:: Essays

The Elephant in the Boat: What Ernest Gellner Can Tell Us About Brexit and Trump published 06/08/2016

After reading Gellner it’s clearer what the Brexiteers in the UK and Trump in the USA get right, as well as where they go wrong. They get right that some if not all of the important cogs in the advanced industrial machine have become damaged, some seriously and certainly more seriously than those holding the levers of power have let on. And they are right to identify inequality in its many guises as the defining issue. Where they’re in error is in the options they think they have. What they’ve opted for is a protectionist economics as extreme and daft as the neoliberal economics they rightly reject plus the exploitation of nativist, ethnic fissures expressed as belligerent and nasty Nationalism. Neither are sensible choices. He helps explain why they seem attractive whilst being exactly the wrong sort of medicine.

Gellner gives us a suggestive picture of our current dilemma. ‘The modern industrial machine is like an elephant in a very small boat. Either the boat is built around it so as to accommodate it, or it becomes an absurdity.’

Richard Marshall reads Ernest Gellner on Brexit and Trump.

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Agnès Varda’s Vagabond — a film that leaves no trace published 02/08/2016

Agnès Varda’s Vagabond: A film that leaves no trace

If Agnès Varda’s 1985 movie Vagabond is like any other movie, then it would be Citizen Kane. When you’ve seen both, you see that Varda almost certainly used the structure of Orson Welles’ 1941 movie as a blueprint for her own. Both start with a death, both are an investigation into a life, both end inconclusively.

By Richard Skinner.

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The Poetry of the Paragraph: Some Notes published 01/08/2016

I want to talk about paragraphs, the shapes paragraphs take in the fiction of some writers I admire, but I probably have to talk first (at least a little) about individual sentences and what goes on in them when a writer is fully awake to their creation. What has struck me is how the writers I return to again and again are uncannily attentive to sound, not just to rhythm and cadence but to the patterns of vowels and consonants. In discussions of prose fiction, we are so accustomed to thinking about plots and characters and themes and such that we often lose sight of the fact that a story proceeds one sentence at a time and that a sentence is ultimately an object, a thing, a layout of language. It took me many years to realize how a sentence in prose can afford the reader many of the pleasures we have been taught to regard as being exclusive to the precincts of poetry.

By Gary Lutz.

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Interrupt the Despots: Why Black Lives Matter to Black Lives Matter published 27/07/2016

Every Black Lives Matter protest against police violence is also a protest against the misery which is inseparable from those communities that exhibit the highest levels of violent crime between black people. Like Republicanism, like Communism, like Representative Democracy, the clue is in the name: to Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter. The movement embodies the same impetus to action as that which inspired The Interrupters, a Chicago-based group poised against the same gang violence which many of its members enacted before converting to their version of urban pacifism.

Jeremy Brunger on race relations in America.

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The Obsessions of the Lonely: On death and life and Zero K published 14/07/2016

Zero K

“Ordinary moments make the life.” This is written on page 109 of Zero K. But It’s the abnormal moments that make up DeLillo’s fiction. A death facility in a Central Asian desert, a death facility that will become a life facility in the future, once the means and technology are available — this is the setting of Zero K. DeLillo’s fiction is an assemblage of moments that could be plucked from underground newspaper columns or whispered to you by a nervous, bedraggled man on an unfamiliar street or taken from those compartments of the internet that require a login to a private network.

By Tristan Foster.

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Shirin (and Farhad (and, yes, also Khosrow)) published 11/07/2016

The story at hand is a love story, its protagonists Khosrow II, Shirin and Farhad. Though the historical detritus of the first two are scattered across the Kurdish region of Iran in the form of castles, cities and caves, it is unclear whether Farhad was also a historical figure. Khosrow first appears in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, the Book of Kings that to this day remains the national epic of Iran, but his love story is only alluded to. It was Nizami Ganjavi who expanded on Khosrow’s story with the 12th century epic poem Khosrow & Shirin, an overplotted mess of staggering lyrical beauty and dubious character motivation that is now widely considered one of the most important texts in all of the Middle East.

Agri Ismaïl on Shirin, Farhad and Khosrow.

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Wittgenstein: On the Fritz published 08/07/2016

In my late teens and early twenties, I had a good friend who liked both Wittgenstein and Housman and would have been equally disappointed by the missed connection. Had he been born ten years later, he might have even posted a Craigslist ad about it. Mostly, though, we just exchanged e-mails about people with names like Scaliger, Winckelmann, and Madvig. Then we spent a few weeks in Vienna together.

D. Byron on Wittgenstein, scholarship, legacy, and toilet habits.

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Farewell to Pnin: The End of the Comp Lit Era published 05/07/2016

The chief aim of explicitly “democratizing” literary scholarship is often just the performance of the scholar’s own democratizing desire. How much good, though, does it do to study the “other” if you only ever talk about their otherness? How much good does it do to assume that our words are a politics when it’s so glaringly evident that they are not?

Jeanne-Marie Jackson explores what literary criticism has lost with the rise of faux-populist scholarship and the recession of “theory” and its alleged elitism.

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Letters Not About Brexit published 03/07/2016

It may seem that writing, especially the writing of fiction, sometimes only indirectly on political subjects, like love, has no role to play in fighting this process of isolation, but the very nature of writing exists in the tension it produces by crossing, in the gaps between one word and the next, in the pull between the words (the writer) and the reader. Writers cross borders at every points where character, description, plot make the personal political and the political personal.

By Joanna Walsh.

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Brexit at 3:AM published 26/06/2016

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of vast public events, especially if we didn’t support them, as the majority of the UK population (‘remain’ voters + abstainers) did not. My question is one that I’ve been asked several times since Friday: what can writing do in the face of this situation?

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