A visit from Lewis Lapham

February 24th, 2007 § 0 comments

One of my classes this semester is “The Culture Industries”, taught by Mark Crispin Miller. The class is structured such that we read a book each week, and the following week the author of that book comes and speaks, with the opportunity to ask questions and hear what they have to say in depth.  Aside from the emergent problem of trying to absorb over three hundred pages of material per week to a degree that I can ask competent questions, the model of the class lets me hear from from fairly prominent authors.

This week, we read excerpts from “Waiting for the Barbarians” by author, commentator, and longtime Harper’s editor, Lewis Lapham. I had only heard of Mr. Lapham by name prior to reading parts of Barbarians, and I particularly enjoyed his essays, for their biting and unapologetic sarcasm but also as refreshingly candid political commentary. For example, Lapham on the now-defunct George Magazine:

 Politics are by definition partisan, because they constitute an argument about power–about who gets to do what to whom, under what circumstances, and for how long and with what degrees of objection or consent. Castrate the quarrel, divorce politics from any meaning that cannot be sold at Bloomingdale’s, and what is left except for a round of applause for William Kristol’s tie and Cindy Crawford’s hair?

(From Eyebrow Pencils, Waiting for the Barbarians p. 49)

Many of my classmates were particularly hearing Mr. Lapham’s views on new media, and the potential effect of Internet-based publishing on traditional print forms, and civil society in general. His view was that the Internet is currently a vehicle for data, for information, statistics, and facts rather than artistic prose and “graceful phrase”, as he put it. He seemed to view the Internet as in a state of change and flux, a new technology out of which a literary artform can be made. To that end, he is launching a new publication, Lapham’s Quarterly, with an online component. The Quarterly, billed as a “journal of history” will feature historical analyses of contemporary politics and world events.

To say nothing of Mr. Lapham’s politics, which tend to the left (to say the least), based on his remarks this week and what little I have read of his writings, I will be fascinated to read Quarterly when it goes to press.

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