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Henry has nudged me a little, every so often, towards participating more in the life of Crooked Timber — or participating at all, really, since it’s been almost four years since my last posting. Fair enough. And so now, without further ado: Here I am again, ready to complain.

The Marxist Internet Archive ( is a vast and growing resource, run entirely by donated labor, and as polylingual as circumstances permit. (Do they have Trotsky in Tagalog? Indeed they do.) Yesterday, a notice appeared in the Archive’s Facebook group, and also on its homepage, saying that Lawrence & Wishart’s lawyers demand removal of material from the Marx-Engels Collected Works: “Accordingly, from 30th April 2014, no material from MECW is available from English translations of Marx and Engels from other sources will continue to be available.”

Responding to L&W’s demand in a suitable manner would require someone with Marx’s or Engels’s knack for invective and scatology, and I’m not even going to try. But the idea that most of their work is going to be removed from the website on May Day is just grotesque.
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Studies in Political Defamiliarization

by Scott McLemee on July 15, 2010

About three months ago, Tim Wise published an essay called “Imagine: Protest, Insurgency, and the Workings of White Privilege” that got a certain amount of circulation around blogs and listservs that I follow. Recommending it on Crooked Timber was high on the list of things I was procrastinating about, at the time.

That seems to happen a lot, which is why this is only the fourth time I’ve posted anything here in a year. Anyway, in the meantime, Wise’s thesis has been translated into still more trenchant form by Jasari X. So let me post it without delay, pausing only to credit Kasama.

All These Democratic Hoo-Hah Dreams of the Internet

by Scott McLemee on April 7, 2010

I first heard about David Lipsky’s Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace from Mark Athitakis when we were on a panel in New York a few weeks ago. The book consists of transcripts from a prolonged interview with Wallace conducted just after Infinite Jest appeared. I’ve published some comments on the book elsewhere, but wanted to pluck out and pass along a long passage — one that Mark read during the panel discussion.

It spins out from a reference to the Interlace system in IJ, but you can skip the background without losing the point. (Ellipses in brackets are mine; otherwise they are sic from the text, as with much else.)
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History is the Devil’s Scripture

by Scott McLemee on January 15, 2010

One hesitates to refer to the rational kernel in any statement coming from Pat Robertson, of course. But his recent venture into explaining the earthquake in Haiti does contain a small, heavily distorted, yet recognizable fragment of historical reality.

That kernel has passed through his system without giving him any nourishment, but I’ll try to pluck it out of all the batshit craziness.
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Steady Work

by Scott McLemee on August 5, 2009

Since writing the foreword to What Are Intellectuals Good For? (incorporating a few paragraphs from a profile of George Scialabba published three years ago) I have returned to the book in a recent column about Isaac Rosenfeld. The intention in each case was not to provide a reasonably accurate précis of George Scialabba’s work, worthy exercise though that would be, but to engage with the author at the level of his project.

To put it another way, I have not been writing about George so much as to him. With hindsight that was probably also true of an essay called “After the Last Intellectuals” that appeared in Bookforum a couple of years ago.
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Talking Heads

by Scott McLemee on January 8, 2009

I was in touch with Astra Taylor about her documentary Žižek! quite a long time ago, or so it seems. She has a new film called Examined Life consisting of what might be called philosopher-in-the-street interviews. The talking heads include (to reshuffle the list alphabetically) Kwarne Anthony Appiah, Judith Butler, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avital Ronell, Peter Singer, Sunaura Taylor, Cornel West, and Slavoj Žižek.

Here’s the trailer:

I haven’t seen the film yet — it’s only showing in NYC now, it seems — but would welcome a screener DVD. It’s not like I’m going to bootleg it out of the trunk of my car or anything. I don’t even have a car, if that makes the folks at Zeitgeist Films feel any better.


“Bush-Era Culture” (Shudder)

by Scott McLemee on December 17, 2008

At the blog newcritics, Chuck Tryon points out something I would have missed otherwise, given the need to avoid national news magazines in the interest of anger management:

Newsweek, of all places, has a fascinating intellectual exercise in which they ask several of their film and media writers to name one popular culture text that “exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush.” Obviously, the idea of capturing the zeitgeist of eight often turbulent years with a divided electorate and a fractured media landscape is an impossibility. No single text can encompass the tragedy of September 11, the war in Iraq, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the housing bubble and collapse, and our news media’s often vacuous response to all of these events. But the Newsweek writers offer some interesting choices, ones that collectively seem to move toward capturing some sense of Bush-era culture.

I tend to think Battlestar Galactica wins, hand’s down. (Per earlier item.) See the rest of Chuck T’s entry here.

Kast Skoen

by Scott McLemee on December 16, 2008

A Norwegian website allows you to throw a shoe at George Bush.

My best aim seems to be with “Vinkel” set at 15 and “Styrke” at 50, which clobbers him with a dramatic “Midt I Fleisen!” Otherwise Bush just sort of ducks or doubles over, or else the shoe drops to the ground.

Workers’ Republic

by Scott McLemee on December 12, 2008

The Labor Beat video group is putting together a documentary about the victorious occupation of the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago. The filmmakers were — unless I’m mistaken — the only media group given constant access to the inside of the factory during this action. They’ve put up a ten minute selection of footage on YouTube:

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Pipe Wrench Fight

by Scott McLemee on November 3, 2008

Jerome Weeks points out a trend-in-formation: literal video, which is something like Situationism minus Marx plus YouTube:

It’s a form of satire that seems to work best with the more inflated, ’80s or ’90s pop-rock videos, the ones that were developed as little storytelling movies, even though the “movies” had little to do with the song itself or seemed patently pretentious, with or without the song. In short, there’s a profound disjuncture among the posturing twit-lead singer, what he’s supposedly singing about and what’s going on all around him. As they used to say about political photo-ops: It doesn’t matter what the candidate is saying, it’s the background he’s in front of and how he looks….

In a literal video, the lyrics provide a running description of what is happening onscreen — commentary that, as Jerome says, “repeatedly calls attention to (and calls into question) the video’s image choices, making them appear laughably random. Or it subverts any greater, intended import they might have by flatly describing the images and thus “grounding” or re-contextualizing them in a more self-consciously ‘down-to-earth’ matter, while actually presenting a wise-ass commentary on them.” [click to continue…]

To Serve Man

by Scott McLemee on August 14, 2008

Henry has written about Wendt and Duvall’s “Sovereignty and the UFO” at The Monkey Cage. And my column yesterday lauded both the timely urgency of the paper and the aesthetically satisfying way it resists counterarguments.

But after thinking it over a little, I believe a critique from outside the poli-sci orbit is necessary.

Wendt and Duvall seem to mount a radical challenge to the anthropocentrism of contemporary ideas of sovereignty. But in so doing, they are complicit with the lingering effects of Cold War ideology — for nowhere do W&D consider the work of Juan Posadas, who proved four decades ago (to his own satisfaction anyway) that flying saucers demonstrate the existence of communism elsewhere in the galaxy.
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All Out For May Day!

by Scott McLemee on April 30, 2008

The first time I tried to celebrate May Day was by waving a black flag at Wills Point High School (about fifty miles east of Dallas, Texas) in 1981. None of the other students had any idea what that was about, and the teachers were probably just glad to know the Class of ’81 would be gone soon, and my wierdo ass with it.

And for the next quarter century, celebrating May Day in the United States remained a pretty good sign that you were on the political margins. That started to change two years ago. Turnout was lower in 2007. But it’s a good sign when the website of the AFL-CIO’s Washington, DC Metro Council runs an announcement for tomorrow’s protests.

Meanwhile, there are interesting developments elsewhere…

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Timber, Bookshelves, World Domination, Etc.

by Scott McLemee on March 11, 2008

It seems that everyone else around here is just too quietly dignified to mention that Crooked Timber has been listed as one of the world’s fifty most powerful blogs by The Guardian.

But not me. So: Woo hoo!

It seems appropriate, then, to follow up Henry’s recent post about bookshelves with a notice that Matt Christie is offering wooden shelves to the public at a reasonable price. (They are much more attractive than some I’ve seen lately.) Matt also turns out chopping blocks.

These item are all made by hand from actual crooked timber. Contact him via pas au-delà for rates.

Anybody who combines woodworking with Blanchot deserves a plug on the 33rd most powerful blog in the world. The precise metrics used to determine that ranking are probably among the Guardian‘s trade secrets, of course.

“Atlas Shrugged” Kicks the Ass of “Fight Club”

by Scott McLemee on January 30, 2008

The website Books That Make You Dumb seems designed to bring out the scolds among us. The methodology is dubious (use Facebook to determine the ten most popular books among students at various colleges and universities, then organize this data according to average SAT scores for each institution) and there is no reason to suppose the books cause stupidity, rather than serving to diagnoise a preexisting condition.

The creator of the site, Virgil Griffith, acknowledges the problems. “I’m aware correlation [does not equal] causation,” he says. “The results are awesome regardless of causality. You can stop sending me email about this distinction. Thanks.”

Gripe if you must, but diverting the chart certainly is. The Book of Mormon falls right in the middle. There is probably a Mitt Romney joke to be plucked from this, like over-ripe and low-hanging fruit. Verily I say unto you, have a look. (via

Go Tell It On the Mountain

by Scott McLemee on January 14, 2008

Thanks to recent developments in the Democratic primaries, trivialization of Martin Luther King’s legacy is off to an all-time early start this year. But Christopher Phelps has just published an excellent overview of recent historical work on MLK that knocks some of the ceremonial tinsel off — the better to see the real figure, who would never get a word in edgewise today.

The latest volume from the King Papers Project, for example

comprises King’s sermons from 1948 to 1963, which remind us of King’s immersion in the black Baptist church and of the wide range of theological sources and social criticism he drew upon. For King, Christianity was the social gospel. His outlook was astonishingly radical, especially for the McCarthy era. In a college paper entitled “Will Capitalism Survive?” King held that “capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world.” He concluded a 1953 sermon by asking his congregation to decide “whom ye shall serve, the god of money or the eternal God of the universe.” He opposed communism as materialistic, but argued that only an end to colonialism, imperialism, and racism, an egalitarian program of social equality, fellowship, and love, could serve as its alternative. In a 1952 letter responding to Coretta’s gift to him of a copy of Edward Bellamy’s utopian socialist novel Looking Backward (“There is still hope for the future … ,” she inscribed on its flyleaf), King wrote, “I would certainly welcome the day to come when there will be a nationalization of industry.”

The volume’s assiduous editorial annotation permits us to locate King in lived dialogue. We discover, for example, that his 1952 sermon on “Communism’s Challenge to Christianity,” delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, prompted a letter of retort from Melvin H. Watson, a Morehouse College professor and Ebenezer congregant, who attempted to set King straight on the virtues of Stalin. Watson, a holdover from the Communist-led Popular Front, helps us place King’s democratic radicalism in bold relief while providing a concrete illustration of how black communities retained a strong left-wing presence even after the 1940s.

The whole article is available online from The Chronicle of Higher Education. Looking over the passage just quoted, I had a flashback to various hopeless arguments with Chron copyeditors — for it is singularly absurd not to have capitalized the “c” in Phelps’s line mentioning that King “opposed communism as materialistic.”

The international Communist movement (corporate world headquarters in Moscow, later with rival franchise based in Peking) was indeed materialistic, yes. But would King have opposed communism, tout court? “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”?

I doubt that very much: “And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)