Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures in Artforum

April 19, 2017
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Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures in Artforum

Below follows an excerpt from David Velasco’s review of Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures at Artforum. What makes Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures so remarkable is not just its subject—the art historian and AIDS activist’s early years leading up to the epoch-defining 1977 exhibition at Artists Space and the pair of titular essays that were so critical to its historicization. It’s not just the casual meet-cutes at John Ashbery parties and the formative encounters with Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly and Charles James and Daniel Buren; the early, incisive formalist writings whose frissons eventually inspired one of the great innovations in late-twentieth-century criticism: the recognition of a breach, which Crimp labels postmodernism, in modernist parables of art and theatricality. It’s how the story is told. Before Pictures is a strange and shimmering chimera: Part memoir, part theory, it swerves and circles, often paragraph to paragraph, from anecdote to argument and back again, a graceful, unfussy waltz that sometimes seduces you into thinking that it’s “simply” autobiography. But the writing is also a performance of the necessary entanglement between serious thought and its “decor”—an entanglement that fascinates Crimp, and that makes him such an exceptional protagonist. The animating juxtaposition is announced early on, in the . . .

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Excerpt: The Personalities on the Plate

April 12, 2017
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Excerpt: The Personalities on the Plate

Frequent NPR contributor, animal intelligence expert, and anthropologist Barbara J. King steals the show—and the front page—at NPR, with the below excerpts from her latest book, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat. *** Chickens may be resplendently different one from the other, as was immediately apparent when I made six hen acquaintances at Wilder Ranch State Park near Santa Cruz, Calif., in the summer of 2015. These beautiful birds, with names like Goosey and Bella, ranging in color from white to gold and yellow, sometimes with patches of a soft iridescent blue, live in an outdoor coop outfitted with a chicken swing for exercise. During my visit they were turned out into a vegetable garden; there among the planted rows, one sunbathed and several foraged. Some invited human interaction, and others did not. I gently picked up Bella — so white, so soft — and held her against my chest in a serene encounter that I enjoyed greatly and that Bella seemed to soak up pleasurably as well. That I held, stroked and talked to a chicken for the first time in my 50s is very much a product of my time and place. In . . .

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Free e-book for April: Walden Warming

April 3, 2017
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Free e-book for April: Walden Warming

  Our free e-book for April is Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods. Download your copy here. *** In his meticulous notes on the natural history of Concord, Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau records the first open flowers of highbush blueberry on May 11, 1853. If he were to look for the first blueberry flowers in Concord today, mid-May would be too late. In the 160 years since Thoreau’s writings, warming temperatures have pushed blueberry flowering three weeks earlier, and in 2012, following a winter and spring of record-breaking warmth, blueberries began flowering on April 1—six weeks earlier than in Thoreau’s time. The climate around Thoreau’s beloved Walden Pond is changing, with visible ecological consequences. In Walden Warming, Richard B. Primack uses Thoreau and Walden, icons of the conservation movement, to track the effects of a warming climate on Concord’s plants and animals. Under the attentive eyes of Primack, the notes that Thoreau made years ago are transformed from charming observations into scientific data sets. Primack finds that many wildflower species that Thoreau observed—including familiar groups such as irises, asters, and lilies—have declined in abundance or have disappeared from Concord. Primack also describes how warming temperatures have altered . . .

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Chip Colwell on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

March 27, 2017
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Chip Colwell on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act

Chip Colwell, author of Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture, recently penned an op-ed for the Denver Post on the stakes surrounding NAGPRA legislation; an excerpt follows below. *** When Congress passed NAGPRA, Colorado museums, like many across the country, struggled to grapple with the law’s implications. How much money would it cost to comply with the law’s mandates to inventory collections and send notices to, and consult with, tribes? Would Native Americans claim everything as sacred? What criteria should be used to evaluate claims? Would museums become empty shells? The 1990s was a learning period for both museum and tribal officials. But soon all parties were benefiting. As David Bailey, a curator at the Museum of Western Colorado, once explained after returning a vest and dress to the Northern Ute tribe, important pieces left the museum but the process built new relationships. He explained that instead of fighting the claim he “would rather have a dialogue and exchange with living Indians to gain their respect and insight into our collections.” By 2012, of $31 million allocated in federal NAGPRA grants, Colorado museums had secured more than 16 percent of it. Museums ranging from those on the . . .

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Lincoln’s Constitution: An Excerpt

March 22, 2017
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Lincoln’s Constitution: An Excerpt

Our free e-book for March is Daniel Farber’s Lincoln’s Constitution. If the title alone doesn’t grab you (and it should: download your copy here), then here’s an excerpt from an interview with the author, which evidences why Lincoln’s relationship to the Constitution—during a time of previously unprecedented national turmoil—matters more now than ever. *** Question: The Civil War raised a multitude of constitutional issues, and we only have space to touch on a few of them here. Nor is there space, unfortunately, for the detailed discussions that so richly inform the book. With those caveats in mind, how about starting with the state versus federal power issue? Secession may be a dead issue constitutionally, but state sovereignty is a live disagreement, resurfacing recently in the Supreme Court when it narrowly stuck down an Arkansas law mandating term limits for its federal representatives. What was Lincoln’s view of state sovereignty? Why is the issue still with us? Why wasn’t the state sovereignty issue settled by the Civil War conflict? Daniel Farber: The Gettysburg Address is very revealing. Lincoln dated the birth of the nation to “four score and seven years ago.” If you do the arithmetic, that’s not the framing of the Constitution; . . .

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Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot on shifting parent-child relationships

March 10, 2017
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Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot on shifting parent-child relationships

Below follows an excerpt from a recent piece by MacArthur Award–winning sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot at Psychology Today, drawn from her work in Growing Each Other Up: When Our Children Become Our Teachers. *** A couple of years later after a huge blow up with my daughter about something that neither of us could even remember or name afterwards—at one of those moments when Bateson’s generous perspective had long since worn off—I called a close friend and told him that I was “at the end of my rope.” I had no more energy, no more fight in me. I wanted to throw in the towel and admit defeat. His response: “You are nowhere near the end of your rope.” And, of course, he was right. Just as Bateson was helping me see that my daughter was teaching me about the world; so too my friend was helping me acknowledge that our sometimes-tortured mother-daughter relationship was offering me the chance to know myself in new ways; that I was developing new capacities; stretching my emotional reserve and repertoire, becoming more patient and forgiving. I was learning a new kind of composure and restraint. I began to understand how important it was to be selective about . . .

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Herb Childress on the path from first-generation college student to scholar

March 6, 2017
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Herb Childress on the path from first-generation college student to scholar

An excerpt from Herb Childress, author of The PhDictionary: A Glossary of Things You Don’t Know (But Should) about Doctoral and Faculty Life, from his recent Inside Higher Ed piece, “The Confessions—and Confusions—of a First-Generation Scholar,” follows below. *** I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 1989, at the age of 31. Had I come from a college family, I’d have finished my Ph.D. by the time I was 31. Had I come from an academic family, I’d have had half a chance of being tenured at 31. But it was OK. I had a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a deep longing to be adopted into the community of scholars. I knew what the holy land felt like. I knew where I wanted to live. But it was truly an immigration, an exchange of one citizenship for another. As I went on through my graduate education, I became a class traitor: a source of pride, confusion, envy and intimidation among family and neighbors who once had been natural allies. My family understood that I wanted to become a “college teacher,” but not why studying teenagers’ parking lot hangouts or bedroom personalization was related to architecture. I have come from a culture in . . .

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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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