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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Over the weekend, Scott Horton published at Harper’s this withering indictment of Alberto Gonzales, considered from the point of view of honor (via The Daily Dish).  Horton develops his argument on the basis of his reading of Anthony Trollope, the humiliatingly prolific Victorian novelist, focusing particularly on Plantagenet Palliser.


Horton’s argument is worth reading in full for its take on contemporary American politics; however, I’m more interested in his opener:


Anthony Trollope was a very great novelist, a man who in a sense is a far better surveyor of English society in the Victorian Age than Charles Dickens. His works are filled with humor and wisdom and importantly, they never tire the reader. I hardly embark on a long trip without a volume of Trollope in my carry-on bag, and while his works are entertainments, they go far beyond that.


If “surveyor of English society in the Victorian age” means “provider of a comprehensive view of all social classes, in something like an appropriate perspective,” then, no, Trollope is not better than Dickens.  But, if “society” is taken in its more limited sense—the upper crust of the social order—then Horton’s absolutely right: Dickens is famously bad at sketching gentlemen, and his lords and ladies are the stuff of farce.  Trollope, by contrast, is brilliant at capturing the nuances of this social milieu.  And this milieu is worth representing accurately, since it undergoes a remarkable transformation in the 19thC, from a landed aristocracy to a class much more dependent on the complex shifts of capital and democracy.  It’s great stuff.


One of the things that’s interesting about Trollope is that he seems to be more widely read outside American universities—i.e., by general readers—than he is in, say, Victorian novel classes.  Partly this is because some of his best novels belong to series, and most draw on a dense cultural context that’s hard to pull off in a semester.  Part of it is that, given what undergraduates are able to read these days, plus the length of canonical Victorian novels, there’s a pig-ugly attrition: You’ve got to teach at least one Brontë (and maybe 2), at least one Dickens, and Eliot.  If the Dickens is, say, Bleak House or David Copperfield and the Eliot is Middlemarch, then there just isn’t that much semester left.  Who else makes it in?


Like Horton, I have found that Trollope makes splendid vacation reading.  In fact, each of the past 5 summers and winter breaks, I have read at least one Trollope novel.  He has been good for cross-country flights, for bouts of the flu, Connecticut blizzards, trips to the parents, and much else besides.  Of the major Victorian novelists, Trollope’s sensibility is probably the brightest.  His novels’ darkest moments are usually pretty carefully quarantined, allowing the social order to reconstitute itself more readily at the end.  (Compare The Way We Live Now with Little Dorrit, for example.)  These are fine distinctions, of course, but I’m pretty sure people will grant me that Trollope is the Victorian novelist least likely to have a character vengefully ripped to pieces.


At any rate, because we’ve now cleared Mother’s Day, and opportunities for summer reading are starting to beckon, here are three Trollope novels that are first-rate introductions to his work:


  • He Knew He Was Right: A man’s jealousy—or, perhaps more precisely, his overliteral insistence on Victorian social mores and their enforcement—leads to the downfall of his marriage. 
  • The Eustace Diamonds: Does the widowed gold-digger get to keep the family jewels, or not?
  • The Way We Live Now: Very Enron: An impossibly wealthy man buys his way into society, even though no one can quite figure out where his money comes from.  David Brooks wrote an introduction to the Modern Library edition, which seems just about right.

All three novels are perfect beach reading, and, for the city-bound, will keep you safely off of this list (via Unfogged). 


A special note: If you see The Warden at the bookstore, you may well be tempted to buy it.  It’s 300-ish pages shorter than any other Trollope novel, and it kicks off the Barchester series, and so seems like a natural beginning point.  And, really, it is a fine little novel.  It does require a bit more familiarity with the Church of England hierarchy than the concept of “beach reading” strictly requires, however. 


 


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007
by PopMatters Staff
Irakere

Irakere


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Nick Drake
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The Ladybug Transistor
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Page France
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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I’ve already crowed about a wonderful Alternet article to a number of friends but I have to say something here about it also.  It’s Yvonne Bynoe’s Hip Hop’s (Still) Invisible Women and it’s a great read not only because it’s so astute but it also suggests ways out of the problem of womens’ too-often degraded image in hip-hop (though note that this does not happen in ALL hip-hop, OK?).  I’m especially intrigued by the idea of a hip-hop version of the Lilith Fair.  Sounds like a great idea.


On a totally different tip, I was intrigued by this article about NEA head Dana Gioia.  While he deserves kudos for preserving the NEA in the wake of a conservative backlash that it faced in the ‘80’s, shouldn’t he also be promoting some American playwrights and not just Shakespeare in the schools?  It’s not as if we don’t have a fine tradition of the stage here in the States: off the top of my head, there’s Eugene O’Neil, Tennessee Williams, Sam Shepard, August Wilson, Arthur Miller and David Mamet.  That’s not even mentioning musical theater, which I usually can’t stand but is definitely part of the American cultural landscape: Rodgers, Hammerstein, Hart, Sondheim for starters plus West Side Story, Dreamgirls, Hair and so on.  Surely, at least some of that won’t ruffle the feathers of conservative critics who want schools or even the general public to appreciate some of our cultural heritage.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Asad Raza, one of the proprietors of the excellent 3 Quarks Daily blog, wrote a long provocative essay about alienation in Whole Foods Market, contrasting shopping there with shopping at some of the butcher shops and fish stands and so on in Lower Manhattan. In Whole Foods, Raza contends, groceries are mediated by explanatory text and rendered safe—kind of like foreign countries in Disney’s Epcot center. Whereas at vegetable stands in Chinatown, consumers have a much more direct relation to food, trusting their senses instead of the copy.


The Bowery Whole Foods tells us something remarkable about its shoppers: how ignorant they are of where they are and how alienated they are from food.  Perusing it, the thing that impresses you most is the pervasive labeling, the enormous amounts of information appended to everything.  Everywhere are little identificatory notes, signs overhead, brochures on what to do with their sausages (eat them?), glossy photos of the smiling man who supposedly dredged up your mussels or baited the hook upon which your (always already headless and filleted) wild salmon met its end.  This is food shopping for people who have come to trust only that which is mediated by text, addenda, explanations, certifications.  It is a website come to life, or a piece of life for those who prefer websites: each piece of signage functions as the hyperlink that clicks through to a capsule review.


The food has become text, something we read and write rather than consume; we communicate with it and corrupt our sensual relationship with it, thinking it rather than tasting it. It’s a similar point to the one I was making about music a few weeks ago. Raza is suggesting a more authentic relation to food that is corrupted when we turn it into information we can master and identify ourselves with—it may be more pleasant to we information workers to know things than to eat things.


There is something else alienating about Whole Foods: it posits a universe in which we are all only consumers.  The holism its name gestures towards is not the holism of a community in which buyers and sellers know each other.  Instead, it’s purely about the foods themselves: one’s interest in food is projected as only another form of self-interest…. These neoliberal shoppers prefer the impersonal embrace of a corporate parent, disguised as some vague moral goodness.  Yet a principle like seasonality is sacrificed to the lure of exotic, irradiated produce available year-round.  Such are the characteristics of the so-called “foodies.”  Even the term suggests a cute and infantile hobby.  And it does seem infantile to shop at Whole Foods while all around you sits the very food cultures about which Whole Foods’ publicity materials fantasize.


He has a point here; it seems odd to choose Whole Foods over the more authentic food shops around it. (It’s not really all that odd though; those shops can be insular and hard to negotiate; Whole Foods charges more to provide customers with a more conveniently familiar experience.) Raza argues that “in a world in which we’ve been socialized to distrust the claims of brands, we paradoxically require ever greater documentations of authenticity, ever wordier mediations between ourselves and things.” But Raza’s own apparent mastery of the food scene on the Lower East Side and his evocative description of it calls his own discourse into question; his eloquence about food is not entirely different than the Whole Foods blurbs, and he is supplying some website content that could supplant direct experience in the process of trying to inspire it. If we use his essay as a tourist guide to butcher shops, then our experience of those shops may be no different than our experience in Whole Foods. Slumming it in old-school bakeries and fish stands is not necessarily any more authentic, since authenticity depends on the subject position of the consumer and whatever patterns and intentions that consumer follows through with over time. Food tourists are food tourists, whether they are at the novice level of shopping in Whole Foods, or at the advanced level of gutting fish on Grand Street. Any way we get our food in the city is going to be alienated and inauthentic relative to some other way of procuring; to fetishize one or the other can ultimately seem an attempt at self-aggrandizement, for dignifying whatever progress we have made toward our own ideal. Raza’s critique of foodie infantilism seems misleading: His criticism is that foodies’ yearn for safe experiences of esoteric consumption, but I think one becomes more of a foodie the more daredevilish one’s consumption becomes. The goal is to make eating an experience rather than a routine—make it an activity in which one can deploy connoisseur knowledge and come away with untoppable stories. (Are snobbery and vanity infantile? Perhaps.) But to escape the pejorative connotations of foodie-ism, one commonly tries to associate food practices with sociopolitical goals; this move supplies a rationale for consumption choices theoretically external to personal identity building. You can go to the co-op or the green market and have environmentally and politically wholesome reasons for your food choices that you can refer to when someone wants to prick you for your pretensions. But this has the unfortunate effects of tainting those wholesome aims with the stench of privilege, which in turn supplies the enemies of such notions with a useful line of attack: sustainability movements, etc., become the province of self-satisfied do-gooders who have the luxury for such preoccupations.


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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Reflections on Student Media

Here we go again. Another college administration is sabotaging its student newspaper.

At St. Louis University, a college board recently gave administrators approval to rescind the newspaper’s charter, which was written by students, and write a new one. College officials have stated this move will improve the overall quality of the newspaper. Students argue it is a veiled form of censorship aimed at a newspaper that has been critical of the administration and its decisions.


Examples of censorship and a “controlled press” on U.S. campuses abound. Unfortunately, these threats to free speech and a free press are littering many bucolic campuses. At times, it sadly seems that those campuses whose administrations don’t interfere with their students’ newspapers are becoming the exception and not the standard.


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