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bianca steele
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Exciting news: I now have a Twitter account (@biancasteele66)! If all goes well, this post should appear there automatically! Continue reading
Posted Dec 9, 2016 at Bianca Steele
I have a guest post on the novel I Don’t Know How She Does It at Lawyers, Guns, and Money. Continue reading
Posted Aug 22, 2016 at Bianca Steele
Today I learned two new vocabulary words: microburst and macroburst, downdrafts that blow in a way opposite to a tornado (click through for unusually detailed Wiki page, including even differential equations!). As I type, crews throughout the neighborhood (the vicinity are cleaning up after the tree damage from yesterday’s thunderstorm. No one was home at the time, and everyone is okay. Here’s a picture from my upstairs window after most of the tree leaning on my house after most of it had been removed. Here’s a cross-section of the trunk, next to my shod foot. (The shoes are a half-size too big for me, so the tree is actually even bigger than it might look.) Earlier today I looked out my window and wondered why there seemed to be a screen blocking my view. Had the tree workers hung something up while they worked? No, it was just cloud cover. I’m going to miss that tree. (Connoisseurs will recognize that this is this the first image posted at this blog; hopefully it will display all right.) Continue reading
Posted Jul 19, 2016 at Bianca Steele
During the main library’s closing, I saw a copy of Sarah Bakewell’s recent book, At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails staring up at me from the small branch library’s small “new books” shelf (it’s easier to see interesting things on the small shelves, because they’re not surrounded by too many other books, and because frankly, it would almost no one uses the branch library, so things are very much more often still on the shelves), and although it had sounded to me like something I wouldn’t like, I picked it up. (Bakewell has also written a kind of self-help book based on the essays of Montesquieu.) I was pleasantly surprised. At the Existentialist Café is framed as an exploration of the writers Bakewell had been fascinated by in college, and almost got a postgraduate degree in, before leaving the academic world. The book traces the development of existentialism from Kierkegaard through to Sartre, following its fate as an inspiration for the rebels of 1968 whom Sartre championed. The text moves easily between personal reflection on the meaning of the writers’ philosophies, history and biography, and explications of the works themselves. Bakewell’s book is very much the clearest explanation of the central parts of Heidegger’s, Husserl’s, and Kierkegaard’s philosophies that I’ve read: aimed at the general reader, not the specialist or the student who’ll need to read the originals themselves anyway. These philosophers don’t (to use the historical present, as I’ve been taught to do in these contexts)... Continue reading
Posted Jul 8, 2016 at Bianca Steele
I’ve tried to puzzle through some writings by Judith Butler over the years, and finally think I’ve gotten a handle on some of them—not Gender Trouble, though, for which I only downloaded a sample, once, that turned out to consist only of the introduction to the revised edition. I’ve even looked into the kerfuffle with Nussbaum. (New York magazine recently published a profile of Butler, linked to by Dennis Dutton's Arts & Letters Daily site: you can still see it if you load the non-mobile version of the page.) There are a lot of interesting things to be thought and said, in my opinion, by examining what Butler actually wrote. There are a lot of interesting things to be considered about her influence on life today. But Judith Butler is a philosopher and her book is philosophy. What it “means” depends on a lot of philosophical presuppositions that, first of all, few people who aren’t philosophers know about, and second of all, are not universally shared even among philosophers (let alone non-experts). One can say things about Derrida and the transformation of philosophical texts into literary ones, the replacement of philosophy by literary criticism, and so on, and still, eventually, one runs into the question of ideology. And obviously there is more than one ideology in the world. More, even, than two. I sometimes picture a certain kind of writer sitting back and watching as we non-expert readers thrash blindly about trying to figure out what’s going on with them,... Continue reading
Posted Jul 1, 2016 at Bianca Steele
This is the last day of school in Framingham, since we only had two snow days this year—last year the district was threatening to run school into July. The main library has reopened, as of last week; it had been closed since February, when a fire started during work on the building. The new branch library opened in April, with a lot more space (the old building wasn’t much bigger than the first floor of my house), though I’d kind of liked the way the jammed-in nature of the children’s room made it easy to find things. The building next to the library, which dates from the nineteenth century and houses an art museum and school, a music and performing arts school, and the Boys’ and Girls’ Club, has recently been declared uninhabitable and will be closed on September 1. The various schools that were damaged by burst pipes and flooding over February vacation will hopefully all be repaired before then. The biggest of the bridges that led to the old mill area in the Saxonville section (and to the old branch library) has been re-opened after only a year and a half. I see I’ve gotten a lot of page views in the past couple of days. I guess the things that get attention are (a) writing about science fiction, and (b) getting into a fight at Crooked Timber. I started this blog while I was on bed rest while pregnant with my daughter. It was something to do... Continue reading
Posted Jun 17, 2016 at Bianca Steele
I don't doubt that. Nobody has a lot of experience with this.
In 1938, in an essay titled “What I Believe,” E.M. Forster coined the phrase “two cheers for democracy,” and that’s apropos here. As a novelist, Forster himself gets three cheers, I’d think. Evelyn Waugh should then get two cheers, and The Magicians, which is enjoyable enough but not, to be honest, a great work of art, would get one. For the sake of argument, however, I’ll give it two for the time being. When the commercial recap columns start appearing a day late, or not at all, and they start asking in their headlines what’s the point of it all (as the Observer’s did over the past couple of weeks), it’s fair to say that some people are wondering whether a show—albeit still in its first season—has jumped the shark. I’d like to take a moment, though, to point out some—possibly overlooked—things I like about it. When, a couple of weeks ago, Eliot’s same-sex romance got hot and heavy, only to turn out to be an evil trick that would result in the boyfriend’s death, the Internet started getting antsy. This kind of thing turns out to be an actual TV Trope with an actual name, and as it turned out, some other show had used its apparently more usual lesbian version in what sounds like a somewhat worse way, so the Internet explosion carried over to The Magicians, as well. Even worse, in response, Eliot had to kill his boyfriend, and then he turned into a serious addict. This,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 2, 2016 at Bianca Steele
When the news broke that Hillary Clinton, when she was Secretary of State, had set up a private e-mail server, outside the bounds of what government IT people controlled, for her own use, I said to myself, “This is bad.” People on both right and left now seem to think this is very, very true. And at the time, I expected to see a lot of coverage to this effect in the press. Instead, what I saw was sincere incomprehension that this was even an issue, and eventually I realized that I’d been wrong to expect otherwise. We have a press, remember, that can’t see even the slightest problem with keeping the most sensitive information in the cloud . . . with the idea that every company and organization in the world, and even the federal government, should get rid of their own e-mail servers outright and use free servers instead. They had convinced themselves that we ordinary people shouldn’t worry about the security of our data, and that nobody should, because there was nothing to worry about. They were wrong, and arguably what Clinton did was not likely to be secure. But my first take was that if they didn’t understand this, Clinton and her people, and maybe even lots of people in the government, didn’t understand this either. On the other hand, . . . my second take was different. I started to ask myself, what sequence of events could have led to this taking place? Did no... Continue reading
Posted Mar 31, 2016 at Bianca Steele
Safety Not Guaranteed is a pleasant, low-key independent film, half screwball farce, half lightweight romantic comedy, that in spite of its nearly elephant-sized plot holes and occasional confusing editing missteps will certainly entertain, not least with images of coastal Washington state. The movie garnered an astonishing range of positive reviews. It stars Aubrey Plaza, of Parks and Recreation, and Mark Duplass, who co-produced it with his brother. Plaza plays Darius, a morose twenty-something intern at a Seattle magazine who doesn’t have the personality to land a paying job doing something normal, like waiting tables. She’s sad because her mother died when she was a teenager. She volunteers to work on a story about someone who’s placed a classified ad asking for someone to time-travel with him, joining two men, a fulltime reporter, and another intern, a nerdy undergraduate science major who joined the magazine to add diversity to his CV. When they travel to the seaside resort where the mystery person lives, it turns out that the reporter really only wants to hook up with an old high school fling who used to live in the area, so after his initial attempt to approach the subject fails, it becomes Darius’s job to learn about the guy all on her own. It’s all very zany and intriguing, and not especially serious. If you’re going to object to the idea that these people truly are investigating whether the guy really does have a working time machine hidden in that ramshackle house in... Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2016 at Bianca Steele
For the last few weeks, I’ve been getting a decent number of page views on this blog, for some reason—until a couple of days ago, when they went off a cliff. I’m not sure why. It could be totally random. It could be that I used the word “bros.” It could even be that I wrote something about David Foster Wallace. It’s kind of weird. It’s hard to judge who’s really out there. Is there a real correlation between writing something that could have made someone mad, and seemingly correlated changes in readership? (If I can’t match things I write to drop-offs in page views, how can I consider matching things I write to increases in them? Surely, they’re either random in both cases, or in neither.) Or is it just in my imagination, a matter of how I choose to think about it? In any event, I’ll make amends by writing something in favor of Bernie Sanders’s appeal. Not that there’s any connection between him and the word “bro.” (Though I’m sure everyone remembers that opposition to the word started at least a year before the Sanders campaign’s start, and the campaign against it only started to pick up steam when it acquired some electoral valence.) Corey Robin recently wrote an astute post, remarking that the surprising success, so far, of the Sanders campaign has to seem even more incredible to anyone approximately his age who was taught that it’s important to be realistic and measured when proposing progressive... Continue reading
Posted Mar 18, 2016 at Bianca Steele
This year is the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Infinite Jest, so here are two of the best links I’ve found discussing that anniversary. Emma-Lee Moss, a writer at The Guardian, decided to read the book for the first time in order to write about it, and to invite her friends to join a discussion group and read it with her. A podcast of all of them discussing the novel is here. They discuss some of the high points about the book and its significance, and read aloud from its best passages. Also, D.T. Max, who wrote a biography of David Foster Wallace, has an essay in the New Yorker about the novel’s initial reception and its significance. A woman writer, not Moss, wrote somewhere recently that she’s been putting off reading Infinite Jest because she’d need to carry it places and people would see her reading it, and she’d have to fend off unwanted attention from literary bros trying to tell her how to read it. (None of these people are reading e-books, I guess; maybe the experience of reading the very long book depends the nature of its physical form.) In 1997, obviously, that kind of thing didn’t happen. I would have loved, back then, to have someone remark on the fact of what I was reading so that I could discuss it with them. Though I suppose the Internet equivalent of that kind of person did start to appear pretty quickly. Continue reading
Posted Mar 13, 2016 at Bianca Steele
Like a lot of people, I guess, I occasionally type the names of people I once knew into online search engines, just to see what comes out. I long ago ran through all the names of the people I really care about—former roommates, best friends, boyfriends, daily study partners—though I occasionally do a search for someone who hasn’t come up before, just to see if they’ve done something notable enough that the person I knew could rise to the top of all the other same-name people the system keeps track of. But I’ve moved on to random acquaintances, like people who were high-school famous when I was a teenager, or anyone on my freshman-door floor whose name I can still recall. A few years ago I googled the names of all the guys I had crushes on, and then I was bored so I googled their best friends, too. Some were successful out of line with what had seemed their grades and potential in high school (a school I’d been persuaded in recent years was much, much worse than I’d previously thought it had been); some were successful entirely in line with their high-school performance as it had been available to view back then. I’ve been pondering the results of one of these searches for the past several days. I typed the name of someone who, in fact, looms large in my personal mythology of my teenage years. Not someone I knew well, but someone with a story, which intersected... Continue reading
Posted Mar 7, 2016 at Bianca Steele
otpup, Thanks, and thanks for dropping by!
The other day I was listening to NPR in my car, and an interviewee made the following statement: that “hoarding” and “collecting” are synonyms. Surely they aren’t. Yes, in a structuralist kind of sense—taking the computer scientist Roger Schank to represent linguistic structuralism—they both describe the same set of actions of owning, taken with respect to the same number of objects. It might be possible to argue that both words denote the same thing, though they have different connotations. Is this the definition of “synonym”? In a Roget’s Thesaurus kind of sense, perhaps. Your word processor might offer one as a “synonym” for another, or they might fall under the same numeric code in Mr. Roget’s scheme (though in a full and unabridged version, they might not). But that’s the kind of synonym that produces laughable freshman-comp essays, like when a student feels “navy blue” isn’t snazzy enough and substitutes “cerulean.” You could say, I guess, if you were so inclined, that “collecting” is the name we give to “hoarding” when we’ve decided not to condemn it, morally. This seemed to be what the guy on the radio was getting at: gently suggesting that this collector could hardly claim to have given up the hold things have on his life. But this isn’t really the case. The denotations of the words are really fairly different. We frown on hoarding because it’s different enough from collecting to make it seriously irrational—not just because we’ve decided this person should be discouraged, while... Continue reading
Posted Feb 18, 2016 at Bianca Steele
Attempts to find contemporary political meaning in the most popular works of science fiction and fantasy are a perennial favorite on the Internet, even when they get out of hand. The most reason one seems to be a dispute over whether a post on J.K. Rowling’s blog makes mistakes about political science as it relates to the history of Africa. Timothy Burke, an anthropologist at Bryn Mawr, has all the links here and here; Vox has an explainer here. I like Burke’s, especially, because he goes into what he thinks the differences would be, between an African magical establishment of the kind described by Rowling, and what she describes at Hogwarts. Attempts to find a philosophical meaning in a book based explicitly on Plato’s Republic are not very surprising. Jo Walton’s The Just City is such a book, and Crooked Timber has a symposium about it. Continue reading
Posted Feb 17, 2016 at Bianca Steele
I’ll be getting soon to the last couple of sections of the first chapter, which discuss different ways of understanding the distribution of goods, in a little while. I want to say something, first, about the bulk of the book. The rest of the chapters consist of a series of examinations of different social goods, illustrated through historical and sociological case studies. Since I’ve committed myself to reading these and looking for a purpose in them, it’s more than possible I’ll find a reason for each of these. As a whole, though, o my first reading these seem to imply a certain political argument that, it seems to me, hasn’t panned out as expected. What it reminds me of is something like the New Historicism of the subsequent decade, as represented by Stephen Greenblatt’s book on religion in Shakespeare, Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt sets out to provide readers with the religious and social context that he believes lies behind the text of Hamlet. He covers the religious institutions as they existed at the time, popular narratives of ghosts and hauntings, indulgences and masses said for the dead and how they relied on the doctrine of Purgatory that was rejected by the established church, paintings and illustrated books for clergy and the laity (including popular piety, especially that of women), as well as high literature. He introduces readers to the fascinating story of St. Patrick’s Purgatory, a cave in Ireland where people were said to experience visions of the afterlife. He... Continue reading
Posted Feb 16, 2016 at Bianca Steele
There’s a new book out, called Exit Right, that looks interesting if you’re interested in the political or intellectual history of the middle and end of the twentieth century. It’s a new history of men who started out on the far left and then moved to the far right: Chambers, Burnham, Reagan, Podhoretz, Horowitz, and Hitchens. There are new reviews by Sam Tanenhaus in The Atlantic and Alan Wolfe in The New Republic. Near the beginning of Wolfe’s review, he discusses his personal encounters with David Horowitz. One is related by Daniel Oppenheimer in the book under review: before Horowitz came to this realization [the loss of faith in revolution], he “participated in a small seminar at Berkeley, on the topic of ‘Marxism and Post-Marxism,’ with a number of his fellow New Left veterans.” I was one of those participants; the seminar helped me rethink my radicalism to emerge as more of a liberal than a leftist. It was not so much the books we discussed—I can barely remember what they were—so much as our attitudes toward Cuba and the Soviet Union, neither of which, to most of us, held out any hope for progressive change. Wolfe says no more about this fascinating fact. Who else was part of that seminar at Berkeley? How many of them left the movement around the same time? What was the nature of Wolfe’s own change (to, as TNR readers know, a form of consensus liberalism), and why? We find out something about the... Continue reading
Posted Feb 15, 2016 at Bianca Steele
On Tuesday, Framingham’s new McAuliffe branch library will be officially open. (There was an open house yesterday.) This is big news for Framingham, especially for those residents who rarely venture south of route nine (the north part is the nice part, you know—probably going back to Puritan days, as well as being the location of our local Levittown). The old McAuliffe branch was in Saxonville, and it’s been around for a long time. It’s also about the size of my house, maybe even just the first floor of my house. It’s a metal-shed looking building with no function rooms and no lobby to speak of. It had its advantages. The percentage of kids’ books on the shelves that were something we might want to borrow was higher than at the main library, probably in part because older books were culled more frequently, and because fewer people used it, the shelves were less frequently picked over. A couple of weeks ago, most of the books were packed up, so the branch has been out of commission for a little while, but by now they’ve been moved to the new library, which is quite a bit larger and more functional. And this is especially good news, because Framingham has been having library issues for a while. Infrastructure work has made Saxonville hard to get to, as one bridge and then another has been closed for two years or more each. The latest one has been the bridge over the falls closest to... Continue reading
Posted Feb 14, 2016 at Bianca Steele
Suppose we say that some percentage of a society holds the belief system that elites are in charge, the media plays a mediating role, education is part of the process of elite formation, and so on. Some percentage of the society holds a different belief system, maybe that the will of the people is important. Maybe some smaller or larger third percentage, making up the rest of the population, holds neither one. What can we conclude from this about the makeup and relative power of the two groups, about which of these is closer to reality, about what kind of mobility is possible between groups, or what kind of lives are possible within groups or for those who attempt to move or communicate between them? My answer: We can conclude nothing at all. We don’t even know that within each group, there aren’t divergences significant enough to overwhelm the similarities. We certainly don’t know whether movement between the groups is considered impermissible, difficult but possible, or even mandatory. We don’t know whether everybody knows that there are three basic kinds of belief systems in this society, or whether they don’t. We don’t know how the disclosure of this information will be understood. If there’s a general practice among some people of movement from one sphere to another, we don’t know, from this barebones account, how it’s carried out. We don’t know whether some children are selected for education from the start into a different group’s belief system, whether they’re expected... Continue reading
Posted Feb 11, 2016 at Bianca Steele
(Delay in posting due to snow days, etc., may or may not persist.) The Magicians, the book, the first one in the series, presents itself as a story about the friendship between Quentin and Julia, though in an attenuated way. Julia appears at the beginning of the story, as one of Quentin’s two cooler friends, along with James, who she may or may not be dating (I can’t remember whether this is stated in the book). She disappears almost immediately. Quentin goes to his Princeton interview (not Yale) with James, who’s also interviewing there, and immediately afterward is transported to Brakebills, cutting short his senior year in high school to start college early. Julia doesn’t reappear until his next vacation at home, when she confronts him and reveals that she resents the fact they didn’t choose her, too. (James never reappears at all.) Around that time, Quentin’s family moves from New York City to a suburban New England town much like Lexington. That’s it. All of the rest comes up only in the second book, where it’s told in flashback, as an explanation of how Julia had become the difficult, unhappy woman Quentin later meets in Fillory, and of how she managed to get there in the first place. The TV series sets the two stories more in parallel, so they’re both at similar points in their education at the same time. But with this episode, the friendship between Quentin and Julia seems to be replaced by two new friendships... Continue reading
Posted Feb 9, 2016 at Bianca Steele
Dominance and Monopoly (and Ideology) In the next section, Walzer presents two new concepts, to go along with the discussion of goods and social meanings in the beginning of the chapter: dominance and monopoly. A dominant good is one that will get its possessor some other, unrelated goods. If you have money, you can buy food, but it doesn’t work the other way around, because money is the dominant good in a market society. And it is often—in fact, usually—the case that one group of people has a monopoly over that good. Thus, when land ownership was the dominant good in Europe, those who owned land tended also to have political power, office, religious honors, and so on, and this was the class of aristocrats. When ownership of capital or financial wealth became the dominant good, the society’s other goods shifted to them, as well, and to the new moneyed middle classes. Thus, societies can be classified and characterized by identifying the good dominant in each, and the class that tends to hold that good. This is a framework for understanding and categorizing societies, not a full explanation. The shift of other goods to the newly dominant class wasn’t immediate, and in some cases may never have been complete. I’m sure Walzer would agree that the framework isn’t the be-all and end-all. And it’s a useful analysis, but it does appear to blur into dogmatism: In every society, one good is dominant over all others. In every society, one group... Continue reading
Posted Feb 3, 2016 at Bianca Steele
A week or two ago, the New York Times’ “Bookends” section asked Rivka Galchen and Benjamin Moser to write short essays on the question, “Is there an unforgivable literary sin?” (Whether or not this has anything to do with The New Republic’s publishing a complaint by the notoriously William Giraldi’s against false memoirs and novels, titled “The Unforgivable Half Truths of Memoir,” is unknown.) As happens fairly often, the writers both punt on the question that seems to have been asked, but come up with something worth reading, anyway. In this case, both write disquisitions on sin and forgiveness. I really liked Galchen’s essay, which explores her discomfort with the whole concept of something being “unforgivable.” She relates a bunch of episodes from her own life, and her experience with other people’s religions, to illustrate what the word actually means to her. You don’t really find an essay like this much anymore. It reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s way of working. Woolf is an essayist who uses an almost novelistic or fiction-based form to explore her own ideas and to explore the way the world feels to her. What Woolf does in her essays is interweave speculation with very precisely imagined descriptions of scenes, so that the whole creates a very clear argument in the reader’s mind. Galchen does something like the same thing, inviting the reader to follow along with her thought processes and come to her own conclusions. Moser, on the other hand, takes a more academic approach.... Continue reading
Posted Jan 31, 2016 at Bianca Steele
The X-Files: I had been a fan of The X-Files till the bitter end. I didn’t start watching it from the beginning. I had really loved VR5 (someone please get this out on DVD or Blu-Ray!), which had starred Lori Singer—costarring Louise Fletcher, as her now mostly catatonic mother, and Anthony Heald, as one of her quasi-mentors—as a young woman trying to find answers about her past and her missing father and twin sister, working her way into a virtual-reality network that she charmingly jacked into by way of an old-fashioned acoustic-coupling modem. It was often visually stunning and never the same twice, but it was canceled after a single season. The X-Files was on after VR5, or just before it, or something, and I kept the TV on once, or maybe there was a delay from preemption, and saw most of the episode on the Norwegian oil rig, but never bothered to watch it regularly until VR5 had gone away. What pulled me in was the chemistry between Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny as Scully and Mulder, and the way the show overall evoked a feeling from my childhood adolescence, which I connected with science fiction movies like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Wargames, and which I’d felt I’d long outgrown (especially in its less than equal vision of gender relations—I’d somehow never noticed that Ally Sheedy actually doesn’t really get to do anything cool). I stuck it out to, I think, even the second movie (not... Continue reading
Posted Jan 29, 2016 at Bianca Steele
Chapter One is titled “Complex Equality” and begins with sections titled “Pluralism” and “A Theory of Goods.” Each of these first two sections contains a kind of analysis of a small number of concepts from political theory. As a non-scholar, I feel I have to know how these should be taken. Are these Walzer’s proposals, or are they Walzer’s summaries of the scholarly consensus? Distributive Justice Walzer describes “distributive justice” as a theory about the distribution of everything within a society, even things that aren’t normally transferable, and so on. This sounds like a good idea, and almost obvious. How else could philosophers and other thinkers evaluate the justice of a society, other than by characterizing the distribution of various bad or good things among its members? Why should questions of the distribution of one thing be discussed in different terms than the distribution of others? Moreover, as will be seen in the following pages, Walzer is responding to A Theory of Justice, a far-reaching theory published about a decade earlier by John Rawls. It’s not unreasonable to expect that Rawls is interested in justice as it applies to everything that might be shared either justly or unjustly. However, this is not what Rawls was doing. (At least, it’s not what he’s taken to have been doing, from the vantage point of today. It would be interested to learn whether he addressed this question somewhere in the very long text of his book, but for me, that’s a research project... Continue reading
Posted Jan 27, 2016 at Bianca Steele