Jürgen Habermas. Photograph: Gorka Lejarcegi.
Jürgen Habermas. Photograph: Gorka Lejarcegi.

In a recent interview for El País, the philosopher Jürgen Habermas addresses the social and cultural conditions that have led to the diminishment of public intellectuals in contemporary discourse:

Q. Has the internet diluted the public sphere that supported the traditional media, which has, in turn, adversely affected philosophers and thinkers?

A. Yes. Since Heinrich Heine, the figure of the intellectual has gained in status along with the classical configuration of the liberal public sphere. However, that depends on implausible social and cultural assumptions, mainly the existence of alert journalism, with newspapers of reference and mass media capable of directing the interest of the majority toward topics that are relevant to the formation of political opinion; and also the existence of a reading population that is interested in politics, educated, accustomed to the conflictive process of forming opinions, and which takes the time to read quality, independent press.

Nowadays, this infrastructure is no longer intact, although as far as I know it still exists in countries such as Spain, France and Germany. But even there, the splintering effect of internet has changed the role of traditional media, particularly for the younger generations. Even before the centrifugal and atomic tendencies of the new media came into force, the commercialization of public attention had already triggered the disintegration of the public sphere. An example is the US and its exclusive use of private TV channels. Now, new means of communication have a much more insidious model of commercialization in which the goal is not explicitly the consumer’s attention, but the economic exploitation of the user’s private profile. They rob customers’ personal data without their knowledge in order to manipulate them more effectively, at times even with perverse political ends, as in the recent Facebook scandal.”

El País

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Philip Roth

Yesterday night, I was sad to hear that the American novelist Philip Roth had died of congestive heart failure at the age of 85. As one of the most important literary chroniclers of post-war America, his voice carries across the decades to cover some of the most bracing and stupendous events of the last sixty years.

I can still remember being introduced to his work as a college student, and sitting up on winter nights to read The Ghost Writer and the other Zuckerman novels. It was what I did in lieu of starting my essay assignments. I found Nathan Zuckerman, a complex or not-so-complex stand-in for Roth, a fascinating example of modern American identity, with all its inconsistencies, strange neuroses, and grand ambitions. For a long time, Zuckerman was the character who came to mind when I imagined the figure of the modern writer hunching over a typewriter: the bold American novelist who sought to capture the world on the page as it seemed intent on collapsing all around him.

I read Portnoy’s Complaint, of course, and then graduated to the stately, mature works on which so much of his reputation is based: Sabbath’s Theater (did I say stately and mature?), American Pastoral (perhaps my favourite Roth title), The Human Stain, The Plot Against America (which I anxiously carried through customs on a trip to California). But, for me, many of the favourites come right at the end: those short, intense novels (or are they novellas?) which tackle the great questions of life and death in the dwindling hours of the American century: Everyman, Nemesis, The Humbling, Exit Ghost.

There was a certain romance that surrounded Roth’s later years. His solitary life in deepest green Connecticut. His athletic writing routine spent standing at the window of his study, before retiring in the quiet evenings to read Turgenev by lamplight. A number of journalists and television interviewers were dispatched to marvel at the writer’s almost monastic self-discipline, and he improvised answers to their incredulous questions with a down-to-earth humility and street-smart dry humour.

When he finally announced his retirement from writing he began to focus on questions of life and legacy, welcoming an authorised biographer into his home, and working with the Library of America to produce a multi-volume edition of his works—a rare honour for any living man or woman of American letters. But while Roth helped others find their way around his earlier years, he remained an acute observer of contemporary culture and politics, a commentator whose words conveyed the wisdom of experience and a rare, often mischievous, humour. He will be missed.

What follows are a few of the interviews and articles that I have featured on the site in recent years:

Set in the final days of the Third Reich, All for Nothing is a tale of national and personal defeat.
Walter Kempowski, All For Nothing
Walter Kempowski, All For Nothing

“Imagine, for a moment, a German novel about the final months of the Second World War, an epic tale of national collapse and shameful private defeat, the ruined landscape ribboned with refugees. Now imagine such a book written by a German who lived through those bitter months as a teen-ager, but written with a light touch, almost quizzically, the entire story suffused with an air of speculative detachment. I wouldn’t have thought it could be done. Then I encountered Walter Kempowski’s extraordinary novel All for Nothing (New York Review Books), first published in German in 2006, and now available in Anthea Bell’s vital translation.”

Source: The New Yorker

As The Story Was Told (1996), a two-part documentary featuring interviews with authorised biographer James Knowlson, publishers John Calder and Barney Rosset, actress Billie Whitelaw, nephew Edward Beckett, and others. The documentary is notable, in part, for its glimpses of Beckett’s home in Paris and his country retreat in Ussy-sur-Marne.

“[Jonathan] Demme’s dive into the deviant undercurrents of America at the end of the Reagan-Bush era gripped audiences who had been primed by another auteur’s breaking of the barriers between art and exploitation. Moody and visceral as no prime-time series had ever been before, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990–91) was a twisted tale founded on the naked corpse of a teenage girl—Laura Palmer. A quarter of a century later, viewers who had been bingeing on the original Twin Peaks as it was released on various digital platforms along with its prequel, the theatrical feature Fire Walk with Me (1992), avidly consumed Twin Peaks: The Return during its eighteen-episode run on Showtime, finding themselves trapped in a wormhole, also known as the Lynchian unconscious, where the homicidal law of the father is forever unchecked and unchanged. The return of Twin Peaks roughly coincided with the appearance of a new restoration of The Silence of the Lambs in theaters, and now in this release. This dialectician of gender in popular culture relishes the timing. […] One major thing that distinguishes Demme’s film from Twin Peaks—and from the vast majority of serial-killer investigative dramas, including those of another contemporary auteur, David Fincher—is the fact that his hero is a woman. “

The Criterion Collection