A Few Things...

Thought we would share a few things that caught our interest over the weekend:

1) An article from CNN that discusses a study that links political, religious and sexual behaviors to intelligence. Read it here >>>

2) A piece from Alternet that describes the rising membership in the grassroots Union of the Unemployed called UCubed. Read it here >>>

3) An entertaining interview with writer Said Sayrafiezadeh from WNYC Radiolab. Sayrafiezadeh discusses his approach to the books in his life. Watch it here:

Belize Dam Update! Permit Under Review

by douglas reeser on 2.24.2010

The ongoing and controversial dam project on the Central River in southern Belize has received no press coverage here in the U.S., which is surprising given the sheer number of environmental organizations dedicated to activism and preservation based here. In fact, the only reason we have come across the controversy is because I work in area, and try to keep up on events there through friends and contacts. The surprising thing is that this is not a simple case of a new dam being constructed, but there have been some questionable events surrounding the dam project, some of which likely circumvented the laws of Belize. Not surprising is the fact that numerous government officials are involved in the shady deals with an international corporate developer that has a subsidiary in Belize.

Well, good news abounds, as the project is now under review, as a Chief Justice granted Ya'axche Trust a review of the permits granted to the hydro-development company. As reported by Amandala News (Belize), the research permit that has been granted, was done so under questionable circumstances. Further, the 'research' that has been conducted has included the construction of roads, structures, and even helicopter landings in protected reserves. In response to the charges brought by Ya'axche Trust, the Belize Forest Department has issued a cease and desist order to the hydro-development company. The company has been fined a nominal amount, and Ya'axche Trust is claiming damages of $125,000 just to remediate the environmental damage. The case will go before the court on May 6, 2010, and we'll be sure to keep you updated.

Check out these links for more information:

Let Our River Flow - a community blog dedicated to resisting the dam>>> Let Our River Flow

Ya'axche Trust News (regular updates on the case)>>> www.yaaxche.wordpress.com

Amandala News Update on the case>>> www.amandala.com.bz

Thanks to Ya'axche Trust for the photo of the Central River in Belize.

Rethinking Anthropomorphism and Rationality: A Reenchanted World

Author and sociology professor James William Gibson recently published an excerpt from his book, A Reenchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature (2009), on Reality Sandwich. Just this short introduction to the book points to some very interesting issues about people's evolving relationship to the natural world and how these "new" approaches to nature are manifesting at both the research and the community levels.

Gibson contextualizes the human-animal relationship in terms of Charles Darwin's "sin" of anthropomorphism:
"But if the concept of human-animal families is still on the margins, it has lately received some support from surprising quarters. Contemporary evolutionary biology and related fields now stress the depth of human-animal kinship ties and encourage a revisionist view of Charles Darwin's work. Although Darwin sought to discredit theological doctrines that held that God created each species separately and to show the processes of evolution, his work was hardly an example of pure science. Instead, it was a hybrid discourse, with a strong spiritual and romantic strain."
Describing a multitude of examples of how some scientists have embraced a similarly hybrid approach to working with animals in their natural habitat, Gibson explains,
"Having rejected the modern view of animals as things, science and scholarship now spread the culture of enchantment, strengthening human feelings for other creatures and their habitats. ... Implicit in this vision is a new sense of man's place, a rejection of his position at the unquestioned apex of life on Earth. Philosophers, cognitive scientists, and other scholars are proposing a radical rethinking of the role of animals in shaping human evolution. Instead of portraying humans as the star species that progressed beyond all others, these thinkers stress human development through our relationships with other species."
Thinking about these ideas in terms of postmodernism's complicated relationship with Enlightenment philosophy and rationality, it seems that Gibson's research and ideas are touching on (or perhaps supporting) the thought that, as we exit the postmodern era, we are seeing an increase in religious fundamentalism, and what could be seen as an offshoot or entirely different branch of that: a willingness to explore the non-rational, i.e. Gibson's "reenchantment."

Other thoughts come to mind as well, namely in the realm of responsible and ethical interaction with animals in their environment. With this recognition of animal intelligence comes the difficult task of deciding how much will we blur the unspoken boundaries between human life and animal habitat.

Read the excerpt from A Reenchanted World on Reality Sandwich here.
And check out the book on Amazon.com here.

Prison Sentences: Street Lit and the U.S. Prison System

While Street Lit -- variously termed Ghetto Lit, Urban Lit, Hip-Hop Lit -- has been around since the 1960s, it seems the controversial class of writing is gaining increased academic attention lately. For those unfamiliar with the genre, it is generally characterized by its urban setting and its "gritty," "raw," and "authentic" portrayal of urban life. Although its history has been checkered with criticism -- everything ranging from dangerous glorification to lack of copy-editing -- its explosive popularity has caused the genre to succeed.

The appeal and profitability of these novels isn't unusual to the literary marketplace. One can look at practically any genre that isn't considered avant garde and see comparisons. What is unusual (and fascinating) about Street Lit is how it is turning conventions of the marketplace upside down on its way to that appeal and profit, by way of the U.S. penal system.

Popmatters recently published an article by Kristina Graaf, "Reading Street Literature, Reading America's Prison System," that delves into this element of the genre. Graaf writes:
A particular important facet of the genre is how it is inextricably linked to the US penal system on multiple levels. Not only is Street Lit probably the genre with the largest number of authors and readers, who currently are, or formerly were, incarcerated. Imprisonment is also a central theme in most storylines, and also the novels’ distribution and marketing have become closely connected to America’s prison apparatus.
She goes on to describe the different ways prisons function in Street Literature on the plot level. Prisons can be used to form a cautionary tale, a bildungsroman (where the character is transformed in prison not by way of rehabilitation but through their own reflection), a "stagnation narrative" (where the cycle of prison and release is never broken), or a glorifying tale. In turn, argues Graaf, "America’s prison system represents an omniscient element, structuring the narrative, advancing the plot and forming the characters. Prison, however, also plays a central role in the novels’ production, with many authors penning their stories while being incarcerated."

The prison system also functions for Street Lit on the distribution level. In one of Graaf's examples, she describes the work of Sidibe Ibrahima, an African immigrant in Harlem:
After establishing a network of bookstands mainly on Harlem’s 125th Street that specialized in the sale of Street Literature, he opened his bookstore and distribution firm Harlem Book Center. Realizing there was a demand for Street Lit novels among inmates, Ibrahima registered with various correctional facilities as a book supplier, and now regularly ships prepaid titles to the avid readers.
As with much popular literature, value always must be found in places other than the writing itself. Graaf concludes by arguing for the value of this popular genre based on its reflection and expression of the prison apparatus. It's not hard to imagine, though, given how literary critics mine the annals of popular lit from earlier ages, that future critics will find even more to value. And, by the same token, more insights into the racial politics of the U.S.

For more information on Street Literature, visit www.streetfiction.org or the Resource for Librarians.

Socially Sustainable Olympics? Not Quite.

From Al Jazeera news:

For more on this interesting concept, and why it is flawed, check out this piece by Philippe Furrer, project manager of the International Olympic Commitee >>> Sustainable Olympic Games A dream or a reality?

Book Review: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Slavoj Zizek. New York: Verso, 2009. 157pp.

Two relatively recent events have arguably been among the most influential in the contemporary global politico-economic climate. The terrorist attacks on September 11th helped to usher in a climate of fear in the West and renewed war in the Middle East. Slavoj Zizek, a Marxist philosopher and cultural critic, writes: “September 11 heralded an era in which new walls were seen emerging everywhere: between Israel and the West Bank, around the European Union, along the US-Mexico border, but also within nation-states themselves” (2009:3). Eight years later, the global economic crisis of 2008 precluded a further cementing of those divisions between the wealthy and the poor – the haves and the have-nots. Zizek uses these two events that help to define the beginning of the 21st century as a jumping-off point from which he details the roots and reasons for what he calls the coming catastrophe to be brought on by today’s global capitalism. Further, he attempts this analysis from a point of view outside of the capitalist system: “How does our predicament today look from the perspective of the communist idea?” (2009:6). In this approach, he lays the groundwork for his argument that communism remains not only a viable option, but perhaps the only option for humanity to avoid the catastrophes being brought on by global capitalism.

Zizek’s dialectic approach engages numerous scholars who have commented on the current state of global humanity, capitalism, and socialism. Through this dialectic, a larger reality – one beyond the immediacy of our everyday lives – is revealed, and it becomes clear that Capitalism appears to be near its end-point. Zizek begins with a commentary on the rapid expansion of the gap between the rich and the poor. He describes the rise of a global super-rich, who are increasingly insulating themselves from the masses of the lower class. In describing a Chinese suburb that replicates an English town and was designed for the wealthy, he notes: “There is no longer a hierarchy of social groups within the same nation – residents in this town live in a universe for which, within its ideological imaginary, the ‘lower class’ surrounding world simply does not exist” (2009:5). The Poor’s role in the world of the wealthy, then, becomes their very non-existence – they only exist in their non-existence.

Click here to continue reading this review in our Scribd Library >>>

Heads Up: Crows Have a Crow to Pluck

In Barbara Kingsolver's novel Prodigal Summer, the narrator contends,
"Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen."
This observation jumps off the page and into the field in a recent study of crows by University of Washington biologists, who found that the birds can recognize and remember human faces and hold grudges against the ones that previously upset them (in this case, by banding them).

Read the accompanying article on New Scientist.

Reality Bites: The Death of Fiction

Article titles are meant to grab a reader's attention, whether with humor or cleverness, with subversive inferences or with rallying cries, or any other number of ways. In the case of Mother Jones' recent article, The Death of Fiction?, Ted Genoways prompts a double take with a provocative -- and perhaps presumptive -- question: has fiction kicked the bucket?

As editor of the prestigious Virginia Quarterly Review, Genoways sits atop a unique vantage point. His doomsday vision stems from what he sees happening in university presses:
"After more than a century of founding and subsidizing literary magazines as a vital part of their educational missions, colleges and universities have begun off-loading their publications, citing overburdened budgets and dwindling readership. Despite the potentially disastrous consequences to the landscape of literature and ideas, it's increasingly hard to argue against. Once strongholds of literature and learned discussion in our country, university-based quarterlies have seen steadily declining subscriber bases since their heyday a half-century ago—and an even greater dent in their cultural relevance."
To compound the problem, Genoways says, writers in this post-postmodern age are too self-centered, refusing to take their audiences' wants into consideration:
"But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism."
Lumping together reality TV, talk shows, and blogs, Genoways indicts the masses for the current, lamentable state of fiction. His solution to revive it lies in a combination of reclaiming the ivory tower for fiction while at the same time asking writers to rise above academia:
"With so many newspapers and magazines closing, with so many commercial publishers looking to nonprofit models, a few bold university presidents could save American literature, reshape journalism, and maybe even rescue public discourse from the cable shout shows and the blogosphere. At the same time, young writers will have to swear off navel-gazing in favor of an outward glance onto a wrecked and lovely world worthy and in need of the attention of intelligent, sensitive writers. I'm not calling for more pundits—God knows we've got plenty. I'm saying that writers need to venture out from under the protective wing of academia, to put themselves and their work on the line. Stop being so damned dainty and polite. Treat writing like your lifeblood instead of your livelihood. And for Christ's sake, write something we might want to read."
While the models of publishing may be changing, while the playing fields may get flatter and flatter, and while literary critics will most certainly continue debating this latest obituary and what it means to the literary marketplace, it seems hard to believe that storytelling will ever be a thing of the past.

Yet Genoways article raises many questions. What does it really mean that this cultural critic is announcing the death of fiction? And how does this observation fit into our reality-TV/memoir/true story culture? With all the focus on reality, why do people seem more disconnected to it than ever? Could it be that what has really died is the final distinction between reality and fiction?