Arts & DesignEssays

Writing on the Wall: Letters from New York to Berlin

Street art, urban art, urban interventionism

One day I decide to walk down from Penn Station, where I get off the train, to my office at Union Square, determined to soak in all the text that I can see on the streets. The distance I need to cover is about twenty blocks, and I quickly realize that I will not be able to keep up the standard New York walking pace if I am serious about doing this; there is just way too much text to take notice of. First, I have to cut through Koreatown on 32nd street, a particularly dense section of the city that is bewildering when it comes to the pervasiveness of written signs. I start to heavily filter out the onslaught of textual information, as the majority of the signs are printed in a Korean calligraphy that I find aesthetically intriguing but impossible to understand. I focus instead on the many bilingual signs that give away the mishmash of activities taking place in the area…

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Arts & DesignEssays

Interview with an Expert on Violence

Elzbieta Matynia introduces a very special poem

In late September the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies, which I direct, arranged a talk by Anabel Hernández, a Mexican journalist and courageous writer whose book, Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords And Their Godfathers,has just been published in English by Verso. I had heard about Hernandez and her work, but I thought a better person to moderate the evening would be our doctoral student in sociology, Gema Santamaría, who works on problems of violence in Mexico. I had gotten to know Gema quite well during our Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, where I taught a seminar called Romancing Violence. I knew that though born in Nicaragua she wanted to work on Mexico, where she grew up. I could see that she is a brilliant student and I learned that she is also an accomplished poet. So I thought that she and Anabel – who had not been at the New School before — would make a good team. We had a full house that night, and though some people had to stand on the sides of the Hirshon Suite, nobody moved. Anabel gave an engaging though disturbing presentation, analyzing the tight linkages between Mexico’s political class and its drug economy…

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Arts & DesignLetters

How to Beat Writer’s Block

Try these games to unblock the flow, or direct it somewhere new.

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Arts & DesignEssays

What is Shakespearean Tragedy?

An excerpt from ‘What is Shakespearean Tragedy?’ forthcoming in The Oxford Handbook of Shakespearean Tragedy

The question ‘What is Shakespearean Tragedy?’ can understandably prompt one to start listing distinctive features of various plays by Shakespeare — as if a successful enumeration of its characteristics would amount to an understanding of the genre….

…However, rather than approach Shakespearean tragedy as the sum-total of certain features or “facts,” or as a generic object of study, I propose that we see Shakespearean tragedy as a discrete form of art — as the birth of a distinctive art form, the same way we think of ‘painting on canvas’ or ‘symphonic music’ as art forms that arrived on the world stage at a particular place and time.[i] Whereas a ‘genre’ purports to be a collection of objects that share common, taxonomically graspable features or techniques, there is no exhaustive list of features that ‘add up’ to Shakespearean tragedy – since, for a start, it is up to us to discern, decide, or debate, what will even count as features of this art form. Moreover, if Shakespearean tragedies all shared certain inherent, generic characteristics, then it would be difficult to distinguish between Macbeth and Hamlet and Othello – 

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Arts & DesignEssays

The Binding of Isaac – Roundtable

The Binding of Isaac, Akedat Yitzhak, continues to serve as a background for discussions of religion, politics, art and philosophy. This concise Biblical narrative, only 19 verses in length, has managed to set a model for thinking about obedience and sacrifice, secularism and politics, art and philosophy—and more.

In the recording below, Yael Feldman (Literary Criticism/Hebrew Studies, NYU), James Goodman (History/Writing, Rutgers), Jay Bernstein and I meet to discuss our different perspectives on the story.

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Arts & DesignCapitalismEssays

The (Sad) Story of (Banksy’s) Beaver

You may not be aware that the beaver, this unlucky, little, cute rodent, has suffered a long history of oppression and exploitation. On the American continent, the beaver, a traditional source of clothing and food for native people, became soon after the arrival of the European colonizers a main object of trade in the increasingly flourishing fur trade industry. Beaver pelt even led the English and the French to a brutal commercial war that ended up with the depletion, over-exploitation and over-starvation of beavers. Nonetheless, beaver hats remained quite a fashionable piece of clothing from 1550 to 1850.

As usual, colonization and exploitation were accompanied by a symbolic misrecognition that has lasted up to the present day. You may remember, for example, Jodie Foster’s 2011 movie, The Beaver, where a hand puppet named… The Beaver (I know, sorry!) turns from a cute, friendly fetish helping the main character, Walter, to recover from his severe depression, into a sort of manipulating and cruel incubus taking over his entire life. But there have been many precedents of this cultural devaluation of beavers.

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Arts & DesignEssays

One Thing Becoming Another

When Huizi the rationalist visited Zhuangzi to express his condolences for the recent passing of Zhuangzi’s wife, he was shocked to find the great Daoist sage sprawled on the ground happily beating out a rhythm on a tub and singing with gusto. Stop this scandal! Huizi demanded, outraged at his friend’s disregard of decorum.

Zhuangzi was unmoved. “You’re wrong,” he retorted. “When she first died, do you think I didn’t grieve like anyone else?”

“But,” he continued, “I looked back to her beginning and the time before she was born. Not only the time before she was born, but the time before she had a body. Not only the time before she had a body, but the time before she had a spirit. In the midst of the jumble of wonder and mystery a change took place and she had a spirit. Another change and she had a body. Another change and she was born. Now there’s been another change and she’s dead.”

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