Behind the curtain: Scandal, tragedy, art and politics at the Bolshoi

By Jamie Saxon

ON THE NIGHT OF JAN. 17, 2013, a hooded assailant approached Sergey Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater Ballet, and flung battery acid in his face. The crime made international headlines and stunned a community of artists known for elegance rather than violence. Some months later at a gala at the Kremlin, Simon Morrison, a professor of music and an expert on 20th-century Russian and Soviet music and ballet, met Filin, who had undergone numerous operations in Germany and had lost all of his sight in one eye.

“You could still see the scars on his neck from the acid,” Morrison said. “He wore these dark wraparound glasses and had an attendant with him administering drops. It was horrific, deeply macabre.”

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today

In his new book, Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), Professor of Music Simon Morrison weaves a richly detailed account of the Bolshoi Ballet from its origins in 1776 under Catherine the Great through its glorious history as a cradle for high art, political intrigue and shocking scandal. Book cover courtesy W. W. Norton & Sons.

Morrison’s encounter with Filin inspired him to explore whether the Bolshoi — a symbol of Russia presented to the world as a great cultural icon — had been roiled by these types of scandals in the past, and what that said about the institution historically and politically. He wrote a piece about the attack for the London Review of Books, prompting a literary agent to suggest that he write a book about the incident.

Morrison knew that the story of the attack, despite its tragedy, would not on its own have a lot of traction or depth as a book. He had to get into the history of the organization, explore the archives and talk with other scholars. To learn more about how art and politics intersect at the Bolshoi, Morrison began an intensive three-year research process.

The result is a richly detailed account of the crown jewel of Russian culture, considered an emblem of power by the government since its founding in 1776, according to Morrison. “It is a tale about the kind of negative pressures that lead to the creation of great art,” he said. “One of the morals of the story is that in the Soviet experience there’s something about immense censorship, repression and threat that leads to the production of masterpieces. The Bolshoi has been burned and rebuilt and almost liquidated numerous times, yet has produced some of the world’s greatest ballets, including Swan Lake.”

A member of the Princeton faculty since 1998, Morrison has been diving deep into the Moscow archives — once with mittens on his fingers — for nearly two decades and knows them well. He also knows the art of “gentle pestering” often required to access them. Morrison earned his Ph.D. in music history from Princeton in 1997, and his previous works include Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, and Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, a biography of Prokofiev’s first wife.

His research for Bolshoi Confidential took him into the small theater museum at the Bolshoi and the immense theater and dance archives in the Bakhrushin Museum as well as the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art and the Russian State Archive of Social Political History, which houses the records of the Central Committee (the operating division of the Stalinist government in the Kremlin), among others. He also enlisted the help of freelance archivist Ilya Magin, whom he said was indispensable for researching the Imperial era in the St. Petersburg archives. In addition, Morrison conversed with dance critics and historians in Moscow “who have lived and breathed ballet all their lives.” He even wrangled an invitation to spend the day at the dacha, or country house, of Yuri Grigorovich, ballet master from the Khrushchev-Brezhnev era into the 1990s, now almost 90.

Among the gems Morrison uncovered was an enormous box of bureaucratic correspondence about the search for a real donkey for the ballet Don Quixote, created by the famous choreographer Marius Petipa. During the ballet’s first run in St. Petersburg in 1869-70, a female donkey was borrowed from a nearby vaudeville show. “This poor thing had a heart attack and died on the stage during a rehearsal,” said Morrison, who read the long veterinary report. In Moscow, the Bolshoi used a male donkey from the Moscow Zoo. “This donkey was trotted in with its minder from the zoo to the theater every day for the show and there was a budget for ‘treats in the form of bread and oats’ for the donkey. To the present day in Moscow, they use a donkey in Don Quixote,” he said.

Stalin at the Bolshoi

Professor of Music Simon Morrison explores how the Bolshoi Ballet was used throughout history as a political tool. Pictured is Joseph Stalin (fourth from right), former leader of the Soviet Union, attending the Bolshoi in the mid-1930s. (Photo courtesy of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art)

Throughout its storied past and to this day, the Bolshoi — the theater and its eponymous ballet company, arguably the finest in the world — has been indelibly controlled by the government — culture and politics, performers and bureaucrats, forever entwined. For example, the iconic Soviet ballet of the late 1920s, The Red Poppy, a tale of Soviet sailors who are detained in China, is about the Stalinist regime’s involvement in the rise of Communist China. “The Central Committee decided when and how this ballet would be produced and performed in 1927,” Morrison said.

The Bolshoi, with more than 2,000 seats, was a kind of political convention center during the Soviet period, Morrison said, and was used for the signing of the Soviet Constitution in 1935. After the Revolution, Vladimir Lenin gave speeches there.

In 2005, at the start of its most recent renovation — which took six years and cost $680 million — the theater was gutted and boxes of ancient materials were found in the basement and attic. Soldiers were brought in to move the materials into the administrative building next door. “There is always that connection between arts and the government,” Morrison said. “The Bolshoi is a national treasure.”

Dancers practicing

Elizaveta Gerdt, one of the few ballerinas who did not leave Russia after the Soviets took over, instructs Bolshoi ballet dancers Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Preobrazhensky in 1947. (Photo Courtesy of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art)

While once accessible to people of all classes with affordable tickets in the Soviet era, today the Bolshoi is no longer “the people’s house,” Morrison said. Tickets can cost as much as $500. “It’s a kind of playground for the petrolruble crowd in that way in which oligarchs now control so much of the culture in Russia, much of it eroded into popularized entertainment.”

But still the Bolshoi Ballet goes on. In late May, Pavel Dmitrichenko, the dancer who was convicted of and imprisoned for organizing the attack against Sergey Filin, was released on bail having served only half his sentence. “He now wants to dance again at the Bolshoi,” Morrison said. “If he does, which I think is 50-50 at this point, he may well be performing in the ballet that he was performing in when he was convicted, which is Ivan the Terrible. If that happens, the perverse ironies pile up because Ivan the Terrible is rumored to have blinded the architects of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square to ensure that they never again built anything as beautiful. Dmitrichenko’s rehabilitation is so implausible that it is almost guaranteed of happening. Ballet is like that.”

JANE COX receives the Ruth Morley Design Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women

Jane Cox

Jane Cox (Photo by Evan Alexander)

Jane Cox, senior lecturer in theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts and director of the Program in Theater, was presented with the Ruth Morley Design Award from the League of Professional Theatre Women on May 3, 2016. The annual award recognizes leading female designers working in theater and film. Cox is an award-winning lighting designer and has been a lecturer at Princeton since 2007. Her recent projects include Hamlet, starring English actor Benedict Cumberbatch and directed by Lyndsey Turner, and the new musical Amelie, directed by Pam MacKinnon. She received a 2016 Drama Desk Award nomination for her lighting design on the Broadway revival of The Color Purple.

MARINA RUSTOW, historian of the medieval Middle East, wins MacArthur Fellowship

Marina Rustow

Marina Rustow (Photo courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Marina Rustow, the Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East and professor of Near Eastern studies and history, has been awarded a 2015 MacArthur Fellowship.

Rustow is among 24 scientists, artists, scholars and activists who will each receive $625,000 no-strings-attached grants over a five-year period from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a capacity for self-direction.

Rustow’s area of specialization is the medieval Middle East, particularly texts from the Cairo Geniza, a cache of more than 300,000 folio pages of legal documents, letters and literary materials that span more than a millennium and were preserved in an Egyptian synagogue. In its announcement, the MacArthur Foundation cited Rustow for research on the Geniza texts “that shed new light on Jewish life and on the broader society of the medieval Middle East. Rustow’s approach to this archive goes beyond decoding documents, in itself a formidable task, to questioning the relationship between subjects and medieval states and asking what that relationship tells us about power and the negotiation of religious boundaries.”

GUGGENHEIM FELLOWSHIPS awarded

Two faculty members and a visiting lecturer have received 2016 fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in recognition of their excellence in scholarship or creative work. The fellowships were awarded to Daniel Garber, the A. Watson Armour, III, University Professor of Philosophy, for his project, How Philosophy Became Modern in the 17th Century; Juri Seo, assistant professor of music, for music composition; and Raphael Xavier, a visiting lecturer in dance and the Lewis Center for the Arts, for choreography.

Garber researches the history of philosophy and the history of science in the early modern period, especially the questions of what is considered philosophy and what is considered science, and how that has changed over time. He is the author of numer- ous works on the science and philosophy of Galileo Galilei, René Descartes, Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and others.

Seo is a composer and pianist who writes music that is unified and fluid but also complex in structure. She brings influences from music of the past century into her compositions, which are serious and humorous, lyrical and violent, and use fast-changing dynamics. She has earned many composition honors and joined the Princeton faculty in fall 2014.

A hip-hop practitioner since 1983, Xavier is a choreographer with a profound understanding of movement, sound and musicality. In addition to his success at integrating hip-hop styles into dance theater, he has created an approach to dance that helps with physical healing and makes movement accessible to any body type. His artistic work also includes photography, film and music.

Raphael Xavier

Raphael Xavier (Photo by Brian Mengini)

Juri Seo

Juri Seo (Photo by Andrew Wilkinson)

Daniel Garber

Daniel Garber (Photo by Nick Barberio)

Exploring the emergence of Cuban consumerism

DENNISSE CALLE FOUND THE TOPIC for her senior thesis along a Havana street in the back of a stall that sells pirated movies and music.

Cubans pay the equivalent of a few dollars, insert a flash drive into the computer at the back of the stall, and get access to El Paquete — a weekly, one-terabyte compilation of popular TV shows, movies, music, computer and phone apps, and advertisements that serves as an offline Netflix, YouTube, Craigslist and more in a country where internet access is slow and expensive.  Calle, a sociology major at Princeton, spent two weeks in January doing research in Cuba and interviewed 50 users and distributors of El Paquete — which means “The Package” — to learn about the service and the way it fits into the lives of everyday Cubans.

“I focus on how El Paquete is transforming how people view themselves as consumers,” Calle said. “This is one of the first forms of consumer culture that is being normalized in Cuba, in part because it’s cheap and easy to pass around.”

The origins of El Paquete, which began around 2008, are unclear, as is the identity of the people behind it. El Paquete is  widely available — either distributed door to door using a portable hard drive or from central locations like the stall where Calle discovered it — despite existing in a sort of legal gray area in Cuba.

It offers an alternative to state-controlled Cuban television, which broadcasts only 10 channels of news and sedate fare to most residents.

Many of the TV shows and movies — generally subtitled in Spanish — come from the United States, along with the United Kingdom and Spain. Competition shows such as “The Voice” and “Cake Wars” are popular, as are South Korean soap operas.  Calle, who is originally from Ecuador and moved to Trenton, New Jersey, also looked beyond the content to explore how El Paquete is changing the way people see themselves. “I think it’s reflective of what’s happening in Cuba, moving from a state that is very controlling to one that is allowing capitalism to emerge into the nation and its culture,” she said.

Calle’s research and analysis are impressive, said her adviser, Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a senior lecturer in sociology. “It’s really a study about identity,” Fernandez-Kelly said. “Not just personal identity but national identity.”

What’s ahead for El Paquete in Cuba, which has been working to ease tensions with the United States? Calle predicts El Paquete will survive even if Cubans gain broader access to the internet —  in part because it is so inexpensive and easily shared.  –By Michael Hotchkiss

The literature of madness and how it shaped modern psychiatry

IN 1890, THE RUSSIAN PHYSICIAN and writer Anton Chekhov traveled across Siberia to document the lives of prisoners sentenced to a remote penal colony on Sakhalin Island. The visit inspired not only a nonfiction exposé but also several works of fiction, including a famous short story, “Ward Number Six,” about the ill-fated friendship of a doctor and a paranoiac patient in a rural Russian institution.

Science and medicine often provide the inspiration for literature, but graduate student Cate Reilly notes that the reverse also can be true. In an effort to establish psychiatry as a legitimate medical science, German physicians in the period from the 1890s to the late 1920s created a standardized terminology, one that eventually formed the basis of our present-day diagnostic manual of mental illness. Reilly, a doctoral student in comparative literature, is exploring how the literary descriptions of mental disorders by Russian and German-language fiction writers contributed to the science of mental illness in ways that stay with us today.

“The story that hasn’t been told is about the birth of these terms and how literature influenced the development of our current international classification system for mental disorders,” Reilly said. “This was all happening at a time of tremendous exchanges between psychiatrists in Germany and Russia. Those nations’ creative writers, some of whom were doctor-physicians like Chekhov, were involved in and contributed to this classification system.”

Reilly was inspired to explore this interdisciplinary area in part by modern debates over the extent to which definitions of pathologies are shaped by culture. At one time, mental illnesses included homosexuality and “indigenous psychopathology,” a diagnosis given by French physicians to native Algerians to justify their subjugation. “Once you have the standardization of these terms, then you start to see their abuse for purposes of power,” Reilly said.

Reilly explores how psychiatry and literature influenced each other during this critical time by citing works by Chekhov, Russian playwright Nikolai Evreinov, and German-language authors Rainer Maria Rilke and Alfred Döblin. For example, Evreinov’s dramas drew themes from German psychology and the anatomical-imaging technologies available during the 1880s and 1890s. Döblin’s 1924 “true-crime” novella, Two Girlfriends Commit Murder by Poisoning, about a court case involving lesbians who plotted to kill their husbands, featured pages of pseudoscientific diagrams to explain the women’s mental states.

“When creative writers influence what happens in psychiatry, it is not so much the case of a specific work of literature influencing a single term or definition, but the opening of a space for experimentation in how mental illness is characterized,” Reilly said. –By Catherine Zandonella

Race for profits

Research on the 1970s urban housing crisis exposes a familiar history

By Catherine Zandonella

PREDATORY LENDERS. Subprime and no-doc loans. Mortgage-backed securities. Mass foreclosures that disproportionately impacted minority homeowners. Sound like 2008? It was 1972.

The subprime-mortgage crisis is nothing new, at least for America’s poor urban communities. In the late 1960s, the United States government, reeling from violent civil-rights protests, enacted a plan to encourage homeownership among poor and low-income residents, most of whom were African American. But the program, a partnership between public agencies and private enterprise, quickly became rife with corruption. The result was eerily prescient of the recent housing crisis.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton assistant professor of African American studies, became fascinated by this little-remembered era as a graduate student. She was living in Chicago and was already a fierce proponent of social justice — she attended her first demonstration at age 16, in support of women’s reproductive rights. She has brought that tradition of activism to her position at Princeton where, within a year of being hired, she wrote her first book, touching on how structural inequalities embedded in American society and its institutions have fueled the Black Lives Matter movement. The book, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Haymarket Books, 2016), received the 2016 Lannan Foundation Freedom Award for an Especially Notable Book.

The fact that inequality continues to permeate society some 60 years after the dismantling of discriminatory laws comes as no surprise to Taylor. As a student in the 1990s at a predominantly black high school in Buffalo, New York, she recalls being told by a white teacher that the students “would all be on welfare” if they didn’t learn to respect authority. During a parent-teacher conference, the teacher threatened to call the police to remove her father, who was a university professor.

Although she enrolled in college directly after high school, Taylor was restless, and after a year, she dropped out and moved to New York City to pursue writing. She continued to demonstrate against social injustice, protesting police brutality in the city. A relationship led her to move to Chicago where she and her partner joined efforts to repeal the death penalty.

A turning point for Taylor came in 2000 when these efforts paid off: Illinois’ governor placed a moratorium on executions. “It was an important moment for me because I saw the results that can happen when people advocate for change,” she said. At 29, she decided to finish her undergraduate degree and enrolled at Northeastern Illinois University in a program for returning adult students.

Taylor already knew she wanted to study housing disparities and race when she entered graduate school at Northwestern University. “I was fascinated by how rigidly segregated Chicago is,” Taylor said. “The black areas stretch for miles, and you can walk for blocks without seeing a white person.”

Through her work as a community organizer, Taylor had learned about the housing policies that shaped segregation in Chicago and the nation. The government’s post-World War II emphasis on homeownership favored purchases in newly built suburbs. Many black families could not afford to buy in the new suburbs, and those that could endured blatant discrimination from realtors. The government considered urban areas to be “high-risk,” so these areas didn’t qualify for federally insured loans, a policy Taylor described in her doctoral dissertation as “racial judgments cloaked in the garb of objective economic analysis.”

The civil unrest of the 1960s brought attention to the crisis of dilapidated and unsafe housing in urban America. In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 announced that the government would extend its pro-home buying policy — including federally insured loans — to low-income purchasers. The hope was that a new cadre of urban residents, spurred by the pride of homeownership, would fix up neglected dwellings and catalyze urban renewal from within.

The new program would accomplish this through the creation of a “federally chartered private, profitmaking housing partnership.” Under the program, called Section 235, the private sector would provide the real estate agents, appraisers, mortgage brokers and financing, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would oversee the process.

Flaws emerged almost from the outset. One was that the responsibility for vetting a potential homeowner’s creditworthiness fell to parties that had little stake in making sure people could afford the loans. Traditional banks and savings-and-loans stayed away from the new borrowers — they were considered too risky. Instead, a new type of lender, the mortgage broker, stepped in and began to pool loans that were resold as investments known as mortgage-backed securities.

By 1971, new infractions had surfaced. Owners found that the homes had more than cosmetic problems, including “faulty plumbing, leaky roofs, cracked plaster, faulty and inadequate wiring, rotten wood in the floors, staircases and porches, lack of insulation and faulty heating units,” according to a HUD report. “About one-quarter were in such poor condition that investigators concluded that they should have never been insured,” wrote Taylor in her dissertation.

It emerged that real estate speculators were buying cheap and uninhabitable properties and quickly “flipping” them for sale under the Section 235 program. A HUD internal report found that real estate agents, property appraisers and mortgage brokers colluded to artificially inflate prices for buyers. “No-doc” loans — issued without checking income statements and other documents — were common because, due to the federal insurance payout, lenders stood to make more money when a borrower defaulted. The report called attention to the biased attitudes of HUD officials toward the potential homeowners, suggesting that race played a role in letting the abuse happen.

The program came to an end in 1973 when President Richard M. Nixon declared a moratorium on subsidized housing programs, citing the corruption and disarray. A new narrative emerged that enabled the government to distance itself from programs to help provide homeownership in the inner cities: Poor people were too irresponsible to own homes and to revitalize their own communities.

This new narrative ignored the evidence — documented in HUD reports, hearings before Congress and major newspapers — that property speculators, real estate agents, appraisers and mortgage brokers lured poor and predominantly African American people into buying homes they could not afford. By mid-1975, the foreclosures were mounting. Foreclosure rates were seven times higher in the low-income housing programs than they were in the conventional home-lending market. According to newspaper reports, the government had paid more than $4 billion in insurance claims since the start of the program.

Yet, few people were indicted or censured for these failings, Taylor found. One reason was the close relationship between the private sector and HUD. According to a government report, the president of the Mortgage Bankers Association had personally helped write HUD regulations.

In archives held at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Taylor found the personal correspondence of Carla Hills, HUD director during the mid-1970s. The files were a treasure trove — an insight into what HUD officials were thinking during the height of the scandal. What Taylor found surprised her.

“There was a reluctance to discipline lenders and private-sector companies because of the fear that too much regulation would discourage participation in HUD programs,” Taylor said. “There also was a discussion of HUD employees’ concerns that they would be risking their ability to get jobs in the private sector. It was a surprise to me to find an open, written discussion of these issues.”

This and other evidence has helped inform Taylor’s viewpoint that private enterprise has no business shaping or implementing public policies. “In my opinion, those two spheres are very different,” she said. “Private enterprise is about making profits, while the public sector was created to protect the public’s welfare. As my work shows, public-private partnerships have a history, and this history should be included in the discussion about the best approaches to providing necessities such as water, healthcare, education or housing.”

Taylor earned her doctorate and published her dissertation, “Race for Profit: Black Housing and the Urban Crisis in the 1970s,” in 2013. She began as a faculty member at Princeton the following year, and she continues her work as an activist through her writing, lectures and community involvement. She is now writing a book about her housing research.

Her combination of high-quality research and her drive to bring her findings to the broader public are needed to make sure past policy mistakes are not repeated, said Taylor’s Ph.D. adviser, Martha Biondi, a professor of African American studies and history at Northwestern University.

“Questions around finance and lending have been critically important in our own recent recession, and Keeanga brings a sharp historical lens to an issue that has been forgotten and neglected in most histories of the 1970s,” Biondi said. “In a society that celebrates homeownership, Keeanga’s work is a cautionary tale about the ways in which homeownership can be used to exploit poor and working-class communities.”

Taylor’s work underscores the importance of research in shaping public policy, said Eddie Glaude Jr., Princeton’s William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and the chair of the Department of African American Studies.

“Keeanga’s work reveals in really powerful ways the unintended consequences of these public-private partnerships to solve the crisis of housing for low- and moderate-income families,” Glaude said. “You come away from reading her work with not only a sense of the disaster that that decision was, but also the importance of understanding its social and historical overtones.”

Taylor’s research on structural discrimination in housing, combined with her ongoing work as an activist, led her to consider how Americans can move beyond inequality to build a society where people are treated fairly and not on the basis of racial stereotypes, a topic she tackles in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.

“The Civil Rights Movement addressed legal discrimination, but it also revealed that the problems confronting African Americans were not just Jim Crow laws — they were the practices and customs of racial discrimination that weren’t written in law, that were found in real estate or banking or employment,” Taylor said. “The outcome has been that African Americans suffer disproportionately in the areas that determine the quality of one’s life.”

The Black Lives Matter movement has brought much-needed awareness to the structural and institutional forms of racism in American society, she said. “We’ve become accustomed to thinking of racism as acts by individuals. But putting the blame on the individual suggests that racism can be overcome by education alone.”

Instead, Taylor reminds us that throughout history racism has been used as a way for the powerful to control others for material gain — and it is still used that way. “Unless you address the way society is organized, you won’t dismantle that power structure,” Taylor said. “Patterns, unless actively undone, replicate themselves.

“Knowledge alone will not reverse this.”

Cuban literature and culture are focus of Planet/Cuba

RACHEL PRICE, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese who also is affiliated with the Program in Media and Modernity, joined Princeton in 2009. Her scholarship focuses on culture, media, poetics, empire and ecocriticism in Latin American, Caribbean and, particularly, Cuban literature.  In her book Planet/Cuba (2015, Verso Books), Price addresses contemporary literature as well as conceptual, digital and visual art from Cuba that engages questions of environmental crisis, new media, and new forms of labor and leisure.

What inspired you to write this book?

I wanted to think about the many positions Cuba has occupied in its own imagination and for the rest of the world. Cuban history has always been inescapably global — it was shaped by empires, by massive slave trade, and by sitting at the junction of international trade routes. Both because of and despite this, Cuba is often discussed as singular: sometimes as a theme park, or as a world apart, as a kind of “Planet Cuba.” By introducing the slash [in the title], I also wanted to call attention to the indissociable relation between Cuba and the planet.

The book has a strong emphasis on ecology. How are artists addressing issues of climate change and issues such as the impact of deforestation in Cuba?

So much of life in Cuba, like anywhere on the planet, is deeply marked by an engagement with the environment. In cities, where food security is an issue; in the countryside, where drought is an increasing problem and where invasive species restore nitrates to land worn out by sugar but also thwart agriculture; and in the water, where fishing is diminished.

Artists and writers engage ecological questions both on the local and global scales. To give just a few examples, they may make humorous video art about the failures of agricultural reform in Cuba, create installations (“environments”) that involve living trees, or write speculative fiction — another term for science fiction — that imagines mass migrations caused by ever increasing hurricanes in the Caribbean.

How does art-making in Cuba reflect issues of surveillance and state security?

Artists use a variety of approaches: hacking into systems of transmission and rebroadcasting information; creating exhibits that force viewers to participate unwittingly in being surveilled; producing video-game art that simulates a famous Panopticon prison [such as Cuba’s Presidio Modelo]; and so on.

What interested me in particular was the way that art references the particularities of Cuba’s network of vigilance, but goes beyond it to comment on — or intervene into — the more pervasive global systems of surveillance, both state and corporate, in which we all participate. –By Jamie Saxon

Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine

Author: Lital Levy
Publisher: Princeton University Press, 2014B_4_Levy_PoeticTrespass

A Palestinian-Israeli poet declares a new state whose language, “Homelandic,” is a combination of Arabic and Hebrew. A Jewish- Israeli author imagines a “language plague” that infects young Hebrew speakers with old-world accents, and sends the narrator in search of his Arabic heritage. In Poetic Trespass, Lital Levy, associate professor of comparative literature, brings together such startling visions to offer the first in-depth study of the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic in the literature and culture of Israel/Palestine. More than that, she presents a captivating portrait of the literary imagination’s power to transgress political boundaries and transform ideas about language and belonging.

Blending history and literature, Poetic Trespass traces the interwoven life of Arabic and Hebrew in Israel/Palestine from the turn of the 20th century to the present, exposing the two languages’ intimate entanglements in contemporary works of prose, poetry, film and visual art by both Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel.

All text and images courtesy of the publisher.

Download PDF

Beyond Greek: The Beginnings of Latin Literature

Author: Denis Feeney
Publisher: Harvard University Press, 2016 (available January)

B_1_Feeney_Beyond_GreekVirgil, Ovid, Cicero, Horace and other authors of ancient Rome are so firmly established in the Western canon today that the birth of Latin literature seems inevitable. Yet, as Denis Feeney, the Giger Professor of Latin and professor of classics, boldly argues, the beginnings of Latin literature were anything but inevitable. The cultural flourishing that in time produced the Aeneid, the Metamorphoses, and other Latin classics was one of the strangest events in history.

Beyond Greek traces the emergence of Latin literature from 240 to 140 B.C., beginning with Roman stage productions of plays that represented the first translations of Greek literary texts into another language. From a modern perspective, translating foreign-language literature into the vernacular seems perfectly normal. But in an ancient Mediterranean world made up of many multilingual societies with no equivalent to the text-based literature of the Greeks, literary translation was unusual if not unprecedented. Feeney shows how it allowed the Romans to systematically take over Greek forms of tragedy, comedy and epic, making them their own and giving birth to what has become known as Latin literature.

All text and images courtesy of the publisher.

Download PDF