How you know your clothes collection is a bit aged: your “low-rise” pants—helpfully marked as such on the back label, thanks, Gap!—go to just underneath your navel. Oh, 90s, you had no idea.

Philip Lopate, To Show and To Tell: Essays on the art of the personal essay. Lopate is a fan of both showing and telling, and defends the essay as a meandering exploration of a person’s thoughts, following them down whatever paths they go.

Mara Einstein, Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing, and the Covert World of the Digital Sell: Marketers are behind a lot of the content you see online, and many consumers don’t know it. In general, I’m less concerned by this than Einstein is, unless there are false factual claims being made—the creation of cool is a phenomenon of capitalism, and while I believe in sponsorship disclosure I’m not sure that Kim Kardashian’s Instagram, if it has disclosures, is meaningfully different from TV ads. Privacy is a real concern too, but solutions remain fuzzy—the “right to be forgotten” doesn’t really deal with the issue of advertisers following you around the internet to market to you in super-specialized ways. Einstein also links changes in media funding and consumption to the decline of real news; this concern is certainly valid, but it’s not clear how anyone can deal with it, other than (1) paying for news and (2) donating to nonprofits like ProPublica that do the kind of journalism that Buzzfeed won’t.

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism: Welp, this seemed topical. Lots of people have recently discussed Arendt’s explanation of why totalitarians lie and change positions so readily—because the point isn’t truth, the point is to destroy truth and law so that only chance separates the oppressed from the oppressors. (Orwell’s 1984 is quite clearly the companion volume to this work.) The book itself is a bit frustrating; it’s neither history nor political science as we’d know it today, relying quite heavily on assertions of fact that I was not always willing to take on faith, especially in the extended early discussions of anti-Semitism. And her discussion of totalitarianism v. fascism relies on the reader to accrete and infer differences rather than stopping to explain what she thinks the differences are. (Mainly, I think, that fascism recognizes the persistence of private life and individuality, asserting only complete dominance over political life, while totalitarianism attempts to destroy private identity in total.) Still, Arendt’s take on anti-Semitism provoked some thoughts about why anti-Semitism is still so important to current hate movements; she argues that, historically, Jews were given protected (and restricted) status by the state, and thus Jews are associated with the state and with the rule of law in a way other groups are not. Totalitarians, who want to tear down the state because it stands in opposition to sudden and complete shifts of who’s targeted for elimination, thus readily target Jews. Arendt’s discussion of imperialism as a predecessor for totalitarianism is also quite thought-provoking: the condition of governing people who are considered unfit for self-government, she suggests, leads the governors to invent sudden shifts of policy to prove that the governance is justified/is the kind of thing the governed couldn’t do for themselves/that the governed’s submission to indignities itself proves that they’re unfit to rule themselves. At least, that’s what I got out of it.

Orly Lobel, Talent Wants to Be Free: Why We Should Learn to Love Leaks, Raids, and Free Riding: The theory and empirical evidence indicating that restrictions on labor mobility in the form of noncompete agreements, expansive trade secret law, antipoaching rules, and trailing invention agreements (in which a company owns everything an employee invents even after she leaves) are all overall harmful to innovation and growth, and even affect the grasping company negatively as well. Essentially, people learn more and create more when they move around in their careers, and they bring knowledge and connections with them that benefit both the destination firm and, often enough, the source firm. Higher producers will move, if they can, to states that allow more labor mobility—also known as adverse selection. So states would be better off to have legal regimes more like California, which only allows very limited noncompetes and has historically restricted the definition of trade secrets.

Susan Dunn, 1940: History repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce—well, not quite. We might have managed both tragedy and farce this time. In 1940, the presidential election was between a Democratic candidate asking for Americans to vote for something unprecedented and a Republican who had, until a few years back, been a Democrat; a businessman who had never held elected office; who was strongly disliked among the Republican heirarchy and whose claim to popularity was his populism, but who was promoted heavily by New York media barons. FDR was asking for a third term and Wendell Wilkie was an intellectual and an internationalist, not a isolationist/extortionist and a man incapable of holding a complete thought in his head, so the parallels aren’t exact. Also, Wilkie lost. Reading this book makes our current situation feel even more tragic and out of whack.

Marjorie Garber, The Muses on Their Lunch Hour: A collection of Garber’s essays on the humanities and Shakespeare in particular. The distinctive contribution of literary scholarship, she argues, is a way of asking questions “about the way something means, rather than what it means, or even why.” This requires “close and passionate attention to the rich allusiveness, deep ambivalence, and powerful slipperiness that is language in action.” On change over time, she argues that older authors read a “canon,” the works of accomplished predecessors, while more recent ones read “episodically and in a non-linear or non-historicized fashion, in part because there’s so much to read and ‘sampling’ it has no compelling direction.” Twentieth century authors read their peers, not their predecessors. Her discussion of the anxiety of influence, which might also be the anxiety of impotence, is too complex to summarize, but thought-provoking, bringing in big data and the lack of anxiety many authors have about the past.

Garber also discusses theater and postmodern theory as linked in their resistance to the idea of a full, complete character, rather than a fragment of identity, and then connects that to “projective identification” in current political thinking and the paranoid style. This discussion leads her, in her allusive way, to the current valorization of STEM fields over the humanities, as colleges’ ways of projecting that which is abject onto a small part of what is in fact the educational project as a whole. The humanities, “already prone to self-doubt and self devaluation (they are ‘useless,’ they are ‘old,’ they are ‘light,’ they are speculative rather than empirical, they take too long to produce degrees, they are hermetic rather than accessible), become readily complicit in the fantasy of the university that none of these attributes attach to it.”

She ends with discussing “Shakespeare” as the representative of these attitudes towards the humanities. Shakespeare is now understood as themes and plots, not language; the plays are “owned” by the humanities in general, not English departments. Garber urges a variant of “strategic essentialism” for the humanities, what she calls “strategic generalization”—affirmatively using the power of the best broad-based lecture courses (like hers, of which I am a veteran) to defend the value of the humanities. The Shakespeare lecture has, she contends, for a century been a central, memorable place for lectures and thus it is a site from which we can defend the pedagogical project of the humanities at large. (Garber recognizes that her history is a history of Harvard Shakespeare lectures, not community college or other lectures, but she sees it as a model to aspire to.) Some best practices of the past, she argues, should be understood as current best practices as well: “asking students to read the text twice through before, or perhaps instead of, reading critical essays; the memorization and recitation of passages; vivid classroom performance (by the instructor and not just the students); and indeed philology, if by that we might mean, today, among other things, an acquaintance with word history and derivation through the OED.” Grabbing onto the podium is literally a way to retake prominence in the coversation about good education. Today’s students “are often engaged by performance, more so sometimes than they are willing to admit. When performance is combined with personal commitment, an intimate knowledge of the work under discussion, and a manifest respect for intellectual exchange, the effects can be exhilarating. Add Shakespeare to the mix, and the odds for success increase, as it were, dramatically.”
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