• print • Dec/Jan 2009

    Sapphic Signals

    This is it?” I asked myself several times as I made my way through Susan Sontag’s diaries. By the end, I’d stopped carping; in fact, I had the feeling they had exploded in my hands. Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947–1963, edited by Sontag’s son, David Rieff, is the first in a three-volume selection from the writer’s private papers, covering her prefame years, up to the age of thirty. The entries are generally short and frequently trivial (though not uninteresting)—movies seen, books to buy, lists of words and terms to learn, not all of them recondite:

    “box”

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    Black and White World

    For all the history made in Barack Obama’s successful presidential run, the final Election Day ballot was about us, not him. We voted, stared into the face of American racism, and made our choice. As the African-American comic Paul Mooney said, this was the first national election that forced whites to enter the voting booth and confront race—something that blacks, Mooney noted, have been doing ever since they could vote.

    For most of the civic history of black America, that reckoning has been much more than a punch line—as historian David R. Roediger and law professor Ariela J. Gross make

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    Grave Doubts

    The Civil War was by far the bloodiest war in American history. The Union and Confederate armies suffered more than 620,000 fatalities— roughly equivalent to the American dead of the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War put together. Among all combatants, the death rate was six times that of World War II; among Southerners, three times that of Northerners. Noncombatants, too, were swept up in this first modern, total war: An estimated fifty thousand civilians died. The numbers can be fleshed out with images

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    The City That Never Sweeps

    The picture “dissolves to life—and I enter a passageway of a street,” cobbled with lava, and the lunchtime air full of a “savage drum-roll of descending grilles” over one storefront after another. So in the opening pages of her 1970 novel, The Bay of Noon, Shirley Hazzard sends her young narrator on a walk through the historic center of Naples. Jenny Unsworth has come to Italy to work as a translator for nato, but she has no particular interest in the place; she wants merely to be out of England. The war stands a decade in the past, yet the region is still battered, and indeed, the book’s first

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    WHO’S YOUR DADDY?

    The word patriarchy is often fodder for crude caricature in today’s debates about gender politics. On the one hand, it furnishes a ready touchstone for feminist academics—an all-purpose indictment of gender injustices, past and present—as any glance across women’s-studies sections in academic-press catalogues will quickly confirm. On the other, it serves as a no-less-convenient rhetorical cudgel for antifeminist writers (and, for that matter, bloggers, cable talk-show hosts, et al.) keen to dismiss or deride the sweep of feminist thought; in this usage, it doubles as a winking, half-ironic way

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    WORKING, STIFFED

    For much of the past eight years, many liberal intellectuals have seemed less inclined to support blue-collar Americans in their struggles than to look askance at their presumed political, consumer, and cultural preferences. Why did so many white working-class voters support George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004? Why do so many moderate-income Americans not only shop at Wal-Mart but embrace it as a model of enterprise—even though it drives down wages and benefits for both its own workers and those at its suppliers worldwide? And why does so much popular culture, from Fox News to talk radio, reflect

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    THE BELIEVERS

    Seven years after the tragedy of September 11, the world has not seen an act of terrorism to match it. That’s at least some comfort, when one considers that Osama bin Laden remains at large, that suicide attacks by his sympathizers have become commonplace in countries where they were once unheard-of, and that more than four thousand US soldiers have lost their lives in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, which continue with little abatement in Islamist recruiting efforts and no end in sight.

    Countless books have been published on al-Qaeda and on US efforts to combat jihadist terrorism. These

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    LOVE AND DEBT

    It seems entirely fitting that the first study to take intellectual measure of the present economic crisis should come from a Canadian fiction writer, best known for dystopian portraits of social control gone hopelessly awry. For as Margaret Atwood contends in Payback, an edited collection of talks she delivered as the 2008 CBC Massey Lectures, debt is both a financial and a spiritual condition, occupying “that peculiar nexus where money, narrative or story, and religious belief intersect, often with explosive force.” Atwood, of course, began her book well before the September collapse of world

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    INTO THE MYSTIC

    An antitechnological, antirational, and antimodern modernist, Andrei Tarkovsky was, with Bresson, Dreyer, and Brakhage, one of twentieth-century cinema’s great solitary figures. No less than they, Tarkovsky saw his art as a quasi-religious calling and, having more or less reinvented film language to suit his interests, regarded himself as essentially unique. Although he evidently considered Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest to be the greatest of films, his own vision was not nearly so austere. The inventor and master of the Soviet sublime, Tarkovsky realized himself with a singular convulsive

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    CONSTRUCTION PAPERS

    Few architects have generated as much interest as the master theorist, builder, urban designer, and visual artist born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret in the Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1887. Starting as early as 1910 and until his death in 1965, the man who would be known as Le Corbusier produced letters, pamphlets, books, schemes, plans, villas, cities, and even shacks (his beloved quasi-monastic cabanon at Roquebrune Cap-Martin on the French Riviera) that have revolutionized the way architects and designers conceive of themselves and their work. Traveling incessantly around the world, he

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    HARD TIMES

    For those who object to the rise of pornography studies as an academic subfield or balk at paying astronomical tuition so their kids can watch people boink on-screen for course credit, Linda Williams is the one to blame. Her landmark 1989 study Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible” was the first book to take porn seriously as a film genre, treating the subject with scholarly and theoretical sophistication while deftly evading the tedious pro-porn versus anti-porn arguments of the day. Now the canonical text in the field it initiated, Hard Core propelled a generation of

    Read more
  • print • Dec/Jan 2009

    ANGST GIVING

    On the cover of Noah Isenberg’s new anthology, a nearly naked woman, her head adorned with radiating feathers and her breasts covered only by bejeweled pasties, stares at us with heavily raccooned eyes and a slight smirk that betrays a calculated cool. The hard yet seductive gaze is Maria’s, or rather that of her false double, the robot that inventor Rotwang created to lead the workers to self-destruction in Fritz Lang’s 1927 science-fiction fantasy, Metropolis. The image is well chosen. Promiscuity and male anxiety, medieval witchcraft and state-of-the-art special effects, displaced class

    Read more