The Uses and Disadvantages of Historovox For Life

by John Holbo on March 2, 2019

Corey caught flack for his “Historovox” piece. I have since been intermittently failing to write a useful response. Maybe this one will go better.

There are two thoughts behind the piece.

1) Trump is weak.

2) ‘Historovox’ affords a distorted view.

The connection – the thesis – is that,

3) Because 2, many have been slow to see 1.

If 1 and 2 are true, this is plausible. But 1 and 2 are such distinct thoughts that the link – even if it holds – doesn’t hold the piece together. There are too many angles of pushback and complication. Dealing with 1 and 2 together is too hard. To put it another way: Corey’s piece is framed kind of like a proof of 2, via 1. But since you need 3 for the proof, and 2 for 3, it’s kind of circular. Or is it? In fact it needn’t be viciously so. You know what? I suggest we pocket 3 as interesting, but hard to gauge. Think about 1 and 2 separately. In this post I will talk about just 2. [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: reflections

by Chris Bertram on February 24, 2019

Reflections-3

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The Historovox Complex

by Corey Robin on February 20, 2019

I’ve got a new gig at New York Magazine, where I’ll be a regular contributor, writing on politics and other matters. Here, in my first post, I tackle “the Historovox” (my wife Laura came up with the phrase), that complex of journalism and academic research that we increasingly see at places like VoxFiveThirtyEight, and elsewhere. Long story, short: while I firmly believe in academics writing for the public sphere—Crooked Timber remains the Gold Standard as far as I’m concerned—there are better and worse ways to do it. This should be a topic of interest to lots of folks around here, and I’m grateful to Henry for offering his initial thoughts on the matter to me, though in retrospect I wish I had incorporated one of his points.

Here are some excerpts:


There’s a bad synergy at work in the Historovox — as I call this complex of scholars and journalists — between the short-termism of the news cycle and the longue durée-ism of the academy. Short-term interests and partisan concerns still drive reporting and commentary. But where the day’s news once would have been narrated as a series of events, the Historovox brings together those events in a pseudo-academic frame that treats them as symptoms of deeper patterns and long-term developments. Unconstrained by the protocols of academe or journalism, but drawing on the authority of the first for the sake of the second, the Historovox skims histories of the New Deal or rifles through abstracts of meta-analysis found in JSTOR to push whatever the latest line happens to be.


When academic knowledge is on tap for the media, the result is not a fusion of the best of academia and the best of journalism but the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, we get the whiplash of superficial commentary: For two years, America was on the verge of authoritarianism; now it’s not. On the other hand, we get the determinism that haunts so much academic knowledge. When the contingencies of a day’s news cycle are overlaid with the laws of social science or whatever ancient formation is trending in the precincts of academic historiography, the political world can come to seem more static than it is. Toss in the partisan agendas of the media and academia, and the effects are as dizzying as they are deadening: a news cycle that’s said to reflect the universal laws of the political universe where the laws of the political universe change with every news cycle.



The job of the scholar is not to offer her expertise to fit the needs of the pundit class. It’s to call those needs into question, not to provide different answers to the same questions but to raise the questions that aren’t being asked.


Everyone knows and cites Orwell’s famous adage: “To see what is front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Less cited is what follows: “One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it.” To see what’s right in front of one’s nose doesn’t mean seeing without ideology. It means keeping track of how we think and have thought about things, being mindful of what was once on the table and what has disappeared from view. It means avoiding the gods of the present.


The job of the scholar, in other words, is to resist the tyranny of the now. That requires something different than knowledge of the past; indeed, historians have proven all too useful to the Historovox, which is constantly looking for academic warrants to say what its denizens always and already believe. No, the job of the scholar is to recall and retrieve what the Marxist critic Walter Benjamin described as “every image of the past that is not recognized by the present.” The task is not to provide useful knowledge to the present; it is to insist on, to keep a record of, the most seemingly useless counter-knowledge from the past — for the sake of an as-yet-to-be imagined future.



The whole thing is here.

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The UK takes a step toward tyranny

by Chris Bertram on February 20, 2019

The UK Home Secretary, Sayid Javid, has decided to revoke the citizenship of Shamima Begum, who notoriously travelled to Syria at the age of fifteen with two companions and married an ISIS fighter. She is now in a Syrian refugee camp, has now given birth to a child and was reportedly keen on returning to the UK. Begum has given interviews saying that she regrets nothing and that she wasn’t “fazed” by seen the severed heads of those murdered by Daesh. Not an appealing character, but, given that she was groomed as a child by a criminal gang, one who might have been seen as a victim in other circumstances.

The UK government has given itself the power to deprive people of citizenship where this is “conducive to the public good” but the law up to now had been that they had to be satisfied that the person would not be rendered stateless. After all, as we know, if citizenship is the right to have right, statelessness is a condition of near rightlessness. In the present case, they seem to be claiming that a person born in the UK who acquired British nationality at birth can be deprived of citizenship because she is entitled to Bangladeshi nationality through her mother. Shamima Begum has never been to Bangladesh and has no connection to the country. Though her case involves terrorism the UK has also begun to use citizenship deprivation in cases involving “serious criminality”, a vague category that is capable of being defined downwards (as it was when Javid spoke about a group of people recently deported to Jamaica).

Millions of people born in the UK and holding British nationality currently have “access to” another citizenship. It may be Irish citizenship (the entire nationalist population of Northern Ireland!). It may be Israeli citizenship through the law of return. It may be the citizenship of some country in Britain’s former empire, such as Bangladesh. The new expansions of citizenship deprivation theoretically expose all of them to the possibility of exile and banishment to another country should they be convicted of serious crime. The immigration regime has long been one where the rule of law is muted, where due process is little more than what the government says it is, and where means of appeal and assertion of rights are limited. By bringing millions of people into the ambit of such a regime, you render them exposed to a system of arbitrary punishment decided upon by a minister. There are two ways to look at this: either millions of ordinary people are subject to tyranny, or they would never do that to ordinary white people, only to those with a “funny tinge”. Either way lies an appalling vista.

Update: I’ve written a longer blog (and with improved legal information) at the London Review of Books blog.

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Wit’s End

by John Holbo on February 18, 2019

I’m reading two books called Wit’s End at the same time, which deserves a prize, or I am committing Yvor Winter’s Imitative Fallacy. The first is witzend [amazon associates link]. The second is Wit’s End: What Wit Is, How It Works, and Why We Need It[amazon], by James Geary. [click to continue…]

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Adorno in America

by Corey Robin on February 15, 2019

The history of the Frankfurt School in America is usually told as a story of one-way traffic. The question being: What did America get from the Frankfurt School? The answer usually offered: a lot! We got Marcuse, Neumann, Lowenthal, Fromm, and, for a time, Horkheimer and Adorno (who ultimately went back to Germany after the war)—the whole array of émigré culture that helped transform the United States from a provincial outpost of arts and letters into a polyglot Parnassus of the world.

The wonderfully counter-intuitive and heterodox question that animates Eric Oberle’s Theodor Adorno and the Century of Negative Identity is: what did the Frankfurt School get from America? [click to continue…]

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[The below text is a short memo I presented for a workshop on a left-liberal financial foreign policy for the US last week.]

The US left is starting to come to grips with the relationship between democracy and inequality. This builds on a variety of academic work over the last several years – most prominently Thomas Piketty’s book, but also work by other academics such as Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman – which maps the growth in wealth and income inequality across rich countries, and how marked it has been in market-liberal countries such as the US. But these are no longer academic debates: they are being taken up by politicians within the Democratic party, creating a new dynamic of intra-party competition. Proposals by left-leaning politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are not only notable in themselves, but in how they are shifting the center of gravity, so that more centrist politicians too are taking them up. [click to continue…]

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Jacques Callot, “The Temptation of St. Anthony”

by John Holbo on February 11, 2019

I’m done with Art Young, but I had an afterthought. My final quote from Young mentioned earlier imaginative greats – like Jacques Callot. In my experience, everyone knows about Hieronymous Bosch but, oddly, fewer are familiar with Callot. So I uploaded one of his more impressive pieces to Flickr (I just snagged it from Wikimedia). I can’t say it’s Seussian, exactly. But it’s pretty great old stuff. From 1635.

The Temptation of Saint Anthony, Jacques Callot

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Sunday photoblogging: The Apple Tree

by Chris Bertram on February 10, 2019

The Apple Tree

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Politics and Forgiveness – a Proposal

by John Holbo on February 9, 2019

Governor Ralph Northam is fighting to stay, so he says, because the alternative is being unfairly tarred for life as a racist. (Sorry, I can’t find the quote. Correct me if I’m wrong. But somewhere in this blizzard of articles on the controversy he has said something to that effect. He is obviously thinking it.) This is so backwards. The correct solution is he should leave and, on the way out the door, he gets sympathy for his political misfortune and … yes, forgiveness and absolution. Go, and sin no more. But go.

He needs to leave, not because of what is or isn’t in his heart – or was or wasn’t in his heart – but because his continued presence makes it impossible for Democrats to take a strong, consistent, stand against racism. If any Democrat knows that, by staying in office, they hinder – rather than helping – he or she should step back for the good of the party, on behalf of the values it stands for. That said, there is no reason on earth to doubt that Northam is a different man from the one in that picture. Morally. It’s common sense – not just common courtesy – to believe he’s changed and would not do that today because he knows better. (That guy in the picture was a Gillespie voter, for sure.) [click to continue…]

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Today I conclude my reflections on Art Young, occasioned by the great new book about him [amazon associates link]. For those disinclined to purchase, I found a copy of one of his books, On My Way (1928), in free PDF form. (Doc announces itself as legal. No copyright renewal, so it seems.) Anyway, in honor of my earlier, literary maps post: say! the endpapers make a swell map!

But the Art path I shall trace in this post is not from Monroe, WI, to Bethel, Conn. A few years back I published a survey article on ‘caricature and comics‘. On the one hand, caricature is a minor art form – not necessarily low but distinctly niche. Funny line drawings of celebrities. On the other hand, formally, caricature is very old and very broad. This produces categorial dissonance. Caricature techniques are at the root of styles we don’t think of as caricature. This is the main thesis of Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, by the by. (No one seems to have noticed, but it’s true.)

In that essay I make some points with reference to the case of caricaturist-turned-Expressionist, Lyonel Feininger, but I could have used Art Young.

But let me start at the beginning, regarding Young. I like reading stories of youthful artistic influence, so here is his, pieced together from the new book and other sources. [click to continue…]

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Brexit top of the pops.

by Harry on February 3, 2019

I’ve pretty much accepted that brexit of some form will happen, and the task for responsible MPs now is to make it as soft as possible. That includes leaving in name only—thus preserving free movement of peoples. If the brexiteers want to end immigration let them propose a referendum on that. I’ll do a separate post on the plot to split to leave the Labour Party (soonish, maybe).

So, if it is going to happen, can we have a campaign for an appropriate song to campaign for being #1 on March 29th? The problem is, which one? My suggestions reveal when I stopped listening to new music, which revelation will surprise no-one—but your suggestions can widen the scope.

I do have a genuine, serious, suggestion, which I’ll make later, and maybe someone will bring it up here, but for now, let your imaginations run away with you.

A few of my suggestions (some are obvious, some are ironic, some quite oblique, but the British are renowned for their enjoyment of enigmatic tests, so they’d be able to work them out—think of it as a large-scale version of Round Britain Quiz):

Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the UK
TRB: Power in the Darkness
Pink Floyd: The Post War Dream
Pink Floyd: We Don’t Need No Education (one of exactly 3 songs I can remember my dad singing around the house in my youth).
The Double Deckers kids: Get On Board
Flanagan and Allen: Underneath the Arches
Leon Rosselson: Palaces of Gold
Stiff Little Fingers: Alternative Ulster
Bucks Fizz: Making Your Mind Up
Queen: We are the Champions
Bruce Springsteen: Born in the USA
Jake Thackray: The Brigadier
Wings: Band on the Run
Deep Purple: Smoke on the Water

Well, you get the idea….

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Sunday photoblogging: stairwell, Tate Britain

by Chris Bertram on February 3, 2019

Stairwell, Tate Britain

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Jeremy Hardy is dead

by Harry on February 1, 2019

When I reached my late thirties I became very anxious about the possibility that I would never find anyone my age or younger funny. At the time, all the comedians I loved were considerably older than me and, for the most part, I’d liked them for years. I did, always, hold in my head that slender woman with long hair who had driven me and a bunch of Trots into fits of laughter sometime in the late 80’s and who had to be around my age.

I had missed the comedy boom in the UK (driven by people around my age) because I was out of the country, and foreign media culture was inaccessible in the States. (And, I’m sorry, but I struggle to think of an American television or radio show that I find funny—even Roseanne, which was entirely brilliant, wasn’t really brilliant because it was funny). Of course, now, I’ve learned to my relief that young(ish) people can be really funny, and I feel entirely relaxed about living a long life if that’s what fate has in store. The first step was first listening to Jeremy Hardy on The News Quiz, and, after a long time of finding him hilarious and lovable, discovering that he was about 15 years younger than his comic persona—only a couple of years my senior! And then that he was friends with Linda Smith who was also 15 years younger than her comic persona! I sometimes wondered whether you had to (roughly) share his politics to find him funny: my evidence against this is that my friend from secondary school who says she’s voted for every major political party loved him as much as I do and, now, Hugo Rifkind’s charming twit.

Here are two of my favorites. FIrst, Jeremy Hardy singing Hallelujah in the style of George Formby.

And here he is chatting with Mark Steel. A long, rambling, chat about fame.

If, as I doubt, there is an afterlife, it has become a much more realistic utopia, much funnier, and enormously less tuneful, in the past couple of weeks.

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At least you can leave

by Maria on January 31, 2019

London is the city of leaving do’s. There’s a real push on to get out before it all gets worse. This morning I was chatting with a Swedish friend who leaves on Tuesday, telling her how much freer and more energetic she’ll feel once she’s not carrying around the mental load of daily FUD that comes from just living here, now. My friend cut across the faux cheery bullshit and said “I don’t feel safe here, any more. There’s no limit to what they can do.”

There’s a conversation I’ve had with several British friends. We’ll all be moaning about Brexit affecting us and how the UK’s dysfunctional politics means there is no way to express this electorally, and then they’ll say; “But you’re lucky. At least you can leave.” [click to continue…]

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