Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Week in Links (Bread and Salt Edition)

Jorge Luis Borges had a theory about camels. In his essay on the 1,001 Nights, he writes that the tales with camels are easily identifiable as the ones written not by Arab authors but by later French Orientalists since camels were such a part of daily life that they wouldn’t have been remarkable as details for the former but would have seemed to the latter like a good way to add a dash of authenticity. In short: The more camels in a text, the less authentic that text and the less proximate the author to that text. It turns out that the theory holds up with respect to temporal proximity as well as to geographic and cultural proximity: A new study suggests that camels had not yet been domesticated for human use when the events in the biblical book of Genesis are set. It’s a bit odd, though, the way the author of this report goes out of his way to assure, even with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, readers that the veracity of domestic camels is plausible in the New Testament.
Nick Kristoff is criticizing academics for making ourselves too irrelevant to be productive in society. There’s certainly a segment of the population that fits the bill, but at the same time, a lot of the critique is unfair or off-base. In a lot of instances, when academics do speak up, people who are in positions to act on that knowledge and information just don’t listen. How many historians who cover all periods of Middle Eastern history spoke up before the recent invasions of Iraq and explained all the precedents for a failed assault? Nobody listened. I agree with a lot of what he says, particularly the deleterious effect of the pressure to speak to ever-shrinking circles of experts and getting picked apart for trying to write clearly and from a position of intellectual breadth. It’s something I’m slowly but surely trying to solve for myself (starting out with speaking to general audiences and the more recent advent of “medieval PSAs” and trying to figure out how to amplify the project and make it a bit more content-heavy). For lots of examples of academics who do engage  really seriously in public discourse, follow the Twitter hashtag #EngagedAcademics.
With all that said, as far as critiques of the involvement of intellectuals in public life, this is older but far more trenchant:
And finally, John Green has begun a “crash course” series in literature.
This is going to be less useful than the world history series both because it’s mostly dealing with Anglo-American literature and because the framing and the answer to the central question of why we read isn’t actually all that great. There are a few gems, though: 1) The open letter to authorial intent; 2) This: “I’m not going to ask you to go symbol-hunting because reading is supposed to be a treasure map where you find symbols and write them down and then get an A in English class”; and 3) The use of “Marquez” and “Faulkner” as stand-ins for curse words.

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