Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

For Mark Rothko on his birthday

September 25, 2014
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For Mark Rothko on his birthday

James E. B. Breslin’s book on the life of painter Mark Rothko helped redefine the field of the artist’s biography and, in its day, was praised by outlets such as the New York Times Book Review (on the front cover, no less), where critic Hilton Kramer ascribed it as, “the best life of an American painter that has yet been written.” On what would have been the artist’s 111th birthday, Biographile revisted Breslin’s work:

In Breslin’s book, we follow Rothko’s search for the approach that would become such a significant contribution to art and painting in the twentieth century. He was in his forties before he started making his “multiforms,” and even after he started painting them in his studio, he didn’t show them right away. Breslin dissects and details the techniques Rothko developed upon creating his greatest works. He rotated the canvas as he worked, so that the painting wouldn’t be weighted in any one direction. He spent much more time in the studio figuring out a painting than actually painting it, and he filled a canvas as many as twenty times before feeling it was done. Maybe most important, he worked tirelessly to eliminate any recognizable shapes . . .

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Rachel Sussman and The Oldest Living Things in the World

September 15, 2014
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Rachel Sussman and The Oldest Living Things in the World

 

This past week, Rachel Sussman’s colossal photography project—and its associated book—The Oldest Living Things in the World, which documents her attempts to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years old and older, was profiled by the New Yorker:

To find the oldest living thing in New York City, set out from Staten Island’s West Shore Plaza mall (Chuck E. Cheese’s, Burlington Coat Factory, D.M.V.). Take a right, pass Industry Road, go left. The urban bleakness will fade into a litter-strewn route that bisects a nature preserve called Saw Mill Creek Marsh. Check the tides, and wear rubber boots; trudging through the muddy wetlands is necessary.

The other day, directions in hand, Rachel Sussman, a photographer from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, went looking for the city’s most antiquated resident: a colony of Spartina alterniflora or Spartina patens cordgrass which, she suspects, has been cloning and re-cloning itself for millennia.

Not simply the story of a cordgrass selfie, Sussman’s pursuit becomes contextualized by the lives—and deaths—of our fragile ecological forbearers, and her desire to document their existence while they are still of the earth. In support of the project, Sussman has a series of upcoming events surrounding The Oldest . . .

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Terror and Wonder: our free ebook for September

September 2, 2014
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Terror and Wonder: our free ebook for September

For more than twenty years now, Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune has explored how architecture captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Kamin treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. Terror and Wonder gathers the best of Kamin’s writings from the past decade along with new reflections on an era framed by the destruction of the World Trade Center and the opening of the world’s tallest skyscraper.

Assessing ordinary commercial structures as well as head-turning designs by some of the world’s leading architects, Kamin paints a sweeping but finely textured portrait of a tumultuous age torn between the conflicting mandates of architectural spectacle and sustainability. For Kamin, the story of our built environment over the past ten years is, in tangible ways, the story of the decade itself. Terror and Wonder considers how architecture has been central to the main events and crosscurrents in American life since 2001: the devastating and debilitating consequences of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina; the real estate boom and bust; the use of over-the-top cultural designs as engines of civic renewal; new challenges . . .

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Chicago 1968, the militarization of police, and Ferguson

August 29, 2014
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Chicago 1968, the militarization of police, and Ferguson

John Schultz, author of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial and No One Was Killed: The Democratic National Convention, August 1968, recently spoke with WMNF about the history of police militarization, in light of both recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, and the forty-sixth anniversary (this week) of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Providing historical and social context to the ongoing “debate over whether the nation’s police have become so militarized that they are no longer there to preserve and protect but have adopted an attitude of ‘us’ and ‘them,'” Schultz related his eyewitness accounts to that collision of 22,000 police and members of the National Guard with demonstrators in Chicago to the armed forces that swarmed around mostly peaceful protesters in Ferguson these past few weeks.

The selection below, drawn in part from a larger excerpt from No One Was Killed, relays some of that primary account from what happened in Grant Park nearly half a century ago. The full excerpt can be accessed here.

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The cop bullhorn bellowed that anyone in the Park, including newsmen, were in violation of the law. Nobody moved. The newsmen did not believe that they were marked men; they thought it was . . .

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The State of the University Press

August 21, 2014
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The State of the University Press

Recently, a spate of articles appeared surrounding the future of the university press. Many of these, of course, focused on the roles institutional library sales, e-books, and shifting concerns around tenure play in determining the strictures and limitations to be overcome as scholarly publishing moves forward in an increasingly digital age. Last week, Book Business published an profile on what goes on behind the scenes as discussions about these issues shape, abet, and occasionally undermine the relationships between the university press, its supporting institution, its constituents, and the consumers and scholars for whom it markets its books. Including commentary from directors at the University of North Carolina Press, the University of California Press, and Johns Hopkins University Press, the piece also included a conversation with our own director, Garrett Kiely:

From Dan Eldridge’s “The State of the University Presses” at Book Business:

Talk to University of Chicago Press director Garrett Kiely, who also sits on the board of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP), and he’ll tell you that many of the presses that are struggling today — financially or otherwise — are dealing with the same sort of headaches being suffered by their colleagues in the commercial world. . . .

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Against Prediction: #Ferguson

August 14, 2014
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Against Prediction: #Ferguson

 

From Bernard E. Harcourt’s Against Prediction: Profiling, Policing, and Punishing in an Actuarial Age

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The ratchet contributes to an exaggerated general perception in the public imagination and among police officers of an association between being African American and being a criminal—between, in Dorothy Roberts’s words, “blackness and criminality.” As she explains,

One of the main tests in American culture for distinguishing law-abiding from lawless people is their race. Many, if not most, Americans believe that Black people are “prone to violence” and make race-based assessments of the danger posed by strangers they encounter. The myth of Black criminality is part of a belief system deeply embedded in American culture that is premised on the superiority of whites and inferiority of Blacks. Stereotypes that originated in slavery are perpetuated today by the media and reinforced by the huge numbers of Blacks under criminal justice supervision. As Jody Armour puts it, “it is unrealistic to dispute the depressing conclusion that, for many Americans, crime has a black face.”

Roberts discusses one extremely revealing symptom of the “black face” of crime, namely, the strong tendency of white victims and eyewitnesses to misidentify suspects in . . .

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Tom Koch on Ebola and the “new” epidemic

August 13, 2014
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Tom Koch on Ebola and the “new” epidemic

“Ebola and the ‘new’ epidemic” by Tom Koch

Mindless but intelligent, viruses and bacteria want what we all want: to survive, evolve, and then, to procreate. That’s been their program since before there were humans. From the first influenza outbreak around 2500 BC to the current Ebola epidemic, we have created the conditions for microbial evolution, hosted their survival, and tried to live with the results.

These are early days for the Ebola epidemic, which was for some years constrained to a few isolated African sites, but has now advanced from its natal place to several countries, with outbreaks elsewhere. Since the first days of influenza, this has always been the viral way. Born in a specific locale, the virus hitches itself to a traveler who brings it to a new and fertile field of humans. The “epidemic curve,” as it is called, starts slowly but then, as the virus spreads and travels, spreads and travels, the numbers mount.

Hippocrates provided a fine description of an influenza pandemic in 500 BC, one that reached Greece from Asia. The Black Death that hastened the end of the Middle . . .

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Malcolm Gladwell profiles On the Run

August 5, 2014
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Malcolm Gladwell profiles On the Run

From a profile of On the Run by Malcolm Gladwell in this week’s New Yorker:

It was simply a fact of American life. He saw the pattern being repeated in New York City during the nineteen-seventies, as the city’s demographics changed. The Lupollos’ gambling operations in Harlem had been taken over by African-Americans. In Brooklyn, the family had been forced to enter into a franchise arrangement with blacks and Puerto Ricans, limiting themselves to providing capital and arranging for police protection. “Things here in Brooklyn aren’t good for us now,” Uncle Phil told Ianni. “We’re moving out, and they’re moving in. I guess it’s their turn now.” In the early seventies, Ianni recruited eight black and Puerto Rican ex-cons—all of whom had gone to prison for organized-crime activities—to be his field assistants, and they came back with a picture of organized crime in Harlem that looked a lot like what had been going on in Little Italy seventy years earlier, only with drugs, rather than bootleg alcohol, as the currency of innovation. The newcomers, he predicted, would climb the ladder to respectability just as their predecessors had done. . . .

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War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America

July 28, 2014
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War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America

On the one-hundredth anniversary of World War I, it might be especially opportune to consider one of the unspoken inheritances of global warfare: soldiers who return home physically and/or psychologically wounded from battle. With that in mind, this excerpt from War’s Waste: Rehabilitation in World War I America contextualizes the relationship between rehabilitation—as the proper social and cultural response to those injured in battle—and the progressive reformers who pushed for it as a means to “rebuild” the disabled and regenerate the American medical industry.

***

Rehabilitation was thus a way to restore social order after the chaos of war by (re)making men into producers of capital. Since wage earning often defined manhood, rehabilitation was, in essence, a process of making a man manly. Or, as the World War I “Creed of the Disabled Man” put it, the point of rehabilitation was for each disabled veteran to become “a MAN among MEN in spite of his physical handicap.” Relying on the breadwinner ideal of manhood, those in favor of pension reform began to define disability not by a man’s missing limbs or by any other physical incapacity (as the Civil War pension system had done), but rather . . .

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Winnifred Fallers Sullivan on the impossibility of religious freedom

July 8, 2014
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Winnifred Fallers Sullivan on the impossibility of religious freedom

 

The impossibility of religious freedom

by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan

In the last week the US Supreme Court has decided two religious freedom cases (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Wheaton College v. Burwell) in favor of conservative Christian plaintiffs seeking exemptions from the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act. Liberals have gone nuts, wildly predicting the end of the world as we know it. While I share their distress about the effects of these decisions on women, I want to talk about religion. I believe that it is time for some serious self-reflection on the part of liberals. To the extent that these decisions are about religion (and there are certainly other reasons to criticize the reasoning in these opinions), they reveal the rotten core at the heart of all religious freedom laws. The positions of both liberals and conservatives are affected by this rottenness but I speak here to liberals.

You cannot both celebrate religious freedom and deny it to those whose religion you don’t like. Human history supports the idea that religion, small “r” religion, is a nearly ubiquitous and perhaps necessary part of human culture. Big “R” . . .

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