23 August 2014

Freedom to Assemble

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." 
Too often complaints about how government agencies violate the first amendment there is a narrow focus on 'free speech' to the exclusion of concern for the right to "peaceably ... assemble." I've said this here before. This report from the ACLU has that quality. It concludes: "Our words, our voices, and our pictures are the most devastating weapons of all to entrenched systems of injustice." What about our collective presence?

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21 August 2014

Throwing Like a Girl?


I have been keeping this blog for quite a while. Very early on I posted this comment, noting the death of political theorist Iris Marion Young. I remarked at the time that the title of one of Iris's essays "Throwing Like a Girl" seemed to capture her personality quite well. I suspect that the cover photo for SI this week would have pleased Iris no end.

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The Right to Take Photographs (Yet Another in a Recurring Series)

I have posted here multiple times on this and related themes. But given the arrest of journalists in Ferguson and the general attitude of law enforcement regarding constitutionally protected rights, it is important to be clear about those rights. This post from the ACLU underscores the rights of citizens (professional photographers or not!) to make images in public places - including images of law enforcement performing their "duties." This is common knowledge that law enforcement likes to ignore.

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19 August 2014

James Foley

The Gawker reports here that an American photojournalist, James Foley, has been executed (beheaded) by ISIS in response to recent U.S. military activities in Iraq.You can find another report here at The New York Times.

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16 August 2014

Local Event(s) @ Writers & Books: Diane Ravitch

Writers and Books is running this reading group this fall, focusing on a recent book by education historian Diane Ravitch. An accomplished historian of education and vigorous critic of what currently passes for education reform in the U.S., Ravitch is extremely provocative in large part because she is relatively conservative and once was an advocate of many of the reforms she now objects to. Her change in mind came from actually looking at the evidence!


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14 August 2014

Digest

(1) A reminder for the local officials in Ferguson, MO (and their repressive counterparts in all the other cities and towns like Ferguson): not just religion and speech, but peaceable assembly and petitioning for redress are constitutionally protected.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
 (2) Here is a brief reflection from Raymond Geuss on his early book The Idea of Critical Theory.

(3) At The Nation symposium of short interventions on the importance of gender in thinking about political-economic inequality.

(4) A Project Syndicate essay by Dani Rodrik underscoring how insidious consensus among economists can be.

(5) Finally, this essay from The Atlantic on Jane Austin and Adam Smith ... no, they're not an item.

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13 August 2014

Censorship American Style

So, this afternoon I am sitting on the floor playing with Esme and listening to The World Cafe on NPR. David Dye plays Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" where the second verse goes like this:
"Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody's darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving [SILENCE]
She says, 'Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.'"
And I think "Are you kidding me? Are we supposed to not notice?" Did anyone else notice? I am sure that this slight of ear was taken in order to avoid transgressing this or that FCC regulation concerning naughty talk on the radio. In other words it was taken in order to keep the censors happy. Walk on the Wild Side Indeed!

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Mathematics & Beauty

As The Guardian reports Maryam Mirzakhani, an Iranian born mathematician now teaching at Stanford is the first woman to ever win the Fields Medal. This is a milestone for the discipline, obviously. But it is an opportunity to underscore a point Hilary Putnam makes in The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy and Other Essays (Harvard UP, 2004), namely that, despite popular misconceptions, scientific inquiry is shot through with values and that the latter is not a homogenous category. Consider what Mirzakhani says in this 2008 interview:
"I don’t think that everyone should become a mathematician, but I do believe that many students don’t give mathematics a real chance. I did poorly in math for a couple of years in middle school; I was just not interested in thinking about it. I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers."
Beauty, of course, is an aesthetic value. And here Mirzakhani seems to be making it a central characteristic of mathematics and an animating reason for her intellectual pursuits.

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12 August 2014

Parchment Barriers

This report from The Daily News is good news. However, I suspect the real problem is that the police already know what the memo lays out - namely, that citizens have a constitutionally protected right to photograph police operations so long as they do not interfere with those operations - but they simply do not give a hoot. Whether they ignore our rights blatantly or trump up reasons why the photographer is or might be interfering, the officers find ways to  prevent images of their interactions with the public.

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11 August 2014

Libertarian Fantasy Indeed!

Paul Krugman has written this column at The New York Times aiming to deflate this credulous story about the flourishing of libertarianism that appeared in the newspaper's magazine this past weekend.
He is, however, far too kind in at least one respect. It is not just that free markets can't solve all our problems. As Jack Knight and I have argued for many years* - we cannot rely on the various market mimicking decentralized solutions (Coasian bargaining, community, incentive compatible mechanisms, etc.) that libertarians peddle for much either. Why? The models that suggest otherwise tend to rely on incredibly restrictive assumptions. In some instances the underlying mechanism the models invoke operate a cross purposes.  Conversely, as Tim Besley has recently argued**, the well know difficulties underscored by principle-agent models in no way sanction any wholesale reliance on decentralized solutions either. So, while Krugman makes his point on the basis of homely examples, there is good reason in theory to think his conclusions are quite general.
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* See our paper in APSR (2007) and the book length version The Priority of Democracy: Political Consequences of Pragmatism (Princeton, 2011).
** See Tim Besley. Principled Agents? The  Political Economy of Good Government (Oxford 2007). I recommend reading the final couple of paragraphs first, then working through the book from the beginning.

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10 August 2014

Selling Sex

A couple of pieces from The Economist - here and here - on how the internet is making prostitution safer and more profitable. Maybe. But even The Economist acknowledges that as many as 20% of prostitutes work the streets. So those women remain at high risk. And, of course, the question remains as to how women who do advertise and coordinate liaisons on line are pressed into service in the first place. Here is a bit of an antidote. A plausible market requires that participants are parametric - meaning that no one can influence the choices others make. So why people buy and sell sex, we  surely don't have markets for sex now. It is unlikely that the internet will do much to change that.

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09 August 2014

War Photography - The Impact of Images?

"It’s hard to calculate the consequences of a photograph’s absence. But sanitized images of warfare, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf argues, make it “easier … to accept bloodless language” such as 1991 references to “surgical strikes” or modern-day terminology like “kinetic warfare.” The Vietnam War, in contrast, was notable for its catalog of chilling and iconic war photography. Some images, like Ron Haeberle’s pictures of the My Lai massacre, were initially kept from the public, but other violent images—Nick Ut’s scene of child napalm victims and Eddie Adams’s photo of a Vietcong man’s execution —won Pulitzer Prizes and had a tremendous impact on the outcome of the war."*
I can understand how the My Lai images could've impacted the prosecution of the war as evidence in or impetus to a legal proceeding. But I regularly here people say that the Ut and Adams images had a major impact on the prosecution of the war. How? I'd like to be persuaded. But I'd also like to have some way of justifying the claim. Did those images impact public opinion in a discernible way? Did they simply scare elected officials who thought they might lose their jobs for supporting (or not opposing) the war?

I happen to agree with Friedersdorf's claim about diffuse consequences for public discourse. But the more specific claim about the Vietnam images , while maybe plausible, seems under-supported. (note that the latter claim is empirical and causal.)

If we cannot cash out the claim that actual images have impact on politics, it is difficult - maybe impossible - to think how we can make the counter-factual case - namely that withholding images somehow has a specific impact.
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* This is a passage from this important piece at The Atlantic.

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06 August 2014

From Animal Rights to Animal Copyright? Sounds like Monkey Business to Me.

At The Guardian we have this missive, an intervention in the ongoing debate over who, if anyone, holds, or even can hold, copyright to this image:


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05 August 2014

What Could Be More Glamorus than a Gang Rape?

I am not totally dismissive of fashion photography or of those, like Steve Meisel or Mario Testino for instance, who ply that trade in especially self-aggrandizing ways. No. I take that back. I am. And here is a new entry into the lineage of moral and political tone-deafness that seems to plague the profession.


In this offering, published in Vogue Italia, photographer Raj Shetye* mixes glamor and sexual violence  - a woman attacked by a group of men on a bus, just like the real world - and when criticized for the series, expresses disbelief that anyone could object to his work.
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* All four images © Raj Shetye Studio 2014

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Not a Socialist Plot

"The fact that S&P, an apolitical organization that aims to produce reliable research for bond investors and others, is raising alarms about the risks that emerge from income inequality is a small but important sign of how a debate that has been largely confined to the academic world and left-of-center political circles is becoming more mainstream." ~ NY Times

"Our review of the data, as well as a wealth of research on this matter, leads us to conclude that the current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening GDP growth, at a time when the world's biggest economy is struggling to recover from the Great Recession and the government is in need of funds to support an aging population." ~ Standard & Poors Finacial Serves, LLCs

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LEGO Straightens Out

So, in the past I have made it known how addicted my boy August is to LEGO. And I have criticized the company for marketing pink and purple to girls. So it is important to give credit where it is due. Here is a report on NPR about how LEGO has responded to the criticisms about gender bias. Since Esme has arrived these things are even more important to me.

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03 August 2014

Digest - Gaza

Here are two political theorists Michael Walzer and Francis Kamm offering their views on the Israeli invasion of Gaza. And here is Israeli writer Amos Oz making a novel proposal for how the Israelis ought to approach the Palestinians. Actually, the proposal only seems novel and utopian in the current state of the world. And comments by David Shulman, Israeli intellectual and solidarity activist (solidarity with Palestinians!) on, by turns dispiriting and hopeful current political tendencies on the ground in Israel and the West Bank. Martin Shaw here offers a thoughtful reflection on his changing view of BDS.
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P.S.: (4 August 2014) New Politics has published this pointed response to Walzer's attempt to justify the Israeli invasion of Gaza.
P.S.2: (4 August 2014) An unimpressive assessment here by Peter Singer.

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28 July 2014

"The Grindstone of Israeli-Palestinian Violence"

Israeli novelist David Grossman offered this essay at The New York Times today. It is nice to see signs of sanity among Israelis showing themselves here in the US.

And, at Haaret'z,  reports of anti-war protests of anti-war protests in Tel Aviv and of resistance among IDF veterans.

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Re-Imagining Palestine: Ariella Azoulay

Some time ago Ariella Azoulay published this post at Verso in which she recommends a collaborative re-imagining of Palestine. As she makes clear, the word collaborative as I just used it is deeply problematic in context. But Azoulay has produced this film based on images rescued from official archives that aims to prompt just such collaboration. It seems like a good time to revisit her enterprise.

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Parfit and Photography

Here is a passage from this portrayal of the immensely influential - and personally quite peculiar - British philosopher Derek Parfit - it appeared in The New Yorker a few years back.

"Sometime after he gave up the idea of being a poet, Parfit developed a new aesthetic obsession: photography. He drifted into it—a rich uncle gave him an expensive camera—but later it occurred to him that his interest in committing to paper images of things he had seen might stem from his inability to hold those images in his mind. He also believed that most of the world looked better in reproduction than it did in life. There were only about ten things in the world he wanted to photograph, however, and they were all buildings: the best buildings in Venice—Palladio’s two churches, the Doge’s Palace, the buildings along the Grand Canal—and the best buildings in St. Petersburg, the Winter Palace and the General Staff Building.
I find it puzzling how much I, and some other people, love architecture. Most of the buildings that I love have pillars, either classical or Gothic. There is a nice dismissive word that applies to all other buildings: “astylar.” I also love the avenues in the French countryside, perhaps because the trees are like rows of pillars. (There were eight million trees in French avenues in 1900, and now there are only about three hundred thousand.) There are some astylar buildings that I love, such as some skyscrapers. The best buildings in Venice and St. Petersburg, though very beautiful, are not sublime. What is sublime, I remember hearing Kenneth Clark say, are only the interiors of some late Gothic cathedrals, and some American skyscrapers.
Although he admired some skyscrapers, he believed that architecture had generally declined since 1840, and the world had grown uglier. On the other hand, anesthetics were discovered around the same time, so the world’s suffering had been greatly reduced. Was the trade-off worth it? He was not sure.

He believed that he had little native talent for photography, but that by working hard at it he would be able to produce, in his lifetime, a few good pictures. Between 1975 and 1998, he spent about five weeks each year in Venice and St. Petersburg.
I may be somewhat unusual in the fact that I never get tired or sated with what I love most, so that I don’t need or want variety.
He disliked overhead lights, in which category he included the midday sun, but he loved the horizontal rays at the two ends of the day. He waited for hours, reading a book, for the right sort of light and the right sort of weather.

When he came home, he developed his photographs and sorted them. Of a thousand pictures, he might keep three. When he decided that a picture was worth saving, he took it to a professional processor in London and had the processor hand-paint out all aspects of the image that he found distasteful, which meant all evidence of the twentieth century—cars, telegraph wires, signposts—and usually all people. Then he had the colors repeatedly adjusted, although this was enormously expensive, until they were exactly what he wanted—which was a matter of fidelity not to the scene as it was but to an idea in his head."

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23 July 2014

Annals of Narcissism


August arrived here July 12th. Today is July 23rd. This evening his mother announced that she had reason to think he brought with him an infestation of head lice. The question is why it took mommy dearest nearly two full weeks to disclose her suspicion. She is not at home - having set off for a Yoga retreat at a fancy new age joint here in NY state. And she has spoken to August numerous times since he arrived. So, that suggests that she suspected the infestation pretty much all along and just didn't bother to mention the problem. 

Of course, this delay meant the vermin had lots of time to reproduce. That means August's infestation was really bad. The top picture is a small sampling of what I combed out of his hair. The bottom one is a close up of one little vermin.

And the lice had lots of time to spread too. For instance, August and I shared a bed (pillows) for a week in Ann Arbor and a hair brush then and since. He has been hugging his nine month old sister repeatedly each day. He has been in camp with other kids pretty much every day. And so on ...

August spent much of the night in tears. In part, he is upset because he feels guilty for infesting our household (especially his sister). In part he is in pain because I've been pulling a lice comb through his long thick hair. (That is an experience we will repeat daily for a week or so.) Susan has been gathering up pretty much anything August has rested his head upon so that we can wash it all.

All the spiritual practice in the world does not mitigate the level of self-absorption (perhaps actual maliciousness?) that mommy dearest has displayed here. Many readers will know the person of whom I speak. The rest should count themselves lucky.

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22 July 2014

Chris Killip

"MA: Your work often has a political undercurrent - if not an explicit acknowledgment of the political situation.

CK: Well, it would, wouldn't it? I mean, I was living in the industrial community of Newcastle, starting in the mid-1970s. I remember the editor of the Saturday magazine of the Sunday Telegraph asking me to photograph the men from the miners' strike. I didn't want to do the story for them because it is such a right-wing newspaper. He asked me which side was I on? I was quite shocked by the question. It had never occurred to me that I could be on anything other than the side I was on!

MA: But including political elements in your work is not about picking sides; it's about openly saying that your work, your worldview, is conditioned by historical forces.

CK: It was natural. I had no wish to deny it. I was also influenced by John Berger's TV program Ways of Seeing. I was so excited by that. I was just trying to understand then that no matter what you did, you inevitably had a political position. How declared it was was up to you, but it was going to be inherent in the work, and it was something you should think about as a maker. I never worried about my position in the art world. I thought time and history would ultimately judge me, that my job was to get on with it, to make the work and to make it wholeheartedly from what had informed me."*
 In The NYRB this week is this brief notice about a new short film - Skinningrove (2013) - made by Michael Almereyda about his friend photographer Chris Killip and his work. You can find the movie in its entirety (approximately 15 minutes) here. I have posted on Killip here several times before. The exchange above, from a 2012 interview Almereyda did with Killip will offer some insight into why I so much like his work.
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* From: "The Past and Other Countries: Chris Killip in Conversation with Michael Almereyda,' Aperture  (Fall 2012, Issue 208) [Link].

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21 July 2014

Forget Heidegger (2)

I have, in the past, repeatedly expressed my views here on the dubious claim Heidegger has on our attention. No one disputes your "right" to read the anti-Semitic, Nazi sympathizer. Knock yourself out! But this recent justification for doing so is tortured in the extreme. In the first place, I don't care that the author is a Jew. That identity confers no special status in this matter or any other. Arguments count. And the arguments in this piece are, well, unpersuasive. For instance, I am not advocating censorship. Read Heidegger if you like. Just don't expect me to care if you do. Moreover, while I agree that the charge of anti-Semitism  "is leveled too lightly, thoughtlessly, and therefore without a minimum of respect for the actual victims of ethnic or religious oppression," in this context that sounds like a veiled attempt to discount or sanitize Heidegger's actual, well-established anti-Semitism. Calling Heidegger out for his loathsome views about Jews is not "a tool for silencing dissent;" it is simply quoting from his own writings. Finally, what are we to make of this?
"Of course, none of the recent revelations about Heidegger should be suppressed or dismissed. But neither should they turn into mantras and formulas, meant to discredit one of the most original philosophical frameworks of the past century. At issue are not only concepts (such as "being in the world" or methodologies (such as “hermeneutical ontology”) but the ever fresh way of thinking that holds in store countless possibilities that are not sanctioned by the prevalent techno-scientific rationality, which governs much of philosophy within the walls of the academia."
Having already sought to minimize any concern for Heidegger's anti-Semitism, the best the author can do is intone about his "ever fresh way of thinking?" If you say so, I suppose. But to me this sounds an awful lot like a demand that we sequester the man's Nazism from his philosophy. Indeed, that is pretty much the thrust of the entire essay. But the entire basis for ongoing criticisms of Heidegger precisely is that in his case it is not possible to do that in any plausible way. And if we have to read as extensively as the author's example seems to require (well beyond, by the way, "those minimally versed in his thought") in order to grasp the oh-so-subtle way that Heidegger the philosopher actually was  not anti-Semitic, well doesn't that just suggest how his politics inflects his philosophy?

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20 July 2014

Inequality Within & Inequality Between

Economist Tyler Cowen argues here at The New York Times that we ought not worry our silly heads about increasing political-economic inequality within developed countries because, he claims, inequality between developed countries and developing countries has diminished considerably of late. Then, here, over at his terrific blog Understanding Society philosopher Daniel Little pretty thoroughly skewers Cowen.

Not pretty. But well-deserved.
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P.S.: Dan also posted a link to this (now decade+ old) article by Robert Wade at The Economist.  Punch Line? "Many analysts apparently take it for granted that global inequality is falling. Others think it sufficient to focus on poverty, and ignore inequality as such. Both these views need to be challenged. New evidence suggests that global inequality is worsening rapidly." Unless things have really turned around in the past 10 years, the basic empirical premise of Cowen's essay appears to be false.

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16 July 2014

Annals of Human Perversity (2) - There is No Such Thing as an Unintended Civilian Casuality

So, I wonder if this is what the Israelis sitting in their lawn chairs munching popcorn watching the bombardment of Gaza were hoping to see? And I wonder if the editors at The Times will draw the connection between the story accompanying this photo and this one which prompted the post to which I just linked.

I heard on the radio recently that Manhattan has a population density of roughly 65,000 per square mile while the comparable figure for Gaza is upwards of 400,000 per square mile. And of course, residents of Gaza essentially are locked in. You might call civilians there sitting ducks. But then you might seem as callous as the Israelis in their lawn chairs.

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My boy August is 8 years old. This photo makes me nauseous.


 A Border Patrol agent reads the birth certificate of Alejandro, 8 -- the only thing he brought with him as he and others crossed the Rio Grande near McAllen recently. Alejandro is one of more than 52,000 minors traveling without parents who've been caught crossing the border illegally since October (Dallas Morning News).

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Not a PR Problem! - HWS Doubles Down

What do you do when a young woman is sexually assaulted on your campus and you proceed to bungle the subsequent investigation process? Well, apparently, you act defensively, engage in copious amounts of ass-covering, and continue to justify your every action. Here is the latest missive from Mark Gearan, President of my alma mater ('77) Hobart & William Smith Colleges. I know Mark to be a smart and decent man, which makes this all the more stunning to me. He refers to a letter written by the Chair of the Board of Trustees to The New York Times. You can find it here

I suppose the fact that virtually everyone who reads about the case finds the precipitating assault as well as the Colleges' response totally outrageous should not be seen as an indication that something truly is amiss on campus? 

Both President Gearan and Ms. Zupin seem to miss the real problem. The problem here is NOT the article in The Times. The problem is a sexual assault and a deeply flawed institutional response to it. And the response should not involve invoking "best practices" (typically little more than a ploy to limit legal exposure) but an effort to change the culture on campus. 
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PS: Here is the Change.org petition signed by 3000+ people criticizing the Colleges' handling of this matter.

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Annals of Human Perversity - Bombardment as a Spectator Sport


The day before yesterday The New York Times ran this story about Israelis gathering in lawn chairs and eating popcorn as they watched the bombardment of Palestinians. It turns out that this was a reasonably common occurrence.  And it is not new. (As I recall this is the same spectatorship captured in the cover photo of Ariella Azoulay The Civil Contract of Photography [MIT Press/Zone Books, 2012].) While this practice speaks volumes about the political degradation of many Isrealis, I doubt that it speaks much about Israelis in particular. They are not, in other words, uniquely callous.

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14 July 2014

Passings ~ Nadine Gordimer (1923~2014)

 ''I happen to be white, but I'm not a liberal, my dear. I'm a leftist.'' ~ Nadine Gordimer

South African writer - and Nobel laureate - Nadine Gordimer has died. You can find an obituary and this remembrance at The New York Times.

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Passings ~ Charlie Haden (1937-2014)

Sadness. Jazz bassist Charlie Haden has died. I missed the news when it was actually news. As I have noted here before, I found Haden, who mixed politics and music seamlessly, remarkable. You can find obituaries here at The New York Times, here at The Guardian, and here at npr.
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P.S. (26 July 2014): Here is a post consisting of recollections and tributes by Haden's fellow musicians.

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13 July 2014

Shame on Hobart & William Smith Colleges

I am a Hobart College alum (Class of '77) and am totally outraged by this report at The New York Times on of sexual assault and subsequent investigative disaster at the Colleges. Even before seeing it I'd received this damage-control missive from the President of the Colleges stating (in part): "In response to inquiries, HWS officials met with the Times reporter for two lengthy interviews and answered numerous questions via e-mail and phone, all in an effort to fully explain our approach and philosophy regarding sexual assault cases. Regrettably, these responses were either ignored or downplayed in the article." Note that this statement says nothing about the precipitating assault or the actual performance of either the College investigators or Geneva PD. This is shameful.

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11 July 2014

Reflections on Summer Travels

Just finished Ann Arbor-94-96-401-403-QEW-405-190-290-90-ROC (going one way or the other) for the 6th time this summer, heading back Sunday. Pretty boring drive, allowing ample time to ponder a couple of empirical generalizations.

First, Americans are really, really crappy drivers. Invariably, if there is someone sitting in the passing lane at three miles an hour above the speed limit in Canada, it is a car with US plates of some sort. Of course this creates backups and provokes passing on the right, thereby endangering everyone. Difficult to tell whether this is purposeful crappiness or just obliviousness. No behavioral difference. In the US, on both the MI and NY legs, each driver apparently thinks they have a natural right to stay in the passing lane. Infuriating driving. Canadians exhibit the opposite pattern, doing their best to get out of the way of faster traffic. 

Second, US Customs officers are generally pompous asses. No gender variation. They seem sincerely astonished when, having kept you waiting for between forty and ninety minutes as you try to cross the border into your own freakn' country, you are not just brimming with good cheer as they interrogate you. And they seem absolutely startled when, in response to their inevitable query - 'Is there something wrong sir?' - you point out that having had to sit forever waiting for them to do their purposeless searching and interrogating has added an hour or more to an already long tedious trip. On the other hand, it is best not to engage them in debate about how they are protecting your liberty and security by stemming the hoard of invasive Molson-swilling, plaid-wearing, hockey-loving Canadians. By contrast Canadians customs officers are only intermittently arrogant and annoying. The lines entering Canada, where I am not a citizen, are rarely very long.

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08 July 2014

Annals of Censorship -2014 Edition

According to this report at The Guardian, Leena McCall's Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing is but the latest work to draw the attention of censorious Brits.

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07 July 2014

Local Event ~ Recalling the Riots of 1964

July 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of the Rochester Race Riots. Joseph Avenue, where the Lincoln Branch Library is now located, was at the center of events that would profoundly affect the city in the course of just three turbulent days. On July 15th, 17th, 29th, and 31st MCC Professor Verdis Robinson will lead a walking tour of Joseph Avenue and discuss the riots and historically significant surrounding the library. Refreshments provided. Call 428-8210 for more information.
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P.S.: You might also - not alternatively, but also - watch Carvin Eison's July '64.

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Resuscitating Communism?

My own view is that progressive politics need not be held captive either to the renewal of communism or to the assumption that critics of capitalism must be communist.* Indeed, I think that the prospect of communism is a non-starter if, in fact, it requires relinquishing reliance on markets as central political economic institutions or writing off the vicious, violent acts taken in the name of communism over the course of the twentieth century. (Among the the massive flaws of the resuscitation effort, it seems to me, is a more or less total refusal to talk about actual or possible institutional arrangements.) Nevertheless, there are those eager to resuscitate communism - Benjamin Kunkel, Jodi Dean, Simon Hardy, and Alberto Toscano, for instance, who are publishing their advocacy at The European.
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* In general terms, I think this assessment (also drawn from the symposium at The European) is on point: 

"But if we are no longer to define ourselves negatively, by our opposition to Capital, what will be the name of our positive project? I don’t believe that the old signifier communism can be revived for this purpose. It is now irretrievably tainted by terrible associations, forever tied to the nightmares of the 20th century. At the moment, our desire is nameless – but it is real. Our desire is for the future – for an escape from the impasses of the flatlands of Capital’s endless repetitions – and it comes from the future – from the very future in which new perceptions, desires, cognitions are once again possible. As yet, we can grasp this future only in glimmers. But it is for us to construct this future, even as – at another level – it is already constructing us: a new kind of collective agent, a new possibility of speaking in the first person plural. At some point in this process, the name for our new desire will appear and we will recognize it." ~  Mark Fisher

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04 July 2014

Adieu July 4th 2014

"Unfinished Flag of the United States" (1987) © Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
"and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right"*
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* From: Lawrence Ferlinghetti. "I am Waiting" (find the entire poem here).

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It Bears Repeating

I have posted in previous years links to the Oration, Delivered in Corinthian Hall, Rochester, by Frederick Douglass, July 5th, 1852. This is a good enough occasion to publish this link to the entire speech.

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24 June 2014

The Webbs Visit Rochester

I have to say that I find this project by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Rochester banal beyond belief. The repeated 'reflected in glass' images (is there a technical term for that sophomoric approach?) is just stupefying. Is it supposed to convey depth? Why is it that photographers seem to be wholly unable to approach the city in a direct, sensible way? Here they are at The New York Times and here they are at TIME. This makes me long for the Pellegrin fiasco!
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P.S.: (6/25/2014) And here they are at The Guardian. Slow news day?

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Travels

Road trip across Ontario yesterday from Rochester (sunny blue skies) to Ann Arbor (overcast & drizzle). The drive was uneventful, even at the borders. Americana sound track: Los Lobos; Sam Baker; Emmy Lou Harris; Steve Earle; Uncle Tupelo. Now for another iteration of the ICPSR workshop.

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18 June 2014

More Reasons - If Any Were Needed - Dick & Liz Cheney Are a Joke

Dick Cheney (war criminal) and his daughter Liz (who has accomplished precisely nothing in her 'career' beyond accepting nepotism) are criticizing Obama? Are you kidding? The reason why Iraq is in its current state reflects the duplicity and criminality of Cheney and his cronies in BushCo. So, Obama (of whom I am no fan) is bad news because he has not cleaned up Cheney, et. al.'s mess to their liking! What a bunch of bullshit. By publishing this sort of tripe the WSJ Editorial Page perfects its mimicry of Pravda.

Unfortunately, the Cheney's reportedly  have launched a 'grass roots' outfit to counter Obama's policy. They not only seem oblivious to their own abject unsuitability as sources of foreign policy advice. They also seem to not get the definition of grass roots - describing any organization launched by a former US Vice President and his privileged offspring as 'grass roots' is a laughable category mistake. And, might I add that the link to the WaPo Editorial Page (basically a free advert for the Cheneys) suggests that they are not far from the WSJ as peddlers of propaganda.
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P.S.: And, it turns out the Cheneys are not alone among architects of the BushCo fiasco who seem oblivious to the disaster they created.

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13 June 2014

The Salt of the Earth

 Juliano Salgado, Sebastião Salgado & Wim Wenders (2014)

I recall, as I first began (mostly here) to think semi-seriously about photography and its uses, watching Spectre of Hope the short film consisting mostly of a conversation between John Berger and Sebastião Salgado. As I noted at the time, it really crystallized one of the primary insights I have developed on Salgado's work specifically and the politics of documentary more generally. In any case, there is a new film -  The Salt of the Earth, a collaboration between Wim Wenders and Juliano Salgado (the photographer's son) - documenting the elder Salgado's work. You can find two stories on the undertaking here and here at The Guardian.

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10 June 2014

World Cup Politics

"Soccer, metaphor for war, at times turns into real war. Then “sudden death” is no longer just a name for a dramatic way of deciding a tied match. These days, soccer fanaticism has come to occupy the place formerly reserved for religious fervor, patriotic ardor, and political passion. As often occurs with religion, patriotism, and politics, soccer can bring tensions to a boil, and many horrors are committed in its name." ~ Eduardo Galeano
The World Cup is coming up very soon - soon enough that Susan and Esme (the English contingent of the family) sent me an England Jersey for Fathers Day. It is important to keep the nationalist spectacle in perspective. The tournament is not working out well for all Brazilians. Surprised? I came across this report at The Guardian on street art in the host country protesting the games. And, perhaps the best writing on "soccer" is by Eduardo Galeano who has dissected the political-economy of football in pretty exquisite ways. You can find a sample here but really ought to track down his book Soccer in Sun and Shadow (Nation Books). That is where I lifted the opening passage above.
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P.S.: My fellow political scientists have written a series of posts at The Monkey Cage (WaPo) on the politics of the world cup; it is fair to say that some of these are howlers, while others are more interesting. But here they are nevertheless: 1, 2, 3. 4. 5, 6

P.S.2 (Added 6/12/2014): My friend Navine Murshid alerted me to this OpEd by Dave Zirin at The New York Times which is germane to this post. FIFA is as corrupt and authoritarian as the NCAA and the International Olympics Committee.

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09 June 2014

The Bullet Point Guide to Photography Theory

Need a cheat sheet on theories of photography? Look here ...

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08 June 2014

Seeing the Occupation and Hearing It

"A Palestinian farmer looks toward the horizon of a beautiful landscape in the Jordan Valley. His farm and house were demolished twice by the Israeli authorities, as was the rest of his village. He decided to stay, to fight against the continuing attempts to uproot him. He fights using his very existence as a tool. This is the story of Burhan Basharat from Khirbet Makhoul in the Jordan Valley. This is also the story of many others."
I lifted this image and caption from this collection here at +972, an online web magazine focusing on  the reality of Israeli-Palestinian interactions in the occupied territories. And then, this morning, I discovered this report at The Guardian on Breaking Silence - an initiative undertaken by former IDF members to describe those interactions in words. A powerful convergence.

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Ethical Reasons to Oppose Political-Economic Inequality

Only just occasionally the TED-Industrial Complex produces an interesting presentation. Here is one by philosopher Tim Scanlon on various ethical arguments for reducing inequality.

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02 June 2014

Annie Appel The Occupy Portraits

 More or less coincidentally, I came across a link to this set of remarkable portraits of Occupy activists across several cities. The images are by Annie Appel who, while making the portraits, asked each subject how long they'd been in the movement and what they hoped for from the Occupy movement. Their answers, simple and direct, provide 'captions' for the images. Appel has initiated this Kickstarter campaign to try to get her images published in book form. Regardless of whether you approach her portraits primarily along political dimension, from the perspective of unadorned images, or both, Appel's work is really very good. Her campaign deserves your support. Give it up!

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25 May 2014

Passings - Bunny Yeager (1929~2014)

Photographer Bunny Yeager has died. Notices are here at The Guardian and here at The New York Times.

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Mary Halvorson - Star Spangled Banner (2014)

"I was thinking what state the world is in, being an American - there is such a mix of positives and negatives ..." - Mary Halvorson
"I was thinking about the state the world was in, being an American-- there's such a mix of positives and negatives,"


Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/these-artistic-interpretations-star-spangled-banner-call-out-inner-patriot-180951536/#OxJ7b147uYqHApgM.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
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"I was thinking about the state the world was in, being an American-- there's such a mix of positives and negatives,"


Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/these-artistic-interpretations-star-spangled-banner-call-out-inner-patriot-180951536/#OxJ7b147uYqHApgM.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
"I was thinking about the state the world was in, being an American-- there's such a mix of positives and negatives,"


Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/these-artistic-interpretations-star-spangled-banner-call-out-inner-patriot-180951536/#OxJ7b147uYqHApgM.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
"I was thinking about the state the world was in, being an American-- there's such a mix of positives and negatives,"


Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/these-artistic-interpretations-star-spangled-banner-call-out-inner-patriot-180951536/#OxJ7b147uYqHApgM.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
"I was thinking about the state the world was in, being an American-- there's such a mix of positives and negatives,"


Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/these-artistic-interpretations-star-spangled-banner-call-out-inner-patriot-180951536/#OxJ7b147uYqHApgM.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
"I was thinking about the state the world was in, being an American-- there's such a mix of positives and negatives,"


Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/these-artistic-interpretations-star-spangled-banner-call-out-inner-patriot-180951536/#OxJ7b147uYqHApgM.99
Give the gift of Smithsonian magazine for only $12! http://bit.ly/1cGUiGv
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter
You can find the file containing her rendition of the anthem here - worth listening too on Memorial Day.

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24 May 2014

David Levi Strauss Words Not Spent Today Buy Smaller Images Tomorrow

A new book by David Levi Strauss, arguably our best photography critic, is always a noteworthy event. This one is no exception. It contains 25 mostly brief essays discussing a wide range of photographers, critics and events. More to follow. I just wanted to note that the book is due out soon (if it is not out already) . . .

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23 May 2014

LEICA Centenary

At the BBC you can find this homage to the Leica cameras after 100 years.

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20 May 2014

The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940

Unemployed (1930). Alexander Stavenitz.

You have just over a month to catch this exhibition at The Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University.

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17 May 2014

Digest

The inimitable Rebecca Solnit here at The Guardian ~ "Call Climate Change What it is - Violence."

Photographer Nina Berman here in Columbia Magazine on the infrastructure and point of contemporary photojournalism.

An interview with Thomas Piketty here at the Institute for Public Policy Research (UK) and, also at The Guardian, this "manifesto" issued by he and a baker's dozen other French intellectuals defending a basic proposition: "It is time to recognise that Europe's existing institutions are dysfunctional and need to be rebuilt. The central issue is simple: democracy and the public authorities must be enabled to regain control of and effectively regulate 21st century globalised financial capitalism."

Finally, this essay by pianist Vijay Iyer at the Asian American Writers Workshop exploring 'Our Complicity With Excess.'

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Age-Progressed Images - No Thanks


This is a picture of my boy Jeffrey doing one of the things he loved most, playing lacrosse. Jeff died eight years ago. He was 14. And I often wonder what he'd be like - I hope he'd have turned out as truly wonderful as his older brother Doug has done - or what he'd be up to.  He would have been due to graduate college this spring. He'd be turning 21 next month. His friends are growing up, graduating, finding jobs and love out in the world. Some have or will be playing in the NCAA national lacrosse tournament. I wish them best of luck.

I have said here often that I miss Jeff every single day. I have many, many photos of Jeff and I cherish his memory. I have my memories. And I have my life. I do not want the former to tyrannize the latter. So, I must say that what appears to be an emerging practice discussed here at The Guardian pretty much horrifies me. I have no wish to see a forensic-like reconstruction from his childhood photos. None. The companies peddling this service are exploiting deep and abiding grief for profit. That makes me want to spit.

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Seeing Grantley Bovell & Cecily McMillan

I highly recommend these two posts at BagNewsNotes [1] [2]. They dissect the visual evidence surrounding the prosecution of OWS activist Cecily McMillan for allegedly assaulting NYC police officer Grantley Bovell in 2012. McMillan recently was convicted on the charges and faces up to seven years in prison. You can read responses to the verdict here at The Guardian and here at The Nation.

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16 May 2014

On Lee Friedlander ~ Whatever Happened to Milt Hinton?

Count Basie Band (1956) © Lee Friedlander

I lifted this image of Lee Friedlander's off the MoMA web page because it reminded me of a review, from 1986, that historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote for the NYRB. The review discussed Good Morning Blues: The Autobiography of Count Basie (Albert Murray) and The World of Count Basie (Stanley Dance) and was entitled "Playing for Ourselves." The title was excised from a remark Basie's long time drummer Jo Jones made in an interview in the Dance volume.  Looking back on the travails black jazz musicians encountered in depression era Kansas City Jones says "We were really behind the iron curtain. There was no chance for us. So there was nothing to do but play for ourselves."

This week at the NYRB is a review occasioned in part by this exhibition at the Yale Art Gallery some of which is devoted to Lee Freidlander's images of jazz musicians in New Orleans. (The other images in the exhibition are by Milt Hinton - an accomplished bass player and photographer who, being African-American, goes unmentioned in the review.) The review also is occasioned in part by the appearance of this accompanying collection of Friedlander's photographs:


The new collection is an updated and expanded version of this 1992 work:


What happened to Milt Hinton in all this remains a mystery. It is the same sort of effacement of African American musicians that, as I've noted here before, occurs (among other places) each spring at the Rochester International Jazz Festival. More on that another time.

Nothing I've said thus far should detract from Friedlander's work. Here, followed by just one of the portraits it mentions, is a comment from the recent NYRB review:
"Friedlander’s most indelible images are his portraits of musicians. Friedlander arrived in New Orleans at a high point in the jazz revivalist movement, when fans of jazz as it was originally played in New Orleans in the first two decades of the twentieth century (before the perceived corruptions of swing and bebop) descended on the city with tape recorders and notepads and cameras, hoping to catch some of the old magic and document it for posterity.  [. . .]

Friedlander’s portraits do not feel celebratory, however. He found authenticity all right,  . . .  in the toll taken on his subjects by decades of privation and indifference. In his portraits the musicians—most of whom didn’t have the chops to follow Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong north to Chicago forty years earlier—stare wistfully into the distance, or at the wall, as if indulging in some bittersweet private nostalgia. Many sit beside old family photographs, including pictures of themselves as young men. Some are photographed with their instrument, which they hold impotently, or rest in their laps. Their apartments are spare and poorly lit. There is dignity in these portraits, to be certain, and pride, but there is also despair."
 Tom Albert (1958) © Lee Friedlander

It is refreshing to focus in on Friedlander's accomplishment as a portraitist just because it upsets somewhat conventional views of his work. But there are other images as well, and these bring me back to the Hobsbawm review I mentioned at the start.

George Lewis and Jim Robinson, Paddock Lounge (1958) © Lee Friedlander

"This sense of melancholy also shadows Friedlander’s photographs of performances. When George Lewis’s band plays a Bourbon Street tourist trap called the Paddock Lounge, the ceiling is so low that he almost has to duck, and nobody else in the frame—a patron, two bartenders—seems aware that they are in the presence of jazz royalty, an impression that is amplified by the insulting presence of the lawn jockey posing directly in front of Lewis. There are no audience members, for that matter, visible in most of the performance pictures, giving the impression that the musicians are playing for themselves."

Just so. And the portraits of elderly musicians capture part - surely, only part - of what trails behind their pursuit of so demanding and ultimately so isolating a profession.

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14 May 2014

Passings ~ Lynne Cohon (1944-2014)

Photographer Lynne Cohen has died. An brief announcement is here at Canadian Art.

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13 May 2014

Passings ~ Camille Lepage (1988-2014)

A young French photojournalist, Camille Lepage has been killed while working in the Central African Republic;  as this report at The Guardian suggests, the details of her death remain murky. I do not know Le[age's work, but her death underscores how dangerous it is to work in zones of civil conflict.

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06 May 2014

Isaac Cordal

Electoral Campaign (2011) © Isaac Cordal

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01 May 2014

May Day


Update: I recommend this typically thoughtful post by Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber on the need to recuperate May Day in practice and in spirit.

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28 April 2014

On Piketty ~ A Compendium of Reviews


Consider this post an exercise for myself. I just want to keep track of some of the initial, astonishing response to Thomas Piketty's book. I noted a long review by Robert Paul Wolff here some time ago. But the responses have been coming fast and I want a central place to store links. I will add more links as necessary.

In any case, you can find reviews by Tyler Cowen at Foreign Affairs (May/June 2014), James Galbraith at Dissent (Spring 2014), Paul Krugman at NYRB (8 May 2014), Timothy Shenk at The Nation (5 May 2014), and Robert Solow at The New Republic (22 April 2014), as well as a troika of short commentaries by Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, Heather Boushey, and Branko Milanovic at The American Prospect (10 March 2014). And, of course, there was an extended pre-publication discussion by Thomas Edsall at The New York Times (28 January 2014).

Update (6 May): Here is another review by Doug Henwood at Book Forum, yet another one by Robert Skidelsky here at Prospect, still another here at The American Prospect by Robert Kuttner, a fourth here at The Boston Review by Mike Komczal, and a commentary here by Brad Delong on the right-wing response to Piketty.

Update (14 May):  Another handful of commentaries: Deborah Boucoyannis; Thomas Edsall (again); Thomas Frank; John Judis; Dani Rodrik; Kenneth Rogoff; Robert Schiller;  and Lawrence Summers.

Update (16 May): More commentary - from the right, grumbling from Martin Feldstein here at the WSJ; from the left, some grumbling by Alex Callinicos here at Socialist Worker.

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... and While We Are Discussing Rochester, Let's Talk Some About Environmental Injustice

I suppose we locals ought to be happy that we don't make the list of US cities with the worst air quality (see the other chart in this article from Mother Jones from which I lifted the graphic above). But we are top five nationally in laying what dirty air we have on racial minorities. Nice!

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27 April 2014

Catherine Leutenegger Kodak City


Last year a gaggle of Magnum photographers parachuted into Rochester.  This gave we locals a taste of what it is like being an 'urban decay story.' And it created a considerable stir when one of the photographers, Paolo Pellegrin, won a big photo award for a series of images that, politely, reflected an integrity-challenged process on the part of nearly everyone concerned. I won't rehearse the matter again as I posted about it here [1] [2] and then - thanks to Bob Hariman - participated in a terrific workshop at Northwestern on the various issues the episode raised [3].

A virtual friend (Thanks Stan!) recently brought to my attention this new work* by Swiss photographer Catherine Leutenegger that promises to be a more illuminating, though hardly more uplifting, view of Rochester and its travails. Once I am able to track down a copy I will provide a more informed response.
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*Catherine Leutenegger. Kodak City. Kehrer Verlag, 2014.

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22 April 2014

Performance Art Punctured

"Performance art is a joke. Taken terribly seriously by the art world, it is a litmus test of pretension and intellectual dishonesty. If you are wowed by it, you are either susceptible to pseudo-intellectual guff, or lying.

Is that overstating the case? Probably. There have been some powerful works of performance art – but most of them took place a long time ago ... Today, most art that claims to part of this modern tradition of performance is an embarrassing revelation of the art world's distance from real aesthetic values or real human life. ..."
So says Jonathan Jones here at The Guardian. And I must say it is difficult to disagree. As "Exhibit A" I refer back to the recent antics of Marina Abramović about which I have opined here repeatedly. The art world has largely swooned over her pretentious nonsense. I find she and her work insufferable.

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14 April 2014

Fuck the Poor



I came across this remarkable advert on my FB feed. I think the disconnect is that we treat poverty as a matter of charity rather than as a political problem requiring a political remedy. No offense to the (no doubt) well-intentioned folks at The Pilion Trust Charity, but they are framing the problem in a self-defeating way.

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13 April 2014

No, Photographers Do Not Have a First Amendment Right to Discriminate

From the ACLU, this report on the recent SCOTUS decision to not hear a case in which a photographer claimed a first amendment right to discriminate against customers seeking to hire her to chronicle same sex wedding ceremonies:
"When you make the decision to hold yourself out as a business that serves the general public, you have to be willing to actually serve the general public, which includes a diverse group of people whose values and beliefs may be different than the values and beliefs of the business owner. Selling commercial wedding photography services, like selling a wedding cake or a flower arrangement, does not mean that a business owner endorses a customer's marriage. Everybody has the right to express their views on whatever subject they wish, and that includes business owners. But every business has to play by the same rules in the public marketplace."
I suppose that in a time of truly ridiculous judicial decisions, this is a faint sign of sanity!

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Guggenheim, Workers, Protest

Here is a report on a protest yesterday at Guggenheim NYC about the labor standards in the construction of the new Abu Dhabi branch of the museum. Background on the matter are here and here in a recent argument at The New York Times. I must say, if the strongest defense the museum director can muster is that the living and working condition for construction laborers on the project "are the best in the region," the Guggenheim occupies extremely dubious ground.

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12 April 2014

The Company You Keep

I have to say that this story at ESPN is pretty stunning. Here we have Samantha Power, advocate of human rights, US Ambassador to the United Nations socializing with Henry Kissinger (they were taking in a Yankees game together!) recently. I suppose whether one finds a war criminal repugnant or not depends on whether he is our war criminal?

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11 April 2014

Jeffrey Milano-Johnson (14 June 1992 ~ 11 April 2007)


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10 April 2014

Losing Faith in the Possibility of Democracy

Here at the NYRB is a disconsolate howl by poet Charles Simic on the state of and prospects for American Democracy. Simic is one of my favorite poets. At times I agree with him. But not, by a long shot, do I always do so.

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08 April 2014

Reprint: "What To Do With Invidious Distinctions?"






 October 2007

What to Do With Invidious Distinctions?
By Jim Johnson

Critical discussion of contemporary photography is shaped by a largely unchallenged distinction between “documentary” and “art”. We expect photographers practicing the former to concentrate on the realism, veracity, and accuracy of the images they produce, while those engaged in the latter are freed from such preoccupations, and so given license to experiment stylistically and substantively. We define the poles of this distinction relative to one another. Thus, while introducing a recent issue of PRIVATE (No. 33. Summer 06), critic and curator Roberta Valtorta announces that “the strongest and truest photojournalism today is that which outlives itself without straining to be ‘beautiful’. It stays truthful to its ‘primitiveness,’ its leanness, and far from aesthetics.” Her comment perversely echos photographer Luc Delahaye who, having spent considerable energy over the course of several years justifying his distinctly not ‘primitive’ or ‘lean’ depictions of war-torn Afghanistan, felt compelled to “officially” declare himself an artist.

That this documentary/art distinction has stultifying consequences seems obvious when I list some contemporary photographers whose work, for disparate reasons, I find compelling –Andre Cypriano, Josef Koudelka, Randa Shaath, Sebastião Salgado, Martha Rosler, James Nachtwey, Lalla Essaydi, Alfredo Jaar, Edward Burtynsky, Antonin Kratochvil, Susan Meiselas, Raphaël Dallaporta, The Atlas Group, and Miguel Rio Branco. The documentary/art dichotomy obscures the work of these and many other photographers insofar as each tramples back and forth across the bounds of truth and beauty, content and form, and so on we purportedly use the distinction to police.

In her early essay “On Style” (Against Interpretation & Other Essays (1966), New York, Picador 2001, p. 15-16), Susan Sontag identifies our predicament: “It is not so easy, after all, to get unstuck from a distinction that practically holds together the fabric of critical discourse, and serves to perpetuate certain intellectual aims and vested interests which themselves remain unchallenged and would be difficult to surrender without a fully articulated working replacement at hand.” Sontag was concerned with the distinction between style and content that is different from, if related to, the one that concerns me. Her diagnosis of our broad predicament seems right. Yet her insistence that we must replace the problematic distinction with some more or less fully worked out alternative is misguided.

Near the start of Art as Experience John Dewey observes: “Wherever continuity is possible, the burden of proof rests upon those who assert opposition and dualism” (New York, Perigree 1980, p. 27). The problem is not that we make and use conceptual distinctions. That is unavoidable in any ongoing critical or creative undertaking. The problem, as Hilary Putnam, among the most insightful heirs to Dewey’s pragmatism notes, is that with repeated use conceptual distinctions too often become “inflated” into dichotomies that come to muddle our critical and creative practices. In contemporary discussions the documentary/ art distinction has assumed precisely this invidious status.

Faced with this dualism, we should heed Dewey’s advice and shift the burden of justification onto those who deploy it. This strategy is attractive since, as Sontag intimates, distinctions become inflated into dichotomies in ways and for purposes that hardly are innocent. Our art/documentary distinction, for instance, assumed exaggerated proportions through the usually self-serving efforts of identifiable photographers, curators, collectors, and critics. One thinks here of how Stieglitz differentiated “art” from “document” in order to facilitate acceptance of his preferred brand of photography by institutions of the art world. One thinks too of how, subsequently, Walker Evans and his critical allies devised hegemonic criteria for ‘legitimate’ documentary in hopes of countering the success of Margaret Bourke-White whom they cast as his competitor. Additional relevant episodes, animated by other more or less unsavory aims and interests will come to mind.

While genealogical accounts warrant the burden-shifting strategy Dewey proposes, they offer nothing remotely like the full-fledged “replacement” that Sontag thinks necessary. So what? Once historians reveal a dichotomy as an artifact of the thoroughly political and economic concerns of those who promulgate it, why aren’t we justified in simply turning our backs on it and those who purvey it? We should aim not to replace the dichotomy but to deflate it so as to open space for critical reflection.

Steve Edwards’ Photography: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2006) is exemplary in this respect. He concedes that the documentary/art distinction is “central” to assessments of contemporary photography. His argument unfolds around the dichotomy in ways that undermine it, repeatedly demonstrating how it confounds efforts to grasp photography and the various uses to which it has been put. Edwards thus pursues a deflationary strategy I find congenial. In so doing, he invites us to worry much less about whether some image respects the boundaries set by an invidious conceptual distinction and considerably more about two constellations of questions. First, who produced the image, how, and for what purposes? Second, what exigencies shape how others subsequently experience and use it? This is an invitation we should accept.

[This essay appeared in the inaugural issue of Art Signal (Barcelona), unfortunately deunct. Here is a link http://art-signal.org/en/que-hacemos-con-las-distinciones-odiosas/.]

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