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Posts Tagged ‘the Internet’

Little Match Girl

April 13, 2016 | by

A nineteenth-century illustration for The Little Match Girl.

The first time I remember lying about why I was crying was in second grade. I’d burst out sobbing in the middle of social studies and, rather than admit I’d been thinking about the plot of “The Little Match Girl,” I claimed vaguely that there was some problem at home, prompting a humiliating private lunch with my teacher and a parent-teacher conference. You’d think that would have cured me.

But being upset about nothing is galling. It’s hard to explain to a stranger on the subway that no, tears are actually rolling down your cheeks because of an episode of The People v. O. J. Simpson, or a piece of music you’re not even listening to. Read More »

Morbid Sensitivity

March 30, 2016 | by

Saul Bass’s poster design for Bonjour Tristesse, 1958.

And why is it, thought Lara, that my fate is to see everything and take it all so much to heart?
Doctor Zhivago

I’ve always liked the term morbid sensitivity, which seems to suggest not just something unhealthy but actually dangerous. To be morbidly sensitive is to wallow, to dwell unwholesomely on slights real and perceived—to ping-pong between solipsism and a feeling for others’ pain that results in a Saint Bartholomew–like sensation of emotional exposure. 

The term is usually used as a descriptor, an observation, but I think that those of us who suffer from the condition, even occasionally, know full well when we’re being MS. The knowledge does not change the feeling, which is one of the most frustrating human conditions. Read More »

A Huntsman of Ogres, and Other News

March 22, 2016 | by

From the cover of a new collection of Broodthaers’s poetry by Siglio Press.

  • At a moment when Syria, in the Western imagination, is synonymous with violence and war, an anonymous Syrian film collective called Abounaddaraprovides a strikingly different picture of Syrians and their country,” as our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, writes: “The members of Abounaddara, an Arabic phrase meaning ‘the man with glasses,’ began making films in 2010, but it was Syria’s version of the Arab Spring that gave them an urgent sense of purpose. For the past five years, they have posted a new documentary film every week, resulting in an archive of nearly four hundred shorts that can be watched for free on Vimeo … These films, whose subjects include soccer players for the Syrian national team, bereaved parents, former prisoners of ISIS, intellectuals, and refugees, are powerful portraits of individual Syrians, yet they can also be hard to read, in part because we’re told so little about the subjects and settings. This withholding of information is clearly by design. The films often begin and end in medias res, leaving the viewer to puzzle out their significance. They require one to think as well as to look.”
  • The set designer Es Devlin has a CV that includes everyone from Shakespeare to Verdi to Miley Cyrus: “Devlin argues that there is something in between pictorial realism and complete abstraction. Though she borrows elements from every period, her approach is thoroughly contemporary. She’s not interested in straight realism, or in traditional production design … She is theatre’s postmodern expert, and has an instinctive sense of how Shakespeare and opera and fashion and pop concerts might draw from the same dark web of psychological information. Each of her designs is an attack on the notion that a set is merely scenery. She is in demand because she can enter the psychic ether of each production and make it glow with significance. She told me, ‘A stage setting is not a background, it is an environment’—something that directors and actors can respond to. ‘Sometimes what these people want is a liberator, someone who might encourage them to defy gravity.’ ”
  • A new biography of Wallace Stevens, The Whole Harmonium, reminds us of the vast chasm between artist and art: “He never left North America. He was casually racist and anti-Semitic. A Hoover Republican, he distrusted labor unions. He drank too much at parties, to overcome his natural shyness, and later had to apologize for his boorishness. In the depths of the Depression, he made $20,000 a year, the equivalent of $350,000 today … ‘Wallace Stevens is beyond fathoming,’ Marianne Moore wrote, comparing him to a person with ‘a morbid secret he would rather perish than disclose.’ But the secret would out, and in his poems Stevens revealed it: The bluff American executive had a soul as baroque and fantastical as an aesthete’s, as profound and brooding as a philosopher’s.”
  • Before he found renown as a painter, sculptor, filmmaker, collector, and God knows what else, Marcel Broodthaers was a poet. And his poems pursued (among other subjects) ogres: “The world of these poems is far removed from modern life. My Ogre Book in particular, a self-described ‘suite of poetic tales,’ unfolds across a medieval-ish neverland of forests, mad kings, storm-swept landscapes, and those ogres invoked in the title. Its fairy-tale idiom is vivid but generalized, the animal and human figures serving as emblems that are never far distant from elemental strife: ‘Lost in solitude / I have always been prey,’ reflects the speaker of ‘The Donkey-Drummer’; ‘The toads devour themselves / at the heart of diamonds,’ runs the full text of one of the brief untitled poems interlarded throughout the book; in ‘A Drama of Solitude’ a ‘huntsman of ogres’ turns on his loyal dog and kills him, preferring ‘to be alone in the Great North.’ Broodthaers’s archaism, which according to his translator extends to his use of anachronistic phrasing in the original French, was also deeply personal, providing him with a means to map his inner geography in ways both distanced and intimate.”
  • Today in nomenclature and direct democracy: just when you’re coming around to the idea of the Internet as a tool to empower the masses, something like this happens … and you’re more convinced of its awesome potential than ever before. “A proposal by a British government agency to let the Internet suggest a name for a $287 million polar research ship probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Now, the agency is the latest group to see what happens when web users are asked to unleash their creative energy: R.S. Boaty McBoatface is a clear front-runner … Alison Robinson, a spokeswoman, said in an email that the group was ‘delighted by the enthusiasm and creativity’ of people vying for names like Boaty McBoatface. The ship is scheduled to set sail in 2019.”

Quote Unquote

December 28, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

quinndombrowskithelibrary

Quinn Dombrowski, The Library, 2010. Image via Flickr

A sentence goes viral—why?

I recently discovered that a sentence of mine, written many years ago in a book that had enjoyed some critical praise but disappointing sales, had gone viral.

I suppose I google myself about as often as any writer does, and I hope not more often, but on the occasion of my discovery I was doing so at someone else’s behest: in preparation for a new book, my publishing house had asked me to compile a portfolio of reviews of my previous books. As I scrolled through the search results, hunting for newspaper and magazine URLs, I became aware that I was seeing the same words and sentence fragments over and over again in the highlights at the top of each hit. “Eating…” “…communion…” “ …hospitality in general…” The combination sounded vaguely familiar. I finally tracked down the full quote at Goodreads.

The book, The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down, from 2003, is an anecdotal history of hospitality in Western civilization, in reverse chronological order from Nazi Germany to Homeric Greece. The sentence, hidden deep within the body of the book and in no way positioned to draw attention to itself, reads as follows:

Eating, and hospitality in general, is a communion, and any meal worth attending by yourself is improved by the multiples of those with whom it is shared. Read More >>

The Existing State of Things, and Other News

November 11, 2015 | by

Joseph Severn, Posthumous Portrait of Shelley Writing Prometheus Unbound, 1845.

  • The Bodleian Library has recovered a lost poem by Shelley—the ambitiously named “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things,” written when he was just eighteen. It’s 172 lines of pure political invective, and its themes, as one professor said, “remain as relevant today as they were 200 years ago.” It’s true. Certain lines (e.g., “cold advisers of yet colder kings … who scheme, regardless of the poor man’s pang, / Who coolly sharpen misery’s sharpest fang, / Yourselves secure”) resonate quite well on this, the morning after the GOP debate.
  • We’ve all wondered, in our lives as readers, how our cohort could be so fantastically wrong about some author or another—why such fantastical lapses of taste are celebrated far and wide. And so it falls to Tim Parks to ask the question on everyone’s mind: How could you like that book? “I live under the constant impression that other people, other readers, are allowing themselves to be hoodwinked. They are falling for charms they shouldn’t fall for. Or imagining charms that aren’t there. They should be making it a little harder for their authors … What might really be worth addressing here is the whole issue of incomprehension: mutual and apparently insuperable incomprehension between well-meaning and intelligent people, all brought up in the same cultural tradition, more or less. It’s curious, for example, that the pious rhetoric gusting around literature always promotes the writing and reading habit as a powerful communication tool, an instrument for breaking down barriers, promoting understanding—and yet it is exactly over my reaction to books that I tend to discover how completely out of synch with others I am … Could this be the function, then, or at least one important function of fiction: to make us aware of our differences?”
  • Here, I brought you these rhetorical questions about the cloud, that most porous of metaphors for digital space: “How did we come to place our faith in a symbol that is so ephemeral—all vapor and crystal? … What kind of thinking does the cloud, so porous and diffuse, enable? Does our participation in the cloud require us to surrender a bit of our privacy? Can it help explain the rise of the meme and our increasingly lax attitude toward notions of authorship and origins, the way something on the Internet begins to seem ubiquitous and ambient, as if it had always just been there?”
  • Michael Bierut is responsible for a lot of the high-profile signage you see around New York—his new book How to Use Graphic Design to Sell Things, Explain Things, Make Things Look Better, Make People Laugh, Make People Cry, and (Every Once in a While) Change the World testifies to his reach as a designer and his expectations for design. His designs all emerge from his notebooks: “ ‘I get very protective about them, like children, pets, lucky charms and security blankets,’ he says. One spread shows sketches of the deconstructed Saks Fifth Avenue logo for the department store’s shopping bags from a decade ago. He remembers one of the designers in his firm screaming after blowing it up into fragments. Bierut ran over immediately to look, and compared it to a Franz Kline or a Barnett Newman piece. ‘I remember at that moment saying, Wait, this could be it, sixty-four squares—each one of them was like a beautiful abstract painting.’ ”
  • At the start of the twentieth century, Arnold Genthe, a German immigrant, took photographs of San Francisco’s Chinatown. They’re some of the only remaining photos of the neighborhood from that period; most were swallowed in the earthquake of 1906. “Genthe was fascinated by Chinatown and took hundreds of photographs of the area and its inhabitants. He used a small camera and sometimes captured his subjects covertly. He later cropped some of his images to remove western references.” “Some day the whole city will burn up,” a friend told him. “There’ll never be another Chinatown like this one, and you have its only picture record.”

Hatched in Prison, and Other News

November 5, 2015 | by

From Gil Batle’s “Jargon” series: carved eggs alluding to the hidden messages that inmates and their friends and families used to avoid censorship by prison staff monitoring their correspondence.

  • The Great and Noble Defenders of High Culture (one of them rhymes with Kansan) would have you believe that books and social media are locked in a mortal battle, and that every time you tweet, an angel-novelist loses his wings. But this is a false dichotomy, Paul Ford says—the best way to read the Internet is to dredge its deep archives of ephemera: “I tweet with the best of them, and I like reading the hard stuff. I have a phone filled with novels, even some experimental ones. But the reality is that the most profound feeling of cultural participation for me comes from trawling databases. I like to look through old scanned pages, search against tags on Tumblr, see how hashtags form discussion on Twitter, or look through the dead-eyed monstrosity of a racist comment thread on Facebook. That sort of stuff constitutes ‘reading,’ for me … The most meaningful experiences I have, the experiences that give me the greatest insight into the operation of culture over time—something over which historians used to hold a monopoly—are the results of database queries.”
  • When Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch came out in 1970, it placed her at the forefront of the feminist movement: she was a bona-fide public intellectual, a celebrity. Why has her star fallen? “Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives … Described by her biographer as having ‘the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy’ to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation … And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant … The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it … While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place.”
  • When you keep a diary in prison, you write on whatever’s handy, even if that something is ostrich shells … and even if you don’t begin the diary until after you’re out of the clink. “San Francisco native Gil Batle spent twenty years in five different California prisons for fraud and forgery … The fifty-three-year-old Filipino American now lives in the Philippines, where he has spent the past few years carving a twenty-year prison diary into the surfaces of dozens of ostrich shells. The diary depicts his own haunting stories of prison life and those of the murderers, drug dealers, and armed robbers he served time with … At first glance, the carved eggshells could pass for ancient artifacts until you look carefully at the subject matter: suicides and stabbings, fights and race riots, cavity searches, and other trials and tribulations of prison life.”
  • For a few years now, the Internet has made a sport of slowing down pop songs by 500, 1,000, hell, 5,000 percent, tapping the rich mineral deposits of ambient beauty hidden in all that mud. But little has prepared us for the gift that is Alvin and the Chipmunks at sixteen rpm. They sound like a doom-metal band. With the holiday season upon us, Chipmunk-ified tunes will soon blare from a storefront near you—gird your loins with the slow version.
  • Fanny Fern, E. D. E. N. Southworth … the best-selling women writers of the nineteenth century have names that would land them on the Billboard Top 40 today, and yet their books remain neglected. Their often willfully sentimental novels “grew out of the conduct literature that was popular earlier in the century—for example, seduction novels that frightened girls and young women away from sexual impropriety—and was popular among women more so than men. For this reason, it was dismissed by ‘serious’ authors—as when Hawthorne bemoaned the ‘damned mob of scribbling women.’ … Today we recognize that it was a powerful political tool.”

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