Friday, June 29, 2007

News Anchors of the World Unite

Not having a television, I miss (to some extent) the kind of nonsense shows up on cable news. Whenever I go back to Kansas, I am always surprised by home much of Fox's airtime (or CNN's, though my parents don't watch that channel) is devoted to celebrity gossip and missing baby stories. Especially in this season of war, when people are a little bored with bombings, it's appalling.

So it's nice to see a news anchor who feels my pain. Via Think Progress.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Do Cameras Makes Us Safer?

Of all the youtube videos I have seen in the last two years, the one that shook me the most was the one that captured UCLA police officers repeatedly tasering a student in their library last November. In part, my response to that video was conditioned by witnessing a similar scene of police brutality six months previous, when four friends of mine were pepper sprayed and arrested (one was tased twice) because they were verbally confrontational with a cop who had pinned a man down , handcuffed him, and then pepper sprayed him. Naturally, all four were acquitted of the piddly little crimes there were supposedly arrested for. At least in Albuquerque, such behavior by police is a form a crowd control since it is virtually impossible to hold an officer responsible for wrongful arrest, use of excessive force, or any other type of misconduct.

So when I saw this morning that skateboarders in Arkansas got photos of a cop strangling one of their friends, and video of the same cop brutalizing and arresting a few more, my heart beat immediately began to quicken. What were the skateboarders doing? Well, you know, skateboarding. And being a worried about their friend who had just been strangled by a law enforcement officer. That's a crime, you see.

This video is not nearly as brutal as the UCLA one, and I'm glad for that. But it's a good reminder for me about the potential good cell phone cameras contain. I have a general ambivalence about the proliferation of cameras in public and the extreme ease with which we are all potentially broadcast. Ambivalent because such a proliferation could portend an Orwellian surveillance state (it's not as hyperbolic as it may sound), and yet the power seems to swing both ways, since the ability to capture true acts of injustice can, and does, happen. I don't know, ultimately, whether we are better off with this technology, but I am glad that it helps keep people who brutalize others human beings in check.

Since the UCLA incident, I have been feeling the need to acquire a camera phone. I see it as a way to protect myself, and my friends, from the police, odd as that sounds. I wonder now how things would have been different if I had had one last year when my friends were arrested.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Wednesday Art Class

A little info on Otto Dix, the creator of this week’s image, “Prager Street.”

From Wikipedia: Otto Dix (December 2, 1891 - July 25, 1969) was a German painter and printmaker. Noted for his ruthless depictions of Weimar society and of the brutality of war, he is one of the most important artists of the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity).

Dix was an interesting character. He was a decorated German military officer during the WWI (where he was wounded several times), but made a name for himself after the war as an avant garde artist of the Dadaist sort. He was prolific through the 1920s, but was deemed a degenerate artist by the Nazis, who burned a number of his paintings. He was employed by the Nazi government to paint properly German landscapes, conscripted to serve the Motherland during WWII, captured by the French, and eventually left to live out his life in post-war Europe, where he continued to detail the lives of those that the war spared, however maimed.

Especially impressive are Dix’s “War” etchings, which he completed in 1924, many of which can be seen here. These etchings, which are indebted to Goya's war paintings, don't flinch from the ugliness of warfare. They include depictions of ariel bombing, rape, chemical warefare, and disfigurement. As etchings, these pieces avoid the trap of over-aestheticizing --and thus glorifying--the bodies mangled by the war. (See "Meal Time in the Trenches," left.)

The "War" etchings differ from much of Dix's output, which often features multimedia (collage) and vibrant colors. Whereas the "War" series works under an obligation to the physical reality of the times, much of Dix's work combines an adherence to the physical realities of post-war Europe with a kind of neurotic, grotesque and even nightmarish perspective that highlights the interior, psychological aspects of inter-war Europe. On the right is a painting entitled, "The Skat Players," from 1920. It depicts several military officers engaging in mundane activity--playing cards--but irrevocably disfigured. Arms, eyes, legs, noses, and even a heart are replaced by the machinery of Europe, which has atomized them.

Even where his work is not explicitly filled by the content of war, as in his portraits, there is an uncanny oddness to his work (some great examples can be seen here). Often set amid unfamiliar backdrops, the subjects of his portraits evince a kind of inner stupidity or madness, as slumping bodies project blank expressions toward the viewer. In some paintings, we leave the sad world of the war's practitioners and enter the even sadder world of the aristocracy, whose ugliness is perhaps even more jarring than the spectacle of the victim.

Dix's work veers close to Surrealism at times, and as the years went on, he lost some of the modernist flare that gave his paintings their power. But on the whole, he left a tremendous legacy testifying to a world riven by its inability to control the the tools of modernity that it had forged.

I offer this tiny history here both for my own benefit and for the education of any readers I may have. My feeling is that we don't live in a time so different from Dix's, and that though in the Empire we aren't confronted by casualty every day, it still infects us. With just a little focussed looking, you can see it.

Dix is all over the internet, but here's one more gallery that has a nice range of his work.

Oh wait, I am the law

You probably don't need me to be the one to post this, but I'll go ahead and do it any way.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the second and final installment of Pearl:

Good Cop, Baby Cop

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

In battle of the titans, Paris ousts Michael Moore: CNN officiates

Now let's get one thing perfectly straight: I'm not the kind of person who gets excited about celebrity news. It's just not part of my constitution. And as much as I hate to add to the already distressing amount of blog chatter about Paris Hilton and her infinitesimally short prison stint, I did find this one small detail in the BBC story rather interesting:

The 26-year-old, sentenced to 45 days on 3 June, was released early due to crowded jail conditions and time off for good behaviour.

She is scheduled to appear on Larry King's CNN talk show on Wednesday.

The network has said she will not be paid for her appearance, which has replaced a planned interview with filmmaker Michael Moore.

Good job, CNN. Michael Moore probably didn't have anything important or titillating to say, anyways.

Tuesday Links

I'm thrice an uncle,

as of 12:36 central time yesterday.

I present Samuel Wientzen Schafer, and a kickin' batch of links.

Boingboing and my friend Amar are linking to a paper on class division, as seen through Myspace and Facebook.

Gerry Canavan has got a fun link to The Perry Bible Fellowship that's worth checking out.

Also, Drag City Records is promoting Neil Hamburger, who is touring the south right now. Here's a clip of the man on the Jimmy Kimmel show, as well as one of him telling off a couple of hecklers at a show. Warning: neither of the clips are work-safe, and the first contains the crassest Michael Jackson joke I have ever heard, which is really saying something.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Rushdie Affair -- Are We Still Having This Conversation?

Sadly, yes, the conversation goes on. It has been a 18 years since Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling on all Muslims to execute those involved in the publication of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. It's been another 9 years since the Iranian government publicly declared that it would not carry out the death sentence against Rushdie. And then, ten days ago, England awarded Rushdie knighthood, and tempers flared again, when Pakistan remonstrated against the act and the Islamabad Traders' Association offered a reward of 10 million Pakistani rupees for Rushdie's beheading.

Now, I've never really understood what all the fuss was about. I chalk this up to two factors: 1) I am not Muslim, 2) I had no context for understanding the fuss when I read the book five years ago. But recently I started to think about the standard Western response to Pakistani anger -- the argument that holds that the book should exist on the grounds of free speech alone. And I am starting to wonder how true that is. Should it exist? I ask this question as a big Rushdie fan and someone who still doesn't quite understand how and why it has garnered the vitriol it has.

I think the only way to make this question meaningful for Westerners is to try to move it into a different domain, one where it might have a more comparable resonance. It does not, in my opinion, have any traction as a parallel to question whether an anti-Judeo Christian novel would provoke such anger. Obviously, it wouldn't, since insults to traditionally Western faiths are not dealt with in the same way as they are in Islam. Perhaps a better parallel, one which would provoke comparable anger in the United States, would be a novel about race. Would a powerfully written, best selling neo-nazi novel--one that wins the highest awards and whose author is publicly congratulated at the highest levels--be a more apt comparison? Is The Satanic Verses hate speech? Is it the rough equivalent of, say, The Turner Diaries?

Readers over at Al Jazeera English are talking about whether England should revoke Rushdie's knighthood. I offer this link not because I think England should necessarily take back the honor, but because the variety of responses offered by readers serves as a powerful insight into what that book actually means, and why, 18 years after the famous fatwa was issued, we're still talking about Rushdie.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Because some people don't want warts

I am sometimes surprised by what doesn't make the news.

According to the good people at Feministe, Abstinence-only sex education funding has been cut.

Score one for the sane.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

This bag of placentas is so heavy!

Because I know you were wondering:

  • 1 baby grand piano weighs about as much as 151 placentas
  • It would take about 900 human tongues to go end zone to end zone on a football field
  • It would take just over 391,111 Oscar Meyer Weinermobiles to line the Oregon Trail
  • 5.6 million human eyeballs weighs about as much as one blue whale.
Sleep easy. I've got all the answers.

The Kansas-Malaysia Connection

This comes from one of Cynical-C's favorite blogs, Strange Maps. Here's the scoop:

The creator of this map has had the interesting idea to break down that gigantic US GDP into the GDPs of individual states, and compare those to other countries’ GDP. What follows, is this slightly misleading map – misleading, because the economies both of the US states and of the countries they are compared with are not weighted for their respective populations.

Pakistan, for example, has a GDP that’s slightly higher than Israel’s – but Pakistan has a population of about 170 million, while Israel is only 7 million people strong. The US states those economies are compared with (Arkansas and Oregon, respectively) are much closer to each other in population: 2,7 million and 3,4 million.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

More Atheism. Alright!

In addition to the slew of new books that challenge the neo-religiosity of America, we can add The Atheist's Bible by Joan Konner. It appears from this excellent review that it is in all seriousness a Proverbs-esque collection of aphorisms, including the following:

Aristotle: "men create the gods after their own images"

Schopenhauer: "Religions are like glow-worms. They need darkness in order to shine."

Santayana: "Fear first created the gods."

What a book like this offers, as the review notes, is that it has the kind of check out lane appeal that could make it a big seller. But beyond this, a book like this excells insofar as it is not an argument. The debate about belief is a doomed debate because by its very nature must rely on non-empirical information, and Konner's book doesn't try to say that religion is bogus or the biggest source of violence in history, or anything like that. Instead, it attempts to build no case where no case can be built. Fragments often have the uncanny ability to communicate more than can be stated in the most well-reasoned and articulate discourses. As Wyndham Lewis wrote about Virginia Woolf in Men Without Art, "We must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition."

Why I haven't blogged in a week

An expected series of unfortunate events has rendered me unable to blog in the past couple of days. First, my good friend, Chris Hentzen, died suddenly of heart failure, which prompted a trip home to Kansas City. Upon returning to the Dirty Durham, I was dismayed to sense the beginnings of a serious cold, which has made my first day at the library in a week little more than a prolonged and uncomfortable nap.

As unhappy it is to have to bury a friend, especially a young one, my trip back to the City of Fountains wasn't without its upsides. For one, it was nice to be with my old friends, reminiscing about the old days, going through old photos, and watching hours of (painful) videos from high school parties. I was also fortunate that my unexpected trip brought me into to town for Bloomsday, which I spent at the always delightful Bloomsday Books, where I sat and listened, appropriately enough, to a reading of the "Hades" episode. I also picked up a John Banville novel, which I am very much looking forward to reading. And in blog news, my friend Jack Barry alerted me to the existence of a blog named Phoneless Cord, written by our friend Rachel, which I will be stealing content from soon.

More content to come once my body heals itself.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Watch out Islam: Pat Robertson's got your number

So I just began reading Media Matters a few weeks ago, mostly because I got curious after Bill O'Reilly criticized it again and again. And it's pretty good. They keep a close eye on what's happening on the television that I don't watch. It's a fabulous place for bitter laughter.

Here, for example, is Pat Robertson speaking on The 700 Club, indicting himself as the bigot he is.

Pat Robertson says, "Islam is not a religion. It is a worldwide political movement meant on domination."
Fascinating. It's especially fascinating since he can at the same time indict Islam as being incapable of understanding "reasoned dialogue." Here's the link to the Media Matters video and article.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

books + television

Literary TV Programs Yet to Be Produced, from McSweeny's

My favorites:

Everybody Loves Raymond Carver

Welcome Back, Kafka

Bloomsday foods

We're just days away from Bloomsday, and that means that this is the best (and only) time of year to see the culinary oddities from Ulysses making their appearance in the real world.

For example, at the Greenmarket in New York, you can get your hands on "Bloomsday cheese."
(It's not the food that just most readily to mind from the book, but Bloom does eat a cheese sandwich in "Lestrygonians.")

Here's a short article from 2002 (in pdf) of someone who ate a Bloomsday diet for two weeks, including Leopold Bloom's famous pork liver breakfast cooked in butter.

Some events worth seeing, if you find yourself in one of these cities:

Kansas City -- Bloomsday Books. They don't have any of the info for this year's festivities on line, but in years past they have done a multifaceted event with reading, performances, and lots of drinking.

New York -- The New York James Joyce Society has a celebration every year where they read the entirety of Ulysses. I think they get famous people to do it. Anyways, it's in Manhattan, and supposed to be a really fabulous time.

Austin, TX - The University of Austin is hosting this year's North American James Joyce Conference, which I attended a few years ago. What's nice about this kind of event is that it's an academic conference with the levity and wit of a night at the pub. (If anyone is going to this, I'd like a conference poster!)

Philadelphia -- This is another big celebration, like New York, with signing, reading, etc. It's held at the Rosenbach Museum, which houses one of the best manuscripts of Ulysses.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Christopher Hitchens

I am not going to pretend that I love Christopher Hitchens. For one, he was just plain WRONG about Iraq--odiously so. However, he is an articulate dude, and he got some good punches in when Falwell died. It's worth checking out:

Here he is talking with Anderson Cooper:

And with Sean Hannity (this one is worth watching to the end):

How religious are we?

There's a spate of new books out about the new (?) American dispensation for religion and its ever-growing, ever-nefarious influence on our lives. Sam Harris's The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great.

Over at The Nation, Ronald Aronson is thinking about what these books mean in the grand scheme of the American political and religious landscape. What these books signify, among other things, is that Americans are not happy with the new political and cultural paradigm that is being foisted on it from above. But if Americans are not happy with it, then why is it happening? I can count on a single hand the number of truly pious religious zealots that I know, and yet it seems as if their influence is huge, and getting bigger. Is it simply that I, in my ivory tower, don't interact with the pious masses? Or is, perhaps, that the entire face of the Christian Right is exaggerated?

That is, essentially, what I have always believed. Aronson makes a good point here. He argues that surveys how religious Americans are are tainted by the "'social desirability effect,' in which respondents are reluctant to give an unpopular answer in a society in which being religious is the norm." It's a good point, and one that I think really ought to be taken seriously. After all, how religious are Bill O'Reily and Sean Hannity? Or, for that matter, the contenders for the presidency? Are they not all pandering--performing their religiosity? Who among the talking heads and arbiters of culture has not suddenly found Jesus in the last couple of years?

Aronson musters some really compelling stats by looking both at surveys and analyzing the (bad) ways in which they are conducted. According to him, as many as 1 in 4 Americans does not believe in God.

Consider the following:

- a recent Harris American poll shows that 31 percent of those with postgraduate education do not avow belief in God. (<-- booya!)

- Twenty-four percent say that President Bush talks too much about his religious faith and prayer

- 28 percent deny that the United States is a Christian nation.

- 49 percent believe that Christian conservatives have gone too far "in trying to impose their religious values on the country."

Say what you will about the quality, tone, and efficacy of the new group of anti-religious books on the market, they mean something, and we do well to weigh that.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Those Who Can't Teach Teach Gym

I saw this on Technorati, and I just had to post it -- not because it's new, and not because it's topical, but because it's great and always relevant. Absolutely.

Saturday, June 9, 2007


Kendra and I just got back from seeing The Wind That Shakes the Barley, a movie about the Irish war for independence and the subsequent civil war.

There are a number of things I really like about this movie.

First, this isn't a story that we as Americans often hear, and I'm glad that this movie will, at least in part, bring that to those who see it. But the story aside, the director does an excellent job veering away from triumphalism. It's one thing to show the way the Irish were brutalized by the British, but it's quite another to tell only that story. Ken Loach, the director, does a good job showing the perspective of the rank and file British soldiers, allowing the viewer to sympathizes with them as well as the Irish, while keeping the film centered squarely on the Irish cause. Further, this film does not end with independence, as an American film might. Rather, 1922 is just one plot point of a much broader interrogation of the way a good fight gets muddled. In the end, the conflict between the Irish Free State and the Irish Republican armies is more important to the film than the fight against British. Loach doesn't allow the viewer to feel for either side of the civil conflict, creating a sense of disaster at least as profound as the disaster of hundreds of years of imperial violence. Even in the way Loach frames shots and choreographs speeches, we are always under the impression that we are watching Irish peasant soldiers--not orators, or actors. There are a number of moving speeches--about independence, sovereignty, sacrifice--but these speeches don't carry the kind of practiced bravado that we might expect a less able director to allow.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley is playing at both the Galaxy in Raleigh and the Chelsea in Chapel Hill.

Apparently you can watch a good part of the movie on Youtube. Here's part one.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Body Artist

I just finished writing a paper on prosthesis in Russia in the 1920s, so I've been thinking a lot about body extension, the various binding/liberating qualities to modern technology. So following on yesterday's WWI art post, I thought I'd add an image from and link to a Smithsonian article on facial prosthesis.

"Wounded tommies facetiously called it "The Tin Noses Shop." Located within the 3rd London General Hospital, its proper name was the "Masks for Facial Disfigurement Department"; either way, it represented one of the many acts of desperate improvisation borne of the Great War, which had overwhelmed all conventional strategies for dealing with trauma to body, mind and soul. On every front—political, economic, technological, social, spiritual—World War I was changing Europe forever, while claiming the lives of 8 million of her fighting men and wounding 21 million more."


One thing that I really like about reading Beckett is that even amid what seems minimalist, his texts are full of the most luxurious vocabulary. Here's a smattering from Watt.

* funambulist: A performer on the tight (or slack) rope, a rope-walker, a rope-dancer. [as in: In attempting to maintain a blog and work at a brisk pace, I am attempting a funambulistic feat.]

ordure: Excrement, dung.

ataraxy: Freedom from disturbance of mind or passion; stoical indifference.

exiguous: Scanty in measure or number; extremely small, diminutive, minute.

pruritus: Itching; esp. itching of the skin without visible eruption.

* battology: A needless and tiresome repetition in speaking or writing. (this might be the key word for the entire novel)

flocculation: The movements of delirious patients, as if searching for or grasping at imaginary objects, or picking the bed-clothes

velleity: the fact or quality of merely willing, wishing, or desiring, without any effort or advance towards action or realization.

gloam: Twilight, gloaming.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Countdown to Bloomsday

We're just 9 days from the world's best secular holiday, and I still don't know what I'll be doing. Chances are that I'll be driving across the country, past many very great Bloomsday celebrations, and missing out on all the Guiness and nerdiness that I so enjoy.

Over at University Diaries, they're keeping an eye on the forthcoming holiday.

UD writes, "There was a distinct moment, while I was teaching Ulysses last semester, when my enthusiastic class seemed to get it -- seemed to sense the biggest truth about that novel, its effort to draw every bit of us, to show us absolutely everything that we are, physically, mentally, spiritually, the worst and the best, so that we can know, and accept, what we are."

That seems to me a pretty good summation of what the day and book are about. Even if you haven't read it, I suggest you find yourself a Bloomsday celebration. It should convince you.

Faces of War

Cynical-C has a link up today to a nice site hosted by the University of Victoria, which contains the drawings and water colors of an anonymous British soldier in the First World War.

It's hard not to think of Agamben and Guantanamo when you look at these pictures:

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Fundies and Feminists

So, let's just admit it: the Right hates women almost as much as it hates people who have 'uncomplimentary' sex. So there's nothing really too alarming about the definition of feminism offered by righty Mike Adams, apart from its forthrightness:

"Feminism is a minority social movement, whose members murder innocent children in order to obtain sexual gratification."

A great blog, Feministe, has a link to the original article, as well as some colorful commentary on the candor of this and other comments made this week by the likes of Bill O'Reilly.

Why a blog?

Let commence the writing of the blog!

I intend this space to be less a site of regular, well-crafted thoughts, observations, and arguments than a series of links, quotes, videos and other media that randomly comes my way. Given my recent (and not altogether welcome) foray into the blog world of others, I feel that I need a space in which to draw attention to, comment upon, deride, pillory, praise and celebrate the various comings and goings of the lives, thoughts and writings of others.

The name "Bitter Laughter" comes from today's reading of Beckett's Watt: "Of all the laughs that strictly speaking are not laughs, but modes of ululation, only three I think need detain us, I mean the bitter, the hollow and the mirthless . . . The bitter laugh laughs at that which is not good, it is the ethical laugh" (48). For Beckett (or at least his narrator), the bitter laugh is the basest form of laughter, while mirthless laughter is the "risus purus . . . the laugh that laughs . . . at that which is unhappy" (48). I mean this site to be a source of ethical laughter--not moral superiority, per se, but a healthy finger-pointing at the bad, rather than the unhappy. To laugh at the unhappy may, perhaps, be to laugh in its fullest sense, but it lacks humor; its intent is less to bring to light the hidden than a form of self-referentiality by which the self maintains itself through self-identification. As Tyrus Miller notes about such pure laughter, "It is the self-reflexive laughter . . . of the survivor in the face of alterity and death, the subject's minimum self-confirmation, the minimal trace of the instinct for self-preservation. I laugh, therefore I (still) am" (Late Modernism, 49).

I leave the mirthless laughing for some other blogger. This blog is intended to induce bitter laughter.