Reviews

The Wantok System

The Wantok System

A horizon of maximum difference, a test bed for linguistics and for linguists

New Guinea remained on my radar: a horizon of maximum difference, a test bed for linguistics and for linguists. Elsewhere, linguistic differences usually stem from geographic isolation. But in much of New Guinea the diversity is actually deepest in places where travel is easiest. Instead of using religion, clothing, or food, Papua New Guineas have distinguished themselves above all through language. Call it tribalism or, as linguists do, the “constructive fostering of variegation” through “intentional language change.”

Devil’s Haircut

Devil’s Haircut

Dorkiness in the service of mind-expansion

The negative consensus surrounding the show has now reached sufficient mass that one can now put it on the couch. At its psychic root, all the criticism appears to converge at one point: Koolhaas himself, and the methodology he represents.

Pollito, Chicken; Gallina, Hen

Pollito, Chicken; Gallina, Hen

American Dirt in Mexico

Notice how the register of the prose, with its figures and rates, evokes the rhetoric of nonfiction. The use of general, declarative sentences about Mexico, in particular, makes me think of what my journalism professors used to call the nut-graf—the paragraph in the article where the journalist briefly pauses her account of the news to establish, in the most efficient way possible, the context for the events on which she is reporting. The result is that Cummins’s book often slips into didacticism.

Adrift

On Amit Chaudhuri

Chaudhuri’s attachment to a middle-class cultural moment limits his novels’ social scope; but it also suggests a certain feeling for collective life, famously foreign to modernism. For, as his early novels make clear, Chaudhuri’s writing emerged out of a modernist world; the sense of shared imaginative space in the middle-class Calcutta of his childhood allowed Chaudhuri early on to lose patience with modernism’s asocial obsessions, replacing alienation with affirmation, atomized angst with a troubled but real impression of community.

Free Your Mind

Free Your Mind

A Speculative Review of #NewMoMA

These kinds of contrasts give rise to history understood as a morass of unresolved conflicts and multiple lines of flight, rather than a unified tale of artistic development. Of course, none of the current constellations break new ground or present innovative scholarship—that is still a step too far for even #newMoMA—but they renounce the egregious evasions that were previously MoMA’s calling card.

Vernacular Modernism

Vernacular Modernism

Good buildings are adaptable

Buildings like these are everywhere in America. More particularly, they’re the pre-1990s inner sprawl around the multi-lane peripheries of older Eastern cities; the outer downtowns of St. Louis, Indianapolis, and other cities of the lower Midwest; the inner downtowns of the Sun Belt; and pretty much all of Oakland, California. In New York City these buildings tend to be the dull-seeming libraries, schools, police stations, and fire stations built in the ’60s and ’70s, as well as a lot of storefront offices and some of the old white-brick apartment buildings you see throughout Manhattan.

Travels with Joni Mitchell

Travels with Joni Mitchell

An oeuvre inaugurated by disavowal

Around 2014, I began to talk to friends about Joni and was disappointed—surprised—by how little they knew. These were people who listened to music. I had a conversation about her with a highly accomplished ex-student in New York, a writer who had musical training, who thought I was talking about Janis Joplin. This was related to a problem: the plethora of Js among women musicians of the time, which led to their conflation into a genre. Janis Joplin, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell: the last three especially were seen as interchangeable. Even if I put down my ex-student’s confusion to uncharacteristic generational ignorance, I found that, on mentioning Joni to a contemporary I had to work hard to distinguish her from Joan Baez. My friend had dismissed—not in the sense of “rejected,” but “taxonomized”—Joni as being part of a miscellany of singers with long, straight hair, high, clear voices, and a sincerity that shone brightly in the mass protests of the late ’60s. Visually, in her early acoustic performances with guitar, and even in her singing, she appropriated the folk singer’s persona to the point of parody, while the songwriting was absolutely unexpected. To prove this to my friend, I played her “Rainy Night House” and “Chinese Café / Unchained Melody.” It became clear in twenty seconds that Mitchell was not Joan Baez.