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David Morris, “Sense of Space,” 2008.

This is an exceptional book on the philosophy of perception, introducing but also developing themes from Merleau-Ponty. It is clearly written and well argued, but it is still difficult to follow since the ideas require a radical break with all one’s preconceptions about how the world works. Yet, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the approripate way to investigate the human condition.

Morris is a major philosopher in his own right, and proof that not all big-time thinkers are dead and gone (he is only in his 40s). The web-page of the university where he teaches says that he is “head of the department of philosophy.” I hope he doesn’t have too much paperwork to do, we all need his philosophizing.

Uncle Bob in Helsingborg

We went to see Uncle Bob last night — Bob Dylan was playing in Helsingborg which is only one town over from Lund where we live. I see Uncle Bob more often than most other members of my family, mainly since he comes to visit more often. I saw him in Shanghai two years ago, and in England a couple of times before that. The really crazy time was when he played in Finsbury Park in London, literally in our own backyard. Since Bob is stopping by we simply have to show up and say hi. We rented a car and drove to Sofiero, a royal palace and garden, with Helsingor, of Hamlet fame, on the other side of the water. The sky was dark and ominous-looking but it wasn’t cold and it only drizzled a bit in the end. A large crowd had turned up. Well over 7,000 people.

The stage was simple, with none of the light-show of an indoor arena, and suddenly Bob and the band were just standing there. No introduction, no symphonic overture. We found a place a bit off to the side of the stage, but really pretty close. Bob came on at 10 and by that time it was getting dark and quite intimate despite the outdoor setting.

No, I’m not the kind of Dylan fan who always loves everything he does. Some concerts — like the one in Bournemouth in 2006 — can be terrible, and beforehand I’m always apprehensive about how the evening will turn out. I so want it to be great, and it isn’t always. The opening number, “Things Have Changed,” gave me a sinking feeling. That cowboy beat takes all the power out of the song, and besides the band didn’t sync it right. Bob got the stresses wrong and it sounded off. Happily, things improved after that and very rapidly too. “She Belongs to Me” worked well and with “Beyond Here Lies Nothing” the band had definitely found its groove.

Very unexpectedly and slightly bizarrely, the evening turned into a jazz club event of sorts. The sound level was actually turned down quite low and the sound, from where we were standing, was crystal clear. You could hear every instrument very distinctly, neatly separated. Bob played the piano throughout, and it was very high in the mix. He sounded like a lounge lizard crooning his songs, despite the fact that he plays the piano mainly as a percussion instrument. And he sang really well. Better than in decades. He’s got to stop improving like this or he’ll turn into Frank Sinatra before long.

I got to hear “Workingman’s Blues,” and “Spirit on the Water,” but I must confess that I didn’t recognize the waltzy “Waiting for You.” I realize that this identifies me as a normal Dylan fan, not as a freak. I like his music, I like him, but I have a life.

I thought he botched “Love Sick” a bit. It sounded hurried. The song must be hard to do at an outdoor concert when there are a lot of different things going on. It must be difficult to build up the evocative atmosphere required. Or perhaps the band just needed to have a pee — it was the last song before the intermission.

After the break we got four songs from Tempest, and two from other recent albums, in excellent renditions. Bob may have lost the incredible power and energy of his younger days, but he has found other things — irony and tenderness and compassion. “Forgetful Heart,” and “Long and Wasted Years,” both give a very jaded view of middle age. But man, has he got things to tell us about ourselves? He sings the admittedly sometimes rather inane lyrics as though they conveyed eternal truths, and we listen attentively because we know he is right. He is right.

It doesn’t apply to all of the audience by any means, but the people around us seemed mainly to have showed up to gawk at a celebrity and to sing along with well-known tunes. When they had gawked enough and the well-known tunes didn’t come, they turned to their phones. They should have stayed at home. The reviews in the local papers complained: 1) that Bob doesn’t sing well; 2) that he rearranges his tunes so that we cannot recognize them; 3) that he doesn’t do his greatest hits. One of the local journalists even suggested he should wind up his Never Ending Tour. Oh well, what else is new? “I don’t believe you, you’re a liar!

The thing is: a Dylan concert is about here and now and it has nothing to do with nostalgia and “old hits.” He’s got absolutely nothing to prove, and yet he insists on his right to do it at every concert.

Fans complain about “Watchtower” as an encore, but I think it really, really works. True enough, it too lacks energy, but at the same time it seems Bob finally has reclaimed it from Jimi Hendrix. He is singing it much more the way he did on the original recording. It’s mysterious and medieval. And here too there is compassion and tenderness.

After the concert I had this terrible the-circus-is-leaving-town feeling that I always get after a Dylan concert. The next day we suppressed an urge to drive the 250 kilometers to Gothenburg and see him once more. Seeing more concerts provides no cure. Dylan comes into our lives, to remind us of our better selves, of how creative and exceptional life can be, and then he is gone again. The only consolation is that he’ll be back again next year. We’ll be there too. Thanks Uncle Bob for stopping by. We love you.

Robert Dahl, 1915-2014

The head of the Yale political science department just sent around an email saying that Robert Dahl has died. He was 98. Dahl was the leading political scientists in the US, and arguably the world, for some 50 years. He made a name for himself in the 1950s by advocating a pluralist interpretation of politics. It is indeed the case, he concluded, that we are ruled by elites, but there is not only one elite group but many, they are powerful within slightly different areas, and they take turns having an influence on political outcomes. Dahl called this system of rule “polyarchy” to distinguish it from the ideal-type of a democracy. His interpretation became enormously influential first of all since there was much empirical evidence for it, but also since it saved West’s image of itself. People in Western countries don’t want to think they are run by elites. We like to think that we live in democracies. Dahl forced us to acknowledge that elites indeed rule us, but he made us feel good again by concluding that there is competition among elites.

I just missed Dahl at Yale. He had finally retired a few year before I got there, and I never got a chance to take classes with him. Still he was very much onsite, regularly showing up in his old office and coming to various seminars and events. “I wrote a book about local politics in New Haven,” he once said in a seminar, referring to Who Governs?. and it suddenly struck me that this was the author of the most famous polisci book of the post-war era. In fact, when I worked for Bruce Russett, managing a journal he was editing, Dahl’s office was right next door. He used to come in and ask me questions about his computer. I tried to help him.  Once I ran into him on York Street and he said “Hi Erik.” I returned a “Hi Bob!” — and I felt really, really cool.

Dahl got his PhD in 1940. His thinking was very much colored by the Depression and by the hardships of American workers. He was one of the very last representatives of American radicalism. Of course, we still have Charles Lindblom. He is only 97.

I’m not applying for research funding!

In Sweden a successful academic career requires you to apply for research funding. If you don’t get funding, they say, it’s difficult to do research. You end up teaching too much and you have no money to buy books or to travel. The pecking order of prestige is determined by who can get what grant.  Big researchers have big grants.

And yet, I’ve decided not to apply for any money.  First of all, I like teaching.  It is only once you are forced to explain something to someone else that you actually understand it. Not teaching, I would lose this opportunity.  Secondly, my research is extraordinarily cheap. All I need is a computer with an internet connection, and I have that already. I also have about a million books. The additional books I need I can get as pdfs or buy with my own money. And as for travel, I can’t do much of that anyway, not now when I stopped flying.

Behind all this bravado is the idea that I want to be free. I want to be able to write whatever I like and not be dependent on others. If I don’t apply for money, no one can tell me what I can’t do.

And frankly, I don’t think much social science research deserves funding anyway. The research just isn’t important or interesting enough. Most of it is esoteric nonsense and self-indulgent self-promotion. No one outside of the universities care, and for good reason. I include my own research here.  Give my money to cancer research!

“National day” — no way!

Today, June 6, is Sweden’s “national day.”  Our 4th of July, our 14 juillet. This is the first year I’ve been in Sweden on the national day. When I last lived here — in 1994 — there was no such thing. Only something called “the day of the Swedish flag,” which everyone ignored, and it wasn’t a national holiday either. They started this national day business in my absence, and I strongly object!

I used to be proud of my country and above all I was very proud to belong to a country that didn’t have a “national day.” A country that didn’t hoist its flag and beat itself on the chest and call itself better than other countries and draw distinctions between Swedes and immigrants. Whatever still is great about this country is immesurably cheapened by this nationalistic nonsense. Besides, as Diane points out, national days are the days when the nation celebrates its liberation from foreign oppression (July 4) or from a nasty monarchy (July 14), but Sweden was never occupied by foreigners and we still have a monarchy. There is consequently nothing for the nation to celebrate.

I will never go along with this stupidity. June 6th next year I’m spending in Denmark.

Robert Darnton on my publisher

I’m working on a textbook on the history of international relations. I have a contract with Open Book Publishers in the UK. The latest issue of the New York Review of Books has an article by the historian Robert Darnton where he mentions my publisher:

Operating from Cambridge, England, Open Book Publishers also charges for PDFs, which can be used with print-on-demand technology to produce physical books, and it applies the income to subsidies for free copies online. It recruits academic authors who are willing to provide manuscripts without payment in order to reach the largest possible audience and to further the cause of open access.

The famous quip of Samuel Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” no longer has the force of a self-evident truth in the age of the Internet. By tapping the goodwill of unpaid authors, Open Book Publishers has produced forty-one books in the humanities and social sciences, all rigorously peer-reviewed, since its foundation in 2008. “We envisage a world in which all research is freely available to all readers,” it proclaims on its website.

I think regular textbooks are immoral. How can you charge money for imparting knowledge that belongs to us all? How can you insist that you should be paid for a book that teaches someone that 2 plus 2 is 4?  Damn all you McGraw-Hill, Prentice-Hall, Houghton Mifflins of this world! And to add injury to insult, regular textbooks are far too heavy to carry around. It’s a health risk for students!

And as for you, Samuel Johnson, in the age of the internet the name of the game is exposure. The blockhead is you!

By far the best thing about Open Book is that it’s run by fellow academics without commercial middle-men. They read, they care, they are responsive and cheerful. When has it ever been possible to say that about a regular publisher? I strongly recommend them.

My book isn’t finished yet, but it has a web page. Check it out!

Ringmar critiques Adler and Pouliot on international practices

This is fun! International Theory, one of the leading IR journals in the US, just published an article of mine which discusses a proposal by Emanuel Adler and Vincent Pouliot to use the notion of “practices” to unify the study of international politics. I’m deeply skeptical of this program. As the editors point out in a recent tweet, Adler is now in the process of writing a reply. Can’t wait to see what he says.

Emanuel Adler is professor of political science and the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Chair in Israel Studies at the University of Toronto. He is also the former editor of International Organization.

“The about Chinese schools: they are terrible”

Saga, my now 18 year old daughter, is really having a lot of luck with her writings on Shanghainese schools. She began by writing this piece for The Local — “China Teaches Its Kids to Sit Exams, Sweden Its Kids to Think.” Then she wrote a piece for the Guardian — “Here’s the Truth about Shanghai Schools: They’re Terrible” — which generated an aweful lot of attention and debate. After that the Swedish Radio interviewed her, and part of that interview featured in yesterday’s “Nyhetsmorgon i P1,” the flagship news program.

At some point Saga really has to stop complaining about the Chinese school system. It seems to have served her very well.

How to get yourself an agent

I had an idea to get myself a literary agent. It’s terrible to have to face book publishers on your own. I slave away for 10 hours a day for years on end, and they put my oeuvre in hard-cover only and slap a 150 dollar price-tag on it, to be read by exactly 17.5 people and reviewed by nobody. No, I don’t think I’m J.K. Rowling, but I do write in a reasonably accessible way and my Opium War book is intrinsically very exciting. What could be more fun to read about than an Oriental fairy-tale reduced to cinders by mean foreigners?

My idea was that an agent could help improve my odds. Writers with agents are not pathetic academic types; agents represent potential readers and potential readers represent money. Publishers like nothing as much as money. An agent would help me put my publisher in place.

The only problem is how to get an agent. I’ve been stalking a few of them on Twitter for the past couple of months now. Yet their feeds are not encouraging. One of them — best unnamed — insists that “I’m watching Downton Abbey with my wife,” and “have to stop the show every 90 seconds to explain something.” This is clearly not someone who would publish anything I write. So condescending to his wife! And over such as third-rate TV program!

Agents have the status they have to the extent that they possess the ability to represent the “general reader.” Agents are consequently middle-brow, by definition. They are the kinds of students, in other words, who we gave B pluses on the courses they took as they drifted through university some 10 years ago. And now they are getting their revenge, locking us up in our ivory towers.

chaired professor

I never knew I had a “sciatic nerve,” but now I do. The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body and it runs from the back of your spine all down the length of your legs. I now know since my right leg suddenly started hurting as if it was on fire and since I couldn’t stand on my feet. At first I thought it was my heart and Saga was on the phone to emergency services to get me an ambulance, but then, after about a minute, the pain eased and I came back to myself. It f-ing hurt!

Today I went to the doctor for an appoinment. It’s my spine that pushes onto the nerve and this causes the pain. The problem with the spine comes from sitting too much on a chair and not doing enough exercise. Clearly I’ve taken “chaired professor” too literally. I should have been out there in the park with the old ladies at 5 AM doing taiji!

The doctor gave me German anti-inflamatory pills, some Chinese herbal stuff, and a great belt that helps take pressure off the back.All that’s required is that I stay horizontal and rest. I should be better in a few days.

The doctor, ar Ruijin Hospital here in Shanghai, was a man in his 60s, obviously very experienced. He sees 10 cases like this aday. Btw, I got the appointment in less than 24 hours. I shudder to think how long it would have taken in Sweden. Some things about China are very great. The hospitals are one of them.

There’s going to have to be some changes around here — no more chaired professor. I’m going to do yoga, stretching, longs walks, and meditation.