Category Archives: the state of the art

Detail fixation

The first episode of the hit podcast Serial began with a bit in which host Sarah Koenig asked a few teenagers to try to remember what they had done on a random day six weeks before. None of them could do so with any degree of certainty, except for one kid who happened to know it had been the day of a state test. The immediate point of the exercise was to suggest how difficult it would have been for the teenagers caught up in the 1999 murder case at the heart of Serial to have answered police officers’ questions six weeks after the events in question. But, by extension, I also took the exercise to function as a warning signal about how much more unlikely it would be that anyone could remember what exactly they were doing on a particular day when they were teenagers 15 years ago.

I thought that opening was a promising sign that the podcast would take a sophisticated approach to memory. As highlighted in a recent NYT op-ed, many of our “common sense” beliefs about memory don’t square with what scientists know about how and what people remember. For one thing, people tend to think their recollections are true if they’re really confident they’re true. Maybe, but it’s complicated. When tested in a lab, for “true” memories, “greater confidence was associated with greater accuracy.” But “for false memories, higher confidence was associated with lower accuracy.” The problem, of course, is that, outside of a lab, there’s often no way to know which category your memory falls into, in which case your confidence isn’t a reliable guide. People also tend to insist that their recollections of highly emotional or traumatic events — where were you when Kennedy was shot, or the towers fell, etc. — are fixed in lacquer. Not necessarily: “Studies find that even our ‘flashbulb memories’ of emotionally charged events can be distorted and inaccurate, but we cling to them with the greatest of confidence.”  Continue reading Detail fixation

Historiann Challenge

History prof and blogger Historiann issued a challenge for historians to self-interview about books they’ve recently read, in response to a recent New York Times Book Review interview with Civil War historian James McPherson. I suspect my reaction to the McPherson interview itself was a little different than Historiann’s, but since I am mysteriously still waiting for Vanity Fair to select me for the Proust Questionnaire, I could not resist the invitation to interview myself.

What books are currently on your night stand?

Well, the “night stand” is metaphorical but some of the books I’m currently reading include Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent novel, The LowlandPankaj Mishra’s collective intellectual biography of Asian thinkers responding to Western imperialism, From the Ruins of Empire; and for more academic purposes, the late Michael Katz’s revised edition of his very important book The Undeserving Poor. Of course, I am also always reading a bunch of stuff here and there for research.  Continue reading Historiann Challenge

An Observation

In the past two years, Chief Justice Roberts has authored two opinions for the Supreme Court in important cases concerning congressional regulation of voting and elections. The first, Shelby County v. Holder, struck down as unconstitutional a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the statute empowering the federal government to monitor states with a history of racially discriminatory voting procedures. The second, today’s McCutcheon v. FEC, struck down as unconstitutional certain congressional limits on how much money an individual political donor can contribute in any one campaign cycle.

Here are the first two lines that Chief Justice Roberts wrote in these two opinions; see if you can guess which came from which:

The [congressional statute at issue] employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem.

There is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.

Which line would you guess had to do with the problem of wealthy campaign donors enjoying privileged access to elected representatives, and which line would you guess had to do with the problem of America’s long and violent history of limiting the franchise by race? Here’s the answer: the first sentence is from Shelby County, and the second is from McCutcheon.

Both cases turned on complex statutory schemes and constitutional doctrines, and I’m not here making any argument about the specific legal issues, holdings, or outcomes. One could agree with the holdings of neither, one, or both cases and still, I think, share my observation that, as a rhetorical matter, the difference in emphasis is striking. “Call me Ishmael,” “Lolita, light of my life,” “Happy families are all alike,” “I am an invisible man”: first sentences matter. The “right [most] basic in our democracy,” the individual “right to participate” — the heart of the Voting Rights Act, the right for which John Lewis had his skull cracked on Alabama’s Pettus Bridge — was not given pride of place in the opening line of Roberts’s Shelby County opinion. It was given pride of place in McCutcheon, a lawsuit brought by an Alabama businessman “who contributed a total of some $33,000 to 16 candidates for federal office in the 2012 election cycle,” and “wanted to give $1,776 each to 12 more” but was legally barred from doing so.

Maybe the Real Crisis in the Humanities Is All These Articles about a Crisis in the Humanities

Last week the New York Times published an article headlined, “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.” The headline is odd not only because colleges aren’t collective brains and thus can’t “worry” (individuals within them can) but also because the article’s details don’t add up to a picture of “fad[ing] interest” in the humanities at all, but, rather, of lavish investments in the humanities by those institutions that have enormous endowments, whether Princeton’s summer program for high school students or Stanford’s “manicured quads,” contrasted with collapsing public subsidy for state schools like Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, where several humanities departments are slated for closure. So, mostly what we learn from this article is that higher education in America is deeply stratified and increasingly a highly inequitable lottery system, which is certainly troubling but which we also already knew and which is not a phenomenon limited to the humanities.  Continue reading Maybe the Real Crisis in the Humanities Is All These Articles about a Crisis in the Humanities

The Paragraph Project (5)

The latest paragraph to catch my eye is from Peter Schjeldahl’s article on art fairs:

“It’s like going to a dog pound,” Robert Lehrman, a collector I know, said, raising his voice against the hullabaloo. A sixty-year-old investor, Lehrman lives in Washington, D.C., where he helps to oversee his family’s philanthropic foundation and serves on the board of the Hirshhorn Museum. His own collection includes an extraordinary trove of Joseph Cornells, but it is modest relative to those of the omnivorous acquirers who plan for private museums, like Bernard Arnault, in France, and Eli Broad, in Los Angeles. But Lehrman’s sheer joy in the pursuit of art makes him, for me, a beacon of the new collector class. Our conversation formed a traffic-impeding knot outside a display of new photographs by Andres Serrano. Such knots occurred often in the crowded aisles, as folks who recognized one another, likely from other fairs, exchanged giddy chat. “So many crying puppies!” Lehrman said of the multitudinous works for sale. “You don’t know which one will cuddle up to you.”

I like how this paragraph starts down a path, meanders off it, then finds its way back to finish the quote. Both the paragraph and Schjeldahl within it are taking a walk. Along the way we get a lot of information both about Lehrman and about what it’s like to be at the Armory Show. Having relocated to the West Coast a few years ago, I haven’t been to the Armory Show since 2007, but this sounds about right. Of course there would be “new photographs by Andres Serrano.” Puppies are an odd metaphor for art, but that’s precisely why the metaphor works so well to convey Schjeldahl’s overall point about art fairs: that they’re odd. As he says elsewhere in the piece, “they are about what money likes,” and only incidentally about what art likes; the works sold there tend to be “cute, colorful, bright, and shiny, with attitude.” By the end of the piece Schjeldahl is describing Lehrman himself in almost puppy-like terms: “I always enjoy seeing Lehrman, though I often feel like an inept third baseman, fielding the line drives of his zeal.”

Levon Helm

“And the sun’s gonna shine through the shadows when I go away“:

Growing up my brother and I listened often to our dad’s Band CDs (at some point, it being the nineties, our dad had started replicating his record collection in CD format) so I knew Levon Helm’s songs before I knew he was the one singing. In college I wrote a lot of papers with “King Harvest” on repeat. In 2009, I saw the Levon Helm Band at the Austin City Limits festival. Though it was September in central Texas, there’d been relentless rain all weekend, rain better suited to a dismal April in New Jersey. Perhaps that was someone’s way of ensuring we’d notice when, for Levon Helm’s set, the sky was suddenly dry and clear. As for life advice one could do worse than what Bob Dylan instructed The Band before their first show together: “Just keep playing, no matter how weird it gets.”

“The Help,” Housewives, and HOPE

Valerie Boyd dismisses “The Help” as “a feel-good movie for a cowardly nation,” which portrays its most openly racist character as a “cartoonish” “walking stereotype” whom viewers will find it all too easy “to distance themselves from.” By the same token, Anne Helen Petersen — while finding some redeeming qualities in the film — has criticized the novel it’s based on for presenting a fairy-tale heroine who’s unbelievably “altruistic and likable,” as though racism were “something that you just decide you’re not going to acquire, even though all of your friends, family, and townspeople espouse it,” or “something that goes away just because you love your maid.” (More critiques of the film are rounded up here.)

Not every thoughtful viewer who’s seen the film has reacted so negatively. Via Twitter, I came across this blog post from Detroit writer Desiree Cooper, who found the film more nuanced than Boyd suggests, and writes:

Continue reading “The Help,” Housewives, and HOPE

Everyone a Virtuoso

Anthony Tommasini observes that technical skill once considered extraordinary is now the norm:

A new level of technical excellence is expected of emerging pianists. I see it not just on the concert circuit but also at conservatories and colleges. In recent years, at recitals and chamber music programs at the Juilliard School and elsewhere, particularly with contemporary-music ensembles, I have repeatedly been struck by the sheer level of instrumental expertise that seems a given.

The pianist Jerome Lowenthal, a longtime faculty member at Juilliard, said in a recent telephone interview from California that a phenomenon is absolutely taking place. He observes it in his own studio.

When the 1996 movie “Shine,” about the mentally ill pianist David Helfgott, raised curiosity about Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, Mr. Lowenthal was asked by reporters whether this piece was as formidably difficult as the movie had suggested. He said that he had two answers: “One was that this piece truly is terribly hard. Two was that all my 16-year-old students were playing it.”

There are all these interesting questions about history and progress (or declension?) and the meaning of art, I think, embedded in narratives like these. Throughout the piece, Tommasini hints that he doesn’t really know what kind of story he’s telling. Classical music is everywhere in decline, classical musicians are everywhere more formidable.


Are popular music makers — and their fans — more enthralled to the past than any other group in America? That’s the argument of Simon Reynolds, as filtered through this review by Nicholas Carr. I would be curious to know what others think. My inclination is to say, No — “retromaniacal” though it may indeed be, today’s pop music is not unique along that dimension. I would agree with Carr that what we are witnessing, when we see The Beatles top the charts again 50 years later, or visit a bar where the DJ is playing vintage Motown vinyl, is not quite nostalgia: “Whereas nostalgia is rooted in a sense of the past as past,” Carr writes, “retromania stems from a sense of the past as present.” I would disagree that this curious “sense of the past as present” is peculiar to music. After all, what motivates the dominant mode of legal analysis today, originalism, but a “sense of the past as present”? What else, if not that, motivates the self-anointed Tea Party’s ready invocation of the struggles of the 1770s, or, at the other end of the spectrum, accounts of racial grievance built around “anachronistic allusion“?  Continue reading Retromania