Robert P. Crease’s World in the Balance is now out in trade paperback. I wasn’t sure how interesting a book about the history of measurement could be, but when I flicked it open randomly to a chapter about Marcel Duchamp I found myself intrigued.
From Laura J. Snyder’s review at The Wall St. Journal:
‘The non-scientific mind has the most ridiculous ideas of the precision of laboratory work, and would be much surprised to learn that . . . the bulk of it does not exceed the precision of an upholsterer who comes to measure a window for a pair of curtains.” So wrote the American philosopher and scientist Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914).
Peirce may have been giving the general public more credit than he intended; most people don’t think much about the precision of scientific measurements, let alone question where the standards of measurement have come from in the past or where they are headed today. These topics are addressed by Robert P. Crease’s educational and often entertaining book, “World in the Balance.” While some readers might be put off by the episodic and occasionally repetitive structure of the book—belying its origin as the author’s columns for Physics World—those who are not will be amply rewarded with a sweeping survey of the history of measurement and the search for universal and absolute standards, from ancient China up to practically yesterday.
The Most Beautiful Machine by Hanns-Martin Wagner. Based on an idea by mathematician Claude E. Shannon. The trunk is closed, an observer presses the ON button, and a prosthetic arm pops out, presses the OFF button, and the trunk closes again. Lovely. More/see it in action.
I’ve been digging Stephen Eric Bronner’s tight synthesis of modernism, Modernism at the Barricades, which traces the historical rise of expressionism, futurism, surrealism and more against the political, social, and historical backdrop of the emerging 20th century. Bronner’s book is a sharp but concise primer of sorts, using examples like the correspondence between Schoenberg and Kandinsky and the paintings of Emil Nolde to illuminate the big concepts and cultural aims of different modernist movements. Photographs, prints, and posters (like the proclamation below) help to illustrate Bronner’s chapters as well.
Bronner’s book would make a handy starting point to any student beginning a study of modernism. It doesn’t try to exhaustively account for each and every modernist, but neither does it forsake specificity in favor of a broad overview. Best of all, Bronner is clear and concise, an attribute which unfortunately is all too rare in academic writing. There’s a lucid sensibility that seems to govern the book, which we can see from its earliest chapter. Here Bronner delineates modernism’s cultural project and at the same time points out some of modernism’s own shortsightedness:
Modernism would call into question every aspect of modern life, from the architecture through which our apartments are designed, to the furniture in which we sit, to the comic books our children read, to the films we watch and the museums we visit, to the experience of time and individual possibility that mark our lives. Modernists may have believed that they were contesting modernity, but their efforts and their hopes were shaped by it. Their activities legitimated what they intended to oppose. Their critique, in short, presupposed its object. Modernists believed that they were contesting tradition in the name of the new and the constraints of everyday life in the name of multiplied experience and individual freedom. These artists were essentially anarchists imbued with what Georg Lukács termed “romantic anti-capitalism.”
They opposed the “system” without understanding how it worked or what radical political transformation required and implied. Oddly, they never understood how deeply they were enmeshed in what they opposed. Modernists envisioned an apocalypse that had no place for institutions or agents generated within modernity. Theirs was less a concern with class consciousness than an opposition to the alienating and reifying constraints of modernity. Unfettered freedom of expression and a transformation in the experience of everyday life were the modernists’ goals. Even when seduced by totalitarian movements, whether of the left or the right, most of them despised what Czeslaw Milosz called the“captive mind.” Not all the problems that they uncovered—sexual repression and generational conflicts, among others—required utopian solutions. But their utopian inclinations were transparent from the beginning. Modernists believed that the new would not come from within modernity, but would appear as an external event or force for which, culturally, the vanguard would act as a catalyst.
Good stuff. Modernism at the Barricades is new in hardback from Columbia University Press.
” . . . Man grows used to everything, the scoundrel!”
He sank into thought.
“And what if I am wrong,” he cried suddenly after a moment’s thought. “What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.”
—From Chapter II of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.
I see what I’m doing as simply plugging literature into other literature. For me, that’s what literature’s always done. If Shakespeare finds a good speech in an older version of Macbeth or Pliny, he just rips it and mixes it. It’s like DJing.
McCarthy’s new essay “Transmission and the Individual Remix” explores the idea of artist as DJ, as remixer, as synthesizer. It’s a brief, fun read—28 pages on paper the publicity materials claim, but it’s only available as an etext, so its length is hard to measure in terms of pages. It took me less than an hour to read it on my Kindle Fire. Then I read it again. Although publisher Vintage kindly sent me a copy, I’d argue that it’s well worth the two bucks they’re asking.
“Transmission” is playful and discursive, as befits its subject. The essay is not nearly as pretentious as its subtitle (“How Literature Works”) might suggest. McCarthy riffs on a few subjects to illustrate his thesis: Kraftwerk, the Orpheus myth (and its many, many retellings and interpretations), Rilke, Alexander Graham Bell, “Blanchot, Barthes, or any other dubious French character whose names starts with B,” Ulysses, Kafka, Beckett, etc. But what is his thesis? What does he want? He tells us:
My aim here, in this essay, is not to tell you something, but to make you listen: not to me, nor Beckett and Kafka, but to a set of signals that have been repeating, pulsing, modulating in the airspace of the novel, poem, play—in their lines, between them and around them—since each of these forms began. I want to make you listen to them, in the hope not that they’ll deliver up some hidden and decisive message, but rather that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll help attune your ear to the very pitch and frequency of its own activity—in other words, that they’ll enable you to listen in on listening itself.
McCarthy’s concern here is to point out that nothing is original, that all creation is necessarily an act of synthesis. To read a novel is to read through the novel, to read the novelist’s sources (or, to use McCarthy’s metaphor, to listen through). McCarthy’s insights here are hardly new, of course—Ecclesiastes 1:19 gives us the idea over 2000 years ago, and surely it’s just another transmitter passing on a signal. What makes ”Transmission” such a pleasure is its frankness, its clarity. Unlike so much postmodern criticism, McCarthy doesn’t trip over jargon or take flights of fancy into obscure metaphor. And even when he does get a bit flighty, he manages to clarify so many ideas of basic deconstructive theory:
This is it, in a nutshell: how writing works. The scattering, the loss; the charge coming from somewhere else, some point forever beyond reach or even designation, across a space of longing; the surge; coherence that’s only made possible by incoherence; the receiving which is replay, repetition—backward, forward, inside out or upside down, it doesn’t matter. The twentieth century’s best novelist understood this perfectly. That’s why Ulysses’s Stephen Dedalus—a writer in a gestational state of permanent becoming—paces the beach at Sandymount mutating, through their modulating repetition, air- and wave-borne phrases he’s picked up from elsewhere, his own cheeks and jaw transformed into a rubbery receiver . . .
Amazingly, the name Derrida doesn’t show up in “Transmission,” even as McCarthy gives us such a clear outline of that philosopher’s major ideas, as in the above riff’s explication of différance and iterability (with twist of Lacanian lack to boot). Or here, where McCarthy deconstructs the notion of a stable self:
All writing is conceptual; it’s just that it’s usually founded on bad concepts. When an author tells you that they’re not beholden to any theory, what they usually mean is that their thinking and their work defaults, without even realizing it, to a narrow liberal humanism and its underlying—and always reactionary—notions of the (always “natural” and preexisting, rather than constructed self, that self’s command of language, language as vehicle for “expression,” and a whole host of fallacies so admirably debunked almost fifty years ago by the novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet.
So I read Derrida through McCarthy’s reading of Robbe-Grillet. This is all transmission, writing as remix, but also reading as remix.
I could go on, but I fear that I’ll simply start citing big chunks of McCarthy’s essay, which is supremely citable, wonderfully iterable. Recommended.
Dead Man Working is the latest from Carl Cederström (whose discussions with Simon Critchley became How to Stop Living and Start Worrying) and Peter Fleming. The book explores the existential despair of workers in our post-capitalist age. (It’s funnier than that description might suggest). Publisher Zer0′s blurb:
Capitalism has become strange. Ironically, while the ‘age of work’ seems to have come to an end, working has assumed a total presence – a ‘worker’s society’ in the worst sense of the term – where everyone finds themselves obsessed with it. So what does the worker tell us today? ‘I feel drained, empty – dead’; This book tells the story of the dead man working. It follows this figure through the daily tedium of the office, to the humiliating mandatory team building exercise, to awkward encounters with the funky boss who pretends to hate capitalism and tells you to be authentic. In this society, the experience of work is not of dying…but neither of living. It is one of a living death. And yet, the dead man working is nevertheless compelled to wear the exterior signs of life, to throw a pretty smile, feign enthusiasm and make a half-baked joke. When the corporation has colonized life itself, even our dreams, the question of escape becomes ever more pressing, ever more desperate.
Full review on deck.
Yes, Chef is Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir. If that name sounds familiar, you might recognize his face:
Publisher Random House’s blurb:
Marcus Samuelsson was only three years old when he, his mother, and his sister—all battling tuberculosis—walked seventy-five miles to a hospital in the Ethiopian capital city of Addis Adaba. Tragically, his mother succumbed to the disease shortly after she arrived, but Marcus and his sister recovered, and one year later they were welcomed into a loving middle-class white family in Göteborg, Sweden. It was there that Marcus’s new grandmother, Helga, sparked in him a lifelong passion for food and cooking with her pan-fried herring, her freshly baked bread, and her signature roast chicken. From a very early age, there was little question what Marcus was going to be when he grew up.
Yes, Chef chronicles Marcus Samuelsson’s remarkable journey from Helga’s humble kitchen to some of the most demanding and cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland and France, from his grueling stints on cruise ships to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a coveted New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of “chasing flavors,” as he calls it, had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs and, most important, the opening of the beloved Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fufilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents and prime ministers rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, bus drivers, and nurses. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.
With disarming honesty and intimacy, Samuelsson also opens up about his failures—the price of ambition, in human terms—and recounts his emotional journey, as a grown man, to meet the father he never knew. Yes, Chef is a tale of personal discovery, unshakable determination, and the passionate, playful pursuit of flavors—one man’s struggle to find a place for himself in the kitchen, and in the world.