Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Bicycle helmets and face masks

Once when I saw a teenager on a bicycle with a helmet hanging from the handlebars, he stopped, put it on, and rode around the corner to his house – presumably to prove that he'd been wearing it. I thought of him today after seeing people who may have been wearing a face mask (as is required in shops in Germany and recommended in Switzerland) but had it under their noses. Yet really those mask-wearers are more like the teens who wear their helmets – but unbuckled. I've never seen an adult riding a bike like that – but the only people I've seen wearing a mask with their nose uncovered have been adults. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 30 June)

Monday, June 29, 2020

Children and car-door locks

We bought our 1999 VW Golf from my father-in-law in early 2000 (he used to buy a new Golf every year with his VW employee discount and sell it a year later). It doesn't have a central-locking system. Even by 2010, I noticed an unexpected effect of this: our children's friends not only weren't in the habit of locking car doors, they didn't not even know how to do it. These days, younger children even ask what the knobs for the locks are for. I don't reproach them for this, of course; it's just a matter of the world they've grown up in, the not just digital world they're native to. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 29 June)

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Two photographs by Patrick Semansky of a man in a suit and tie

In the first photograph, his expression is serious. His suit and tie and flag lapel are the uniform of his power. He holds up a bible in front of the church he walked to after the park was cleared by tear gas and police. He thinks his performance is under his control. – In the second photograph, which he must know will be taken, his expression is exhausted. The uniform of his power is no longer uniform, no longer powerful: his tie loose, his collar open, his suit wrinkled, unbuttoned. He crumples a cap as he leaves his helicopter. He doesn't look like he still thinks his performance is under his control. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 28 June)

[The photographs were taken on 1 June and 20 June.]

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Disingenuous claims about racist ideas and behaviors

People often argue that ideas and behaviors are not racist and that anti-racists see everything in racial terms. One common version of this in Switzerland involves the name of a confection, "Mohrenkopf" ("Moor's head"). In the wake of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, criticism of the name has been followed by insistence that the term is not racist. But on Thursday, Aiyegun Tosin, a Nigerian striker with FC Zurich, was called "scheiss Mohrenkopf" by the opposing team's fans. Once again, then, insistence that an expression is "not racist" is disingenuous. And of course, those defending this term have already come up with further specious arguments that it is not racist. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 27 June)

Friday, June 26, 2020

"Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and the tropes of policing

Although with Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" thematizes discrimination against homosexuals and African-Americans, it cannot escape the standard tropes of police shows and the problems of American policing. It begins with a standard conflict between the rule-oriented Captain and the unorthodox but effective Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), who may get reined in by Holt, but his successes still outweigh his rule-breaking. Further, Peralta's  bet with his rival Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) to see who can make more arrests reflects how police departments are evaluated in terms of how many arrests they make. So even a show addressing discrimination reproduces the issues that lead to calls to defund the police. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 26 June)

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Email and salutations

I sent an email to a student today without a salutation, and it bothers me when I do that. When students were closer to me in age, I used first names: "Dear Sandra" or "Dear Chris". But then they'd write me informally – "Hey Andrew" or just "Hey." So I got more formal: "Dear Ms. Schmitt" or "Dear Mr. Müller." But then a former student transitioned, and I decided to drop gender markers and write "Dear Sandra Schmitt" or "Dear Chris Müller". The message today was "here is your essay with my comments", and I wish I had said "Dear" and addressed the student by her name, but it's too late now. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 25 June)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The literal, political, and spiritual journey in Chuck Berry's "Promised Land"

Chuck Berry wrote "Promised Land" in prison with an atlas from the library to get the geography right. The "poor boy" travels from Norfolk to California in a celebration of the freedom of movement similar to earlier Berry songs, as well as to "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", which the song alludes to. Further, the bus he first travels on "bypasses Rock Hill", the site of a sit-in by the Friendship Nine in 1961. The song's literal journey is thus a figurative political journey from the Jim Crow South to Californian freedom and a spiritual journey like the spirituals of enslaved African-Americans that figured both salvation and escape from slavery to freedom. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 24 June)

Tuesday, June 23, 2020


In "Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England", Jean M. O'Brien discusses how "New England Indians [...] selectively incorporat[ed] elements of the non-Indian material, spiritual, and intellectual world" while still retaining their Native identities. – In the 1980s, a friend went on a camping trip with Native guides who taught the participants traditional survival methods. The guides always set up camp away from the participants. One evening, he found them lighting their fire with matches (while the campers were rubbing sticks together to starts theirs). The guides explained that Europeans had invented some very useful things – who'd want to rub sticks together when matches are much more efficient? (Andrew Shields, #111words, 23 June)

Monday, June 22, 2020

You Will Go Days Without Remembering That I Exist

Today in 2018, I retweeted this: "The 2020 Democratic nominee should campaign on a platform of You Will Go Days Without Remembering That I Exist". It would be nice to live free of politics. But it's a privilege to have such a retreat available to me. Many people seldom have days free of influence from the decisions of the powerful: the poor who need social welfare; immigrants whose status is uncertain; the disabled with access problems; anyone whose gender and sexuality put them outside the mainstream; and of course minorities in general. Don't succumb to the temptation to depoliticize your life as long as anyone's full humanity is politicized and threatened. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 22 June)

Sunday, June 21, 2020

"Rebellion as a pedagogical text"

In "Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent", Priyamvada Gopal interprets "rebellion [...] as a pedagogical text" with which "the colonizers [...] must learn from the colonized." While at this point in her book she is discussing the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India and its influence on British dissent against the nineteenth-century British imperial project, the pedagogical effect of rebellion connects with the proliferation of anti-racist reading lists in the United States and abroad as part of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations after the murder of George Floyd. Finally, White Americans are at least considering the idea of listening to African-American stories to learn about our own implication in systematic racism. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 21 June)

Saturday, June 20, 2020

"Where are you from?"

When my brother's family lived in Australia, my sister-in-law said she could pass as Australian until she opened her mouth. During my 25 years in Switzerland, nobody has asked me where I'm from before they've heard me speak. So pleasantries have already been exchanged; people have learned my name; they've noticed I don't speak Swiss German. Thus, since I can "pass" as Swiss until I open my mouth, the question "Where are you from?" still has something personal which is often lacking when Swiss citizens and residents with more melanin are asked the same question. Even before they say anything, then, their skin color makes it impossible for them to "pass". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 20 June)

Friday, June 19, 2020

"like a patient etherized upon a table": The seductiveness of "Prufrock"

In my late teens, the sound of T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" immediately captivated me: "Let us go then, you and I, / when the evening is spread out against the sky, / like a patient etherized upon a table." The imperative, the rhyme, the alliteration, the dissonance of "etherized" – I couldn't name them then, but their music seduced me. Later I learned how such unconditional love turns out to have conditions – with Eliot, his anti-Semitism. The lesson is not necessarily to reject him for that, but at least to reflect on the relationship between what draws me into his poetry and what pushes me out. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 19 June)

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Deepest Kleinbasel

Here's a translation of a message a friend shared with me from someone who said there's no racism in Switzerland: "I know NOBODY who was anything against Blacks... Except when they rape and attack women in deepest Kleinbasel..." The use of "except" makes this a version of "I am not a racist, but ...", and what follows fulfills the resulting expectations, with the stereotypical racist association of Blacks with rapists. Then there's a local twist: the phrase "deepest Kleinbasel" relies on racist interpretations of the demographics of Basel. Nobody would say "deepest Bruderholz", just as one might talk about "deepest Harlem" in New York City but never about "deepest Staten Island". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 18 June)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

"Some of them don’t even know that’s what they want, but that’s what they want."

Even though in democratic countries they are elected only by some fraction of the population, presidents and prime ministers claim to speak for all the people of the countries they govern. They are thus inclined to say that they are doing "what the people want." Yesterday, in his remarks at the signing of his executive order on "safe policing for safe communities", President Trump said that "Americans want law and order." But then he went beyond that: "Some of them don’t even know that’s what they want, but that’s what they want." This is the language of abusers, who tell their victims that they know them better than they know themselves. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 17 June)

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Memes from Dawkins to Godwin to virality

"Meme" was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book "The Selfish Gene" to refer to "a unit of cultural transmission" in parallel to the "gene" as a unit of biological transmission. Though I read the book in 1983, I have only now learned that the internet use goes back to the early 1990s, when Mike Godwin used Dawkins's term to refer to ideas popping up on the internet, specifically the "Nazi-comparison meme" that led him to formulate "Godwin's Law". Of course, the meaning of "meme" has since evolved to refer to image-text combinations that "go viral" – a return to the idea's biological origins, as well as to the current pandemic. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 16 June)

Monday, June 15, 2020

"The movement is not a fad", neither today nor in 1895

Since Saturday, 6 June, when I heard several speakers at the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Basel insist the movement is "not a trend", I have read further statements from the US that say the same, or that it's "not a fad". Then today, in "Women, Race and Class", by Angela Davis (which I have been reading slowly for several months now), I came across a quotation from Fannie Barrier Williams at The First National Conference of the Colored Women of America in 1895: "The club movement among colored women ... is not a fad". The critique of anti-racist movements as merely fashionable is apparently as old as the movements themselves. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 15 June)

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Woolf's chair; Kafka's window; Joyce's street

One conclusion in my course on short fiction by James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Virginia Woolf is that the three authors all take up a characteristic position in their stories: Woolf in a chair; Kafka at a window; Joyce in the street. Kafka is thus in the position dubbed "the watcher at the window" by Henry James, which can also be connected to Michel Foucault on Jeremy Bentham's panopticon. Joyce's position is that of Charles Baudelaire's "flaneur". Woolf's chair surely stands in "a room of one's own", but as one student suggested, the chair is also the position of René Descartes, given how her characters spin out philosophies from their chairs. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 14 June)

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Nostos, saudade, nostalgia

In "The Age of Surveillance Capitalism", Shoshana Zuboff introduces the Greek "nostos" (returning home) in her discussion of the contemporary loss of the home – that is, of privacy. Then she talks about the homesickness of emigrants in terms of the Portuguese "saudade". Although she doesn't refer to this as "untranslatable", it does often come up in lists of such words, even as it promptly gets translated (just not with one word). But she did not need to reach for the Portuguese word to discuss the pain of "nostos"; that word is the root of "nostalgia", which was coined in Basel in 1678 by Johannes Hofer as a Latin term for "homesickness". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 13 June)

Friday, June 12, 2020

"Brazenly and flagrantly violated the separation of powers": the 2020 Republican Party platform

The Donald Trump campaign and the Republican Party have no new platform for the 2020 presidential election campaign; instead, they are re-using the 2016 platform. Oddly, some of the language of that platform refers again and again to "the current Administration", as in this sentence that is quite ironic in 2020: "The current Administration has exceeded its constitutional authority, brazenly and flagrantly violated the separation of powers, sought to divide America into groups and turn citizen against citizen." Beyond the farce this makes of the platform, the Republican Party thus reveals that it has nothing more to offer to Americans than sustaining its own power and maintaining its cult of personality. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 12 June)

The quotation is on page 9 of the 2016 platform, which is available here.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Spoilers and Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall"

Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall" begins when the narrator sees that mark, continues with her reflections on it, and ends when it has been identified as a snail. It is thus broadly like a detective story: there is a mystery, and when it's solved, the story ends. If that were all, then my revealing that the mark is a snail would be a spoiler. But spoilers are only a problem with narratives whose linear focus on plot makes them only worth reading once. The mark of the great mystery story – and a great story in general – is that it's worth reading even if you know the snail did it. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 11 June)

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

"Indian ponies" in James Wright's "A Blessing"

The two horses in James Wright's "A Blessing" are "Indian ponies", which admits the displacement of Native Americans into the poem's evocation of a moment of communion with nature. The history of European expansion is even present in those very horses, a species brought to North America by Europeans, as well as in the demarcation of the land that is inscribed in the space of this "blessing": the poem begins "just off the highway", and after the speaker and his friend see the ponies, they "step over the barbed wire into the pasture." The speaker thus experiences communion with a nature whose history leaves traces in the representation of that experience. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 10 June)


Tuesday, June 09, 2020

"Let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year"

At Christmas dinner in James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," an argument begins about priests making political remarks in church. Stephen Dedalus's mother appeals to the holiday as a reason to put politics aside: "[...] let us have no political discussion on this day of all days in the year." Her call for a space and time outside of politics, though, is itself inescapably political. What is left after the bracketing of politics will always only be the politics of the status quo, of common-sense "normalcy", even in a time of political crisis (here, the fall of Irish nationalist leader Charles Parnell after he committed adultery). (Andrew Shields, #111words, 9 June)

Monday, June 08, 2020

Dieser Trump ist blödianisch / Trump is weirdiotic!

Four years ago today, on 8 June 2016, I quoted my then ten-year-old daughter Sara on Facebook: "Sie [Hillary Clinton] muss gewinnen, weil dieser Trump ist blödianisch!" As my wife translated: Clinton had to win because "Trump is weirdiotic!" These days, whenever I come across the idea that Trump's critics suffer from "Trump Derangement Syndrome", which makes it impossible to judge him neutrally, I remember Sara's remark as one of many in 2015 and 2016 about the dangers of a Trump presidency. He was impossible to look at neutrally from the moment he came down that escalator at Trump Tower on 16 June 2015 to spew out his spiel about Mexicans. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 8 June)

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Face masks and protective lenses

Donald Trump won't wear a face mask – at least in public. He has claimed to wear them "backstage" but not in public because he doesn't want the media to make a big deal out of it. It's a game of appearances and a matter of control: he wants to be seen to be the master of any situation he is in. During the 2017 total eclipse, he looked at the sun without protective glasses. Even though he did eventually put a pair on, he made it something he controlled, rather than something imposed upon him. To wear a face mask, then, would be to admit he's lost control of the situation. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 7 June)

Saturday, June 06, 2020

A Black Lives Matter demonstration in Basel, 6 June 2020

At today's Black Lives Matter demonstration in Basel, the organizers insisted that only Blacks should speak. With two exceptions I saw, this condition was accepted. First, a white man asked an organizer for a chance to speak before quietly giving up. Soon after, a white woman spoke to the same organizer and was quite vocal when she gave up. That organizer later urged white demonstrators to accept their silence and added that she'd appreciate not having to say "no" again. I appreciated that the white demonstrators almost all accepted this opportunity to listen to the Black speakers talk about racism in Switzerland and what it means to say Black Lives Matter. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 6 June)

Friday, June 05, 2020

"Himself, his name and where he was"

On a walk the other day, I listened to an audiobook of James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man". I read it in spring 1983 during my first year at university; it was one of the works that steered me from physics to literature. But I hadn't read it since, and I wondered how much I'd remember. The walk was long enough to get me to a forgotten passage that quite vividly took me back to my youthful enthusiasm for the novel – when Stephen reads what he'd written in "the flyleaf of the geography": "himself, his name and where he was," all the way to "the Universe". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 5 June)


Stephen Dedalus

Class of Elements

Clongowes Wood College


County Kildare



The World

The Universe

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Texts in lines are poems

Here's how I distinguish prose and poetry: prose is organized in paragraphs, poetry in lines, so texts in lines are poems. (This doesn't explain "prose poetry".) With meter, something's counted: usually syllables or stresses. When you've counted up what's being counted, you start a new line. When lines aren't determined by counting, it's less clear where they should end. They can follow syntax and end with sentences, clauses, or phrases. If that's all they do, the poem can seem flat, but if they always break syntactical units, that can seem arbitrary. Still, meter also drags if it's too static, and stumbles if it's too variable. The rest is reading, and practice. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 4 June)

(A friend asked me to explain why a particular text was a poem; this is an adapted version of my answer to him.)

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

"You have to dominate"

In President Trump's conference call with governors on Monday, he advised them to "dominate" demonstrators: "If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time." Such "domination" involves effective and efficient action to achieve a desired result. But it's also about appearance: those who fail to dominate look like "jerks" and "fools" who are themselves "run over" – dominated  – by the protestors. To avoid being a jerk or a fool himself, Trump aims to make those he dominates into jerks and fools. For him, the dominant person controls the situation and himself; the dominant person is wise; the one who is dominated is foolish; and all that matters is the efficient and effective result. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 3 June)


"You have to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time. They’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks. You have to dominate. [...] You’re making a mistake because you're making yourselves look like fools."

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

The Brave Space

Camera Ready Kutz is a Brooklyn barbershop "geared towards, but not exclusive to, the LGBTQIA community". Outside is a black-and-white mural in the background of Stephanie Keith's photograph from yesterday's demonstration; the foreground is a woman in a mask made out of an American flag. The red-white-and-blue stands out in this black-white-and-brown scene: the black-and-white mural; her brown skin with the sun on her forehead; the brown skin of the man in black behind her, his white mask under his chin. This is the "brave space" of the barbershop, of the demonstration, of this American woman, brown in a land that makes her black, but claiming the red-white-and-blue as her own. (Andrew Shields, #111words, 2 June)

Monday, June 01, 2020

And 'Yesterday, or Centuries Before'

The two heroic couplets in the first stanza of Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" begin with substitutions of spondees for iambs in the second foot (plus a trochaic substitution in the first foot of the poem's first line), while the second lines of each couplet pick up on the regular iambic pentameter of the end of the first lines. But even that regularity has its ambiguities. Line four, especially, with its two three-syllable words with first-syllable stress, can be read to great effect with only three strong stresses: "And YESterday, or CENturies beFORE." This rhythm echoes the line's point about the elasticity of time "after great pain". (Andrew Shields, #111words, 1 June)

Third post on the poem here (this is the fourth).

First two posts on this poem: first and second.