From the monthly archives:

August 2015

Fuck Nuance

by Kieran Healy on August 31, 2015

About nine months ago, my colleague Steve Vaisey told me he was interested in organizing a session at the American Sociological Association Meetings about the idea of “nuance” in sociological theory, and in particular about how there seemed to be a lot of demand for the stuff. He asked me if I’d be interested in submitting a paper called something like “Against Nuance”. I replied that if you were going to do something like that, you should just go ahead and call it “Fuck Nuance” and be done with it. “OK then”, said Steve, “I’ll put that down as the title”.

Having inadvertently bound myself to that mast like some accident-prone Ulysses, I presented the paper last week in Chicago. Here’s the draft.


by John Holbo on August 31, 2015

The Barbarian, that is.

My friend Josh Glenn commissioned a bunch of folks to contribute very short appreciations under the heading, “Crom Your Enthusiasm”. R.E. Howard stuff, then. But also C.L. Moore, Lovecraft, Fritz Leiber, Ashton Clark Smith, others. You get the idea. (Some ringers in there.) So check it out, especially if you like all that old Margaret Brundage art! Who doesn’t?

So I tried to enthuse about Crom in 300 words! I wanted to bring out how Howard’s Conan, that thick-thewed template for much ‘sword and sorcery’ that follows, is very much in Lovecraft’s ‘weird’ line. Here is Lovecraft’s well-known semi-definition: [click to continue…]

My Sunday column in Salon uses the latest campus controversy—the Duke student who refuses to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home—as an opportunity to take a second look at what these students with their trigger warnings and sensitivities are trying to tell us:

No one knows the power of literature better than the censor. That’s why he burns books: to fight fire with fire, to stop them from setting the world aflame. Or becomes an editor: Stalin, we now know, excised words from texts with about as much energy and attention as he excised men and women from the world. As Bertolt Brecht archly noted of the East German regime’s efforts to control what he wrote: “Where else in the world can you find a government that shows such interest and pays such attention to artists?”

This week, as I head back to the classroom amid controversy — from Columbia toBerkeley to Duke — over what college students will or will not read, I’m mindful of Brecht’s observation. Could it be that the men and women who most appreciate what we, professors of the humanities and social sciences, have to offer are the students who’ve been vilified as coddled and cosseted, demanding trigger warnings on syllabi or simply refusing to read the books we’ve assigned them because those books make them uncomfortable? Could it be that they, like the censor, are the ones who truly understand the power of the books we teach?

That’s why I’m less bothered than some of my colleagues are by today’s students. I see in their fear a premonition of what a book — and an education — can do. We live in an age, we’re often told, where reading has become rote or has simply disappeared. Half our students don’t do the reading; the other half submit dutiful book reports, barely registering the effect of what they’ve read.

Yet here are students who seem to understand, however faintly and problematically, what the literary critic Alfred Kazin called “the raw hurting power that a book could have over me.” They seem like throwbacks, these students: not to the Midwestern evangelism of Elmer Gantry but to the urban hothouse of the New York Intellectuals, those anxious and oversexed minds of mid-century for whom a Henry James novel or Walt Whitman poem was a holy fire. “Writing Was Everything“: that’s how Kazin titled one of his memoirs. In their refusal to read a book, in their insistence that professors warn them of the trauma it may contain, that is what students are running away from: writing that consumes them, writing that’s everything.

Even so, there’s a greater threat to reading and readers, to education itself, than trigger warnings or students objecting to a text. And that is the downsizing administrator, the economizing politician, who refuses to believe there’s any value in reading a difficult text at all. While the media debates Mr. Grasso’s refusal, I, as chair of my department, anxiously scrutinize our daily enrollment reports, knowing I have to defend courses with 12 students from administrative economizers — simply because the intimacy, attention and focus of a senior seminar doesn’t register as a value to men who can only see value when it is expressed as a number on a spreadsheet. Given the choice of defending a book to an aggrieved student or a course to a phlegmatic accountant, I’ll take the student any day: at least she and I agree that the book in question has power, and the experience of reading it, reality.

In this age of the neoliberal university, these students may be our best allies, for they seem to be among the few who understand that what we do matters. The administrator and the politician, the trustee and the pundit, think that we professors are worse than subversive; we’re useless. These students, by contrast, think we’re dangerous. Rather than dismissing them, maybe we should say: Thank you, we thought no one was listening, we thought no one cared. And then turn around and figure out how to use this as, ahem, a teachable moment — about the radioactivity of books and the fact that radiation has its uses.

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Impressions from the first IPSP authors meeting

by Ingrid Robeyns on August 29, 2015

Over the last three days, the first meeting of authors of the International Panel of Social Progress (IPSP) was held in Istanbul. The IPSP is to some extent modeled after the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but one important difference is that it is not commissioned by governments, but rather fully peer-led and hence ‘autonomous’ (in at least one important sense of that word). There are some partners/funders, but they have no influence on the content of the report. The entire event is quite experimental: a highly interdisciplinary group of scholars, drawn from around the world, will try to write a report capturing the state of the art on social change, and look at paths for a better future.

A bunch of visionary social scientists and humanities scholars (under the leadership of Marc Fleurbaey) felt that scholars from the social sciences and humanities (SSH) should team up to tackle the question of social change and social progress – summarize what the SSH have to say on this, and how we can in a systematic way think about which institutions and practices have brought us social progress and which ones have not, and which options are open for the future. Apart from it being not commissioned by a government, there is another major difference with the IPCC. The nature of the substance is quite different; we are not dealing with the ecosystems of the Earth, but rather with social change – a topic where empirical research is quite strongly influenced by theoretical frameworks and conceptual choices, and which is also inevitably normatively laden when it comes to evaluations and suggestions for paths for the future. As a consequence, it will be impossible, given the nature of the beast, to aim to report on consensus. In the SSH, there is only often to a limited extent a consensus on ‘facts’, and most of the time no consensus at all about normative issues. How, then, can there be a report that aims to summarize what scholars in the SSH know about social change and social progress? [click to continue…]

NPCs: What Are They, Even?

by Belle Waring on August 28, 2015

If this is going to be a useful analogy for sexist behavior at all people need to know what NPCs (that is, non-player-characters in videogames) are! A number of people in the thread below noted that they did not. It’s pretty simple. Let’s say you play a FPS (first person shooter) or even a third-person shooter (you see the character you control as if he were the star of a movie). You generally roam around the game shooting alien monsters or zombies or Nazis or zombie Nazis or whatever. But there will be people on your side, or fellow members of the space marines, or bystander city-dwellers–people with whom you can interact but don’t need to/can’t shoot. These characters may have only one thing to say, or they can say one thing when first approached (or when you say a certain thing) and one or more other things later (or when you say that other thing). Alternately and more generally in all sorts of games an NPC can be someone you share endless experiences with, or are trained by, or you start a romantic relationship with, or you lose your shit over when they die (not tryna spoil the end of Final Fantasy VII here, just saying. Oh dag! Look, they’re making a new FFVII, and they may botch the ending to please a minority of fans (and in order kick up endless promotional rage-dust IMO), so forget I said that, and buy the latest game from “the franchise that doesn’t know the meaning of the word final”). Basically, in a single-player game, you’re the player, and the non-player characters–even if they look just like you–are merely generated by the game, just like the rendered terrain itself or the monsters or the weapons/spoils of war/scrolls, etc.

Our household is a Nintendo one, and in Zelda Windwaker HD you have crucial but limited interactions with others. It is a beautiful game that I have spent over 40 hours watching someone play while being a crucial assistant, looking through the walkthrough to see how the HELL Link can jump while holding a bomb [pro tip: he can’t, but he can step onto a platform]. You are prompted to press A to talk to NPCs and you are given at most two things to choose from to say either in greeting or reply. This is in line with the generally friendly tenor of Nintendo games, something that led them, after much thought, to
totally disable chat during online battles in their new FPS multi-player game Splatoon. FPS stands for FriendlyPersonSquidgun in this case–it has been succinctly described as “squidpeople play paintball” by “Matpat” on the YouTube channel Game Theory (which is very entertaining; I recommend it highly). Game designers could not think of any other way to prevent trash talk that would ruin the Nintendo experience, so you can only say one of two things to your squad-mates: “let’s go!” or “booyah!” This is despite the fact that it would be very helpful to talk for even 20 seconds before any given battle with your new squad-mates, who are chosen at random from available, physically-nearby players. Then you could set up a simple strategy for winning, which in this case means covering the most terrain possible with ink. “I’ll camp on their re-spawn point and snipe and you run around with that giant paint-roller, painting everything teal. Excelsior!”
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Why price control doesn’t usually work

by John Q on August 26, 2015

Another extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. You can find a draft of the opening sections here. To recap, the idea of the book is to begin with the idea that market prices represent opportunity costs for the households and business who face them (Lesson 1), and then go on to explain why market prices won’t in general equal opportunity costs for society as whole (Lesson 2). A lot of the book will be applications of the two lessons, and this section is an application of Lesson 1. The title of this section is self-explanatory, so I’ll throw it open for comments. Praise is welcome, useful criticism even more so.

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Trump and populism

by Eric on August 25, 2015

In The New Republic, Jeet Heer says that Donald Trump is not a populist, he’s “the voice of aggrieved privilege—of those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women.” Or the voice of the white American man enraged at the possibility he might lose his ill-gotten privilege. Heer doesn’t use the f-word, but it’s the elephant in the room.

Hitler elephant
A relevant elephant

For the alleged misunderstanding of Trumpism as “populism,” Heer blames the historian Richard Hofstadter, who in the middle 1950s explained he was interested in “that side of Populism” that sounded to Hofstadter a lot like McCarthyism. Hofstadter was right: there was a side of Populism, and not a trivial side, that sounded like McCarthyism—and Trumpism too. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Brasserie Excelsior, Nancy, France

by Chris Bertram on August 23, 2015

Brasserie Excelsior, Nancy, France

War and Technological Progress

by John Q on August 22, 2015

One of the big benefits of blogging for me is the chance to try out my ideas on an audience I couldn’t easily reach (or at least hear back from) in any other way. That’s particularly true when I’m writing a book, which is always a difficult process for me. My last post, on the opportunity cost of war produced a great comments thread. Particularly useful was a discussion, started by Chris, of the oft-heard claim that war stimulates scientific and technological progress. I’ve used my response, along with points appropriated from commenters to draft a new section for the book, pointing out how this claim ignores the problem of opportunity cost.

As always, comments of (nearly) all kinds are appreciated, and useful ones may be recycled.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates: Three Not-So-Easy Pieces

by Corey Robin on August 21, 2015

I’ve spent the past few days reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me and posting about it on Facebook. Rather than rewriting those posts as a single piece here, I thought I’d take some screen shots, and share them with some additional commentary. A shout-out to my friend Lizzie Donahue, whose queries to me on our daily walk this morning prompted the last and lengthiest post.

Here’s the first post.

Post 1

And here’s a short addendum to this post, where I comment further on the theme of education and Coates’s discussion of his time at Howard University.

Addendum 1

I say here that breaking with the mytho-poetic view of a heroic African past was the second great trauma of Coates’s life. I should be more precise. I mean disillusionment. But it was a disillusionment that was immensely productive. More than the loss of a specific view of things, the break with black nationalism made Coates suspicious of all master narratives, all collective platforms of totality. As an alternative, he turned to the specificity and concreteness of poetry, “of small hard things,” as he says: “aunts and uncles, smoke breaks after sex, girls on stoops drinking from mason jars.” And in that specificity “I began to see discord, argument, chaos, perhaps even fear, as a kind of power.” The “gnawing discomfort, the chaos, the intellectual vertigo was not an alarm. It was a beacon.” This is a writer for whom the struggle to see what is in front of his nose is a lifelong effort, a hard-won right to see things as they are, without mediation or adornment or chastising authority. So much so that it has made him, as we’ll see, suspicious of all collectivities, all platforms. [click to continue…]

Best Sexism Analogy Ever

by Belle Waring on August 21, 2015

I’ve mentioned before that I was sexually harassed by a prof as an undergrad. (This isn’t even the point of this story, but whatever.) From the perspective of an older person I can see that my professor hadn’t actually been teaching female students for all that long, since Columbia was so late in going co-ed (Columbia was holding out in the hopes of a Harvard-Radcliffe-style full merger between it and its sister women’s college, Barnard, which never happened.) I think Barnard students were already able to take some Columbia classes prior to 1983, and it’s not like I think it’s an excuse, but there you are.

In any case, this caused my boyfriend at the time to question whether I really deserved my A+. Not supportive, dude. It made me a little anxious about the idea, but not so much, because I really was an excellent student in this class, and my GPA was above 4 already that term. In college I had a strategy of studying for exams that was fool-proof. I write quickly, and would take reams of notes for each class. Then when exam time rolled around I would re-write my notes in a condensed form (and re-read the main texts, because I also read fast.) Zoë is dyslexic and finds all this supremely irritating for obvious reasons, but is nonetheless interested. I once helped a friend who had been skipping class half the term pass the final for a Central and South American Art History class with only a single night to study. He was resigned to failure and thought he wouldn’t graduate on time. NOT ON MY WATCH, HOMES. [This is not to say I’m amazing or anything; being good at studying for college exams is a skill with limited utility, and not necessarily a predictor of whether someone can, just pulling an example at random, finish her f$%king PhD dissertation or anything. Further, I must allow I chemically enhanced these abilities in a way that is not recommended for extended periods.]

The notes I made for Roman History were so good that people learned about them [?]. (I did give them to two friends, with whom I actually studied.) Thus a frat bro whom I didn’t know from Adam approached me one day and asked if he could have a copy. What? What?! Who does this? I declined, obviously, but with insufficient scorn, simply because I was so baffled and astonished. Zoë’s response to this is the best: “did he think you were an NPC?!” I think this is exactly right. Dudes like this think lesser beings are actually non-player characters in the video game of life. Like Minecraft villagers with boobs or something.

Can ESPN please bring Women’s Cricket back?

by Harry on August 20, 2015

Ok, I’m not going to go on and on about the Ashes. Just two things.

1. I got an email from the son of one of my dad’s friends the other day, saying he had heard that I knew how to watch cricket on tv in the US (he lives in DC — he also said he thought he last saw me on April 13th 1985, but that’s quite wrong, it was July 13th 1992, but there you go). YES. You can watch cricket for free on ESPN if you have apple tv, and at espncricinfo on the computer. It is wonderful — all the Ashes, lots of T20s and List A’s, from around the world — last fall, between classes, I could even watch much of the county championship match in which Lancashire narrowly failed to avoid relegation. And everything is archived for a while on ESPN through Apple TV, so you can watch hundreds of hours of cricket in a row if you want. (I had to pay $100 for the whole World Cup, and refrained from paying the $59 they were asking for the IPL only because I care too much about the quality of my teaching to risk getting sucked into the IPL near the end of a busy semester).

2. BUT! Last year ESPN carried women’s international cricket. The camera work was nowhere near as good, so it was sometimes a strain to watch it; but still, often worthwhile. But none of this year’s Ashes has been shown. Why? Am I missing something? Anyway, because of this, I cannot thoroughly evaluate Andy Zaltzman’s assessment that the single Test match was well worth watching. I can, though, say that Zaltzman, whom I find to be merely somewhat amusing comic, always manages to be thoroughly interesting and compelling when writing about cricket, and that whatever those of you lucky enough to have been able to watch that Test thought of it, his argument against getting rid of Tests for women is utterly compelling. (Just to add: I know Ian Healy’s comments about the wives and girlfriends was, maybe, unfortunate, but in mitigation he robustly defended continuing Tests for women in the recent TMS podcast). Anyway, why no women’s cricket on ESPN any more? How much can it cost?

The opportunity cost of war (slightly updated)

by John Q on August 18, 2015

What is true of natural disasters is even more true of the disasters we inflict on ourselves and others. Of these human-made calamities, the greatest is war. The wars engaged in by the US, Australian and other governments come at the opportunity cost of domestic programs that could save thousands of lives every year. The cost of war, in terms of American (and Australian) lives, is many times greater than battlefield casualty counts would suggest.

That’s the theme of this extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

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Harry Potter Moe

by Belle Waring on August 17, 2015

What if the people who made super-popular, insanely adorbs anime K-On made an anime of Harry Potter? In which they skip around from era to era so that everyone can be a student (and this is very much what they would do, if you think about it)? Then, it would look like the following video, which you must promise me you will watch to when you burst out laughing at the face of Severus Snape–himself as astonished as you are–after which you will find it mere child’s play to continue to the end to get a glimpse of Helga Hufflepuff in a miniature top hat. The Weasley twins are perfect. They could be like the twins in Ouran High Host Club! (The girls and I, hearing the premise of that anime–HS students run gigolo-type host club as one of the school clubs, and blackmail an androgynous girl into participating, in drag–thought it would be awful. But last summer we were bored at my mom’s and succumbed to the magic of Netflix, only to find it’s hilarious. It sends up shojo manga tropes a lot.)

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Family Values Fascism: From Vichy to Donald Trump

by Corey Robin on August 16, 2015

On Meet the Press this morning:

Donald Trump would reverse President Obama’s executive orders on immigration and deport all undocumented immigrants from the U.S. as president, he said in an exclusive interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.

“We’re going to keep the families together, but they have to go,” he said in the interview, which aired in full on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

Pressed on what he’d do if the immigrants in question had nowhere to return to, Trump reiterated: “They have to go.”

What is it about these voices calling for national purification via the elimination of alien elements that makes them think they can soften the blow by promising to kick out parents along with their children? Trump is hardly the first.

In 1942, as the Vichy regime began handing over the foreign-born Jews of France to the Nazis, it made the decision to deport their children (about six thousand) with them. Mostly, it seems, to fulfill the Nazis’ quotas—but also, Vichy proclaimed, to keep the families together.

At the time, Robert Brasillach wrote, “We must separate from the Jews en bloc and not keep any little ones.” Defending that position from his prison cell, after the liberation of France had begun, he explained: “I even wrote that women must not be separated from children and that we must arrive at a human solution to the problem.” A month later, he doubled-down on the notion that family values might somehow soften his fascism: [click to continue…]