Thoughts on our thoughts in­ter­act­ing with the world

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

Eliane Glaser, se­nior lec­turer in English and cre­ative writ­ing at Bath Spa Univer­sity, is read­ing A. C. Grayling’s Democ­racy and its Cri­sis (Oneworld, 2016). “In the new era of pop­ulism, Brexit and Trump, democ­racy is in trou­ble. It’s been hi­jacked by oli­garchs, strong­men and right-wing lob­by­ists armed with big data. More trou­bling still, no­body seems to know what the word means any more: is democ­racy about MPs’ votes or ref­er­en­dums? Should sovereignty re­side in Par­lia­ment or ‘the peo­ple’? As Grayling il­lus­trates, de­bates about democ­racy have raged since Plato; but he rightly ar­gues that rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy needs de­fend­ing as never be­fore. Not only, as Win­ston Churchill said, is it the least bad sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, but it is a vi­tal de­fence against dem­a­goguery. I of­ten en­counter glib claims that rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy is ‘dead’; that the West­min­ster sys­tem is ‘bro­ken’. These dan­ger­ous clichés gloss over the key ques­tion: is the prob­lem the sys­tem it­self or the pow­er­ful forces that have cor­rupted it?”

Randy Mala­mud, Re­gents’ pro­fes­sor of English at Ge­or­gia State Univer­sity, is read­ing Christo­pher Sch­aberg’s Air­port­ness: The Na­ture of Flight (Blooms­bury, 2017). “Sch­aberg has sin­gle­hand­edly in­vented the rapidly as­cend­ing field of air­port stud­ies. He re­calls and re­stores the ec­stasy of avi­a­tion that fly­ers once en­joyed as he ram­bles through these com­pounds that ‘spread out into our lives’, be­com­ing ‘test sites where many of our best and worst be­hav­iors play out’. He finds gen­eros­ity and ci­vil­ity, but also lo­gis­ti­cal knots that ‘over­flow with spite, pet­ti­ness, im­pa­tience and ac­ri­mony’. ‘Air­port­ness’ means ‘how the feel of air travel pre­cedes and ex­tends past the more ob­vi­ous di­men­sions and boundaries of flight’. So Sch­aberg ex­am­ines such phe­nom­ena as the ex­cite­ment and sad­ness at kerb­side (where ‘air­port­ness gath­ers and con­geals’); the dis­course of board­ing passes; the zen of wait­ing; the semi­otics of the run­way; the quid­di­tas of the win­dow seat; the fact of arm­rests (‘bor­ders, but un­clear ones’); the ‘in­ces­sant, manda­tory’ rit­ual of snack­ing.”

Peter J. Smith, reader in Re­nais­sance lit­er­a­ture, Not­ting­ham Trent Univer­sity, is read­ing He­len Macdonald’s H is For Hawk (Jonathan Cape, 2014). “Reel­ing from the sud­den death of her fa­ther, Macdonald sets out to train a goshawk, no­to­ri­ously the most dif­fi­cult and cussed of rap­tors. This masochis­tic ther­apy takes her on an ex­tra­or­di­nary and painful jour­ney as she and the bird ten­ta­tively com­mune across a di­vide between hu­man and feral, civilised and atavis­tic. At the same time, Macdonald ex­plores the lonely, clos­eted life of school­mas­ter and nov­el­ist T. H. White, whose The Goshawk (1951) re­counts his failed at­tempt to bru­talise a bird into sub­mis­sion. Macdonald’s is a book about grief, the churl­ish in­dif­fer­ence of the nat­u­ral world to hu­man emo­tions and the soli­tude of fail­ure, but it is also about a ‘re­turn from this strange hedgerow on­tol­ogy to more or­di­nary hu­man­ity’. It is heart­break­ing and af­firm­ing at the same time.”

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