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Posts Tagged ‘surveillance’

Stanisław Barańczak’s “This Is Not a Conversation for the Telephone”

January 5, 2015 | by

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Barańczak in a photo from Ostatni wiersz z Widokówki z tego świata, 1988.

I’ve been thinking today of Stanisław Barańczak, the Polish poet and translator who died last month at sixty-eight. He was known for flouting state censors with poems that mocked the euphemistic language of communism, and his work was seditious enough that in the seventies he was barred from publishing in Poland, though he continued to publish underground. By the early eighties, his politics had cost him his job as a professor in Poznan, and he decamped to the U.S. to lecture at Harvard. In a famous speech he likened life as a dissident to breathing underwater, with a nod to a science-fiction story by Stanisław Lem:

Bubbling sounds were the only acceptable means of communication, the official propaganda emphasized the advantages of being wet, and occasional breathing above water was considered almost a political offense—although everyone had to do it from time to time …

I wonder what Barańczak would’ve made of the new PEN International report, published this morning, on writers and government surveillance. It suggests that free expression around the world—even in the U.S., where what we’ve come to call “content producers” aren’t in the habit of fearing violence from the state—is in some ways more embattled now than it’s been since the Cold War.

It’s worth reading the report in full, though it will make you gnash your teeth and hurl invective at various institutions, chiefly the NSA. (And why shouldn’t you? You’ve already got their ear.) PEN International polled 772 writers from fifty countries, with some classified as “free,” some as “partly free,” and some “not free.” But those gradations hardly matter, it seems, when it comes to freedom of expression. Of the respondents, 75 percent in free countries, 84 percent in partly free countries, and 80 percent in not free countries said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried about surveillance. Some were so worried that they were afraid to say how worried they were:

As a final indication of the way the current “surveillance crisis” affects and haunts us, I should say that I have had serious misgivings about whether to write the above and include it in this questionnaire. It is clear to me from the information I have given you that my responses to the questionnaire, and presumably also therefore this statement, can be traced back to me. It may be that this information will be hacked by security agencies. Surely anyone who thinks thoughts like these will be in danger—if not today, then (because this is a process) possibly tomorrow.

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The Origins of Barbecue, and Other News

May 5, 2014 | by

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Photo: Derrick Tyson, via Flickr

  • The secret libraries of New York. (None of them are technically secrets, but “the comparatively less well-known libraries of New York” doesn’t have the same ring to it.)
  • “A surveillance society … threatens our interiority, our right to a private self that ensures we can never be fully transparent, to others or to ourselves. In a culture driven to render us ever more transparent to one another, literature and art may be among the few spaces in which to keep hold of this understanding of the private self.”
  • On the disappearance of spectacular cinema: “As the bulk of filmmaking has shifted away from studio productions and virtually all movies except for franchises have become, in effect, independent films, movies have fallen into conflicting extremes of artifice and of reality, and the idea of reality has become a sort of critical cult.”
  • “The first indigenous tribes Christopher Columbus encountered on the island he named Hispaniola had developed a unique method for cooking meat over an indirect flame, created using green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning. Reports indicate that the Spanish referred to this new style of cooking as barbacoa: the original barbecue.”
  • These statues are very, very, arrestingly large.

 

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Poets Want Their Privacy, and Other News

April 2, 2014 | by

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Smile, you're on CCTV.

 

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Philip Hensher on ‘King of the Badgers’

September 27, 2011 | by

Philip Hensher.

King of the Badgers, Philip Hensher’s seventh novel, comes on the heels of his ambitious, fictional survey of seventies Britain, The Northern Clemency. King of the Badgers focuses on the staged kidnapping of China O’Connor, in circumstances that inevitably recall the disappearance of Shannon Matthews. Shannon disappeared from her hometown of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in 2008 and, after huge national media attention, was discovered a month later in the home of her step-uncle, who was eventually convicted and jailed along with Shannons mother. It delves into the private lives of the community in the fictional Devon town of Hanmouth. I met Philip in a trendily minimal Fitzrovia café, where Philip spoke of his imagined world as alive and elusively present.

Let’s begin with Hanmouth, the setting for King of the Badgers. What kind of place is it?

Well, it’s one of those places with a betwixt and between status. It’s a town: it’s not a village and it’s not a city. Pressures in England are pushing most places in one direction or the other. Surprising places are suddenly being declared cities. Chesterfield is a city now. Brighton is a city now. If it’s not big enough to have a claim to being a city then it’s pushed down toward being a village.

I like those betwixt and between places, ones with about forty thousand people. They are small enough that people know each other, or recognize each other. Small enough that faces recur, but big enough for the chain of connections to stretch to a breaking point, so that people can still be strangers. Hanmouth is also an old town of the sort that are all over England. There’s history in them that people want to identify with, but at the same time modernity keeps cropping up. Read More »

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Portfolio: Miroslav Tichý

August 8, 2011 | by

Untitled, ca. 1950s–80s, black-and-white photograph with graphite, mounted.

“If you want to be famous,” photographer Miroslav Tichý once said, “you must do something more badly than anybody in the entire world.” Born in 1926 in Czechoslovakia, Tichý spent decades taking voyeuristic photographs of women bathing. His subjects are caught unawares, often through fences or peepholes, in an erotically isolated moment. The pictures are spotted, blurred, crooked, scratched, and underexposed—done, by any conventional standards, “badly.” These flaws of execution are surpassed only by the crudeness of Tichý’s cameras, which were made with materials such as shoeboxes, tin cans, toilet-paper rolls, sandpaper, and toothpaste.

Tichý the man was equally disheveled. A ragged town eccentric, he had been trained as a classical painter but quit the academy after the Communist takeover forced artists to focus on socialist subjects. He remained, however, a diligent practitioner of the arts. He took three rolls of film a day, printed each negative only once, and embellished the prints with homemade frames. The results amount to a clever commentary on the state; his disguised cameras and the atmosphere of surveillance in his work subtly allude to the surveillance of the society at large. But the furtive pictures are also beautiful. They recall the scratched bodies of Degas’s bathers; they presage the soft focus of Richter. Their imperfection imprints them with the personal. As Tichý himself said, “A mistake. That’s what makes the poetry.” Read More »

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