Thursday, December 15, 2005

Literary Theory in Crisis. yawn

Either literary theory is dead, or it's invincible. It all depends on who's talking. When Jacques Derrida died last year, The New York Times declared the end of the era of "big ideas." In April 2003, the Times had run an article about a University of Chicago symposium on the state of theory headlined "The Latest Theory Is Theory Doesn't Matter." More recently, a November 17 essay in the online magazine Slate mourned "The Death of Literary Theory."

Others say that theory has never been more perniciously alive. These critics persist in arguing that it is no longer possible to study literature for its own sake.

Just this summer, Columbia University Press published Theory's Empire: An Anthology of Dissent. The volume collects 30 years' worth of contrarian arguments with theory — make that Theory with a capital T — and takes as its premise the notion that "the rhetoric of Theory has been successful in gaining the moral and political high ground, and those who question it do so at their peril."

A long article in the current Chronicle of Higher Education (the college and university trade mag) on "What Happened" to literary theory. As someone who actually studied this stuff fairly seriously back in my college days, I have to wonder, "Who the hell cares?"

I mean, we might just as well spend our time worrying about the crisis in pigeon fancying for all it means even to me--someone who has actually read (God help me) Derrida and De Man and Baudrillard and Barthes. Someone who knows the name Shoshana Felman and has some idea what she's about. Someone who is not particularly scandalized by anything these folk have to say. Even I am utterly indifferent to literary theory and its possibly being in a crisis.

Of course, I no longer have any direct involvement in the field, but any field that has no importance to anyone not directly involved should seriously think about pigeon fancying and why the government doesn't give comparable funding to that hobby.

The only thing one is inspired to wonder reading this Chronicle piece is "Why are we paying people to research this stuff?"

Well, no that's wrong, one might also wonder "Why are we requiring students to study this stuff?"

It's hard for me not to look on people who still tool away at this stuff as nothing more than thieves of education funding that would be far better spent on primary school kids. But maybe that's just me.


Monday, December 12, 2005

Evil: David Brooks on Munich

David Brooks' editorial piece this Sunday on Steven Spielberg's new movie Munich is an interesting case study of the conflict between idealism and realism in amongst US conservatives.

Brooks, like most conservative pundits, likes to come off as a hard-headed fellow, not one to be put off the game by misty abstractions. But, on the other hand, he insists on using, and on other people using, a term which I'm betting he has no definition for: evil.

Spielberg's film is centered on the terrorist murder of 10 Israelis and one American at the 1972 Munich Olympics, and the reprisals that arose from it. Spielberg uses these events as a springboard to deal with larger issues like the Arab/Israeli conflict more generally, and perhaps all seemingly intractable human conflicts.

Brooks seems to think the film is well-done, but he has a major complaint with the world-view behind it. Brooks contends that by setting the film in 1972, Spielberg can avoid acknowledging and dealing with "evil," which for Brooks is embodied in radical Islamic groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

Setting aside the question of whether the 1972 terrorists are any more sympathetic than 2002 terrorists, one has to remark at how many conservative commentators today seem to hold up the acknowledgement of evil as the sine qua non of realistic discussion of practically any issue.

I find quite the opposite to be the case. "Evil" is generally used, like Brooks uses it, as an empty signifier which the reader may insert whatever he or she most fears in the context in which it is used. And generally speaking, whenever we hear someone going on about "evil" in a foreign or public policy debate, we are sure to hear all sorts of speculation, contrafact and pure fantasy from the same source.

Take our president for example: he starts off warning us of the (cue reverb) "Axis of Evil," and soon enough we're hearing about chemical weapons stockpiles, yellowcake buys, dire threats to American well-being, rose-petal-strewn streets, quickly returning American GIs, etc., etc.

Well, we know how all that turned out.

What we should really hear when we hear a policy wonk say "evil" is "I am attempting to justify what I fear I cannot otherwise justify by making reference to this shibboleth. Surely you aren't heretic or heathen enough to keep questioning me now!"

Mr. Brooks' article shows every indication that he has not the least notion of what he means when he says "evil." Of course, he can identify certain parties who are evil (radical Islam), but can he tell us what evil is more generally? I doubt it.

For instance, Brooks points out that one of Spielberg's terrorists makes a speech which "sounds like Mahmood Abbas," implying that somehow this makes for a sympathetic villain. But Abbas is the head of an organization (the PLO) which has killed innocents by the score, including those Olympic athletes, sometimes with sickening arbitrariness and viciousness. Not so long ago it was the PLO which led the list of the "evil" organizations that could only be eliminated, not negotiated with. Now their leader is the model for sympathetic insurrection?

On the other hand, hard-headed Brooks tells us that Spielberg's refusal to acknowledge evil means he gets his Israeli hero wrong, too. Far from being the conscience-ridden hero of Spielberg's film, real Israeli assassins are "less sympathetic" and "hard." Hard enough, one wonders, to kill or torture innocents? I think we already know the answer to that. You gotta crack some eggs and all that. There's probably an Arabic equivalent to that expression.

Are those Israelis really heroes? Or are they evil? Or is the small evil they do OK because it is done to benefit a larger, good, cause. But Bin Laden thinks he has a good cause, too, doesn't he?

And if, as Brooks implies at another point, evil is to be measured by one's intransigence, what are we to think of the zealots on the Israeli right, who don't really keep much of a secret of their determination to eliminate all those who oppose their vision of Zion. Are they evil?

My answer is "maybe" and "from a policy perspective, who cares?" The thing about evil and extremism is that it is everywhere: we've got extremists in the US, they're there in Israel, and they are amongst the Palestinians. In fact, we can probably just go along with what many Christian philosophers say and agree that all of us harbor evil in our hearts. The trick is to not let it get the upper hand: to rue the small evils that we do and to always be uncertain of the great goods we expect to arise from them. And most of all, perhaps, not to justify our own actions because our enemy is "evil" and anything we do against him is therefore acceptable. That is fairly close to the philosophy of the Bin Ladens.

The big trouble with the Palestinians and much of the Arab world is that extremism (or, if you insist, "evil") is not under control, as it generally is in the US and Israel. But this doesn't mean that those societies are inherently evil, or that we should never make any compromise with any of them. It means that we have to start trying to create the conditions under which consensus in those societies moves away from the extreme, where the populace will be less willing to look the other way or tacitly approve when they encounter atrocities, where extremism will pose a threat to them as well. In short, we have to give these people something they value which they might lose, we have to give the moderate less excuse to see us as evil, and we have to stop giving ourselves excuses to act out evil ourselves.

Our problem, though, is not our failure to acknowledge evil, it is the fact that we use it too much. We use the word evil when we want to leave our own motives unexamined; we use it when we want to ignore the legitimate grievances of others; and we use it when we want to justify our own evil acts.

I am far, far from saying that America is itself "Evil." I think that would be a stupid thing to say regardless of what we might be doing. I think we are the "good guys." I, for one, love this country enough that I do not have to lie and obfuscate to justify that love--I can love us imperfect as we are. But I think nothing is gained by idealizing either ourselves or our enemies. Let's have a cold honest look at ourselves and our situation and do what's needed to win. And let us, please, dispense with the childish need for unambiguous heroes and unambiguous villains so long and so assiduously cultivated in us by Mr. Spielberg and his Hollywood colleagues.

Mr. Brooks, it's time to grow up, forget about the boogie man, and face up to the ugly task of fighting a real, human conflict. It's time to let "evil" be a greater part of our private reflections and a much lesser part of our sometimes fatuous public discourse on the war.


Friday, December 09, 2005

Sprawl? Good?

Sprawling into controversy
Professor and author Robert Bruegmann is defying conventional wisdom with his claim that suburban creep is both an ancient phenomenon and a beneficial one.

By Scott Timberg
Times Staff Writer

December 9, 2005

Professor and author Robert Bruegmann is defying conventional wisdom with his claim that suburban creep is both an ancient phenomenon and a beneficial one. At first glance, Robert Bruegmann --— a childless academic whose modernist apartment building sits in a dense, upscale Chicago neighborhood --— seems like the kind of guy who'd hate the suburbs. His peers and predecessors have, for decades, decried the unplanned, low-density, auto-dependent growth of shopping malls and subdivisions.

But he's emerging as the unlikely champion of what we've called, at least since the 1950s, "sprawl." His counterintuitive new book, "Sprawl: A Compact History," charts the spreading of cities as far back as 1st century Rome, and finds the process not just deeply natural but often beneficial for people, societies and even cities.

The Boston Globe has called Bruegmann "the Jane Jacobs of suburbia," after the urban historian who celebrated the serendipitous, high-density warren of Greenwich Village and other old neighborhoods.

"Sprawl has been as evident in Europe as in America," he writes, "and can now be said to be the preferred settlement pattern everywhere in the world where there is a certain measure of affluence and where citizens have some choice in how they live."

Debates over sprawl and urbanism tend to be very emotional and morally tinged to the point of moralism. Another new book, Joel S. Hirschhorn's "Sprawl Kills: How Blandburbs Steal Your Time, Health and Money," blames sprawl not only for social isolation but also for traffic accidents and untimely death caused by sedentary lifestyles. On the other side of the aisle, libertarians often excoriate sprawl's opponents as uptight liberal "elitists."

Though Bruegmann--a professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago-- is making a bold, even contrarian argument, he discusses it with an art historian's detachment.

Bruegmann has always been interested in the built environment and urban change. "When I went to study this," he says by phone from Chicago, "I went to a department of art history, because that's where people talked about architecture. It probably wasn't the most logical place for me to go, because when I got there I had to learn about Nativity scenes and the Madonnas of 15th century Florence.

"However, it gave me something that I think is invaluable: a broad panorama of what people have thought about aesthetics over the last couple of thousand years. And because a lot of social scientists don't have that, they're often very puzzled by arguments that truly are aesthetic and metaphysical in nature but are disguised as being pragmatic and about objective things."

He's a historian of the beautiful, documenting something often taken as the height of ugliness. And the issue, he says, really is aesthetic at base. "And aesthetic judgments are not very susceptible to explanation or argument. That's why it's so hard to talk about."

Part of what's startling about the book is its defiance of the idea that sprawl was birthed in the postwar U.S.: Sprawl is not just bad but "American bad," architecture critic Witold Rybczynski writes in a recent Slate review, blaming it, with tongue in cheek, for everything from McMansions to the disappearance of countryside to an oil-driven Gulf War. "Like expanding waistlines, it's touted around the world as an example of our profligacy and wastefulness as a nation."

But Bruegmann's book is grounded in a history lesson--one that finds the roots of present-day Houston, Atlanta and Los Angeles in Augustan Rome or Restoration London. People of means, he writes, have always tried to get some distance from urban centers, often inhabiting villas outside city walls.

"I'm sure you would have found it in the very first city ever established," he says. "Living in cities has almost always been unpleasant and unhealthy--not something most people wanted. If you were in imperial Rome, crowded into dark, dingy, polluted apartment buildings, it would have been a nightmare. Most cities I looked at had just crushing density until about the 18th century."

In the Middle Ages, most cities in continental Europe had walls to protect them from wars and invasions, keeping them concentrated and providing relatively sharp distinctions between the city proper and the suburbium, as Romans called it, outside.

But a quirk of geography, and the nation's early-modern political unity, led London to become the first metropolis to sprawl massively. The fact that Britain was surrounded by water protected its capital from foreign invaders, so the city stretched beyond its medieval walls as nobles and burghers built country palaces in once-distant western reaches now woven into the city's fabric. As London became Europe's most populous and dynamic city, it grew horizontally.

Like London, whose unchecked growth was denounced by the intellectuals of its day, Los Angeles was deemed a sprawling, tacky, man-made disaster. Norman Mailer, for instance, described the "pastel monotonies of ... Los Angeles' ubiquitous acres ... built by television sets giving orders to men."

But L.A. was on its way to becoming highly dense, and greater L.A. is now, at more than 7,000 people per square mile, the densest urban area in the United States. (Unlike most East Coast cities, even L.A.'s outlying areas are very tightly packed.)

"Los Angeles is the most staggering thing," Bruegmann says of the city's vertical growth since the early '70s. Since then, he says, cities like San Francisco, L.A. and San Diego have become what he calls "hyper-versions of the rest of the country."

And while the traffic, pollution and housing prices may dismay residents, Bruegmann insists that "the problem of Los Angeles is the problem of success: It's become so attractive that everyone wants to live there." And it's done this, he says, without paying the environmental and aesthetic price of more wide-open cities like Atlanta and Houston.

By contrast, he argues, the "smart growth" policies of Portland, Ore., have been ambiguous. Portland is eminently livable but has not reduced sprawl and remains a low-density city. As its density starts to climb, he says, housing prices are going up.

One of his most shocking assertions is that suburban spread helps cities and their urban centers: Look at the way immigrants and the poor moved out of Lower Manhattan, for instance, only to have the area later reborn as a chic living space for artists and young people. It wouldn't have happened, he argues, if the highways and houses beyond the city center hadn't siphoned off population, allowing these neighborhoods to be reborn.

Even fans of Bruegmann's book blanched at this notion.

"It's certainly true that deindustrialization of any downtown presents some opportunities," author and journalist Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in an approving review in the trade magazine Governing. "But for every inner-city district that has emptied out and retooled, many more have been emptied out and are waiting desperately for the revival to begin. Abandonment is an awfully high price for the chance to start over. I wouldn't expect the leadership of Detroit or St. Louis to find Bruegmann's long view of urban history very consoling."

But Bruegmann points at downtown L.A., where he sees this process, despite some rough years, bearing fruit.He has some emotional sympathy with anti-sprawl critics, just as he does with environmentalists. But he thinks both groups are a little shortsighted when it comes to the real costs of their programs.

"By trying to stop sprawl, you'll be doing something very beneficial to the incumbents' club," he says. "It stops change and makes it harder for people to get onto the middle-class ladder. It has a definite effect on social and economic mobility."

Sprawl may not be inevitable, but it is, he says, "completely essential" to the functioning of a free society. "It goes absolutely to the heart of people's aspirations--— what it is they want to be, of how they want to live," Bruegmann says. "And tampering with that is very, very fraught."

If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at

This is interesting. I'm no big fan of abandoned cities or low-density stripmalldom, but the idea that change has to happen, and that this sort of moving about is the best way to get it done is an interesting proposition. A lot of folks who are against sprawl seem very little concerned with change, or things like inexpensive, convenient housing, or things like startup businesses.

This point-of-view is more or less an intelligent articulation of the seemingly mindless growth boosterism one often runs into at the local chamber of commerce. Maybe it's not really so mindless.

While we may not agree that sprawl is good, we may agree that some of the things thatfacilitatesltitates are good, and that plgovernmentsernemnts and environmentalists ought to be thinking about them.

Follow link to an exerpt from Bruegmann's book. Thanks to Dean.


Here's one way to get a committee off the dime

Bribe them!

Transportation group offered incentive
State offers money if group takes some action

Record-Eagle staff writer

TRAVERSE CITY - The state of Michigan is dangling $25,000 before a local transportation study group to jump-start a process several members acknowledge is stalled.
"We're starting to hear grumbling in the community that (we) aren't doing anything," said Ken Kleinrichert, a member of the Land Use and Transportation Study group. "People are losing interest."
Eight months after their appointment to study and recommend a long-term remedy to the region's burgeoning transportation woes, the 29-member group has failed to agree on the scope of work they want studied or how the study should be designed and implemented.
A proposal mandating that a timeline be in place by February for hiring a consultant was defeated Tuesday by a lone member.
Under the proposal, if the timeline is missed, TC-TALUS, the governmental organization responsible for spending up to $3.3 million in federal money on the study, would create the schedule.
"If we have a group that can't even put together a timeline, then TC-TALUS steps in and sets it," Kleinrichert said. "Otherwise, we are going to go in circles for the next five years."
Ken Smith of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council objected to TC-TALUS directing the group.
"If we can't be accountable to ourselves, then why do we have to have TC-TALUS tell us," Smith said.
The Michigan Department of Transportation said it will authorize $25,000 for TC-TALUS to hire attorney Robert Grow to coach the transportation group to design its study process and hire a consultant.
"They've been at this for quite some time and we haven't seen any movement," said David Langhorst of MDOT. "We're looking to make something happen and this is a good way to do it."
Grow, co-founder of Envision Utah, a nationally recognized regional planning effort, spoke recently at a retreat for the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce.
Members of the LUTS group and MDOT said Grow impressed them.
What's still to be determined, though, is if Grow is interested.
Langhorst said if Grow doesn't take the job the LUTS group needs to find someone like him.
"I believe this will be money well spent," Langhorst said. "We have a special opportunity here and we should take it."

© Traverse City Record-Eagle

The Land Use and Transportation Study group is an interesting study in how NOT to do inclusiveness. This is a group that includes every elected official imaginable as well as a bunch of unelected and unaccountable representatives from groups like the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council.

Nothing against the groups, but they belong on the outside of decision-making bodies, not on the inside. No one elected these folks, and they shouldn't be deciding the transportation future of the region, especially when some of them seem to perceive their role on the transport committee as making sure nothing happens. I don't think any more government money need be spent buying these people off.

Whatever the committee decides on, there will be lawsuits filed. So long as people give money to support groups whose sole purpose is filing obstructionist lawsuits, there will be obstructionist lawsuits.

There's been a lot of complaining from the paper (and other folks up here) about how secretive and non-participatory government can be up here. But letting in more special interest groups IS NOT the answer. The answer is being open to the public at large, and justifying your actions to the public at large. Right now the public interest is basically being held hostage by conflicting interest groups. It's time to kick them off the committee and let the elected public representatives do their business.


Monday, December 05, 2005

Google and Books

George Dyson on Google book scanning: "The Universal Library"
excerpt from an essay by George Dyson on edge:

Digital coding is the universal language allowing free translation between abstract information and physical books. Once upon a time, if you wanted the information, you had to physically possess (or borrow) the book. If you wanted to purchase a new copy of the book, the title had to be "in print."

This is no longer true. Scan the text once, digitally, and the information becomes permanently available, anywhere, no matter what happens to physical copies of the book. Search for an out-of-print title and you will now find bookshops (and libraries) who have copies available; soon enough the options will include bookshops offering to print a copy, just for you. Google Library and Google Print have been renamed Google Book Search--not because Google is shying away from building the Universal Library (with links to the Universal Bookstore) but because search comes first. To paraphrase Tolkien: "One ring to find them, one ring to bind them, one ring to rule them all."

Why does this strike such a nerve? Because so many of us (not only authors) love books. In their combination of mortal, physical embodiment with immortal, disembodied knowledge, books are the mirror of ourselves. Books are not mere physical objects. They have a life of their own. Wholesale scanning, we fear, will strip our books of their souls. Works that were sewn together by hand, one chapter at a time, should not be unbound page by page and distributed click by click. Talk about "snippets" makes authors flinch.

I am . . . what? fascinated? puzzled? flabberghasted? by the response to the whole Google Books project.

Seemingly intelligent people are taking up stances that make no sense whatsoever, or ones that seem to run directly contrary to their own interests. George Dyson, for instance. I imagine he's a smart guy. And I love books, too. But everything what he's written on Google of late (this piece and "Turing's Cathedral," available at The Edge) seem almost unbelievablyy beside the point. Yes books are physical objects. So what?

The reaction to Google's ambition to index everything bears a lot of similarity to the popular-intellectual response to cyberpunk writing and the emergence of the Internet.Rememberr all the half-informed drivel written about something called "cyber space" which was going to replace all genuine, authentic experience with a simulation. Luckily, somehow that didn't happen.

New media and the availability of new ways to use new media do not spell the disappearance of old media and old ways. Mr. Dyson and book lovers everywhere (including me) will continue to buy, store and cherish books. Probably moreso than we did before with the (perhaps Google-supplied, perhaps not) ability to find books we'd never have come across otherwise.

The thing with Google is this: it is a means of access to information and a powerful one. They are not without competitors, and they will probably never be without competitors. They are never going to be the one entity that absolutely dominates everything on the web. And anything they propose to do is can probably be duplicated by one of their competitors. Google isn't the millennium, it's just a good search tool.

Copyright holders who deny the fair use of their material (let's leave the legal nitpicking aside here and just say that searchability and the display of excerpts is fair: it will cause few or no loss of sales (actually quite the opposite) and will certainly lend to the propagation of knowledge), with few exceptions are slitting their own throats. Because the big threat to books isn't being digitized. It's not being digitized.

There is an incrediblee wealth of knowledge now in print, but not available for search. And that fact will make the world of print increasinglyy the domain of odd ducks like me. While this might make people like me more special, if you are truly interested in books, you'll be more supportive of the reasonably regulated digitizing of print.