From the monthly archives:

November 2005

Go to Grad School!

by Brian on November 30, 2005

It’s around the time of year when undergraduates start thinking about graduate school, so naturally it’s the time of year for overheated blog posts on why going to grad school is meant to be a Very Bad Idea. The latest of these is from Dean Dad, who wants to Stop the Cycle of Abuse, i.e. stop people going to grad school. The reasons given are all fairly standard factoids – it’s a huge opportunity cost, it takes forever, and the job market is awful. None of these are good reasons, and it would be an awful decision to not apply to graduate schools because of posts like these.

Now it is true that going to grad school does block you off from doing many other things with your 20s, such as being a professional athelete. But for many people grad school days are some of the most enjoyable of their lives, so the fact they last a while is hardly a major cost. And the job market is, at least for a lot of grad students, much better than the horror stories you’ll find on blogs suggest. Here, for instance, are the placement records for recent years of the philosophy departments at Princeton, Rutgers, NYU and MIT, four of the best East Coast philosophy programs. Note that these are the complete records – they include everyone who graduated, not just those who got headline jobs.
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Should women work 80 hours a week?

by Harry on November 29, 2005

Laura takes on Linda Hirshman, standing up for those of us who think there is more to life than making loads of money and accumulating power. Laura is really pissed, and on a roll. Comment there.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell Seminar: Introduction

by Henry Farrell on November 29, 2005

Susanna Clarke’s novel, _Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell_ has been extraordinarily successful, and for good reason. It’s won both the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards, but has also won a vast readership among people who don’t usually care for fantasy. On the one hand, Neil Gaiman describes it as ” unquestionably the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years” (with the emphasis on the adjective ‘English’; see more below), on the other, Charles Palliser, author of the wonderful historical novel, _The Quincunx_, describes it as “absolutely compelling” and “an astonishing achievement.” We’ve been fans at _Crooked Timber_ since the book came out – not least because it has funny, voluminous and digressive “footnotes”: which seem near-perfectly calculated to appeal to a certain kind of academic.

In addition to writing JS&MN, Susanna has written three short stories set in the same (or a closely related?) setting, which were originally published in Patrick Nielsen Hayden‘s _Starlight_, _Starlight 2_ and _Starlight 3_ collections, as well as a “short short”: available on the book’s website. We’re delighted that Susanna has been kind enough to participate in a Crooked Timber seminar. “John Quiggin”: argues that the book returns to science fiction’s roots in the examination of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. “Maria Farrell”: argues that the book is a collision between the imagined Regency England of Jane Austen and romance novels on the one hand, and the real Regency England on the other. “Belle Waring”: asks who the narrator of the book is, and where the female magicians are (she speculates that the two questions may have converging answers). “John Holbo”: examines magic, irony, and Clarke’s depiction of servants. “Henry Farrell”: argues that the hidden story of JS&MN is a critique of English society. “Susanna Clarke”: responds to all the above.

Like previous CT seminars, this seminar is published under a Creative Commons licence, with no prejudice to any material quoted from _Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell_ or other texts under fair use principles. Comments are open to all posts; we encourage people with general comments to leave them on Susanna’s post. The seminar is also available in “PDF format”: for those who prefer to read it in cold print.

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The Magical-Industrial Revolution

by John Q on November 29, 2005

In a sense, science fiction is all about the Industrial Revolution. The genre begins with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, first published in 1818. Among the layers of meaning that can be read into this work the most obvious, pointed to by the subtitle, is an allegory of the Industrial Revolution, unleashing forces beyond the control of its creators. In one form or another, this has remained the central theme of the genre.

Counterposed to the Promethean theme of science fiction is the frankly reactionary medievalism of Tolkien and most of his successors (‘It is not unlikely that they [orcs] invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions have always delighted them’).

Alternate history, long the topic of five-finger exercises in which, say, Paul Revere’s horse goes lame, has provided a new approach to the problem. The great discovery of recent years, after a period when the whole genre of speculative fiction seemed in danger of exhaustion, has been the fictional potential of the 18th and 19th centuries, the time when modernity, the transformation of life by science and technology, was still new and startling.

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell gives the alternate history wheel a new spin, by imagining a starting point at which alternate and real histories have converged. Clarke’s Georgian England is just like the real thing, but has a history in which magician-kings ruled the North until some time in the 14th century.

For reasons that are never entirely clear, magic has faded away until its study has become the domain of gentlemanly antiquarians, ‘theoretical magicians’ who never actually cast a spell. Their comfortable clubs are suddenly disrupted by the emergence of a ‘practical magician’ the enigmatic Gilbert Norrell. He is joined by a student and potential rival Jonathan Strange.

Strange is much the more attractive of the pair, but appearances may deceive. Without anything much in the way of moral qualms, he joins Wellington in wreaking magical havoc on the armies of Napoleon, often finding it difficult to put the world back together afterwards.

The re-emergence of magic in this fictional world (where industry is scarcely mentioned) parallels the emergence of technology in the Industrial Revolution. Norrell is the image of a modern researcher looking for grant funding, emphasises cautious and practical applications of magical technology in agriculture, coastal defence and so on. And he has all the vices of associated with the type, hoarding information, jealous of his intellectual property and so on. Meanwhile Strange is alive to, and welcomes, the revolutionary possibilities of magic.

But it is Norrell, and not Strange, who opens the door to chaos when he makes the classic mistake of accepting an attractive-seeming bargain from the the faery king of Lost Hope, to spare the beautiful young wife Sir Walter Pole, from death in return for ‘half her life’. Rather than taking the second half of three-score years and ten, the king calls her away every night to dance in his endless dismal balls.

Lost Hope is the link to the third main character in the book, the ‘nameless slave’ Stephen Black, a negro servant in the Pole Household. The faery takes a fancy to Stephen Black, and determines that Stephen should become King of England, a goal he pursues with amoral carelessness for the sufferings he inflicts along the way. In the end, however, it is his own kingdom of Lost Hope that Black comes to rule.

The book ends in a cloud of dimly-perceived possibilities, with Norrell and Strange vanished from England, and magic transforming the North, very much like the real situation as Britain emerged from the Napoleonic wars. A sequel (or a trilogy) seems called for, and will be awaited eagerly.

The claims of history

by Maria on November 29, 2005

As the last to write her piece on Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (JSAMN), I have the benefit of reading my fellow Timberites’ pieces and developing on some of their themes. Henry points out that JSAMN, which seems to begin as a comedy of manners ultimately becomes something altogether more serious. I agree. I think JSAMN is about the forgetting and remembering of a history that unleashes the downtrodden of the past, freeing them, in E.P. Thompson’s famous phrase “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” John Holbo notes that Susanna Clarke’s Austen-like voice emerges almost unbidden to channel perfectly her own magical reality. I suspect that Clarke’s choice of Regency England as the time and place for a novel about the tension between political and folk memory is no accident.
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One of the most striking features of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell are the copious footnotes, which veer between dry citation of imaginary magical histories and truly otherlandish narratives, like a series of charming miniatures. We encounter the first on the very first page: a bare reference to Jonathan Strange’s The History and Practice of English Magic, which is not to be published for another ten years (and since, when published, it is instantly withdrawn from the public eye by Mr. Norrell’s spiteful magic, perhaps not read for longer than ten years). This footnote makes Strange’s the first of the two magicians’ names the reader will encounter in the text proper, even before that of Mr. Norrell, a recapitulation of the order you see on the title page. This is so even though the tale which follows is concerned exclusively with Mr. Norrell for the next 125 pages or so, but is altogether right in view of the relative power and importance of the two magicians.
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Two Thoughts (About Magic Christians and Two Cities)

by John Holbo on November 29, 2005

Here are, more or less, two thoughts on Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

§1 The Magic Christians
The setting is England at the turn of the 19th Century. Once upon a time, there was real magic – no more. Hence such comedy as the York Society Of Magicians:

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused one leaf to tremble on a tree, made one mote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

John Segundus appears, who "wished to know, he said, why modern magicians were unable to work the magic they wrote about. In short, he wished to know why there was no more magic done in England." The society is discomfited.

The President of the York society (whose name was Dr. Foxcastle) turned to John Segundus and explained that the question was a wrong one. "It presupposes that magicians have some sort of duty to do magic – which is clearly nonsense. You would not, I imagine, suggest that it is the task of botanists to devise more flowers? Or that astronomers should labour to rearrange the stars? Magicians, Mr. Segundus, study magic which was done long ago. Why should anyone expect more?"

Magic is socially disagreeable, "the bosom companion of unshaven faces, gypsies, house-breakers ; the frequenter of dingy rooms with dirty yellow curtains. A gentleman might study the history of magic (nothing could be nobler) but he could not do any." A debate breaks out. A few members are roused from historicist slumbers to Secundus’ defense. One such – Honeyfoot – soons explains to Segundus about the Learned Society of Magicians of Manchester, a failed clutch of magical positivist hedge wizards.

It was a society of quite recent foundation … and its members were clergymen of the poorer sort, respectable ex-tradesmen, apothecaries, lawyers, retired mill owners who had got up a little Latin and so forth, such people as might be termed half-gentlemen. I believe Dr. Foxcastle was glad when they disbanded – he does not think that people of that sort have any business becoming magicians. And yet, you know, there were several clever men among them. They began, as you did, with the aim of bringing back practical magic to the world. They were practical men and wished to aply the principles of reason and science to magic as they had done to the manufacturing arts. They called it ‘Rational Thaumaturgy’. when it did not work they became discouraged. Well, they cannot be blamed for that. But they let their disillusionment lead them into all sorts of difficulties. They began to think that there was not now nor ever had been magic in the world. They said that the Aureate magicians were all deceivers or were themselves deceived. And that the Raven King was an invention of the northern English to keep themselves from the tyranny of the South (being north-country men themselves they had some sympathy with that.) Oh, their arguments were very ingenious – I forget how they explained fairies.

If only Max Weber had written "Magic as Vocation" [Zauber als Beruf], on the process through which the activity of enchantment has gradually become disenchanted. [click to continue…]

Return of the King

by Henry Farrell on November 29, 2005

John Crowley’s novel, _Aegypt_ retells the old story of the King of the Cats. A traveler hears one cat say to another, “tell Dildrum that Doldrum is dead.” When he returns home and tells his wife, their family cat jumps from its place beside the fire crying, “Then I’m to be king of the cats!” and shoots up the chimney, never to be seen again. In the words of Crowley’s character, Pierce Moffett:

bq. That story had made him shiver and wonder, and ponder for days; not the story that had been told, but the secret story that had _not_ been told: the story about the cats, the secret story that had been going on all along and that no one knew but they.

There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Susanna Clarke was thinking of this passage when writing _Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell_ (henceforth JSAMN). She’s surely familiar with Crowley – one of Childermass’s prophetic cards seems to have been abstracted from Great Aunt Cloud’s deck in _Little, Big_ – but JSAMN is decidedly its own book with its own themes and quiddities. Yet the passage from Crowley is helpful in identifying what kind of story JSAMN is. It’s a story of the King of the Cats. The point of the tale isn’t what it seems to be. The very title of the book is misleading: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell aren’t nearly as important as they think they are. There’s a hidden story there, which is whispered through the gaps between the actions of the main protagonists. As the vagabond prophet Vinculus tells Childermass, the magicians aren’t so much so much actors as acted through, less the spellcasters than the spell itself; Vinculus himself, as his name suggests, is one of the chains that binds the two magicians to their allotted task. The magicians fail in their task, as they’re supposed to – the future of Clarke’s England belongs to other people than them.

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Women and men; servants and masters; England and the English

by Susanna Clarke on November 29, 2005

I’m going to begin as China Miéville did with a kind of disclaimer. In fact I’m going to pick up on something China “said”: at the beginning of his piece. He says:

One of the usual arguments authors level is the foolishness that ‘I know better than you because I wrote it’. To make my position absolutely clear: authorial intention be damned. I do not necessarily know best.

I’m going to go a bit further than this. For me it’s not so much that authors don’t always know best. It’s more, “Sorry guys, I’m not actually the author.” The author couldn’t come. The author has left the building. She left when the book was finished. I’m just the person who remains now she is gone. I may be able to help you because I seem to have a pile of her memories over here — also lots of her notes and stuff. But, while some of the memories are crystal sharp, others are fuzzy and quite a lot are missing. Ditto the notes and stuff. As for what she intended by writing this or that, in many cases she wouldn’t have been able to answer anyway. She never gave it any thought. I’ll do my best to reconstruct what I can. In fact I shall pretend I’m her, by saying “I” and “me”. The point is that if at any point you feel that I am contradicting her (the author), then believe her and not me. She’s the cleverer of the two of us.

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EU Suspension for Poland?

by Henry Farrell on November 28, 2005

The “Financial Times”: has an article today, suggesting that Poland may find itself suspended from voting in the European Union if allegations of secret CIA prisons on Polish soil bear out.

bq. Franco Frattini, justice commissioner, threatened the countries with “serious consequences, including the suspension of the right to vote in the Council [the Union’s main decision-making body]”.

bq. … Under the EU treaty, countries that do not act in accordance with “European values” on issues such as human rights can have their voting rights deprived – although such a step has never been taken. Poland and Romania, which Human Rights Watch, the campaign group, said were the most likely hosts of the jails, deny the claim, as do several other countries. Romania is due to join the EU in 2007.

This could prove to be an important catalyst. While the relationship between the EU and US is less overtly confrontational than it was a year ago, the US actually has less European friends than it did back then. There’s a general feeling of disgust among European political elites (including those who are usually pro-US) for America’s involvement in torture, extraordinary renditions and human rights abuses. Important allies of the US such as Blair and Berlusconi have been weakened, and likely aren’t around for too much longer. Not only that, but there are internal European politics too. There’s suspicion and dislike of the new Polish government in other EU capitals; while it certainly didn’t set up the putative prisons, it does have a distinct whiff of populist authoritarianism, and black prisons may prove to be a convenient excuse for taking action to clip its wings. Nor is there much appetite for Romania’s imminent membership of the EU either. Finally, action would be a very attractive way for EU officials to improve the European Union’s image with voters in France, Holland and elsewhere, by showing that the EU is about more than free trade and agriculture subsidies.

If evidence emerges showing that the Poles and Romanians are guilty, and the EU then takes action against them (perhaps suspending Poland; perhaps finding that Romania doesn’t seem sufficiently committed to the EU’s human rights regime), EU politics are going to get very interesting again. I still think that the odds are against this happening; there are very obvious risks to sanctioning (cf. how “l’affaire Joerg Haider”: fizzled out, giving rise to the beefier institutions that may be invoked in this instance). But they’re a lot lower than they seemed to me a few days ago.

Blogs and ads

by John Q on November 28, 2005

With the general resurgence in Internet-related commercial activity and speculation, it’s not surprising that a fair bit of attention has turned to the commercial and advertising possibilities of blogs. Blogging as a large-scale phenomenon came too late to cash in on the dotcom mania last time around, but plenty of people are keen on a bite at the cherry this time. The multi-million dollar purchase of Weblogs Inc got lots of people thinking about how much their site might be worth. High-profile launches like that of Pajamas Media (endorsed by Judy Miller!) have added to the buzz.

But just like last time around, there are plenty of reasons for scepticism. Looking at the prices being charged by leading bloggers on Blogads, it doesn’t seem as if many people are making a lot of money. Nic Duquette did the sums and concluded[1] that a site with 10 000 page views a day ought to be able to gross around $US4500 a year. Putting in 10 hours a week for this kind of return amounts to a wage of $US9 an hour, and that’s before you allow for any costs.

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by Chris Bertram on November 28, 2005

Never put off blogging something, or Matthew Turner will “beat you to it”: ! Last year Carol Gould wrote a “piece about an alleged epidemic”: of anti-Americanism in Britain and the some of the “decent”: “left”: linked to it enthusiastically (one describing the piece “as a breath of fresh air”: ). When I dared to suggest that it was a load of old tosh, the “decents cried foul”: . Will they, I wonder, continue to accord heroine status to Ms. Gould when they read “her latest hilarious effort”: . Some choice excerpts:

bq. Last week was the culmination of that poignant fortnight in which people all over the world wear a poppy in the lead-up to Remembrance Day. Nothing is more dramatic than seeing the sea of red flowers in the lapels of British men and women as they make their way to the office in the early-morning rush hour. … On British television, every presenter and anchor wears a poppy. In keeping with the motto of the British Legion—“Wear your poppy with pride”—every shopkeeper, publican, hotel manager and cabbie wears a poppy…. It was therefore all the more astonishing last week when I took a long walk along Edgware Road, the most densely Muslim section of London, and discovered that not one person was wearing a poppy.

bq. It is worth noting … that London Mayor Ken Livingstone is trying to institute an initiative to bring ethnic minorities into the taxi fleet, to tackle its almost exclusively white domain. Keeping in mind that Washington D.C. has one of the worst taxi systems in the world, in part because most drivers can barely speak English and do not know the meaning of the words “cordial” or “polite”, especially where female passengers are concerned, one prays the Livingstone initiative will be approached with caution.

bq. I walked and walked that evening, stopping in to every hookah café, every electrical shop and every hijab boutique. Not one person was wearing a poppy.

[One worries a little that since Gould’s piece is destined primarily for an American audience there will be readers who take her factual claims about British society at face value. Needless to say, lots of people do not wear poppies, there are many sights more dramatic than lots of people wearing poppies, and breaking the strangehold of white males over taxis is a good thing.]

Controversial Writing Assignment

by Harry on November 27, 2005

Some of you will already be aware of this story. I thought at the time that it was just a storm in a teacup — a group of teachers devise a spectacularly inappropriate assignment, some parents complain (I was shown some of the emails; they were annoyed but good-humoured), and the principal and District act promptly to stop the assignment. The local press make a meal of it because…well, its suddenly turned cold and there’s not a lot going on. The spokesperson for the teachers comes off as naïve, but not ill-willed. Ann Althouse, oddly, uses the case as a reason to suspect that the District does not have its act together — an odd conclusion to draw from a single instance in which it does the right thing effectively and immediately.

But then, yesterday, the local left-of-center paper published an extraordinary editorial defending the assignment. IF you read the NBC and Cap Times stories carefully you’ll see that their descriptions of the assignment differ. The NBC reporter showed me the assignment, and I have to admit that I did not take notes, but I definitely drew the implication that immediate withdrawal was demanded: the letter certainly said that if peace had not been achieved within 12 days the letter would be sent again.

The Cap Times editorial is wrong in so many ways I don’t know where to begin.

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Van Tuong Nguyen

by Brian on November 26, 2005

Next Friday, Singapore plans to hang Van Tuong Nguyen, a 25 year old man from Glen Waverley, the Melbourne suburb where I grew up. Nguyen’s crime against the state of Singapore was to change planes in Singapore while en route from Cambodia to Australia carrying 396 grams of heroin. I can see, dimly, how doing this kind of thing could be a crime against Cambodia, and a crime against Australia, but I can’t see how this kind of action could justifiably be punished by Singapore, when he hadn’t even “passed through passport control into Singapore”: and clearly had no intention of doing so.

And of course even if we do think Singapore is justified in punishing Nguyen for his crimes, the idea that hanging is the appropriate punishment for attempting to sell heroin would be laughable if the stakes weren’t so high. Either Singapore should hang people for putting together plans to commit murder, or they are implying that drug trading is worse than murder. Either option is nonsensical.

Anyway, at this stage the important thing isn’t to debate just how absurd Singapore’s position is, but to do something. “Amnesty International Australia”: has a number of links for writing to the salient Singaporese ministers to beg for them to change their minds. The very least one could expect our government to be doing is not doing more favours for the Singapore government while they plan to murder an Australian, but that seems “too much for John Howard”:, even when proposed by one of his own MPs.

Boris Johnson on Bombing Al-Jazeera

by Tom on November 26, 2005

As a follow-up to Chris’s post on the subject, I notice that Boris Johnson MP, the editor of The Spectator, has offered to publish the memo detailing Bush’s alleged conversation with Blair about bombing the al-Jazeera TV station. (That last link is to the Speccie’s website, which requires registration; if you can’t be bothered, Johnson’s piece is also available on his own website).

Johnson is of course a notorious self-publicist, and he may have made some shrewd calculation about the actual likelihood of his being passed the memo versus the brownie points to be had from posing as a courageous editor standing up to the government. None the less, fraternal relations between the American and British right have reached a pretty desperate state when the leading article in Britain’s most prominent conservative magazine contains the following sentences:

Outlandish and inconceivable the story certainly is, but what we really want to know is: is it true? If true, then this magazine would finally abandon its long struggle to find anything to support in US policy towards Iraq and the Middle East in general.

Shrill indeed. I doubt that Johnson would have kept his job for very long if he’d tried taking this line when that greedy crook Conrad Black owned the paper, but when the ship starts to sink, even the most polished and charming of rats has to consider an exit strategy.