I've had one of those weeks where I was too scattered and agitated to sit down with a book. But I'm like you, if I don't read I die, so I spent the week grazing a lot of papers, magazines and Web writing.
I did start one book, but it was beginning to annoy me so I set it aside. Maybe I'll come back to it in a few weeks, because it may deserve fuller discussion. It's Popular Culture: An Introduction, by a UC-Santa Cruz literature professor, Carla Freccero, another NYU Press title (202 pages, $16.95). It is what it says, a primer for college students in Cultural Studies and the theories of late-90s campus Marxism, complete with a glossary of pomo jargon and p.c. buzz. One thing that's interesting about it is watching Freccero struggle to maintain some intellectual integrity and freedom of thought even as she, as a late-90s academic leftist, must renounce these qualities as misplaced values of the patriarchal hegemony of Western democratic capitalism. That is, she's no Amy Taubin kneejerk dummy, but she does her part by citing Amy Taubin kneejerk idiocies.
There's a point early on in here where Freccero expresses her deep misgivings about Western democratic ideals like the rights of the individual and private property, which creeped me out: I guess it's been a while since I've read a campus lefty espouse such clearly and profoundly antidemocratic politics. I admire the chutzpah, but she can still kiss my ass. She does not, at that point in the book, lay out just what kind of grim collectivist lesbionic beehive state she'd like to replace democracy with, but I'm sure she sees herself running at least one of the committees. She moves on instead to a discussion of Madonna as transgressive gender icon that I suspect is based on some paper she must have written several years ago, back when college students would still recognize and give a fuck about Madonna as transgressive gender icon.
It's there that I put the book down, but maybe I'll go back to it when I'm having a week where too many other things aren't getting on my nerves. If nothing else I'm always intrigued by this absolutely bellhooksian need these types have to maintain the fantasy that you can fight the power and fight for tenure simultaneously; that the simple condition of being black or female or gay or someone who saw Is Paris Burning? and "got" it is a revolutionary act. I can't help it, it's a mindset I find fascinating.
Another sort of academic publication altogether, Lingua Franca keeps improving, getting better and better at reaching out to intelligent life off-campus. Once a stuffy trade journal and job opportunity billboard for professorial types, it's become a lot more readable and a lot less p.c., widening its scope to cover a variety of intellectual issues, both scholarly and real-world, in plain English and even, at times, with humor.
The current September issue was the most brain-engaging magazine I read last week. Laura Secor has a huge, sad piece about how Yugoslavian intellectuals fell in line behind Milosevic; Scott McLemee has a funny piece on the irony of Objectivist courses being taught by the very eggheads Ayn Rand despised; Tom Scocca, a writer from City Paper in Baltimore, has a thing about astronomers elbowing one another for limited telescope time; and there are other good bits on Derrida's publishing track record, Arthur Koestler's dueling biographers and a big scholarly argument over the?how would Freccero say this??gendering of domestic violence studies.
Then again, I still have trouble adjusting to the friendlier, dumbed-down Scientific American. I'm like an old-New Yorker type. I find myself missing Scientific American when it was written in a language that was almost-familiar English but just off enough that you had to work at it, read every paragraph over again to get the whole meaning, like Chaucer. I never got through more than one article an issue, but that one would stick. The outreaching Scientific American is like a kids' exploratorium to me, with its (in the current September issue) pullout illustrations of T. rex, its excerpts from sci-fi novels and its National Geographic-style human interest stories ("The Throat-Singers of Tuva").
But forget me. The September issue has two articles I found interesting, which is a 100 percent increase over my former average. One is on a new theory of planetary drift, challenging the conventional view of a stable system with the planets now in pretty much the same positions where they were born. This one has the outer planets (from Jupiter out) migrating to their current positions, especially Neptune and Pluto, with the latter's orbit getting more and more eccentric over time as the two interact. There are two points in Pluto's 248-year orbit around the sun where in effect it cuts in front of Neptune, getting closer to the sun. Why do I like knowing this? Because I'm drawn to descriptions of the universe as lopsided, wobbly, lumpy, unruly. They conform to my intuitions of how things are.
The other good article here is a well-timed?I'm sure fortuitously so, given magazine lead times?survey report regarding scientists and religion. No mention of the knotheads in the Kansas state legislature, but their presence looms over the piece. In 1914 and 1933 a Bryn Mawr psychologist surveyed American scientists and found both times that about 40 percent believed in God and an afterlife (though it was only 20 percent of what he called "greater" scientists, the elite astronomers, biologists, etc.). When the authors repeated the survey in 1996 and '98, the results were, to me, surprisingly consistent: 40 percent of all scientists still have some belief in God?it's highest among the "lesser" fields like engineering?and 10 percent of the elite.
The authors discuss these results in light of recent attempts to achieve some sort of rapprochement between, on the one side, the hard-science materialists who dominate and, on the other, the creationists and other religious-minded scientists who, if they can't change their colleagues' minds, are increasingly influential in the public and political sectors.
What do creationists make of rainmakers, I wonder. Will they pressure them to stop tampering with God's weather, now that they may actually be showing some success at it? The Aug. 21-27 Economist reports that after a rather dismal half-century of trial and mostly error, cloud-seeding may be on the verge of paying off. An experiment now under way in Mexico suggests that rainfall can be increased when promising clouds are seeded with salts that attract moisture and become raindrops.
Puts me in mind of a website Knipfel showed me last week, representing a convergence of weird science and kabbalah study of which I was previously unaware (http://home.fireplug.net/ ~rshand/streams/science/machine2.html). In the late 70s, British engineer George Sassoon, son of the poet Siegfried, was leafing through The Kabbalah Unveiled, one of those terrible Victorian translations of the Zohar, by S. L. Macgregor Mathers. He became particularly intrigued with the descriptions of The Ancient of Days?"Eternal of the Eternal Ones, the Ancient of the Ancient Ones, the Concealed of the Concealed Ones"?whose body is described in great but bizarre detail, from his testicles to his head, where "Within His skull exist daily thirteen thousand myriads of worlds, which draw their existence from Him, and by Him are upheld."
The more he read, the more Sassoon convinced himself that it's not a deity being described, but a machine. Specifically, a "manna machine," a food-generating device that fed the crew of an Earth-visiting space vehicle (well, it was the 70s) and was left behind to be picked up by the Israelites just in time to keep them from starving as they trekked across the desert. The Ancient One's beard and hairs must be wiring, its "cardinal lamp" a nuclear reactor, etc. Based on his reading of the "specifications" given in the Zohar, Sassoon built a model of the manna machine; photos of it looking like a space probe in a first-generation Star Trek are on the site. I'd take a small one for the coffee table.
Sometime after the Israelites reached Jerusalem, Sassoon figures, the machine either broke down or just fell into disuse, and either was or became confused with the Ark of the Covenant. He pictures the alien device safely hidden away in the innermost sanctum of Solomon's Temple, periodically attended to by the High Priests with oily rags, until the sack of Jerusalem, at which point it is lost to history. Though, as long as he's speculating, he wonders if it might have something to do, inevitably I guess, with the Grail and the Templars and such.
I know National Review is a conservative magazine, and there's a certain retro spin built into conservative thinking, but what's up with the Aug. 30 issue's cover story? "American Travesty," the hed shouts, followed immediately by the denouement of a subhed, "How justice failed the Rodney King cops."
Rodney King? In 1999? Okay, let's grant there's some reason for an update. As your cover story? What next, the Madonna as transgressive gender icon cover?
Also in this issue, Christopher Caldwell offers a jaundiced appraisal of Woodstock '99 and the hypocritical response to it from boomers like Richard Cohen. He ends the piece with a quote from a telephone conversation he had with me. I must say he caught me by surprise with the call. All due respect, but Chris Caldwell is not the first guy I turn to for rock 'n' roll commentary. Yet he's been all over the place lately, commenting on the rock. Christgau Caldwell. Besides the Review piece there was his weeklong chat with Spin's Chris Norris in last week's Slate (also colonized by MUGGER last week?what's up with that?), discussing James Miller's rock history book Flowers in the Dustbin. For a Beltway pundit and a Spin writer, they don't do so bad. They basically agree that the book sucks, which is good, and reading their back-and-forth on it helped me crystallize my argument against it, which I may not have quite nailed in my own column on it a week earlier: that it's got a shopkeeper's bourgeois heart, that it's a count-the-pennies, count-the-hits history of rock, as though written from the perspective of the guy who runs the merchandising booths at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Since we first mentioned him a few months ago, Jim Romenesko of obscurestore.com and mediagossip.com has been on a roll. I'm not suggesting cause and effect, just that it's another example of how attention snowballs. Once he got the requisite b.j. in the Times, mediagossip.com suddenly became everybody's favorite media site.
Well, good for him. Romenesko maintained the aptly named obscurestore.com through a couple years of getting up very early to enter daily updates before trudging off to his real job. The newer mediagossip.com is also well-named. It's amazing that the two sites are a one-man operation; it puts him in the Drudge category of heroic solo effort.
And now his reward: He gets to quit his day job. The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a nonprofit associated with the St. Petersburg Times, has hired him to start up a media news and gossip site for them.
"Part of the deal," he e-mailed me last Friday, "is that mediagossip.com is no more, but directs traffic to my stuff on Poynter. I really like the idea of spending all day looking for media stuff. I'll provide links and do original reporting on the new site. It should be up by October 1."
And I spent my usual few minutes flipping through the Voice last week. I was expecting Jim Ridgeway to weigh in on L.A. daycare center shooter Buford Furrow as just another tip of the iceberg that is the vast neo-Nazi underground conspiracy, and he did not disappoint. His "Mondo Washington" column, "Bringing It All Back Home: Buford Furrow's Journey of Hate to L.A.," was a veritable cavalcade of familiar Ridgeway villains, linking Furrow, sometimes by the flimsiest of Ridgewavian paranoid-theory circumstance, to everyone from Benjamin Smith and Timothy McVeigh to such famous Nazi nutcases as Tom Metzger, Richard Butler, Bob Mathews and the man without whom no Ridgeway column is complete, The Turner Diaries' William Pierce.
I'm not saying these characters aren't evil fucks, just that this particular sky has fallen on Ridgeway's head so many times over the last decade that if someday he does finally get his hands on irrefutable proof that the Aryans are actually armed and organized and ready to pull a national putsch, who's going to believe him?
And my old pal Cynthia Cotts pulled another dopey boner in last week's "Press Clips." You may recall some weeks ago I went off on her after she wrote a b.j. for a new literary magazine, Tin House, which she so outrageously overpraised I could only speculate that the editors or publisher must be friends of hers. Turned out, as she called to inform me, that while they weren't what she'd call friends, the editors were indeed acquaintances and former colleagues. I say semantics aside, all she had to do was mention that in the first place.
Then, on Aug. 4, she wrote the lead piece for the online zine Feed. As it happens, it was another b.j., this one for Talk, in which she did everything but attach her resume to Tina's attention, but that's not the point. The point is that two weeks later, in last week's Voice, she leads off her "Press Clips" with yet another b.j.?for Feed. In which she fails to mention that she'd just written a lead item for Feed two weeks earlier.
All right, no need to call Brill. It's not a career-threatening conflict of interest. But it is a boner, and only confirms for me that Cotts remains an amateur in her job. A simple parenthetical disclosure that she'd just written for Feed, but that this had absolutely no impact on her suddenly and coincidentally deciding to write an overhyping article about the four-year-old zine, would have sufficed. I e-mailed her and asked her to explain.
"It seems you and I have a difference of opinion about the purpose of Press Clips," she wrote back, and noted that "The Feed story is also similar to the story I wrote on the literary magazine Tin House which you found so objectionable"?both statements with which I heartily agree. She went on:
"Like Tin House, Feed is a publishing venture that aims to make a profit off 'quality' editorial content. And like Tin House, Feed has recently had a positive interaction with the market. If Tin House is selling out at St. Marks, or if the ad space is selling out at Feed, that's news, from a purely economic perspective. I'm surprised that you don't recognize the value of that kind of analysis, given Russ Smith's adherence to the libertarian political philosophy, one of the central tenets of which is 'Let the market decide.' It's also the kind of analysis that is practiced every day by the Wall Street Journal, i.e., 'Is it profitable?'"
Now, in neither case did she write "analysis." She wrote press releases. Look them up online if you don't believe me. That she considers this analysis reinforces my sense that she is among the most naive and amateurish media "analysts" in town.
But anyway, getting to the real point, she explained her Feed connection this way:
"As for me and Feed, I wrote one piece for them, which was solicited in late July by Alex Abramovich, who was a colleague of mine at The New Yorker. I'm still waiting to get paid. I have never pitched any stories to Feed and have none in the works. Shortly before getting the assignment from Alex, I ran into Steven Johnson, who is also a professional acquaintance, and asked if there was any news to report about Feed, which it turned out there was. Given that I don't pal around with people from Feed, and they have offered me nothing of value in connection with what I wrote about them, including future assignments, I don't think I have a conflict of interest, and thus didn't think I had anything to disclose. It's kind of funny that you want to accuse me of hiding something (a single story I wrote for Feed) that your own paper criticized so bitterly the week before. But you raise a semi-interesting point, which is that my omission created the appearance of a conflict where there was none. I hope this settles the matter, and that the Press has the integrity to print my response in full."
Again, she's right: She and I clearly disagree about the purpose of a column like "Press Clips," once a Voice flagship position (Stokes must be spinning), now a venue in which Cotts writes press releases for people she admits (to me, when pressed, but not in the column itself) she in some way knows. Not to disclose these connections in her column, as her predecessor James Ledbetter so scrupulously used to do, is, if nothing more, foolishness that leaves her open to charges of conflict of interest. Ledbetter reminds me that he used to disclose so obsessively that we actually made fun of him for going overboard with it. Well. Times change. And his successor could use a pinch of that obsessiveness.
This Feed piece very clearly is a conflict of interest, if on a minor scale. She should have either taken the writing assignment from Feed or written the blowjob for Feed, but not both; having done both anyway, she should have at least mentioned the former when she wrote the latter. It's standard industry practice. For the Voice's media columnist not to seem to know this, and to shrug it off as "semi-interesting," is, in fact, very interesting.
In this context, she's hardly in a position to be bluffing me about "integrity," though I admit she's got balls to try it.
Maybe there's no guiding or principled intelligence anymore in the grim collectivist beehive of Voice editorial, but somebody over there really ought to speak to her about this. I'm getting tired of doing it for them.