Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Yuliya Komska: Can civilians make borders better?

February 22, 2017
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Yuliya Komska: Can civilians make borders better?

“Can civilians make borders better?” by Yuliya Komska, author of The Icon Curtain: The Cold War’s Quiet Border (2015) *** Received wisdom contends that borders and walls are the work of states and supra-national bodies eager to regulate security, the movement of populations, and the flow of commodities. Not surprisingly, the construction and enforcement of these zones rely on weaponized technologies, substantial armed presence, and the use of surplus materials. Whether skimming the European Union’s southeastern edge, snaking between Israel and the West Bank, or cementing the line between the United States and Mexico, borders coalesce as militarized spaces, ostensibly antithetical to those inhabited by civilians in peacetime. The concomitant impression is that civilians can humanize borders by channeling creative energies to subversive effect. Think of the colorful graffiti on the western side of the Berlin Wall, or the works of the elusive artist Banksy, who brought the divided German city’s visual motifs (such as the iconic trompe-l’oeil barrier breech or the make-belief scenic vista) to Gaza in 2005. Consider also the shrines and crosses at the Mexican border, which commemorate the thousands who died in US Border Patrol operations, or the more choreographed incentives that reimagine this emergent border wall, several . . .

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An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story

February 20, 2017
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This April, Emmy Award–winning filmmaker Martin Doblmeier’s documentary about the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, debuts on public television. The film explores the life of Niebuhr, theological liberalism’s best-known promoter (author of the “Serenity Prayer”), and how he positioned himself as a voice of conscience during some of the twentieth-century’s most potent times of racial unrest, depression, and global conflict. Hal Holbrook reads as Niebuhr, and the film includes interviews with Jimmy Carter, Andrew Young, David Brooks, Cornel West, and others. You can read more at the Journey Films website, and in the interim, here’s a list of works by and about Niebuhr, published by the University of Chicago Press. *** The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense, first published in 1944, is considered the standard bearer of Niebuhr’s philosophy, which took up the timely question of how democracy as a political system could best be defended. The Irony of American History, cited by politicians as diverse as Hillary Clinton and John McCain, posits the incongruity between personal ideals and political reality as both an indictment of American moral complacency and a warning against . . .

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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

February 9, 2017
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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)—literary theorist, intellectual historian, and philosopher—died earlier this week; in particularly uncanny circumstances, our free e-book of the month happens to be his The Fear of Barbarians. Rather than link to an obit, we’re going to reblog a conversation between Todorov and media scholar WJT Mitchell—who had never met in person or previously exchanged correspondence—that unfolded over three days on our blog, back in December 2010, on the heels of the then-recent publications of Barbarians and Mitchell’s Cloning Terror. Little more than six years ago, and the topics they discuss—the politics of occupation, the war on terror, the then-emergent Wikileaks, Goya, the US State Department’s penchant for torture, Guantanamo, cloning—feel both like prescient observations from a time now past, and nearly enraging in their unfortunate contemporaneity. Below, you’ll find links to Parts II and III. Download your free copy of The Fear of Barbarians here. ** We’re kicking things off with a series of letters between Tzvetan Todorov, author of The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations and W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present on the visual imagery of the war on terror, our current global political climate, and the role of . . .

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Our free e-book for February: The Fear of Barbarians

February 1, 2017
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Our free e-book for February: The Fear of Barbarians

Our free e-book for February is Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fear of Barbarians—download your copy, here. *** The relationship between Western democracies and Islam, rarely entirely comfortable, has in recent years become increasingly tense. A growing immigrant population and worries about cultural and political assimilation—exacerbated by terrorist attacks in the United States, Europe, and around the world—have provoked reams of commentary from all parts of the political spectrum, a frustrating majority of it hyperbolic or even hysterical. In The Fear of Barbarians, the celebrated intellectual Tzvetan Todorov offers a corrective: a reasoned and often highly personal analysis of the problem, rooted in Enlightenment values yet open to the claims of cultural difference. Drawing on history, anthropology, and politics, and bringing to bear examples ranging from the murder of Theo van Gogh to the French ban on headscarves, Todorov argues that the West must overcome its fear of Islam if it is to avoid betraying the values it claims to protect. True freedom, Todorov explains, requires us to strike a delicate balance between protecting and imposing cultural values, acknowledging the primacy of the law, and yet strenuously protecting minority views that do not interfere with its aims. Adding force to Todorov’s arguments is his . . .

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Brooke Borel on fact-checking and fake news

January 30, 2017
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Brooke Borel on fact-checking and fake news

Brooke Borel, the author of The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking, on “Fact-Checking Won’t Save Us from Fake News,” at FiveThirtyEight: As for tech, fact-checking and blocking fake news sites from advertising dollars is a start, but it’s not enough. Facebook and Google keep giving users more of what they want to see through proprietary algorithms. This may be great for entertainment, but it doesn’t help when it comes to news, where it may just strengthen existing bias. “Facebook was not designed for this purpose,” said Claire Wardle, research director at First Draft News, a network of newsmakers and academics who provide resources on checking and verifying stories on social media. “It has become the civic town hall, but it was never designed to be.” Tech’s role isn’t only about stifling fake news on social media. Some companies and academics are building algorithms that can help fact-check portions of the web. Here, the key will be not only computer programming, but also transparency in terms of how those algorithms are constructed and building trust by showing how a fact-check is sourced, said Dhruv Ghulati, co-founder of the fact-checking system Factmata. As for readers, we’re the ones consuming all this news. Our clicks feed . . .

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RIP JSG Boggs (1954/55–2017)

January 26, 2017
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RIP JSG Boggs (1954/55–2017)

In 1992 New Yorker critic Lawrence Weschler published Boggs: A Comedy of Values, which made the case for idiosyncratic conceptual artist JSG Boggs (1954/55–2017), whose work fabricated both a physical variety of currencies and the notion of legal tender, when Boggs tried to cash his bills in for goods and services. Boggs died this past week, and was duly eulogized, by both his hometown paper and the art world, and each offer up some details that enhance his story, perfect fodder for a world sorting out “alternate facts” from the “fake news.” From the Tampa Bay Times: Mr. Boggs’s full name was James Stephen George Boggs, but he was better known as J.S.G. Boggs and often just as “Boggs.” His art was all about money. It consisted, in fact, of exquisitely detailed, exact-sized reproductions of American dollars, English pounds and Swiss francs — though with one side left blank and key features drawn with an off-kilter twist. The George Washingtons on his “Boggs bills” sometimes faced the wrong way. Some were drawn laughing. Others crying. On some notes, Mr. Boggs’ own face appeared in place of the dead presidents. Others he signed above phrases like “crazy cash” or “for what it’s worth.” Often . . .

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In conversation: Molly Haskell and Matt Zoller Seitz

January 24, 2017
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In conversation: Molly Haskell and Matt Zoller Seitz

Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies is now in its third edition (accompanied by Manohla Dargis’s new foreword)—and the classic work of feminist criticism remains as urgent as when it was first released, crucially analyzing not only images of women in movies, but also the relationship between these images and the status of women in society, the stars who fit these images or defied them, and the attitudes of their directors. Below follows an excerpt from an interview between Haskell and critic Matt Zoller Seitz, wherein the two revisit the book. *** MZS: One of the things that fascinates me about From Reverence to Rape is that, in addition to being about what it’s about—the image and treatment of women throughout movie history—the book is also about what’s shown and what’s withheld, what’s said and what’s unspoken, and what effect that all has on the viewer. At times it seems as if you think that a bit of repression can be good for movies. MH: I do. Well … it’s really plus and minus. Last night I was watching “North by Northwest” and I thought, “That can’t be done anymore.” They can’t make films that have . . .

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Dirty Waters in the Chicago Reader

January 9, 2017
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Dirty Waters in the Chicago Reader

Corruption might be just as Chicagoan as Mike Ditka’s chain of steakhouses (“We heard that the pork chops were the best in Chicago—not true. Overpriced for an adequate meal.”—Menupages)—the premise didn’t quite originate here, but the vibe is omnipresent, and its consequences are more or less our mise-en-scène. In Dirty Waters: Confessions of Chicago’s Last Harbor Boss, R. J. Nelson tells the tale of his rise and fall as the city’s last director of Harbors and Marine Services. A recent profile of Nelson at the Chicago Tribune delved into some juicy tidbits, which follow below. You can read the piece in full, here, too. *** Nelson recalled numerous, colorful bribery attempts — with boaters hoping to take advantage of the old way of doing things at Chicago’s harbors. One boater who wanted a slip in Belmont Harbor showed Nelson a glossy brochure with pictures of a penthouse condominium in Acapulco — saying Nelson could use it for a couple of weeks in exchange for his help. When Nelson responded “Absolutely not,” the boater added. “It’s fully equipped and includes a companion — gender of your choice!” Other boaters attempted leaving hundred-dollar bills on the counter, gift certificates to Marshall Field’s or sending boxes of Fannie May . . .

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The New Yorker on The Daily Henry James

January 6, 2017
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The New Yorker on The Daily Henry James

Below follows an excerpt from a recent profile in the New Yorker about The Daily Henry James: A Year of Quotes from the Work of the Master, first published as a limited edition in 1911, and back for the masses in the new year, with a foreword by Michael Gorra, c/o the University of Chicago Press. Read the original, in full, here. *** In his preface to the New York edition of “Roderick Hudson,” James wrote, “Really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw . . . the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.” In “The Daily Henry James,” relations begin nowhere: the fragments have no connection to one another, and don’t add up to any meaningful narrative. The result is that the book offers Jamesian atmosphere rather than Jamesian plots: flicking through the anthology, you experience the elements that make up James’s novels in the way that you might experience them in real life. You see characters briefly, as at a party or in the street; virtually every page provides an observation on the American character, a description of the grounds of an English country house, a fastidious young man reflecting on the character . . .

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RIP John Berger (1925–2017)

January 4, 2017
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RIP John Berger (1925–2017)

Critic, writer, and playwright John Berger (1925–2017), one of the twentieth century’s most important art critical voices (linking to the Guardian piece, as its the most thorough) died on January 2, 2017. Best known for the four-part BBC series Ways of Seeing (1972) and its accompanying critical text, Berger there offered a Marxist response to another (banal and apolitical) take on the history of culture, also produced by the BBC, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969). Hyperallergic was first with a tribute, which includes this anecdote: Speaking to Kate Kellaway, Berger explained his interest in labor and social issues. “The connection between the human condition and labour is frequently forgotten, and for me was always so important. At 16, I went down a coal mine in Derbyshire and spent a day on the coal face – just watching the miners. It had a profound effect,” he told her. When she asked how it made him feel. He responded quietly. “Respect. Just respect. There are two kinds. Respect to do with ceremony – what happens when you visit the House of Lords. And a completely different respect associated with danger,” he said. “This is not a prescription for others, but when I look back on my life I think it’s very significant I . . .

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