a 53% from Heritage.

Look at the comprehensive Heritage scoring, from top to bottom. Only Mike Lee gets 100%. A lot of Republicans don’t break 50%. McCain gets 51%. I’m not going to bother, but if you averaged it all out, I think it would turn out America is about 20% conservative, which seems barometrically low. How did they score this thing? There doesn’t seem to be any information on the site about how the scoring was done. (I appreciate that scoring every single vote means it’s pretty complicated, but still, shouldn’t they have guidelines about what ‘conservative’ means to them?) Anyone know?

Gesture Drawing

by John Holbo on June 9, 2014

Good discussion for my caricature post. I ended up saying stuff in comments about the Carracci, who are sometimes thought to have been the first portrait caricaturists. They taught quick-draw caricature, as an exercise, in their academy.

I don’t really go for all that “The Loves of the Gods” jazz. (It’s nice and all … if you like that sort of thing.) So I was very pleasantly surprised to discover just how much I like Annibale’s drawings. This book – The Drawings of Annibale Carracci – is amazing!

In spite of Annibale’s meticulous care in drawing realistically described and articulated forms, what sets him apart and places him in the category of great graphic artists is his ability to set down a few strokes to imply an entire scene … No one before Annibale, and only Rembrandt after him surpassed his genius for subtle suggestion.

So very true! Here, for example, is a preliminary sketch for the “Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne” panel.

annibale

I guess they told him he couldn’t include Batwoman like that. DC would have sued.

Anyway, I don’t think I’ve seen, earlier, such a loose, abstract style of gesture drawing, as a way of working out a composition. Probably that is just my ignorance of the history of drawing, but this book really got me interested in Baroque painting, in an archeological sense: all the different layers of cartoon behind it, from the very rough to the very tight. Neat stuff, I say.

Caricature

by John Holbo on June 7, 2014

I’ve been writing a survey article on “Caricature” for a forthcoming anthology on comics. I did that thing where you do too much research? And actually you don’t have that many words to play with? So sad.

Baudelaire is quite a clever fellow, of course, but it turns out the most sophisticated definition of ‘caricature’ comes from Walt Disney: “The true interpretation of caricature is the exaggeration of an illusion of the actual; or the sensation of the actual put into action.” That’s basically Ernst Gombrich’s philosophy of caricature – which is the correct one! – condensed. And Disney said it first.

I found part the quote in Walt Stanchfield, Drawn to Life [amazon], and was rather proud of my discovery. But it turns out it comes from a 1935 memo to Don Graham, which someone has posted online in its entirety. So I’m later to the party than I thought. Rats.

One thing that makes the topic slippery is that you can get bogged down in arguments over firsts. It’s rather traditional to start with Leonardo’s grotesque heads. But why not not start with a Paleolithic ‘venus’ figurine? Basically, you start using ‘caricature’ as a synonym for style, so all art is caricature. Probably you don’t want to go there – or just briefly.

But here’s a possible ‘who’s first?’ game we can play. What is the earliest case concerning which the means survive for us to enjoy, today, the classic caricature viewer experience? The amused moment of personal recognition – simultaneous seeing of likeness in not-likeness? I submit one should start with this portrait of Rudolf II, then look at Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus (1590). You can see it in the wheat eyebrows and radish eyebags. “Vaster than emperors, and more slow,” you might say.

Obviously it’s only our historical bad luck if we can’t find anything earlier. Can you push it back further?

Bonus points for earnestly wringing your hands about whether, by hinting that we can see what Rudolf ‘really’ looked like in the Heintz painting, I am implicated in a pernicious ideology of naive realism. Bless you, in advance, for your concern!

Big Love – Oh Brunhilda Edition

by John Holbo on May 18, 2014

If you think there’s the slightest chance that you would enjoy a book about Maurice Noble, who designed the backgrounds for all your favorite Warner Brothers cartoons (and a bunch of other animated works you love), you should get The Noble Approach: Art and Designs of Maurice Noble [amazon]. [click to continue…]

From The Mouths of Babes

by John Holbo on May 16, 2014

The 10-year old, upon seeing part of the trailer for Godzilla. “What if it has … Godzuki in it!” (Looks at me with dum-dum-DUM! expression, wide-eyed!)

Later she tells me she and her friend are writing another storybook. What is her book called? “It’s called ‘And Then!’”

I think “And Then!” is the best title for a story ever. And I tell her so. She’s like: “What? What’s so great about it?”

Makessense Stop!

by John Holbo on May 13, 2014

When I wasn’t MOOC’ing my heart out this semester, I was trying to help my students improve their writing. In my classes that means: writing fairly short essays that are supposed to contain arguments. The real challenge is getting through to the students who are very bad at this, despite really trying. Good, hardworking students are easy to teach. You point out what’s wrong and they don’t do it anymore, most days. But the hardworking student who persists in submitting terrible stuff can be a real puzzle. You pin and label individual errors. But they just do it again. Teaching ‘informal reasoning’ doesn’t help, mostly. Students who have trouble seeing that there are major problems with their arguments – up to and including: you have no argument – are not assisted by lists of fallacies.

Teaching fallacies is mostly helpful for good students, even though it seems very basic. You are giving names to things they already get, thereby sharpening existing perception. The bad students, by contrast, have more of an ‘if it were a bear, it would have bitten you’ problem. Providing labels – brown, black, grizzly – is not going to help with ‘why did you completely miss it?’ [click to continue…]

Political Correctness: A Proposed Definition

by John Holbo on May 1, 2014

For the last month or so ‘political correctness’ – the term – has been bugging me. Perhaps there’s been a slight uptick in usage on conservative sites and blogs, due to some combination of Cliven Bundy, Brendan Eich and Donald Sterling. But really the problem is chronic.

Why did ‘political correctness’, which is so … Dinesh D’Souza circa 1991 … become an evergreen right-wing complaint? [click to continue…]