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The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

» June 10th, 2019

Note: I think Wilde was a great playwright but not so much a great novelist. The Picture of Dorian Gray seems more of a vehicle for Wilde to present his philosophy of aesthetics than a successful modernist work. That said, when a talent such as Wilde falters even a little the result is worth it, as is this book.

“A grande passion is the privilege of people who have nothing to do.”

The quote is one of hundreds offered up by Lord Henry Wotton, who veritably speaks in such pithiness, and it’s entirely ridiculous as a factual claim. Which is not to suggest that there is not an element of truth in it. What I find worth pondering is the relationship between the work we are required to do to survive and the desires we want to pursue to live. One reason why I’m deeply intrigued by the guaranteed minimum income is that I see it as a step in the direction of allowing many Americans more time to live fuller lives dedicated to grand passions. The current requirement that we work incessantly to pay rent, eat, and cloth ourselves is an antiquated hangover idea in a society marked by our level of technology and wealth. We need a concerted protest movement against super wealth, be it in the form of individuals, familial dynasties, or corporations. Our happiness–one fueled by the desire to be curious and creative humans–hinges on it. How do we get there? Here are two seemingly random facts: a) my close friend could not find the time to read Middlemarch last year because her work schedule drove her into the ground so she could make 60K a year; b)Amazon paid no federal income tax last year. Anyone want to connect these dots with me?

How to do Nothing (cont.)

» June 8th, 2019

Note: My repeated references to the same book should not necessarily imply an endorsement of that book. This one, for example, has many interesting moments but ultimately falters on several structural and interpretive problems that I’m not really interested in elaborating in this space. If you want to know more about the book, or at least my thoughts on it, email me at james.e.mcwilliams@gmail.com.

Odell quotes several times from a book called The Embodied Mind, and one quote that caught my attention was this: “Cognition is not the representation of a pre-given world by a pre-given mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind.” (p. 142)

Initially I was taken in by the word “representation.” The idea that our minds represent reality, rather than confront it as an objective phenomenon, seems an empowering take on what we do when we encounter the world. Next, the notion that anything about such an encounter is pre-established is certainly worth questioning, as the quote does. After all, if we consider what this premise allows–basically nothing short of the power to create our own realities–the moral responsibility to be thoughtful, reflective, and intelligent becomes paramount. I think about this responsibility a lot as a parent. It’s easy to get caught up in the rat-race of “success” for kids growing up in a world of privilege. As the father of an upcoming high school senior I’m tormented by the prospect daily. But I think what’s critical is that parents spend more time helping their children cultivate characters rooted in the broadest concept of thoughtfulness. George Eliot (aka Mary Anne Evans) has her character Dorothea Brooke (from Middlemarch) say something to the affect of “I enjoy thinking about my thoughts.” Therein lies a very basic form of happiness–and something profound. As a parent, I want to raise children who feel this way, can always retreat into the pleasures of their own thoughts and feelings, and who can creatively and compassionately enact “a world and a mind.”

How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (by Jenny Odell)

» June 7th, 2019


Note to readers: For the next year I will be treating this space as a kind of reading journal. Rather than confine my thoughts to a notebook, which I have done for the last decade, I will instead make them more public. In some ways this represents a natural progression from being totally unsure of my analyses to being not quite totally unsure of my analyses. These posts will follow no particular agenda or order but will reliably start with a quote from my reading and respond to it according to my mood. Annually, I attempt to read at least 60 books– I’m currently at #28.

Quote: “There’s something important that the moment of stopping to listen has in common with the labyrinthine quality of attention holding architecture: in their own ways, each enacts some kind of interruption, a removal from the sphere of familiarity.” (p.9)

It seems like this challenge is heightened by the tyrannical means through which social media reinforces that “sphere of familiarity.” Recently I chose to leave Twitter and Instagram. I’d always told myself that I was the one in control of those platforms, not the other way around. Wrong. Freed from their distracting influence–and, yes, a little out of the loop as a consequence–I have been far more relaxed and productive with my reflections and contemplations. My writing became immediately more prolific and attentive to stylistic integrity and voice. But more than all this, I also noticed that I was in a better position to do what Odell suggests: allowing my attention to rest and linger on more meaningful, inherently rewarding spaces. There is nothing hugely new or surprising about this Merton-esque response. But what does get overlooked as a benefit of leaving that suffocating sphere is how, once you are steeped in more meaningful interruptions, you bring a better self to social relations with friends and family. You become, in essence, better company, if only because your perspective is one that is not informed by the monocultural industrial complex through which today’s algorithms structure so much of our lives. You have traveled elsewhere, visited strange lands, and you have stories to share.


» May 7th, 2019


I encourage you check in and subscribe to my daughter’s blog, Zest. She has an interesting take on the intersection of fashion and individuality, and a lot of insightful general ideas to boot. Meanwhile, I have a backlog of articles to post and will do so very soon. My own blog has been dormant for a while but is getting ready to pick up again. Thanks for sticking around.


Rivers in Southern Literature

» December 26th, 2018

This piece originally ran in The Smart Set.

In the morning,” wrote a wistful Henry David Thoreau, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, “the river and adjacent country were covered with a dense fog, through which the smoke of our fire curled up like a still subtler mist.” And so the Merrimack River, which young Henry was surveying with a friend in 1839, emerged in print as an idealized thing, a natural phenomenon of a Massachusetts ecosystem inseparable from human activity — mingling its elegant vapor with the “smoke of our fire” — while being warmly respectful of all surrounding features. Nice.

I recalled these dulcet Thoreauvian reveries while at the same time observing the Merrimack’s cantankerous counterparts: the violent rivers that wreak Biblical havoc in the literature of the American South. Rivers do not gracefully ebb and flow through the southern literary landscape; instead, they swell into angry ribbons of mud thickened sludge, rising with ruthless force to exceed their boundaries and submerge human ambition and hubris in the same gutted delta, washing the folk away — physically and emotionally — alongside the precarious detritus of their betrayed surroundings. Nothing calming about them. A river in Thoreau’s oeuvre invites admiration; but in the southern variation it becomes, as Eudora Welty put it in The Eye of the Story, the South’s “describable outside,” the very essence of place “that defines us, willy-nilly, to others.”

Once you key into that definition, the distinction between the Merrimack and its southern brothers takes on more than anecdotal regional significance. Whereas rivers in the literature of the north urge us, as Whitman cheerily suggested in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (Leaves of Grass), to be “refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow,” in the iconic work of southern literature they are a collective phenomenon that, as Faulkner explained in Absalom, Absalom!, “runs not only through the physical land of which it is the geological umbilical, not only runs through the spiritual lives of the beings within its scope, but is very Environment itself, which laughs at degrees of latitude and temperature . . .” The southern river does not, in other words, merely coexist; it coopts, swallows, defeats, humiliates, drowns.

See more here.

Deliverance as a Runaway Slave Narrative

» December 6th, 2018

When Burt Reynolds died last August, the obits recounted the strange life of an iconic American actor. Particularly weird was how Reynolds often lied about where he was born. He said he was born Waycross, Georgia. Why anyone born in Lansing, Michigan would want to be from Waycross, Georgia is a baffling question. What we do know is that Reynolds, who always identified as southern, and even affected a twang to fit the image, was, with this odd fib, participating in a cultural practice with roots dating back to nineteenth-century plantation culture. Burt Reynolds was “storying.”

To best understand storying one could do worse than turn to Kevin Young’s The Grey Album. Slaves, denied evidence of their heritage, resorted to counterfeiting tactics to recover a sense of identity and community. The trickster, separated from self, society, and family, storied his way to survival. It was a strategic embellishment, a move that allowed enslaved African Americans and their descendants to “forge their own traditions . . . even their own freedom.” Ultimately, it was a habit of mind, one most urgently cultivated in the hothouse of necessity—usually underground, down in the hole, trying to escape the master.

If Reynolds’ penchant for storying led him to identify as southern, his role in the 1972 movie Deliverance, based on the novel of the same name, allowed that penchant to intersect with art. Based on the novel by the Georgia writer James Dickey (who also wrote the screenplay), Deliverance is an underappreciated and misunderstood film, one in which Reynolds clearly thrived as a swarthy Lewis Medlock. The movie is typically characterized as a thriller, or (more generously) as a psychological and physical journey undertaken by four Atlanta suburbanites on a canoe trip down North Georgia’s Coossawattee River.

Read more here.

White Tribe Rising

» July 4th, 2018


The following is the opening to my essay in the summer edition of The Hedgehog Review. Please read the full essay here.

Someday, when we—or our descendants—have enough distance from the present to contemplate who knows what this country will have endured, the presidential election of 2016 will evoke three words: basket of deplorables. This ill-conceived phrase, delivered by Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at a Manhattan fundraiser two months before Election Day, was the rhetorical flashpoint of a broader takedown:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?… The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.1

Those comments marked the moment when an apparently new white identity—though in fact an amalgam of new and older white identities—was ingloriously named. Within hours, thanks largely to Donald Trump’s Twitter-driven spin machine, the insult became a mobilizing emblem of grievance, victimhood, and defiance for legions of white people who felt ignored and disrespected by the well-heeled liberal elite. Before Clinton realized she had stumbled, and well before she could offer a semiapologetic qualification, the “deplorables” followed a time-honored tradition of co-opting the insult and investing it with in-your-face agency.

As an emblem of identity, “deplorables” harnessed white anger and anxiety emanating not only from trailer parks, small towns, and the hollows of Appalachia, but also from well-off suburbs, gated communities, and quite a few swank downtown neighborhoods as well. It wasn’t merely the people who were already scorned as white trash, hicks, rednecks, yokels, or hillbillies. The anti-Semitic, pro-Trump troll account known as “Ricky Vaughn” was recently unmasked as a Middlebury College graduate who had worked as a consultant in New York while tweeting caricatures of Jews—hardly a member of the “forgotten white underclass,” but somehow identifying himself as such. The designation “deplorable” appealed, in other words, to whites who knew daily scarcity as well as those who experienced, in the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s description, “freedom from necessity.” A label of disapprobation had become a defiant badge of honor.

Ian Nairn and the Art of Seeing A City

» January 16th, 2018


It’s not easy to pigeonhole the late English writer Ian Nairn. But after reading his work—and I’ll be focusing here on Nairn’s Paris, originally published in 1968 and just reissued by Notting Hill Editions—you might rightly decide that there’s no need to do so. His rubric doesn’t matter because, whatever kind of writer he is, he follows his own meandering counsel, and the results are consistently brilliant.

We can say this much for Nairn: He’s a classic flaneur, walking through cities, observing finely grained details, taking witty notes; he’s also a sharp architecture critic, slinging the lingo of flying buttresses and the ha-ha with an easy fluency; and he’s even part art historian, or at least a dedicated acolyte, encountering portraits in the Jeu de Pomme that make him “want to sit down and howl.”

These charming qualities, in addition to a breezy cultural disposition that allows him to describe a region’s cafes and restaurants as “less split up into caff and toff,” left me feeling that I had, at least from my across-the-pond perspective, discovered some hidden old-world sage that, in addition to offering a totally pleasant reading experience, might help me see (not really understand but, even better, see) American cities—perhaps even my own—with more generosity and clarity.

Read more here.

Chicken From China

» December 9th, 2017


The following is the opening of my cover story for the Winter 2018 The American Scholar. The rest of the piece can be found here.

On June 21, 2017, ExporTech, a California-based poultry wholesaler, accomplished something both commonplace and unprecedented. The commonplace was to import to the United States five cartons of cooked chicken. The unprecedented was to do so from Qingdao, China. The United States had never imported chicken from China for human consumption. The ExporTech shipment indicated that that situation was about to change.

The inspection form issued by the Chinese government described the shipment’s contents as “Cooked Battered Darkmeat Chicken Chunks.” Another line on the official form further specified the meat as “poultry/Patties-Nuggets.” The exporting company—Qingdao Nine-Alliance Group Co., Ltd.—certified that the enclosed poultry product was “sound, healthful, wholesome, clean and otherwise fit for human food.” It added that the contents “are not adulterated” and that the chicken was “cooked throughout to reach a minimum internal temperature of 74 degrees C (165 degrees F).” These imported nuggets, in other words, were ready to be heated and eaten.

Who ate them is impossible to say. ExporTech, a private company with five employees and an office located in a two-bedroom residence in Pasadena, is under no legal obligation to report where, when, or to whom it sold these 110 pounds of imported chicken. Furthermore, because the chicken arrived in cooked form, it was not subject to Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) laws. During my research for this article, the company’s website was down, its informational email address bounced my query back, and when I called the listed phone number to ask questions about that single shipment of imported chicken—starting, for example, with “why?”—a woman told me the owner was not there and immediately hung up.

ExporTech’s June shipment was made possible by a May 2017 Trump administration trade deal with China. According to the agreement, the United States could again export beef to China—banned since 2003 because of an outbreak of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease—in exchange for allowing the Chinese to export cooked chicken to the United States. For the beef industry, this exchange was a long-awaited boon. “REAL news!” President Trump tweeted, celebrating the deal.

As matters stand in November 2017, two important restrictions are in place. One, the Chinese can export only cooked chicken. Two, the cooked chicken cannot originate in China but must come from Chile, Canada, or oddly enough, the United States. (The ExporTech chicken came from Chile.) As to why the chicken now has to cross the Pacific twice before arriving in Pasadena, Brian Ronholm, former deputy undersecretary of food safety at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told me that it’s surely a temporary measure. “No one,” he said, “really believes anyone would use that system.” Instead, he explained, the one instance of importation by ExporTech represented “the U.S. government’s demonstration of good faith” as it prepares to permit what the Chinese are ultimately seeking in exchange for U.S. beef: the freedom to export to the United States chicken raised, slaughtered, and processed in China.

Five days before ExporTech imported chicken nuggets from Qingdao, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) entered the following note in the Federal Register: “FSIS is proposing to amend the poultry products inspection regulations to list the PRC [People’s Republic of China] as eligible to export to the United States poultry products from birds slaughtered in the PRC.” Those last six words represent a critical distinction. With considerable corporate support backing the move, including President Trump’s close ties to the beef lobby, FSIS’s proposed budget increase in an era of dramatic federal downsizing, and the U.S. chicken industry’s hopes of leveraging this agreement to export chicken feet (called “paws”) to China—Chinese-sourced chicken will almost certainly enter the food supply of the United States soon. Jim Sumner, president of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council, told me to expect to see that happening sometime in 2018.

The United States, the world’s largest chicken producer, hardly needs this chicken. But as UC–Davis professor of veterinary medicine Maurice Pitesky told me, “If it’s cheaper, we’ll take it.” Likewise, Sumner said that if the Chinese manage to get costs down to compete with U.S. chicken, they should be allowed to play ball in the United States, just as they already do with their chicken in Japan, Hong Kong, and Europe. Ronholm estimates that Chinese chicken will never amount to more than two to three percent of the U.S. chicken supply. Even the National Chicken Council has celebrated the Trump deal, noting that “the low volume of trade is likely to have little effect on supply, demand, and prices.” The beef lobbyists, for their part, will remain over the moon no matter how much Chinese chicken comes our way. To them, it’s the price of admission.

Monumental Thinking

» November 14th, 2017


On July 4, around 8 am, the French Quarter was wild with heat. I walked up St. Peter’s and took a left on Bourbon, where street cleaners hosed off the previous evening’s bacchanalia of regret. At Canal, I went left and by the time I reached St. Charles my glasses were fogged with humidity. I crossed Poydras and went to Camp Street. From there, I went right and my pulse quickened, anticipating the famous absence I’d traveled here to witness. I was making this walk well after the press had left town and well before white supremacists terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia, to experience the empty plinth where a statue of General Robert E. Lee once stood.

But then my geography got rusty. I was expecting to see the conspicuous display of emptiness about two blocks straight ahead. My body tensed in anticipation. But crossing Andrew Higgins Street, I looked right to make sure all was clear, and it was in that nanosecond that I unexpectedly got a direct view of the nothingness that was indeed something and—a reaction I don’t typically have—I gasped.

Read more here.