Commentaries - April 2008

Edwin Black's book about how IBM helped automate the Nazi death machine in Poland is stunning, even though most people who think about the European genocide of the 1940s won't be surprised by the overall fact of it. It being — to say it plainly again — IBM's connection to the Nazi final solution. It was a strategic business alliance. Perhaps more frighteningly, it was the dawn of the era — urs — in which what we now call "information technology" tended to help destroyers and mass murderers more than advocates of democratic values. It's all about the real dangers of human taxonomies - identifying a person in a fixed (1's and 0's) sort of way.

Here's a link to a summary article Black himself wrote for the Village Voice in 2002, around the time his book was published. And here's a link to Black's home page. The book is called IBM and the Holocaust.

"The significance of Jerome Rothenberg's animating spirit looms larger every year. ... [He] is the ultimate 'hyphenated' poet: critic - anthropologist - editor - anthologist - performer - teacher - translator, to each of which he brings an unbridled exuberance and an innovator's insistence on transforming a given state of affairs." — Charles Bernstein

the Kelly Writers House Fellows program
Jerome Rothenberg

Monday evening, April 28, 6:30 PM: reading/performance
Tuesday morning, April 29, 10 AM: brunch & interview/discussion

at the Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk, Philadelphia

Seating is limited. RSVP: or (215) 573-9749.

Jerome Rothenberg is the author of over seventy books of poetry including Poland/1931 (1974), That Dada Strain (1983), New Selected Poems 1970–1985 (1986), Khurbn (1989), and most recently, The Case for Memory (2001) and A Book of Witness (2003) and Triptych, a book that takes the poet back to the issue of the Holocaust. Describing his poetry career as "an ongoing attempt to reinterpret the poetic past from the point of view of the present," he has also edited seven major assemblages of traditional and contemporary poetry, including Technicians of the Sacred (1985), comprised of tribal and oral poetry from Africa, America, Asia, Europe, and Oceania; Revolution of the Word (1974), a collection of American experimental poetry between the two world wars; and two volumes of Poems for the Millennium (1995, 1998), which won the Josephine Miles Award in 1996. In 1999 and again in 2001 he was a co-organizer of the People's Poetry Gathering, a three-day festival, under joint sponsorship by City Lore and Poet's House in New York City. Rothenberg was elected to the World Academy of Poetry (UNESCO) in 2001.

For more about Writers House Fellows:

Kelly Writers House Fellows is made possible by a generous grant from Paul Kelly.

Solutions to our national problems are not political but technical. Not great, but fine.

On May 21, 1962, John Kennedy said: "I would like to say a word about the difference between myth and reality. Most of us are conditioned for many years to have a political viewpoint, Republican or Democrat — liberal, conservative, moderate. The fact of the matter is that most of the problems, or at least many of them that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems. They are very sophisticated judgments which do not lend themselves to the great sort of 'passionate movements' which have stirred this country so often in the past. Now they deal with questions which are beyond the comprehension of most men."

What we need, in other words, are technically trained people — experts in solving fine-tunable administrative problems —to take over our political life. We don't need people with political ideologies, the "great" (big, capacious, comprehensive) types whose "passionate movements" should worry us. Let's not get "stirred" by political disagreements. We've progressed past that now. The real problems (real as opposed to mythic) are so complex and nuanced that their solutions are beyond our knowing. We need experts.

I see white-lab-coated, horn-rimmed bespectacled men calibrating our political differences by turning dials on room-sized computers in the basement of the White House. Modern politics circa early 60s.*

This isn't the only time JFK made this point. At the 1962 Yale commencement, he said the following:

Today ... the central domestic problems of our time are more subtle and less simple. They do not relate to basic clashes of philosophy and ideology, but to ways and means of recasting common goals — to research for sophisticated solutions to complex and obstinate issues.

What is at stake in our economic decisions today is not some grand warfare of rival ideologies which will sweep the country with passion but the practical management of a modern economy. What we need are not labels and cliche's but more basic discussion of the sophisticated and technical questions involved in keeping a great economic machinery moving ahead.

... [P]olitical beliefs and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solutions.

... [T]he problems of ... the Sixties as opposed to the kinds of problems we faced in the Thirties demand subtle challenges for which technical answers — not political answers — must be provided.

* And oh my, wouldn't the two candidates in the '64 election challenge this view! It's a view that, I'd say, had its heyday in the years between 1957 and 1963.

Ron Silliman, who knew Mario Savio fairly well in Berkeley, tells me that Savio did not seek out his leadership role in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement — that he was shy; that he would rather, finally, have been studying his Philosophy. Anyway, his FSM work certainly distorted his life. He had a history of heart trouble and (since this blog is not official biography, nor history, etc.) let's just speculate that the heroic role and its aftermath shortened his life as well. He died at 53 in 1996.

In my own top ten list of great speeches, somewhere up around 5th is Savio's brilliant, stirring, apparently improvised speech on Dec. 2, 1964, spoken from Sproul Plaza in front of Berkeley's main administration building. I have always been stunned by the aptness of his analogy between the big research university (the way it used to treat its undergrads — and to some degree still does) and the factory machine.

I admired this because Savio is turning around the metaphor Berkeley chancellor Clark Kerr already used to describe postwar higher education: it was, said Kerr proudly and patriotically, a "knowledge factory."

I admired the speech even more when I learned that Savio's father was a machine punch operator.

"There is a time," he said, "when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part; and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."

In my 1950s site, I've reproduced the New York Times obituary.

Today the Philadelphia City Paper is running an article about our new series, "Writers without Borders".

Our first WWB event features Cecilia Vicuña, acclaimed Chilean poet, filmmaker and performance artist, who weaves time, space and sound to evoke ancient sensory memories.

From the article:

Since the beginning Kelly has hosted international artists, but until now the Writers House has never before had an official international series. Al Filreis, Writers House faculty director, English professor and director of Penn's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, explains, "If you have a place like the Writers House and you leave it to its own devices, pretty much anything will come through the door. The one thing that won't naturally come ... will be people from New Zealand and China and Nigeria and Chile. It's expensive [and] administratively time-consuming to arrange for the visit of an international writer. There's not an ideological problem, there's no vision problem; the problem is practical."