Category Culture Making

Good art in dark times

From a bracing, decade-old conversation between David Foster Wallace and Larry McCaffery an English professor at San Diego State “perhaps best known for his role in helping to establish science fiction as a major literary genre.”

If what’s always distinguished bad writing—flat characters, a narrative world that’s cliched and not recognizably human, etc.—is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything. Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it.

from “A Conversation with David Foster Wallace,” interview by Larry McCaffery, Dalkey Archive Press, 1991 :: via more than 95 theses

Originally published at

Winter Landscape, by Keisai Eisen

Here’s something I didn’t know: this lovely print belongs to a genre of artwork called ukiyo-e, whose name translates literally as “pictures of the floating world.” They celebrated the the evanescent impermance of natural scenes and moments, but also of the heightened worlds of entertainment (kabuki, geisha). Because they could be mass-produced, they introduced ownable artwork to new classes of Japanese people.


Winter Landscape,” polychrome woodblock print by Keisai Eisen (1790–1848), from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Originally published at

We don’t believe because we don’t recall

This is why the reminder that there’s room and honor for the best of human cultural artifacts in the Christian conception of heaven gives me such comfort. One can wonder whether, as our significant human interactions are ever more mediated through data on devices, whether we’ll experience fewer Proustian glove-moments in the future or whether (as I suspect) we’ll simply be surprised at how a jpeg makes us weep.

Voluntary memory, the memory of the intellect and the eyes, [gives] us only imprecise facsimiles of the past which no more resemble it than pictures by bad painters resemble the spring…. So we don’t believe that life is beautiful because we don’t recall it, but if we get a whiff of a long-forgotten smell we are suddenly intoxicated, and similarly we think we no longer love the dead, because we don’t remember them, but if by chance we come across an old glove we burst into tears.

Originally published at

Metaphor as metastasis

An op-ed worth reading, if only for the opening epigraph (and, come to think of it, the essential closing verb in the quotation below).

What if, instead of that playful word bubble, we tried something a bit more accurately descriptive when growth at any cost became the goal. Say, “tumor”: “the dot-com tumor,” “the subprime tumor,” “the derivatives tumor.”

Would anyone seriously gainsay the highest possible vigilance over the proper functioning of their own body or doubt the need for strong regulation? Who, facing the prospect of a tumorous outbreak or living with a body demonstrably prone to such outbreaks, would entrust that body to a band of physicians blithely committed to laissez faire regarding these fatal bubbles of flesh?

Words matter. Metaphors frame thought. Pay them heed and tend them well.

from “The trouble with bubbles,” by Walter Murch and Lawrence Weschler, Los Angeles Times, 23 May 2010

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Patent US690236

An old forgotten bit of culture-making, which may seem hilariously small now, but on the scale of an early twentieth century milking shed, not insignificant. “The object of my invention is the production of a cow-tail holder which is very simple in construction and operation and cheap in its production and which will not annoy the cow or interfere with the milking operation and which can be readily attached and detached.”


from “Patent US690236 – COW-TAIL HOLDER,” awarded to C. W. Colwell of Delhi, New York, United States Patent Office, 31 December 1901 :: via Tweets of Old

Originally published at

The quietest place in the lower forty-eight

Quiet, at least, when it comes to manmade noise. I like the quote from a neuroscientist earlier in the article: “Hearing is designed to get information from much farther away than your eyes can reach … Hearing is not something that evolved so you can talk to me. It evolved so you can learn about your world.” It tends to be best done, then, at a distance.

“Olympic National Park is the listener’s Yosemite,” Hempton said of his decision to locate his One Square Inch within the park’s forested realm. “In a single day, you can listen to an alpine environment, a wilderness beach, and a temperate rain forest. And it has the longest noise-free interval of any national park I’ve been to, and I’ve been to them all.”

Part of Olympic’s quiet stems from its location: It sits on a peninsula in a secluded corner of the country. The park is not crossed by highways, navigable rivers, or utility rights of way; and it lies west of the major cross-country plane routes. Only three commercial-airline paths encroach upon its borders. Alaska Airlines is the most active, flying overhead 37 times each day in summer, but it tries to avoid the park during routine maintenance and training flights—a concession the carrier made to Hempton after he wrote asking it to change its flight patterns.

from “The Sound of Silence,” by Virginia Morell, Conde Nast Traveler, January 2012 :: via The Browser

Originally published at

Paving the home

Cement floors and the horizons of the possible.

Starting in 2000, a program in Mexico’s Coahuila state called “Piso Firme” (Firm Floor) offered up to $150 per home in mixed concrete, delivered directly to families who used it to cover their dirt floors. Scholar Paul Gertler evaluated the impact: Kids in houses that moved from all-dirt to all-concrete floors saw parasitic infestation rates drop 78 percent; the number of children who had diarrhea in any given month dropped by half; anemia fell more than four-fifths; and scores on cognitive tests went up by more than a third. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, mothers in newly cemented houses reported less depression and greater life satisfaction.) By 2005, Piso Firme had spread to other states, and 300,000 households—about 10 percent of dirt-floor houses in Mexico—had taken part in the program.

It helps if the street outside the house gets paved, too—not so much for health reasons as for economic ones. Economists Marco Gonzalez-Navarro and Climent Quintana-Domeque found in a 2010 study that paving the street in the town of Acayucan, Mexico, added more than 50 percent to land values and caused a 31 percent rise in rental values. It also considerably increased households’ access to credit. As a result, households on paved streets were 40 percent more likely to have cars.

From “Paving Paradise”, by Charles Kenny, Foreign Policy, Jan/Feb 2012 :: via Koranteng

Originally published at

Knowing the end of the story

Turns out spoilers may not spoil much after all, at least with short stories. I suspect this might even be true of sporting events—I will often enjoy a game more, and certainly in a more relaxed manner, if I already know how it’ll turn out. In any case, I’ve found that the best stories—and the best games—are often those where you can be told ahead how it’s going to work out, but the unfolding of plot or play becomes so engrossing that the finish still comes as a (now thrillingly ironic) surprise.

[UC San Diego psychologists Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt] ran three experiments with a total of 12 short stories. Three types of stories were studied: ironic-twist, mystery and literary. Each story — classics by the likes of John Updike, Roald Dahl, Anton Chekhov, Agatha Christie and Raymond Carver — was presented as-is (without a spoiler), with a prefatory spoiler paragraph or with that same paragraph incorporated into the story as though it were a part of it. Each version of each story was read by at least 30 subjects. Data from subjects who had read the stories previously were excluded.

Subjects significantly preferred the spoiled versions of ironic-twist stories, where, for example, it was revealed before reading that a condemned man’s daring escape is all a fantasy before the noose snaps tight around his neck.

The same held true for mysteries. Knowing ahead of time that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is, in fact, the perpetrator not only didn’t hurt enjoyment of the story but actually improved it.

Subjects liked the literary, evocative stories least overall, but still preferred the spoiled versions over the unspoiled ones.

from “Spoiler alert: Stories are not spoiled by ‘spoilers’,” ScienceDaily, 10 August 2011

Originally published at

We can has cheeseburger!

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted new items over at Culture Making, but this week I’ve found myself feeling it may be time again. Besides, “what does a cheeseburger say about the world” is just the sort of question Andy Crouch and I started that blog to investigate (or at least to catalog others’ investigations thereupon).

Further reflection revealed that it’s quite impractical—nearly impossible—to make a cheeseburger from scratch. Tomatoes are in season in the late summer. Lettuce is in season in spring and fall. Large mammals are slaughtered in early winter. The process of making such a burger would take nearly a year, and would inherently involve omitting some core cheeseburger ingredients. It would be wildly expensive—requiring a trio of cows—and demand many acres of land. There’s just no sense in it.

A cheeseburger cannot exist outside of a highly developed, post-agrarian society. It requires a complex interaction between a handful of vendors—in all likelihood, a couple of dozen—and the ability to ship ingredients vast distances while keeping them fresh. The cheeseburger couldn’t have existed until nearly a century ago as, indeed, it did not.

from “On the impracticality of a cheeseburger,” by Waldo Jaquith, 3 December 2011 :: via

Originally published at

Secular praise songs from Western Kenya

This is from a really wonderful blog (my tax dollars at work!) that posts decades-old African pop music, accompanied by lengthy history and commentary. Here’s the brief background: “The Kawere Boys were formed by Cheplin Ngode Kotula in Kericho, Kenya in 1974, and over the next four years became one of the more popular Benga groups in Luo land. … These recordings were not only popular throughout Luo land, but also sold well in Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroun, and West Africa.” It’s fascinating and heartening to learn these tales of cultural spread that bypass the usual centers of power (Europe, the U.S., heck, even Nairobi). Also—fascinating relationship between artist and patron: the patron doesn’t just make the song possible, he is the song’s subject.


The Kawere Boys ‘Muma Ben’ (1974) mp3

Most of the songs in the Kawere repertoire seem to be praise songs for patrons who had invited the group to perform. These songs can be thought of as pre-internet age social networking. The singer usually starts by introducing himself, goes on to introduce the object of his praise, as well as the patron’s relatives, friends, and neighbors, before explaining the nature of his relationship to the patron in question. For example, in ‘Muma Ben’, the song starts with an introduction of ‘Muma Ben from Saye Konyango’, then introduces Muma Ben’s family, and ends with praise for the hospitality the singer received when he was invited to Muma Ben’s house. If you were to map out all of the relationships outlined in the Kawere Boys singles in our collection, and if you had a deep understanding of Luo culture, you could get a good idea of the social networks the Kawere Boys relied upon for their livelihood.

from “The Kawere Boys,” by Matthew LaVoie, Voice of America African Music Treasures Blog, 12 November 2008 :: first posted here 12 November 2008

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