Month: December 2009

Child Labor

Just caught this from a round-up of conservatives saying the country will end with each passing reform in the US.

“[T]he child will become a very dominant factor in the household and might refuse perhaps to do chores before six a.m. or after seven p.m. or to perform any labor.”

—Senator Weldon Heyburn (R-ID), in 1908, on why child labor should remain unregulated

That explains it! How I miss the days of Little One doing his 5am chores. And then the National Labor Relations Board stepped in. Now I can’t even get him to stuff bomb munitions before 8am.

Google Auto-Complete

Certainly one of the …what’s the right word? scarier? enlightening? …features of modern technology is Google autocomplete. From today’s NY Times:

WHY is the sky blue? Why do cats purr? And why did you get married? If you’re engaging in some year-end reflection, you’re not alone. These are among the mysteries people want explained.

We know this thanks to an “auto-suggest” feature many search engines now use. When you type even a single word into these search boxes, it gives you a list of suggested, presumably popular completions. Enter “Michelle,” for example, and you might get back Obama, Malkin, Pfeiffer.

Suggestions for the word “why” result in questions about the sky, cats and marriage (see above), along with “why do dogs eat grass” and “why do men cheat” and “why is pink the color for girls.” This labor-saving device — part fortuneteller, part shrink? — has opened a window into our collective soul. With millions of people pouring their hearts into this modern-day confessional, we get a direct, if mysterious, glimpse into the heads of our fellow Web surfers.

And it’s a glimpse that isn’t a pretty as these questions suggest. i remember a couple of autocompletes that I didn’t even want to think about the question, let alone the answer. (Play around a little bit and you’ll find that “how do I” and any verb leads invariably to a question about making one’s member bigger.)

The “Work-Ethic” Gap

Apparently, this Op-Ed in the Boston Globe by Kara Miller has been batted around quite a bit the last few days. I’m not going to comment on the split that Miller sees between American and foreign students, not least because it would mean having to take up a logic that seems to suggest we need to be perfect tools (in the pejorative sense):

Success is all about time management, and in a globalizing economy, Americans’ inability to stay focused and work hard could prove to be a serious problem.

Well, it is if you have a rather stilted notion of “success.” (Socrates: terrible at time management. Would often just stand gaping up at the sky on neighbor’s doorsteps while others went onto to the party.) But I do want to follow up on this:

Too many 18-year-old Americans, meanwhile, text one another under their desks (certain they are sly enough to go unnoticed), check e-mail, decline to take notes, and appear tired and disengaged.

Well, maybe in your class they are tired and disengaged. (Just kidding.) But it does amaze me how students do think I am a movie screen that doesn’t see them. You are right in front of me. I can see you. Don’t think you’re texting can’t be seen. Or that when you need to scratch the inside of your nose (nice way to put that) and you look around to check if other students see you, that somehow I don’t. I am not epiphenomenal!

Indeterminate Determinism: Or Why It’s Not Just Humans Who Have Freedom

Graham has a post up on McCluhan and I’m not going to wade into a debate on his work. But I was wondering about these two claims, made at different points in his post defending him from the charge of technological determinism:

(1) “It’s easy to see why people say he is. After all, McLuhan’s key principle is that background medium is everything, conscious content is nothing. And this does seem to imply that all our thoughts and actions are the marionettes of some invisible deeper medium.

(2) “it can’t be determinism given that the future course of events is completely indeterminate for McLuhan. To be a true technological determinist, in other words, McLuhan would have to hold that one medium leads to the next and that leads to the next and that leads to the next, by an inner logic of the media that lies beyond human control.

Of course, though, I think marionettes are unpredictable since human actions are not fully determined—thus in that analogy even if I took the object to be wholly controlled by the human hands working its strings (which I don’t), it still wouldn’t be predictable. And this brings me to (b). This is a genuine question, since I wonder if this discussion is led by an implicit premise that humans are free beings and objects, systems, and ideas are not. (Read his post with this in mind and you’ll see what I mean.) I note this because it’s a shorthand way of thinking about determinism that’s usually of a type that Graham is found to be critiquing.

Of course, all depends on what you mean by determinism. If you mean that human actions are epiphenomenal, Harman only notes that McCluhan thinks the future is contingent. But that only raises the questions of whether the various media are (a) determinative of human activity, and/or (b) the march of history (it’s “logic”) of one media to another is wholly predictable from within that logic. I think Harman is granting (a) but more importantly I want to think about (b) since in fact I think one can hold (a) and not think that the future of “objects” (according to this usage) is wholly determined.

Quantum mechanics is but one example; set theory another. These are means for thinking the ultimate indeterminacy ontologically (not just epistemologically) of the the future. And thus, I could see (and this is not an argument from within McCluhan’s work—but a larger point about the indeterminacy of systems) arguing for human actions being epiphenomenal without needing to argue that one media must lead into the next. This is not simply, say, on Sartre’s account that the practico-inert must dialectically relate to a certain human freedom, but rather that freedom is not simply human. This is, in a way, a point from which to think all of Continental philosophy on freedom after Nietzsche’s critique of free will. Give up that hobgoblin, and one must account for freedom not as a factum only of human existence. (Thus the whole thinking of the “free spirit” in spite of the will to power passing through, in a sense, the various overmen.) Thus I think McCluhan could argue (a) and still hold, as Harman says, that media are inherently “multifaceted. There are several possible ways in which it can be reversed.” This is not to give into (a) (not least because “epiphenomenal” is a philosophical term used too often to do the work for a number of other concepts), but simply to wonder about the non-relation between the two.

Merry Christmas, Tom Coburn

Ezra Klein has a quick post up on the cruelties of the Senate, noting how the intransigence of the right forces ill and infirm Senators to be wheeled into silly procedural votes, even when their intents are obvious:

Another example came last night, when the ailing Robert Byrd was wheeled in at 1 a.m. to break a filibuster on the manager’s amendment. Byrd’s presence was not required, especially considering that he’d clearly telegraphed his intention to vote to break the filibuster. But Republicans forced him to travel to the chamber. Indeed, shortly before he arrived, Sen. Tom Coburn headed to the floor to propose a prayer. “What the American people ought to pray is that somebody can’t make the vote tonight,” he said. “That’s what they ought to pray.”


If the 3-D wasn’t going to make me avoid it and just knowing James Cameron was the director wasn’t going to do it, this just might. How many “whites save the natives” movies can Hollywood put out? And if you think the charge of “racism” about movies involving aliens is off, then how about just not wanting to see that same plot play out again and again (and at nearly 3 hours?). I’m appealing, I think, to both categorical and hypothetical imperatives here…

CFP: Afromodernisms 1: Re-encounters with the French and Anglo-Atlantic Worlds, 1907 to ’61

This looks really good. How many darn good conferences are in England this coming year?

Keynote Speakers:

Professor David Scott, Columbia University, NY
Professor Demetrius Eudell, Wesleyan University, CT

In the context provided by Paul Gilroy’s configuration of the black Atlantic as a counterculture to modernity, this symposium is the first in a series seeking to re-examine the Atlantic as a locale for the emergence of modernism. Over the period 2010–12, we hope to consider the centrality of black folk, artists, writers, intellectuals, social scientists, musicians, as core members of the modernist avant-garde, and of “blackness” as a key representative and political category in the work of other modernists. We begin from a formulation of modernism as a heterogenous cluster of responses to locally specific experiences of modernity, rather than as a qualitative set of aesthetic indicators privileging formal innovation over political rhetoric. In doing so, we hope to enable further discussion of a widening spectrum of modernist languages in which the experience of modernity is delineated and inscribed.

The symposium addresses the interactions, exchanges, conflicts, and collaborations occurring across the French and Anglo Atlantic, and within experienced and imagined spaces of blackness, in the period 1907–61. We begin therefore with Picasso’s masked Demoiselles, and end with the publication of Fanon’s radical rejection of western colonialism in Les damnés.

The aims of the symposium are fourfold:
First, it seeks to stage a re-encounter with avant-garde aesthetic, political and social practice in the context of black responses to modernity across the French and Anglo Atlantic.
Second, it explores the emergence of new disciplines or schools, and underexplored interdisciplinary relationships in the human sciences that may have effected or at least contributed to the formal innovation or “newness” considered so characteristic of modernism.
Third, it takes Perry Anderson’s claim that one of the indispensible co-ordinates for locating modernism is its “proximity to social revolution” and resituates it in the context of an anti-colonial avant-garde operating across the Atlantic in the inter- and postwar years.
Fourth, it considers the degree to which a variety of actors operating from what might be termed “alternative” or “displaced” metropoles interacted to produce, in Jameson’s terms, an “active sense” of the history of modernity, one in which a black presence was of key aesthetic, political and cultural importance.

Individual papers and proposals, in English, for panels addressing any aspect of the interrelationship between Afromodernism and the French and Anglo-Atlantic worlds are invited from, but not limited to, the disciplines of literature, anthropology, history, art history, philosophy, music, or combinations of these; and concerning regions including but not limited to: Africa, the Caribbean, insular and continental Europe, Canada, the United States, Latin America. Teaching or curating panels and papers are also welcomed.

Topics might include:

The Harlem Renaissance/New Negro; Performance and/of blackness; Expressionism; fascism;
exoticism; the tropics; ethnographic fieldwork narratives/collections; the WPA; négritude; negrophilia; World War 1; configurations of the Black Atlantic; masking; marxism and modernity; World War 2; primitivism; folk and established religious expression; jazz; blues; surrealism; Boasian anthropology; tragedy; Windrush; aesthetic politics; drumming; new histories; revisionist historiography; beauty; comedy; revolution and anticolonialism; myth; reaction; gender and modernity; nationalism; the metropole(s); psychoanalysis; science and relativism; positivism; migration and/or displacement; civilization; degeneration.


Fionnghuala Sweeney (email: or Kate Marsh (email:

Deadline for submission: Thursday, 21 January 2010.

Conference website: