Reading 25 April – 1 May 2013 (ZiR)

William Eaton, Zeteo Editorial Adviser

[One in an ongoing series of posts. For the full series see Zeteo is Reading.]

25 April 2013

“If I were to generalize,” the anarchist anthropologist David Graeber said recently to a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education,

I would say that what we see is a university system which mitigates against creativity and any form of daring. It’s incredibly conformist and it represents itself as the opposite, and I think this kind of conformism is a result of the bureaucratization of the university.

Graeber is perhaps best known for not having his teaching contract renewed by Yale back in 2005, but he is also the author of many works, including the highly regarded and vigorously selling Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Melville House, 2011) and a new book, The Democracy Project: A History, a Crisis, a Movement (Spiegel & Grau, 2013). Active in various protests, including against the World Economic Forum and Occupy Wall Street, he has been unable to secure another teaching job at a US university. The Chronicle article (April 19, 2013, by Christopher Shea) is titled “A Radical Anthropologist Finds Himself in Academic Exile.” Among the Graeber supporters interviewed for the piece is Laura Nader, a Berkeley anthropologist. “You can quote Foucault and Gramsci,” she says, “but if you tell it like it is, it’s a different story.” Jeff Maskovsky, who is a professor of anthropology at Zeteo’s home — the Graduate Center of the City University of New York — is also quoted:

It is possible to view the fact that Graeber has not secured a permanent academic position in the United States after his controversial departure from Yale University as evidence of U.S. anthropology’s intolerance of political outspokenness.

Image (inspired by the season rather than by the response to Graeber) is a photograph of a Pyrenean Lily by Sandy Steinman. See Steinman’s “Natural History Wanderings” blog


26 April 2013

Up in the middle of the night and hearing the wind outside, I was reminded of a line from a well-known Shakespeare sonnet (#18). The line: “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May.” I sent the complete text to a French colleague, and she responded with a spring sonnet (à Marie) from Pierre de Ronsard, who lived and wrote two generations before Shakespeare. Taking out of Ronsard’s poem all the poetry except for the closing lines, I offer this hasty review:

Here, Marie, is a bouquet I have cut for you.
Had I not cut these flowers this evening, they would have fallen to earth tomorrow.
This is a clear example for you: your current beauties soon will perish all of a sudden
Time cuts us all down

Et des amours, desquelles nous parlons
Quand serons morts, n’en sera plus nouvelle :
Pour ce, aimez-moi, cependant qu’êtes belle.

(And as for the love we speak about
It will be old news after we are dead
So love me — you are so beautiful.)

English-language readers may already be appreciating how far we are here from Shakespeare’s view of love and life. From “Sonnet 18”:

. . . every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st . . .

The pen is mightier than the sword of time, or at least it was briefly, while Shakespeare wrote.


28 April 2013

The last sentences on the last page of the May Harvard Business Review are the following lines from Maya Angelou, in answer to a question from the Review about what makes a leader great:

A leader sees greatness in other people. You can’t be much of a leader if all you see is yourself.

There are two separate assertions here, one about not being too focused on oneself, and the other about seeing greatness in others. This latter one interests me particularly; however, when I mentioned it to my son, he had what may be called the family response: But what if the others aren’t great? To which I offered, for purposes of discussion, an American response: Faith in the greatness of others, or in any bit of wishful thinking, could prove to be more powerful than greater realism or clear-sightedness. Seeing greatness in others, may bring out whatever greatness they have or inspire greatness where there has been none. And we might note, after Camus, that there can be a sterility in life without illusion.

A sterility, but also a dynamism, une passion, as Camus would have it, a feeling of really being alive, alive to the moment, to others! Heading back the other way, it seems to me that Maya Angelou has long been a kind of brand, or a voice for a particular, considered inspiring view of life. This circumscribes greatly what she is able to say. And furthermore, we might all think of plenty of leaders—or putative leaders, at least—who were quite self-interested and not so impressed by others’ abilities. Another article in the same issue of the Review noted that “the CEO population is on average more narcissistic than the general . . . population is.” A reminder that most of the time, if not always, we humans, however expert we may consider ourselves to be, are simply talking through our hats. “Truth is words and words are talk,” as the Bonzo Dog Band put it ages ago. And yet, I still like this idea of Angelou’s: “A leader sees greatness in other people.” (My emphasis added.)


29 April 2013

Editing an article in which Camus’ La Peste (The Plague) is made much of, I am struck, and not for the first time, that the way many Americans read this book is not the way I, equally American, read it. For many of us this book is not an absurdist novel, but a kind of self-help manual, indicating the right way to live in the face of evil and of evil on a scale that may seem to dwarf any individual attempt to oppose it. The answer, from the book, “il faut, autant qu’il est possible, refuser d’être avec le fléau.” One must try, as much as is humanly possible, to refuse to be part of the plague. And there is the book’s more implicit answer: that in struggle one may find solidarity, community, friendship, and such things are their own reward.

Certainly there are these aspects of the book, whose plague is considered to have been an allegory for the scourge of Nazism. But there is also, if you will, another book here. The book of:

“Quand une guerre éclate, les gens disent: ‘Ca ne durera pas, c’est trop bête.’ Et sans doute une guerre est certainement trop bête, mais cela ne l’empêche pas de durer.”

When a war breaks out, people say it’s dumb, doesn’t make any sense, won’t last. And certainly war is senseless, but that doesn’t stop a war from lasting.

The book of:

“Question: comment faire pour ne pas perdre son temps? Réponse: l’éprouver dans toute sa longueur. Moyens: passer des journées dans l’antichambre d’un dentiste, sur une chaise inconfortable; vivre à son balcon le dimanche après-midi; écouter des conférences dans une langue qu’on ne comprend pas, choisir les itinéraires de chemin de fer les plus longs et les moins commodes et voyager debout naturellement; faire la queue aux guichets des spectacles et ne pas prendre sa place, etc.”

Question: How to avoid wasting one’s time? Answer: experience the full extent of it. How to do this? Spend one’s days in a dentist’s waiting room in an uncomfortable chair; spend Sunday afternoons on one’s balcony; listen to meetings being held in a language one does not know; when traveling choose the longest and most inconvenient rail itineraries and, of course, remain standing the entire trip; wait in line to buy tickets for shows and then not use the tickets; etc.

And, from near the end:

On était obligé seulement de constater que la maladie semblait partir comme elle était venue. La stratégie qu’on lui opposait n’avait pas changé, inefficace hier et, aujourd’hui, apparemment heureuse. On avait seulement l’impression que la maladie s’était épuisée elle-même ou peut-être qu’elle se retirait après avoir atteint tous ses objectifs.

All we could do was observe that the disease [the plague] seemed to have gone away much as it had come. The strategy we had employed to combat it had not changed. Yesterday it was ineffective, today apparently a success. All we could think was that the disease had exhausted itself, or perhaps, having attained all its objectives, it had withdrawn.


30 April 2013

I will let speak for themselves these excellent comments from Harvard Business Review (HBR) senior editor Alison Beard:

 The message is simple and provocative: The feminist movement has been so effective in advancing women over the past several decades that the ability of men to thrive—indeed, their fundamental role in society—is now in peril. Strangely, however, most of the people who seem to be promoting, or even debating, the theory today are women. If men are indeed getting stiffed, . . . why aren’t more of them talking about it . . . or strategizing about how to recover the ground they’ve lost?

When I ask the men I know this question, I get one of three responses:

1. The “end of men” thesis is wrong. Men still have the power and won’t lose it anytime soon. . . .

2. The thesis is right, but only for blue-collar men—and they don’t have the wherewithal to respond. . . . When you’re becoming the weaker sex, you don’t want to admit it.

3. The thesis is right, and even white-collar executives are affected, particularly in sectors like marketing or media, . . . [But] no man wants to be branded a whiny antifeminist by the growing sisterhood of leaders who are women. . . .

[I]t’s frustrating [to a woman?] to see men cede a discussion about changing gender dynamics—especially those that affect the workplace—almost entirely to women. . . .

In 2013, are some men . . . dissatisfied with their lot? Justifiably upset with some of the changes feminism has wrought? Or are they . . . [h]appy to become more like women in order to succeed?

For Beard’s full article, “The Silent Sex” (HBR, March 2013) visit the web page. Beard, in her turn, calls attention to some other recent pieces on the subject, to include an article by Stephen Marche that Esquire published last August: The Contempt of Women: The rise of men. And the whining of girls. A wise moment:

The girls in Lena Dunham’s creation [the TV show Girls] are just figuring out that it’s hard to be independent and need other people, and that it’s hard to find somebody to screw whom you also like. To find somebody you want to screw and you like and you respect? Nearly impossible. But it’s been nearly impossible forever.


1 May 2013

From Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (Liveright, 2013).

Usually Marx’s theoretical pursuits had to be crammed in beside far more time-consuming activities: émigré politics, journalism, the IWMA, evading creditors, and the serious or fatal illnesses that plagued his children and his wife, and, after the onset of his skin disease in 1863, Marx himself. All too often Marx’s theoretical labors were interrupted for months at a time or reserved for odd hours late at night.

I know the feeling!

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