Wednesday, December 28, 2011

“We wish to understand history as a whole, in order to understand ourselves.”

Late this year, U of MN Press published the first American edition of Stig Dagerman's German Autumn, essays on the tragic aftermath of war, suffering, and guilt that are as hauntingly relevant today as they were sixty-plus years ago when Dagerman was first assigned by the Swedish newspaper Expressen to report on life in Germany immediately after the fall of the Third Reich. The new edition includes a compelling new foreword by best-selling author Mark Kurlansky, an excerpt of which is published here:

In the autumn of 1946, Stig Dagerman, wunderkind of Swedish letters at the age of twenty-three, was sent to Germany by the Swedish newspaper Expressen. Dagerman was a too-bright filament that burned out quickly. He had already written two novels and been proclaimed in Sweden as the premier genius of a new generation. The year after he wrote German Autumn he would publish a collection of short stories and his first play was produced in Stockholm to dazzling success. The next year he wrote two more plays and a third novel. The next year he came out with a fourth novel and wrote a fourth play. Except for this last play, which the author himself disliked, all of these works, including German Autumn, were widely regarded as brilliant.

But then he couldn’t write anymore.

Dagerman was twenty-six and used up. He undertook projects, he kept trying, but he could not write. In 1954, age thirty-one, he gassed himself to death in his car parked in his garage. Recent research suggests he may have been suffering from clinical depression or bipolar disorder with possible manic episodes.

Dagerman’s extraordinary gift was his ability to empathize. He came from a poor rural background; his grandparents raise him because he was abandoned by his parents. A deranged man stabbed his grandfather to death, and his grandmother died soon after from the shock. When Dagerman heard of the murder he tried to write a poem about his feelings. He couldn’t do it, but he regarded that experience as his beginning as a writer. “Something was born,” he wrote. “Something that I believe was the desire to be a writer; that is to say, to be able to tell of what it is to mourn, to have been loved, to be left lonely . . . ” He said his grandmother had “the courage to show love.” Stig Dagerman had the courage to show compassion, and in Germany in 1946 that required a considerable amount of courage.


When Heinrich Heine returned from exile in France in 1843 he found Hamburg shattered from war damage and described it as “a poodle halfway shorn.” When Dagerman arrived in 1946 such flippancy would have been unimaginable because in the intervening hundred years the human capacity for destruction had greatly advanced. Dagerman described Hamburg as “a landscape of ruins drearier than the desert, wilder than a mountain-top, and as farfetched as a nightmare.” That same year Mann had warned, “It is impossible to demand of the abused nations of Europe, of the world, that they shall draw a neat dividing line between ‘Nazism’ and the German people.”

Dagerman didn’t try. He was not neutral: he had a history of active antifascism from his teenage years, when most of the world was not speaking out against the new German regime. But he did not consider passing judgment on these people part of his role. He was a young man who understood deprivation, hunger, and loss. These were human beings who had lost everything, who were living in the flooded, chilly basements of bombed-out buildings, looking for scraps of food. Journalists working in Germany found a strong vein of Nazi sentiment, and Dagerman found such people as well, but he criticized journalists for regarding “the Germans as one solid block, irradiating Nazi chill, and not as a multitude of starving and freezing individuals.” Dagerman found, in the words of Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg, perpetrators, victims, and bystanders— concentration camp survivors and SS members all crawling through the same rubble, all people in deplorable conditions.

Dagerman’s compassion was no small accomplishment. On my many trips to Germany I have always sought out the victims, discovered a few perpetrators, and been deeply disturbed by the knowledge that most of the people I saw were bystanders. I felt as Mann wrote that “the lack of a sense of the evil of the obviously and unequivocally wicked will always be a crime”—an unforgiveable one. Twenty-five years after Dagerman’s German autumn I was on a transatlantic ship (they were still transportation then), and a suave, silver-haired man from Munich standing at a bar said to me that “the fire bombing of Dresden was the greatest atrocity of World War II.” I did not want to speak to this man again. He had actually lived through the Nazi years in Germany and thought the Allied bombing, horrendous as it was, was the greatest atrocity.

Twenty years later I was in Dresden, the center still in ruins, reporting on the efforts of the newly unified Germany to at last rebuild that historic baroque city. Dresdeners tried to evoke my sympathy, but they kept leading me to archives that showed the destruction and what it was like before. Before was the problem—all those photographs of plump and happy Germans cheering swastikaed mass murderers. This is not easily overlooked and I’m not sure it should be overlooked. But Dagerman understood what was at stake. He quoted Victor Gollancz, a Jewish publisher in London who had only recently made his own visit to Germany that autumn and warned that “the values of the West are in danger.” Gollancz, a far more active antifascist than Dagerman and one of the few to speak loudly of the Holocaust during the war, was so disturbed by the conditions he found in Germany that he published that year a book about it, Our Threatened Values. Like Gollancz, Dagerman believed that compassion had to be preserved, that it was vital to maintain “the capacity to react in the face of suffering whether that suffering may be deserved or undeserved.”

Had we listened, had we felt more compassion, had we felt more troubled by the human suffering that was caused by our bombs, perhaps we would have spoken out louder and not ourselves been bystanders to the bombing of Hanoi and of Baghdad. World War II had been more brutal to civilians than warfare had ever been before. In the wars since then, the percentage of civilians on the conflict’s casualty list has been steadily rising.

German Autumn is a very important book and it is crucial that an English language version is now available for Americans. We need this book. Karl Jaspers, the German psychiatrist turned philosopher, wrote, “We wish to understand history as a whole, in order to understand ourselves.”

Stig Dagerman (1923–1954) was regarded as the most talented young writer of the Swedish postwar generation. By age twenty-six he had published four novels, a collection of short stories, and four full-length plays, in addition to German Autumn.

Mark Kurlansky is a New York Times best-selling author of many books, including Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World and Salt: A World History.

"German Autumn is one of the best collections ever written about the aftermath of war. It is on par with John Reed’s classic articles from the Soviet Union as well as with Edgar Snow’s articles about the great political revolution in China. It should be compulsory reading for all young people who might consider becoming a journalist, and it is as alive as it was when first published in 1947. Read it."—Henning Mankell

"Dagerman wrote with beautiful objectivity. Instead of emotive phrases, he uses a choice of facts, like bricks, to construct an emotion."—Graham Greene

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

[Wired] The Curse of Cow Clicker: How a Cheeky Satire Became a Videogame Hit

From Wired's feature on author Ian Bogost (How to Do Things With Videogames and Alien Phenomenology):

You work for the Transportation Security Administration, manning the x-ray machine at a local airport. Your day begins easily enough, quickly scanning passengers’ luggage and bodies and waving them through. But after a few minutes, you get an alert—shirts are now contraband. OK, fine, you dutifully strip people of their T-shirts as they pass through the metal detector. Then another alert: Mobile phones are prohibited, too. Wait, now coffee isn’t allowed either, but cell phones are OK again. As you struggle to keep the new rules straight, the line of cranky passengers gets longer. Wait, snakes and turbans have just been outlawed. Oh, and shirts are allowed now, but you didn’t realize that until you’d already stripped down another passenger. That’s one strike against you. Now native headdresses are forbidden, turbans are OK, but shoes must be removed. You get confused and let a snake through—another black mark. The line of passengers begins to stretch across the room even as new regulations keep coming in faster than you can process them. Before long, you are fired—not because you’ve endangered anyone’s safety, but because you failed to cope with the illogical edicts of a capricious bureaucracy.

That pretty much sums up the experience of playing Jetset, a tongue-in-cheek but nerve-jangling iPhone game that almost makes you feel sorry for the petty tyrants behind the backscatter machine. Jetset is the brainchild of Ian Bogost, a game developer and academic. While some videogames let players vicariously experience the thrill of tossing a grenade into an enemy machine-gun nest, Bogost’s offerings—designed under the auspices of his small development company, Persuasive Games—tend to simulate grinding, unsatisfying everyday experiences. In Fatworld, players are charged with managing a diet-and-exercise regimen on a limited budget; in Bacteria Salad, they must grow and sell tomatoes and spinach as quickly as possible while containing E. coli outbreaks. (The game ends when too many people violently shit themselves.) In one of Bogost’s sentimental favorites, Disaffected!, surly Kinko’s employees struggle to fill orders for angry customers. At first, the game seems similar to classics like Tapper or Diner Dash, which transform workplace demands into a source of fun. But Disaffected! offers no such alchemy. “Conventional games are structured to ensure you can accomplish tasks and level up,” says Bogost, who has a PhD in comparative literature and is director of Georgia Tech’s graduate program in digital media. “In our game, you can’t. You can’t see it as working your way up to becoming a manager or to starting your own office-supply store. That is not what this game is about. It is about working a bad job.”

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New media and old philosophy: What would Vilém Flusser think about e-books?

Associate professor of German studies and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut

In an essay titled “The New Imagination” (1990), Vilém Flusser emphasizes the need for a “critique of image criticism” – and he considered letters to be images as well. He writes: “The linear gesture of writing tears the pixels from the image surface, but it then threads these selected points (bits) torn from the images into lines. This threading phase of the linear gesture negates its critical intention, in that it accepts the linear structure uncritically. … If one wants a radical critique of images, one must analyze them.” Images, he insists, must be calculated and explained, not threaded into linearity. This “new imagination,” as he calls it, is an outgrowth, a result of years of writing on the technical imagination, so astutely presented in Flusser’s trilogy, published in the 1980s (Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Into the Universe of Technical Images, and Does Writing Have a Future?). The shortest summary of Flusser’s evolution of media, provided at the end of this essay, reads as follows: “First, man took a step back from his life-world, to imagine it. Then, man stepped back from the imagination, to describe it. Then, man took a step back from the linear, written critique, to analyze it. And finally, owing to a new imagination, man projected synthetic images out of analysis.”

These steps overlap, of course, and we have not yet quite reached the very last one. Nonetheless, Flusser suggests a drastic move after this long history of repeatedly threading critiques: he proposes a step forward towards a critique, a step towards an imagination out of computation, not from description and experience. This imagination marks a step toward creativity, toward “true expression,” and, according to him, turns homo faber (Man the Creator) into homo ludens (Man the Player).

We all want to play – and new media often permit us to play at our own volition and by building our own critique or imagination (not that there’s a whole lot of difference for Flusser here). The future of reading and writing, for Flusser, is one that is enmeshed with the reading and writing of images, a process that can always be creative and presents always a potential challenge. His media philosophy, focused in large part on the interconnectedness of text and image, proscribes non-linearity inasmuch as computation, calculation and analysis demand creativity – they are imaginative actions, not descriptive ones; it’s simply not about collecting facts or observations or about regurgitation.

How does that translate to integrating new media platforms and gadgets such as Twitter or e-books into our lives? Flusser would have been an unlikely Tweeter; why restrict one’s input to a silly 140 characters? However, the forms of dialog Twitter facilitates would possibly have fascinated Flusser inasmuch as the networking and dialoging defies linearity. E-books, especially new versions like the Kindle Fire, might have inspired his critique of the apparatus, the program, and the images/letters presented. Do we “see through” the surface, do we understand and “play with” the underlying program, the materiality of what the “game” of e-books presents us with? Does the e-book allow us to break through the constructedness of itself, to rearrange its purported magic?

For someone who hammered away at his typewriter, an e-book might have been a marvelous machine, albeit one that Flusser likely would regard with skepticism. I recently thought about Flusser when I found myself sitting on the commuter train from Grand Central station back to Connecticut with an army of readers, heads bent over the object in their laps, simultaneously determined and aloof.

I was the only one holding a book.

Paper, yikes!

Everyone else handled an e-book or a smart phone (with apps for online books), “turning” “pages” (?) with the tip of a finger, cradling the slim plastic board in both hands as if the cherished item would otherwise slip away.

We are engaging in a new imagination, and we like to play. Whether we are willing to calculate and compute the images we see on an e-book, though, remains to be seen. So far, we are simply trying to understand and analyze the transition from linearity to circularity or networks, from the haptics of a book or image to their digital forms – forms informed by pixels and algorithms. Flusser calls our attention to these underlying levels – and challenges us to play with them.


Anke Finger is associate professor of German studies and comparative literature at the University of Connecticut. She is co-author, with Rainer Guldin and Gustavo Bernardo, of Vilém Flusser: An Introduction.

"Flusser is one of our lost gems—the other McLuhan, and dare I say the better. A global citizen writing alternately in German, Portuguese, English, or French, Flusser meditated on words and gestures, translation and doubt, cities and images. He was a master of the essay form. I believe he had the ear of both gods and men. In this important book on Flusser we are introduced for the first time in English to perhaps our greatest media philosopher."
—Alexander R. Galloway, New York University

"Flusser is one of the world’s most interesting theorists of communication and culture, yet his work is relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Anke Finger, Rainer Guldin, and Gustavo Bernardo are the most qualified scholars in the world to provide this contextualizing introduction to the complex array of his work."
—Douglas Kellner, UCLA

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

December 13th: Sankta Lucia Dagan (Festival of Lights)

From Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America by Eric Dregni (Minnesota 2011), pgs. 252-53:

At 6:15 in the morning of December 13, the parking lot of the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis is jammed, the castlelike structure clouded in the cars' vapors. Tickets are sold out as the dark mansion on Park Avenue fills up with Swedish Americans ready to celebrate Santa Lucia Day.

Why are Swedes celebrating a Sicilian saint and singing the Swedish translation of a Neapolitan song? One story tells of a white-robed woman wearing a crown of candles and carrying food to starving Swedes in Värmland. Another tells how sailors at sea found their way home to Sweden thanks to a vision of a beautiful woman with a halo of light, who was St. Lucy (Lucia means lux, or light, in Latin).

The fair Lucia hailed from fourth-century Syracuse and was promised to a wealthy man, whom she despised. To avoid marriage to a cruel pagan, she gave away her dowry, but her fiance denounced her as a Christian to the mayor of the town. Her eyes were plucked out, and, as the legend goes, God gave her a pair of even more beautiful eyes. The church canonized her as the patron saint of light and eyesight, and Lucia is often painted with her eyes on a platter as a sign of her martyrdom.

On December 13, the dark days are beginning in Scandinavia, so this festival of lights marks the beginning of the Christmas season and time to get baking. The eldest daughter dresses as Lucia in a white gown and a crown of four candles and brings lussekatter (Lucia saffron buns), usually in an S shape, to her sleeping parents. At the American Swedish Institute, she is followed by "star boys" in long, white cone hats and jultomten (julenisse in Norwegian), who are Christmas pixies.

"Don't forget to turn your lights on!" they tell each other as they switch on the battery-powered bulbs (rather than real candles) in the crowded wooden mansion. The lit wants of the star boys become swords, and one of them knocks out a ceiling tile. Never mind, though, because all eyes are on Lucia.

After the procession, the early morning crowd indulges in lussekatter, pepparkakor (spicy ginger snaps), and strong Swedish coffee—just in time to go back to bed.


Excerpt from Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, by Eric Dregni. Get it at 30% off in our holiday sale.

"While reading Vikings in the Attic, I solved two family mysteries and added at least ten new jokes to my act."
—Louie Anderson

Monday, December 5, 2011

Nerds and Nords: Why Styrbiorn the Strong is made for Skyrim fans.

Senior acquisitions editor at University of Minnesota Press

It’s an open secret here at the Press that I’m a pretty big gamer in my off time. A quick romp through a virtual world with an ax in one hand and a fireball spell in the other is the perfect antidote to a long work day of delving deep into manuscripts on economic geography, settler colonialism, or social movement theory.

And like a lot of gamers, I’ve been completely obsessed with Skyrim for almost a month now, spending to date seventy hours playing a character named Gwydion, a Breton with a fetching pencil-thin moustache who enjoys picking flowers as much as he loves trolling Imperial camps and fighting dragons. That I’ve spent more time with Gwydion than I have on some relationships is a testament to Bethesada, Skyrim’s creator, to craft an open world RPG with its own cosmology and coded physics, a world indifferent to the person exploring it. As Tom Bissel writes in his Grantland review of Skyrim, “Like most who play Skyrim, I’m greatly drawn to these incredible environments because the act of exploring them becomes uniquely my experience.”

Many gamers take crafting this unique experience very seriously. Weeks before Skyrim was released, I’d find myself jotting down potential character names, deciding if they’d most fit a wretched Argonian thief or a mysterious but benevolent battlemage. Gwydion, a trickster character from Welsh mythology, fits my spell-wielding, sneaky Breton perfectly.

If you grew up on tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons, you probably take this pre-game process even more seriously, writing down a narrative back story for your character, deciding how they grew up and recording the formative events that shaped their present attitudes. Why are they a callous murderer? Why would they choose to side with the Stormcloak rebellion rather than the Imperial army? Do they prefer men or women? Having a detailed back story makes decision-making in the game feel more natural and more unique to the player.

As nerds seem to be particularly fascinated by Nords these days, it’s worth pointing out that the University of Minnesota Press has recently brought back into a print what I think is the ultimate sourcebook for RPGers, E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the Strong. Originally published in 1926, Eddison’s fantasy is written in the style of the Sagas of old, telling the story of the prodigal son Styrbiorn’s exile from Sweden and vengeful return. Styrbiorn’s nature as a headstrong, combative scion of the North makes him a perfect character to roleplay in Skyrim.

The book is peopled with a host of great characters who would feel right at home in Whiterun or Winterhold. Based on historical or legendary figures from Nordic history, its filled with drunken brawls, thralls, Viking armadas, and moody men brooding through long winters. Reading Styrbiorn the Strong, I can’t help but draw parallels to the frozen mountains and floe-choked seas of Skyrim. For example, Eddison’s description of the rugged coast of Sweden lingers on the “driving mist that made gray and ghostly the whole face of the country-side, blotting out the hills and woods and confounding water and sky in the same hue and tone of pale grey without colour,” a description that could also apply to the beautifully rendered squalls that come in off the Sea of Ghosts near Dawnstar, in the far north of Skyrim. One could read the violence and upheavel of Styrbiorn as a prehistory to Skyrim’s racial and political conflicts, set in the same war-torn Nordic landscape.

In fact, Styrbiorn the Strong could be considered a “sourcebook” for the genre of fantasy as we know it today. After encountering Eddison’s writings in the 1940s, J. R. R. Tolkien would write, “I still think of him as the greatest and most convincing write of ‘invented worlds’ that I have read.” C. S. Lewis admired Eddison’s ability to develop a world that was a “strange blend of renaissance luxury and northern hardness.” For anyone who takes their fantasy worlds seriously, I recommend checking out this classic from one of the original masters of fantasy.


Jason Weidemann is senior acquisitions editor at U of MN Press. He can be found tweeting at @fiveoclockbot or via e-mail at