12 October 2009

Not Sausages Yet

IP nerd second. Civil procedure geek third. Parent first. Thus, the unplanned silence for the last few days, as I've been through the sausage grinder myself and — as ugly as internet link sausages usually are — nobody wants to see that. In any event, there are two obvious items that I should comment upon quickly, and a whole bunch of others that will just have to wait.

The first obligatory comment concerns the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Obama, and perhaps the Nobel Prizes in general. I suspect that Obama was awarded that prize for being, in a sense, an honest politican: He didn't promise American acquiescence to world opinion, but American engagement with world opinion... and he followed through. For the first time in half a century, an American leader sought world opinion before pontificating on The Way Things Should Be, even if he didn't always accept the content of that world opinion. In short, this Peace Prize is for holding actual conversations with and about (real and potential) adversaries, which is rightly regarded as the first step toward lasting peace. In that sense, perhaps it is a bit premature; it's merely not as premature as many critics would proclaim.

In a more general sense, it's interesting to note the American-centrism of the Nobel prizes this year... except for the prize for Literature. This continues a forty-year trend toward increasingly recognizing American contributions to discrete subsets of the intellectual toolbox while simultaneously rejecting American integration of that toolbox and whatever materials lay at hand into an artistic whole. This is an amusing contrast with the substance behind this year's Peace Prize, and reflects poorly upon the awards "system."

The other item requiring comment sooner rather than later is, in a roundabout way, a sideways glance at the Literature Prize. An item in The Economist describes "successful" new media companies as subscription-based, but utterly fails to consider the content implications of a subscription basis: Timeliness, common structures and themes, and meeting — not challenging — of subscribers' expectations. The obvious tension between this view and Conde Nast's "advertising-based" decisions — which, in reality, were more about which magazine's staff had a greater tendency to criticize potential advertisers and therefore had to go, because just a mass makeover doesn't work on a subscription model — feeds back into the Literature Prize debate with a simple observation: Despite the praise lavished upon Literature Prize winners by the Academy, with very rare exceptions they simply do not translate (either linguistically or culturally) to greatness outside their own origins. Just look at the laureates of the 1990s: Only Günter Grass and (maybe) Seamus Heaney produced works that would have had a chance of survival under a subscription model. One wonders how many members of the Academy had actually read Kenzaburo Oe's poems in Japanese, keeping their origin in mind, before awarding him a prize based upon translations...

Just some food for thought along with that coffee.