The literary centrifuge

Danish. In my thirteenth entry for Weekendavisens lexicon, I suggest (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that narratives are shaped by two forces: a centripetal forces, which keeps the story together, and a centripetal force, which add variety, texture, side plots, and surprises to the text. The worst examples of genre fiction are entirely dominated by the utilitarian logic of the centripetal force; while avantgarde stories like the films of David Lynch tend towards centrifugal excesses.

“Centrifugal” (“Centrifugal”), Weekendavisen (18 August 2023). Link.

Return of the text

The article discusses a trope in cuneiform literature that I term the “self-referential climax,” in which stories end by describing their own composition in a final confluence of narrated time and the time of narration. This trope is crucial to the study of cuneiform literature because it affords us a glimpse of how ancient poets viewed their own poems. I focus on three case studies—Inana and Shukaletuda, The Cuthean Legend, and Gilgamesh—that all use the trope to set up an ambivalent contrast between the story’s medium and main character: in all three cases, form triumphs over content.

“The Return of the Text: On Self-Reference in Cuneiform Literature,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies, vol. 75, no. 1 (Spring 2023): 93–107. Link.

The great fatigue

Danish. The peer review system is collapsing: editors find it increasingly difficult to secure the reviewers needed to ensure academic quality control. The root of the problem is a tension between the gift economy of mutual obligations on which the academic system is founded and the capitalist logic of resource extraction by which the big publishing houses operate: the latter’s exploitation of academic labor is pushing academia to a breaking point. The article includes interviews with Anders Bjarklev, Maja Horst, Randi Starrfelt, and Anna Rogers.

“Den store udmattelse” (“The great fatigue”), Weekendavisen (23 June 2023). Link.

Aristotle v. AI

Danish. There is much to be worried about when it comes to AI, but one scenario I do not find concerning is the “technological singularity,” in which AI becomes self-aware and destroys humankind. To me, this fantasy is more easily explained by a recurrent trope articulated in Aristotle’s Poetics, which has shaped such sci-fi tales as Frankenstein, Westworld, and I, Robot: the confluence of anagnorisis (self-recognition, here AI achieving self-awareness) and peripeteia (a dramatic turn in the narrative, typically for the worse, here AI declaring war on humanity).

“Digitale grundmyter” (“Founding myths of the digital age”), Weekendavisen (23 June 2023). Link.

Time of swords

Danish. In a review of Felix Riede’s study of the interaction between climate change and culture throughout ancient Danish history, I argue that he masterfully balances an understand of climactic impact with the recognition that cultures react differently to the same crisis, according to their social structure and the strategies they adopt. Unfortunately, the badly edited prose of this otherwise urgently necessary book makes its argument difficult to follow.

“Spydtid, sværdtid, ulvetid, vindtid” (“Time of spears, time of swords, time of wolves, time of wind”), Weekendavisen (16 June 2023). Link.

The sense of nonsense

Danish. In my twelfth entry for Weekendavisens lexicon, I trace the origins of the Danish word “volapyk,” meaning nonsense: it comes from a predecessor of Esperanto, Volapük, an attempt to create a perfect global language (the current Danish meaning of the word shows how well that project went). I discuss my own teenagey dabbling in conlanging, and why languages cannot—as the creator of Volapük wanted—be kept in a state of permanent stasis: languages live in change, change is the mechanism that makes meaning possible.

“Volapyk” (“Volapük”), Weekendavisen (9 June 2023). Link.

Making the modern world

Danish. The subtitle “and the Making of the Modern World” has become an obsession for publishers of popular history books, being applied to everything from Gengis Khan to dynamite and the year 1946. The compulsive repetition of the subtitle—I list 33 examples shows us two things about the popular notion of history: a widespread disagreement about what “modernity” means, and a widespread agreement about the purpose of history, namely using the past to understand the present.

“Den moderne verdens mange, mange tilblivelser” (“The many, many makings of the modern world”), Weekendavisen (9 June 2023). Link.

Loathin’ n’ lovin’

Danish. I begin my review of Harald Voetmann’s new translation of Catullus with a close reading of poem no. 16: a rape joke that deconstructs itself to establish the difference between fictional persona and real author, combining a sophisticated literary self-reference with a genuinely shocking vulgarity. That’s Catullus in a nutshell, as I explain in this review, which draws on Danish pop music and the TV series Gossip Girl to explore his poetic self-contradictions: his earnestness and artificiality, his obsessive explorations of the self and the deeply social nature of his poems.

“Popdrengen vender tilbage” (“The pop boy returns”), Weekendavisen (26 May 2023). Link.

Medieval merriment

Danish. In a review of Kåre Johannessen’s book about leisure and amusement in the European Middle Ages, I argue that Johannessen’s fascination with play is an example to be emulated. Historians often explain premodern diversions in instrumental terms—as physical training or forms of subtle social control—but this reading of fun and games as always being “work in disguise” itself reveals our modern, capitalist, post-protestant work-bias, a bias we must set aside if we are to understand Medieval peoples on their own terms. Play can be its own purpose.

“Fritid er sit eget formål” (“Leisure is its own goal”), Weekendavisen (5 May 2023). Link.

A clash of Cleo’s

Danish. Weighing in on the controversy surrounding the 2023 Netflix docudrama about Queen Cleopatra, I briefly trace the history of her malleable, adaptable image, arguing that the queen’s legacy became a confluence of contradictions: she gathers in one figure East and West, sex and death, power and decline, excessive masculinity and excessive femininity. Talking about Cleopatra has always been a way to talk about the relation between women, ethnicity, and power, but when will we stop reducing her to her body—whether her skin or her sex life—and focus instead on her complex achievements and afterlife?

“Hvornår bliver vi klar til Kleopatra?” (“When will we be ready for Cleopatra?”), Weekendavisen (5 May 2023). Link.