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Nonfiction

Adam Zamoyski, Napoleon: A LifeSkips the details of battles, but tracks the military leader turned emperor through his life, without ever really getting inside him. Mostly what comes across is that he was destroyed by the very qualities that let him take power and then a failure of decisiveness: he’d done so well with forward motion that he accepted being swept into war with Russia, and then didn’t quite know what to do with it. I would’ve liked to know more about his imposition of the Napoleonic Code, because he did seem to have some distinctive ideas about how a nation should be run.
 
Sarah Knott, Mother is a Verb: An Unconventional HistoryMixed with personal reflection, Knott tries to recover what it was like to be a mother—to realize you were pregnant, to give birth, to feed the baby—in English and US history. Much of the point is that these bodily functions, while seeming universal, have left very few traces, both because of patriarchy and because they are distracting and anti-writing in their very materiality. I’m cranky and didn’t get much from the personal elements.
Martha A. Sandweiss, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color LineClarence King, the founder of the US Geological Service and a best-selling author, was the literally fair-haired child (also blue-eyed) of an impoverished but impeccably socially credentialed New York family. Yale-educated, he was widely considered by his set—which included people like Henry Adams—to be the brightest, most charming person they knew. He was also, in his later life, posing as James Todd, a Pullman porter, in order to be married to Ada Copeland, a black woman with whom he had several children.  His few surviving letters to her speak of great love, while his writings through his life show a fetishization of nonwhite women as more authentic and natural; the book suggests that both could have been accurate.  The book has to do a lot of imagining—there are almost no records of Copeland because of racism and sexism, and almost no records of King’s life as Todd because he deliberately hid that life from his white friends, and he was able to do so because he was a white man who could move freely throughout the US and between rich white New York and the socially and geographically distinct African-American middle class New York. Racism enabled a blond, blue-eyed man to be black if he said he was (and if he was married to a more phenotypically common “black” woman), because who would say he was if he wasn’t? (Though interestingly, Pullman porters were required to be very dark-skinned to give the proper image of deference, so his claim about his profession wouldn’t have been persuasive to African-Americans who knew more about Pullman.) Sexism and racism meant that King’s first biographer didn’t bother to interview Copeland Todd, who was alive when he wrote, because he didn’t think she was important to King’s real story. So now we’ll never know a lot about how they thought about what they did; we know only this much because Copeland Todd ultimately sued to get the benefits of a trust she believed King had set up from her (he revealed the truth to her in a letter he sent shortly before his death).

The Wisdom of Wonder Woman
: Quotes and mostly gorgeous panels from various comic versions of WW (and a quote from the 2017 film).

Neil Weinstock Netanel, Copyright: What Everyone Needs to KnowOverview of US copyright law, with some reference to international copyright, in FAQ-style answers to various questions of greater and lesser specificity. A decent introduction to various basic questions; Netanel is a big fan of compulsory licensing. I wonder if American enthusiasm for this will survive encounter with Article 13 and its requirements that internet providers get licenses from entities that will very definitely try to collect money for all things that appear online but only distribute money to a far smaller subset.

Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged StudentsReally interesting and distressing study of students at elite colleges (think Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford) from poor families and communities. Even if they manage to get to an elite school (the percentage of students from families from the 0.1 percent who attend elite universities, 40%, is the same as the percentage of students from poor families who attend any college at all, including 2-year colleges; many elite colleges have more students from 1% families than from families in the bottom 60%), their struggles are far from over. Jack identifies two distinct subgroups: the Privileged Poor, who went to elite high schools through scholarships/outreach programs and are prepared for many of the social expectations of college like developing personal relationships with administrators to help with job searches and going to professors’ office hours, and the Doubly Disadvantaged, who came from non-elite high schools and don’t know what’s on the “hidden curriculum,” hampering their ability to succeed in college.

One practical thing I learned for professors to do: “When professors mention office hours, often only on the first day of classes, they tell students when office hours are. They almost never say what they are.” Some DD students even think that “office hours” means “period when I expect to work undisturbed.” Some DD students reported anxiety about navigating a new style of engagement with professors—they’d been socialized not to make trouble or ask for things, and they could view discussing nonacademic matters with faculty and administrators as “sucking up.” (That’s not wrong, at least in some ways, but it’s not the entirety of it either.) PP students were better prepared for this, but they knew it was an aquired, “rather than innate or inherited,” skill. For mental health and other things the college could help with, PP students were also more socialized to ask, like their rich counterparts. As Jack says, “for better or for worse, [asking] is how students get access to institutional resources as well as social support. None of this is explicitly stated; it is assumed that students already know what to do.” Making this more explicit would help.

Both groups can struggle to survive when schools close dorms and cafeterias during breaks, leaving poor students to go hungry or hustle in ways their peers don’t have to (including, for het women, going on dates they wouldn’t otherwise have agreed to in the expectation that a man would pay for dinner); both groups may feel compelled to take janitorial jobs that are more flexible and better-paying than other on-campus jobs, but that reinforce status hierarchies among students. As Jack points out, “[n]ot everyone is asked to explain themselves: poor students are often asked why they won’t go out for dinner or to a dance club, but no one is asking rich students to justify spending $30 for a lobster.” This could be very alienating, as DD students in particular felt both isolated and judged; PP students generally had more social resources but still faced the stresses of poverty both in terms of their own freedom to participate in campus life but also because they had to fear calls from home about needs for money or gang violence or the like.

Jack suggests a number of incremental fixes, if we’re not going to fix high school for poor kids. He points to programs that coach students how to ask questions when they meet with a professor, extensions of cafeteria coverage for holidays, and de-segregation of discount tickets for scholarship students so that there’s no separate door or line for using them to take advantage of the many amazing campus opportunities that are offered—one program he discusses switched to offering the tickets electronically so they could be printed at home or shown on a phone. He also suggests including families/off-campus networks in orientation to make them aware of the available resources and to explain what college life is like. There was also one fascinating observation about poor whites: it was hard for him to find low-income whites who went to elite high schools. They apparently participate in the pipeline programs that funnel poor kids to elite high schools at a lower rate, because they’re not targeted by diversity initiatives at elite high schools in the way that black and Latino students are, and also perhaps because of geography—poor students in cities, relatively more likely to be black and Latino, may have more opportunity to attend private schools than poor students in rural areas.

K.E. Gover, Art and Authority: Moral Rights and Meaning in Contemporary Visual ArtIf you are into philosophy and art, this might be of interest. Gover spends a lot of time arguing for a particular definition of what it means to be the artwork of an artist for purposes of attribution (and avoiding attribution)—the artist must both conclude that it is her work, and also agree that it is finished; these decisions often happen at the same time but can be distinct. An abandoned canvas in an artist’s studio is not “hers” in the same sense as one she signs and sends out into the world, though it’s “hers” enough that she should be able to decide whether it’s “her” “work of art.” We value artworks not for their instrumental uses, like a smartphone, but for their expression of an artist’s conception, which is why it matters whether the artist agrees that it’s her work.

Works in progress when an artist dies, or works in progress when a relationship between artist and sponsor fall apart, then create ethical problems: are they really works of that artist? A well-known dispute over an artist, Büchel, and Mass MoCA, which eventually refused to continue buying stuff for him for his ever-increasing demands for an installation, provides an example; among other things, Gover argues, museums and other institutions that collect supposedly avant-garde art end up reinstantiating the idea of the unique, romantic author because they treat the individual as supreme, in contradiction to the theory of art that both sides purport to espouse. Gover argues that when you sell a work—or make a work with someone else’s money, even—that should limit the rights you have to control the disposition of the work, even if you are later embarrassed by it or think it no longer reflects your artistic intentions. Relatedly, Gover argues that there are limits on what an artist can declare to be part of the “work,” which is relevant when artists argue that their art is site-specific and can’t be moved or removed without violating their moral rights. Further, we can question artists’ statements about their intent and meaning without violating their rights; in some cases, “artists’ claims about the boundaries of their artworks can be rejected not only because they conflict with the property rights of others, but because their assertions can be unconvincing in light of the other properties of the work.”

When it comes to conflicts between copyright law and appropriation art, Gover argues that considering appropriation presumptively derivative and unfair is “more in accord with appropriation art’s theoretical purpose to undermine originality as an ideal of authorship,” which I think undercounts the idea of “transformative” meaning for purposes of copyright law, but is certainly internally consistent. Appropriation art, Gover argues, whittles down the moment of creation to one where creativity is exercised is selecting what to copy, and authorship is asserted as a matter of claiming the work as one’s own. This “serves as a bold assertion of artistic authority, rather than simply a renunciation of it. The appropriation artist seems to abjure the standard of originality for artworks but is in fact unable to escape being so …. For which is more mysterious and god-like: authorship that results from eighteen months of labor on an oversized canvas, or authorship that consists of selecting an already-existing work so as to claim it as one’s own new and different work of art?” As Gover points out, you can’t understand a work of appropriation art “correctly” without knowing that it’s appropriative, and it is “strange that appropriation art’s defenders consistently articulate its significance as a means of rejecting the concept of absolute originality, and yet they nevertheless want to defend its importance as a new and original form of art-making that results in new and different works of art.”

I agree that “derivative” shouldn’t be a term of opprobrium (in copyright law, it’s supposed to be a neutral descriptor of, e.g., the movie version of a book), but I don’t think it then follows that all derivative works are nontransformative for copyright purposes, or vice versa. In fact, some appropriation art counts as a “reproduction” and not a “derivative work” for purposes of copyright law; others—readymades—aren’t even reproductions. Gover isn’t a copyright lawyer, so it’s more forgivable that the argument here collapses differences in form and differences in meaning into the same thing, when sometimes it matters for copyright law which you have created and why. From a legal perspective, still, even if Gover is right in diagnosing what appropriation artists are doing, it doesn’t follow that they should need copyright owners’ permission to make their art (Gover suggests that this is no different as needing to buy the physical components like paint, software, and canvas to create).

comment count unavailable comments on DW | reply there. I have invites or you can use OpenID.

Tags: au: gover, au: jack, au: knott, au: netanel, au: sandweiss, au: various, au: zamoyski, c: wonder woman, nonfiction, reviews
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