The Sunday Reading

My favorite article in today’s New York Times is titled “The Rise of the Machines” by Richard Dooling.  I am particularly happy about the fact that we are now long enough into the financial crisis that people are beginning to bring up and dust off the real issues at hand, instead of bandying about with the common parlance of the 24-hour news media.  

Dooling brings up the possibility that the Credit Default Swaps created by impossibly complex computer algorithms are a symptom of Humanity’s long march towards utter dependence upon machines.  

Man is a fire-stealing animal, and we can’t help building machines and machine intelligences, even if, from time to time, we use them not only to outsmart ourselves but to bring us right up to the doorstep of Doom.


The Pitchfork 500: Just about as Boring as the Indy 500.




Except there are no cars and loud noises to keep ones’ critical reasoning from getting in the way.  Here we have the erstwhile attempts of a few unshaven hipsters at a real piece of literature; something they can say will last a little longer than the typical blog post.  That is to say, this book will be purchased, for money, by people who are interested in hearing what Pitchfork deems “the Greatest songs from Punk to the Present.”

And, what do they have to say?  I don’t have my review copy (Their PR lady doesn’t seem to want to get back to me), so I’ll just mercilessly pick apart their blog post about it.  In their words, The Pitchfork 500 is

an alternate history of the past three decades of popular music– one that extends beyond the typical Baby Boomer-approved canon of the Clash, Prince, Public Enemy, Nirvana, Radiohead, and Outkast.

Fair enough; I was sick of The Clash anyway.  Who needs ’em?  Who will our new arbiters of high culture usher in to the now-vacant throne over which Western culture will be surveyed with a cautious and pragmatic eye?  

From art-rock and proto-punk godfathers such as Brian Eno, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie to today’s leading lights such as the Arcade Fire, the White Stripes, and Kanye West…Interspersed throughout are sidebars on the most vital subgenres from electro to grime to riot grrrl, along with pieces like “Career Killers: The Songs That Ended It All” and “Runaway Trainwrecks: The Post-Grunge Nadir.”

Well, let me just get this out of the way:  Don’t use my fucking word.  I refuse to believe that ‘Nadir’ will be bastardized like so many other words and beaten into an utterly uninteresting pulp by the blog-o-sphere.  Let alone be used in the same volume that claims Kanye West is the apotheosis of Western culture, much less a ‘leading light’.  Bah, humbug!


The current reads

  • From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
  • Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham
  • The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
  • Parmenides by Plato
  • Theogony by Hesiod
  • Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Thoughtful read for today:

In the course of my education I’ve found that I spend most of my time reading the work of dead or aging authors; I think that the English major may be the only opportunity to read modern works, but this is probably the chief reason for not pursuing an English major in the first place.

In any case, in an effort to jump-start my own writing, I’m posting a speech titled “Is Democracy for Export?” by Jacques Barzun, given at the Carnegie Society dinner in 1981 or thereabouts.  Works that are hundreds of years old often carry more pertinence today than they did in their contemporary era (I’ve heard this is the case with Chateaubriand and others).  This speech is brilliant in that it is couched in the terminology of the Cold War yet succeeds in transcending the issues of the time to provide some insightful words about American Democracy’s place in the world.

Is Democracy for Export – PDF

Something doesn’t add up.

I’ve just finished reading the latest installment the New York Times Reckoning series; This look at the current financial crisis has given rise to some queer intuitions on my part when held up against another brilliant article in The Chronicle about how the best historical example of the current crisis is not 1929, but rather 1873.

The latter article suggests a much more probable cause for the current mania; namely that a certain combination of economic forces and fear have given us our current situation.  The question in this situation is when the bottom of both fear and the rapid revaluation of our economy will occur.  The second question is who stands to profit most when this time comes.  The silly thing about the Times article just linked is that it question-begs.  It tries to inculcate the reader into thinking that things have bottomed out, and will only get better soon (read: “Buy stock, for gods sake!  We need your cash!”)

What then, to make of the panic of 1873?  The author of the article in the Chronicle claims that the crisis of 1873 preceded a westward-shift of power; he draws the hazy conclusion that power will continue to shift west, to China: this is an impossibility.  Enough has been made of China’s political and social problems, but their economy is predicated on exports to such an extent that a slowdown in the West will surely have negative repercussions in Beijing.

Where does this leave us?  I’m inclined to say that we are headed towards a period of general decline, probably no longer than the Great Depression itself was.  Commodity prices are already plummeting, leaving the petro-fascists out in the cold, along with most other ‘developing’ (3rd-world) countries that had depended on high commodity prices for economic growth.  In this sense, Iraq will probably jump to the fore once again, because it is of little doubt that the current spate of stability has little to do with the increased presence of US troops but $100/barrel oil prices.

Where, are we left?  It’s a question I’ve been having some trouble answering.  There exists some third variable and presence beyond investor fear and a burst housing bubble.  This is no correction.  It’s a massive redaction.

Interesting times, to be sure.

The mid-week read

Gerald Early has written an eloquent and thought-provoking piece in the Chronicle about Barack Obama’s election hopes in the context of American racial history.  He presents the first coherent argument about the end of racism that does not give any thanks to White culture while also unceremoniously dumping the age-old and endlessly-harped-upon Black position as-victim.  I think his most interesting thought is

Many of us black professionals, members of the black elite, keep the embers of our victimization burning for opportunistic reasons: to lev-erage white patronage, to maintain our own sense of identity and tradition. In some respects, this narrative has something of the power in its endurance that original sin does for Christians. In fact, our narrative of victimization is America’s original sin, or what we want to serve as the country’s original sin, which may be why we refuse to give it up.

It’s a piece well worth reading if you are interested in the cultural and political themes that this election draws upon but only seem to get passing reference in the news media.

This just about sums up the American recession mentality:

In this NYT Article on the decline in Consumer spending habits:

“My view is that when consumers get concerned about their nest egg, or their country, they need entertainment,” said Bo Andersen, president and chief executive of the Entertainment Merchants Association, which represents distributors and retailers of home entertainment products.