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Posts Tagged ‘Alexis de Tocqueville’

A Nation of Postcards, and Other News

April 21, 2014 | by

maine

Image: Boston Public Library

  • On that ever-mysterious rubric, “literary fiction”: “It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature—and therefore Important, Art, and somehow better than other writing … Jane Austen’s works are described as literary fiction. This is nonsense … Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity decided that—not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, to entertain and to make money.”
  • The French economist Thomas Piketty has alighted upon our shores, “like a wonkish heir to de Tocqueville, to tell Americans how to salvage what he called their ‘egalitarian pioneer ideal’ from a potentially devastating ‘drift toward oligarchy.’”
  • A salve for irritated prescriptivists: this new browser extension literally replaces every instance of literally with figuratively, all over the Internet.
  • Gillette’s new razor does violence to the spirit of entrepreneurship: “It’s a men’s razor that does what every other men’s razor since time immemorial has done—removes hair from your face—but with ‘a swiveling ball-hinge’ that the company says will make it easier to get a clean shave … The razor represents everything terrible about America’s innovation economy.”
  • Online, the Boston Public Library has more than 25,000 U.S. postcards from the thirties and forties, all of them vividly illustrated.

 

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The Modern Monastery: Pussy Riot in Prison

October 11, 2012 | by

Philadelphia's Walnut Street Penitentiary

“Prison,” Nadezhda Tolokonnikova said in her interview with GQ, “is like a monastery—it’s a place for ascetic practices.” Member of the celebrated but incarcerated band Pussy Riot, Tolokonnikova gave voice to the belief that prison can be a soul-changing institution: an idea that inspired the American penal system.

The same year that America declared its independence from Great Britain, Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail opened. Its first major addition came in 1790 at the instigation of Quaker reformers who proposed “a penitentiary house” of sixteen individual cells for solitary confinement.

The penitentiary, unlike jails or prisons, set itself to the task of rehabilitating prisoners. Religious penance became the paradigm for criminal punishment; the monastic chamber served as the model for the prison cell. Walnut Street exemplified the philosophy of what became known as the Pennsylvania System, which separated prisoners from one another while enforcing silence and manual labor as mechanisms for transformation.

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