Lunch with Žižek

What have we here? It seems that the FT.com crew, represented by John Thornhill, have seen fit to dine with our favourite Slovene. The full text is to be found here. I'm not sure what the people at the International Journal of Žižek Studies make of it all.

For anyone interested in what they damage they inflicted with €72.80, here's the order they placed at Pri Vitezu, Breg 18-20, Ljubljana:

Mushroom soup x 2 €12
Medallions of veal €18
Lamb with thyme €18
Green salad x 2 €8
Fruit salad x 2 €14
Sparkling water €2.80

€6 for mushroom soup and €7 for fruit salad seems a tad unreasonable, especially in Ljubljana (Žižek had the veal, by the way).

For those who are less interested in culinary fare, click directly on the link (although it may available only to subscribers). There's not much that is new; personal highlights include reading Titanic as both reinforcing the social order and restoring Rose's identity. The Jack Dawson character (played by DiCaprio) "literally draws her picture".

And then, after his [Jack's] job is done, he can f*** off and disappear. He is – what I would call in theory – a pure vanishing mediator. It is not a love story. It is vampiric, egotistic exploitation

And here is Žižek's Hegel moment, although quite what kind of gun Thornhill is holding is not disclosed.

If you asked me at gunpoint what I really like, I would say to read German idealism, Hegel. What I like most, what I love the best, is this objectivity of belief

Oh, yeah, and he calls Adam Kirsch "stupid" (see here).

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homophily

I learned of a new concept today; I'm fairly concerned.

Here is Oliver Burkeman:

The faintly depressing human tendency to seek out and spend time with those most similar to us is known in social science as "homophily", and it shapes our views, and our lives, in ways we're barely aware of.

He goes on

The unspoken assumption here is that you know what you like - that satisfying your existing preferences, and maybe expanding them a little around the edges, is the path to fulfilment. But if happiness research has taught us anything, it's that we're terrible at predicting what will bring us pleasure. Might we end up happier by exposing ourselves more often to serendipity, or even, specifically, to the people and things we don't think we'd like?

Thank you for the kind advice, sir, but "no", I think not. I'd rather not.

I can only tell you that I wish I could choose otherness. But this choice is dependent upon an already pre-existing and stable foundation. Likeness of mind, shared values, and the pursuit of common goals are life-enhancing things. It's a predicament that ostracised selves can only long for, an unattainable luxury. Perhaps University has done too much good.

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The Warwick Prize for Writing (part 2)

Further to our recent post, the winner of the inaugural Warwick Prize for Writing was announced on Monday.

It is instructive to learn of the machinations that led to the final decision. Maureen Freely, one of the judging panel, wrote on "The complex problems of judging the Warwick prize" (The Guardian). There is one passage that bears highlighting, and it is presented as one answer to the question "What is complexity?", and more specifically what does complexity mean in the context of the Warwick Prize?

If we accept that writing makes you think, and that the formation of knowledge depends partly on the complex and often playful process of writing, then what role does the process of writing perform on that very edge of 'not knowing' and 'knowing': a place of creativity, energy and adventure

Here's the freedom - from sponsorship, external pressures - that such a brief creates:

If we had been confined to the usual categories, we would have been measuring the books up to some definition of a form. [...] But what a refreshing change it made to read 20 books for their ideas, and to track the ways in which the very act of writing changed them.

All this takes reflexivity and the inter-action in-between writing into another plane; in some sense, it requires that the judging panel and its criteria reside inside, or within, the writing process itself. I wonder how this will be re-defined for the 2011 Warwick Prize for Writing, the theme of which will be Colour.

The winner is Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine. While I have reservations about the book's general thesis, it is something that successfully motored the continued working of whatever remaining grey cells left in me, an aspect noted by the judging panel:

It has started many debates, and will start many more

Postscript:

See this profile of Klein in The New Yorker.

While we're on the subject of prizes, money and prize money, spare a thought for Colin Robinson, who was recently despatched from his position as editor at "a large publisher in New York".

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use it to be better

I irregularly visit PostSecret - purely on non-voyeuristic pretexts, of course. I have my favourites, which means to say I share their judgements, condemnations, world-views. One such is this:

I judge people by which section they are in in a bookstore










I judge people by which section they are in in a bookstore

Shallow? Me? Absolutely.

Here's another that I remember:

I used to treat my condition as an excuse; now I use it to try harder.

It's a lovely bit of edifying, self-transformational enlightenment, and it functions perfectly well regardless of the condition that you care to attach yourself to (bulimia, ADHD, alcoholism, etc.,). What if this was conceived, improbable as it sounds, by someone after watching an Oprah re-run on the Hallmark channel, or by someone driving home from the strip-club.

Does its stained origins make any more or less meaningful? Is it enhanced or ruined?

It takes too much to decide, so just use it to be better.

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The evil of banality

One day, it could have been last week, last month, last year, it no longer matters, Harry Eyres woke, dragged himself out of bed, completed his morning ritual, maybe three of the many "S"s that face working adults most mornings, coffeed his bloodstream and sat to stare at the screen.

Lost.

Blank.

Space.

A white canvas unadorned by the imprint residues of tapped keys.

He searched for inspiration; he reflected. What did I write for last week's column?

He shared the back page of The Financial Times' weekend edition: "Last Word" it blazed.

His colleague's image occupied prime real estate space on the upper right corner of the page. Tyler Brûlé. That Idiot.

It would be typical of Tyler Brûlé - the cheek of the accents! the unmerited, nouveau riche "û" and the undeserving "é" - for Brûlé to write about the import of a Club Sandwich, or irrelevancies, about anything he particularly knew nothing about.

Fool.

The fingers of his left hand shifted. The keys moved, as if orchestrated by an invisible hand.

The writing was not painful today. He wrote from the heart; he was about to enjoy the irony.

Harry saved the file in the "Current FT Assignments" folder, open his email application; a short cover note, several clicks to attach the file, and he signed off with his customary "/h".

His work was done, and it would appear, maybe the next week, next month, in the usual place. It would engage with "the evil of banality". Next to Tyler Brûlé.

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He says he is “officially horrified”

... and who can blame him? An oldish post has Adam Kotsko "officially horrified" over at An und für sich.

The reason? The very existence of the Journal of Management, Spirituality, & Religion. Don't let the innocuous looking www.jmsr.com lull you into any sense of anything; indeed, my initial judgement was that the enjoining of the terms proves the death of all four.

The problem (insofar as it is a problem), I think, is that journals such as this tap into an undercurrent that exists on a research level (for example). There is also the unintended consequence: what one learns does not lead inevitably to one's career. And there is the temptation to deal with the exotic, hence the attempt at speculative philosophy in Newcastle University Business School.

It is also worthwhile to mention the work - such as it is - of Robert H. Nelson (Economics as Religion and the earlier Reaching for Heaven on Earth: the theological meaning of economics). On the one hand, these do not advance theoretically beyond (the young) Hegel, Weber, or Zizek's Weber (‘Protestantism becomes superfluous, it can vanish as a mediator, the moment the very social reality is structured as a “Protestant universe”’, For they know not what they do, Verso, London, p 184), but these "advance" the debate toward the utility of certain claims, which in turn will eventually gloss over the meaning of management as control.

Regardless, though, what's funny is this comment from the original thread:

I think I would subscribe if there was a fourth term that would somehow destabilize the equation with the promise of possible awesome consequences: say, Journal of Management, Spirituality, Religion and Deliciousness….

Much better than my own attempt: "Interdisciplinary Journal of Management, Spirituality, Religion & Street Art"

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The Warwick Prize for Writing

It seems my alma mater has found a new source of funds.

The Warwick Prize for Writing, launched by the University of Warwick

is an international cross-disciplinary award which will be given biennially for an excellent and substantial piece of writing in the English language, in any genre or form, on a theme that will change with every award.

Further,

The new Prize is part of the University's Vision 2015 plan to enhance the University's already significant international links and position it as an intellectual gateway to the UK and beyond.

The Prize brilliantly underlines the University of Warwick's position at the forefront of academic excellence, its thematic approach to cross-disciplinary learning and reputation for creative excellence.

(Read more about the Warwick Prize for Writing here.)

This year's short-listed books include Lisa Appignanesi's Mad, Bad and Sad and Alex Ross's The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. For both the short-list and long-list, see here.  The winner will be announced next week, on the 24th of February.

Apart from the unique way in which nominations and the long-list are compiled, I must say that the Prize is exactly as described: a prize for writing, never mind the £50,000.

For the aspiring writers out there / in here, the next Prize "will be awarded in 2011 and the theme will be announced at the award ceremony in February 2009".



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an inconvenient truth and the meaning of “authorship”

The entire discussion - deconstruction, death of the author, nothing but the text etc., - may have gently floated beyond me, but here's somethingelse altogether.

This morning's Financial Times carries an article by two prominent public figures, Ban Ki-Moon and Al Gore. In case you need reminding, one is the United Nations Secretary-General, while the other is a former Vice-President of the United States of America and author of An Inconvenient Truth.

The article itself, Green growth is essential to any stimulus, promotes various initiatives which may well turn out to be of significance in the Grand Scheme of Things.  What caught my attention, however, is the concluding paragraph:

For millions of people from Detroit to Delhi these are the worst of times. Families have lost jobs, homes, healthcare and even the prospect of their next meal. With so much at stake, governments must be strategic in their choices. We must not let the urgent undermine the essential. Investing in the green economy is not an optional expense. It is a smart investment for a more equitable, prosperous future.

This is such a spun-up, rousing conclusion to an article as you would see in a Hollywood courtroom drama.

Are we so complacent and so trusting that we don't ask the basic question? Call me cynical, call me tom, heck, call me cynical tom, but there is no way on this Green Earth that Ban Ki-Moon and Al Gore actually wrote the words that make up that paragraph. Who writes Al Gore's "Op-Ed" pieces?

We must not let the urgent undermine the essential

Looks to me they took a leaf out of Covey.

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Gillian Rose dot org

A new site has been launched in pursuit of the thought of the late Gillian Rose (www.gillianrose.org).

The site is still in its infancy, and is currently soliciting inputs and volunteers for further development. Do leave a message there and / or contact the site administrator if you wish to participate.

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He can read!

This is somewhat dated by blog standards, such as they are, but it struck me as an opportunity not to be missed.

Karl Rove, writing in the The Wall Street Journal, reminisces about his friendly "contest" with the then-incumbent President of the United States of America. For the final three years of the Dubyah administration, from 2006 to 2008, Messrs. Rove and Bush, Jr. participated in a duel to see who could read more books.

The use of the terms "read" and Dubyah in the same sentence is surprising; what is shocking is that Dubyah managed to read - again, I use that term loosely - 95 books during their first 12 month window. Broken down, the books fall into the following categories:

  • Fiction: 37 titles, including Michael Crichton's Next and Vince Flynn's Executive Power.
  • Non-fiction: 58 titles, of which 
      • History & Biography: 44 titles
      • Sports: 6 titles
      • Current Events ("mostly on the Middle East"): 8 titles

Or, in percentage terms: 38.9% (fiction), 46% (history and biography), less than 8% on issues related to the Middle East. Included in the list of 37 fiction titles are eight "Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald" (more than works on the Middle East, count 'em!). Apparently, the "Travis McGee Series" is famous for it "having a colour in the title" (no kidding).

First, let's look at the numbers, the criterion the gentlemen utilised. Ninety-five books over 52 weeks entails reading close to 2 books a week, or a book every 3 and a bit days. That is prolific page turning, especially by someone moonlighting as "Leader of the Free World". Perhaps speed-reading was something the former President developed while at Yale; perhaps the material was no challenge to cerebral capacities. But let's leave aside the speculation and ask: What does it mean to participate in a reading contest? Is it meaningful to race through books? Is that what a book is for, to be numbered and consumed - "read"? - as part of an annual book target? I am sure Rove has never heard of  Paolo Freire, who wrote in The Act of Study the following:

The act of study should not be measured by the number of pages read in one night or the quantity of books read in a semester.

Numbers and words - let alone raw data and comprehension - are no clear equals, and the premise is founded upon incomparables which betray a basic incomprehension. Some things are just unimaginable. It is simply indecent to race in reading.

[...] In a critical vision, things happen differently. [...] To study is not to consume ideas, but to create and re-create them. (source)

Predictably, "the competition soon spun out of control" and Mission: Quantify reached its nadir with the following confession.

We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book's pages -- its "Total Lateral Area"

I'm sure no-one has yet described this practice as infantile, though it merits such judgement. Think of it: the President of a once proud nation and the President's Senior Advisor measuring ... total ... lateral ... area. It reminds me of when Thomas the Tank Engine raced against James to the wharf. The chorus is marvellous:

Thomas and James are racing, racing to the Wharf. Everyone likes to be the first not second, third or fourth! Pistons pumping wildly, boilers fit to burst. There’s something really special for the engine who comes first.

Rove does not mention why their respective tallies tailed off from 2006 (Dubyah's 95 and 110 for Rove) to 51 and 76 (2007), before ending on a complacent 40 and 64 (2008) respectively; nor does he volunteer the composition of succeeding reading years, whether there was a development of themes or return to first principles, or even whether the fictional works were primarily comics or graphic novels. It bears considering that there is no mention of Finance or Economics related titles, nor titles that cover jurisprudence or religion.

Indeed, it appears that Dubya's history background remains as his guiding Light. As Richard Cohen observed,

The list Rove provides is long, but it is narrow. [...] But [Bush's] books reflect a man who is seeking to learn what he already knows (source: The Washington Post)

Cohen is brutal in his damming indictment.

But the books themselves reveal - actually, confirm - something about Bush that maybe Rove did not intend.  They are not the reading of a widely read man, but instead the books of a man who seeks - and sees - vindication in every page

While correct, it is neither brutal nor damming enough. Let's be clear on one thing: the tomes of history that Bush Jr. revisits and seeks justification from is best described as popular history, hence the appearance of Rick Atkinson on the list, and David King. Hardly the most rigourous. Indeed, viewed from this perspective, the most apposite ridiculing of Dubyah stems from within the very mirror that he has chosen.

Rove concludes that

Mr. Bush loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.

These words ring hollow. This is Alan Brinkley reflecting on Jacob Weisberg's The Bush Tragedy:

The Bush whom Weisberg skillfully and largely convincingly portrays is a man who has rarely reflected, who has almost never looked back, and who has constructed a self-image of strength, courage and boldness that has little basis in the reality of his life. He is driven less by bold vision than by a desire to get elected (and settle scores), less by real strength than by unfocused ambition, and less by courage than by an almost passive acquiescence in disastrous plans that the people he empowered pursued in his name. (source: The New York Times)

If, as if often observed, the American Presidency is prone to rapid historical revision, Rove's hasty Yuletide interjection is but the first salvo in the re-casting of the Dubyah years as - hold on - the Renaissance Years, the Golden Age of American Empire where there is only Right and Wrong, where Right is always backed by Absolute Might, where Might only favours Right.

God save America; it needs saving.

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