In Cold Type

In Cold Type

The current Salmagundi (Summer-Fall 2002) has a section on what it calls “Femicons” (the category includes articles on Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Willa Cather); but


The current


(Summer-Fall 2002) has a section on what it calls “Femicons” (the category includes articles on Emma Goldman, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Willa Cather); but before that comes a stunning “Letter from Paris” by the writer and philosopher Tzvetan Todorov, on the French use of torture during the Algerian War.

Really a review of the French television program and book by Patrick Rotman called L’ennemi intime (“Intimate Enemy”), Todorov’s essay examines the root causes of the torture, including the demonization of the enemy, the youthfulness of the French recruits and their isolation in Algeria. He also points out that neither “culture, education, accumulated wisdom…nor…religion…provides efficient protection” for an individual against the possibility of becoming a torturer.

The French Army worked hard to develop a political rationalization for the systematic torture of Algerian rebels, a rationalization that will be of interest to anyone who has followed the Israeli courts’ legitimization of forms of physical abuse of prisoners in certain situations. A hypothetical case always cited is that of the captured bomber who has killed once and set other bombs to go off shortly. Do you “question him politely” or “torture him so as to uncover and disarm the bombs”? Todorov says this time-honored defense of torture is specious. First, “the bomber caught between bombings is rare indeed.” Second, he writes, the argument involves at its core the “principle that torture was necessary to win the war.” Yet torture was practiced, and the war lost.

So, Todorov asks, what was the necessity? His explanations of why humans torture, when torture has never been shown to be efficacious, are revealing. Is it the beast in man? No, comes the response. He argues instead that it is “the convinced, resolute and active minority” that carries along the “passive, indecisive majority…. Fanatics and sadists act out; others let things happen, torn between a flabby indignation and secret satisfaction.” Todorov is a keen observer of human behavior–he calls torture a “civilized” phenomenon.

Rochelle Gurstein’s review/essay on Emma Goldman is a lot of fun, and for that we can thank both Goldman, whose letters to her lover Ben Reitman are the subject here, and Gurstein, who is level-headed and fair-minded and above all filled with empathy when considering the torturous, melodramatic affair that was, as Goldman described it, “the greatest tragedy of my life.” A piece by Regina Janes on the iconization of Virginia Woolf is also worth reading if you can get through the many, many sentences meant to be zippy, like this one: “Now appearing everywhere, in a theatre near you, is the only current contender for femme Shakespeare, feminist icon extraordinaire, Virginia Woolf.”

Astro Boys

I am still wondering why

Giant Robot

is called that. It’s an Asian “pop culture” magazine published out of LA (“Asian pop culture and beyond” is its motto), filled with oddities and–speaking of icons–icons. The magazine provides a window into what young Asians are thinking about in America. In a word, it is what other young American men are thinking about (including the readers of


, a magazine targeting young secular Jews), and that word is: skateboarding.

Much more than Heeb, Giant Robot has the mentality of the young adolescent male–the


mentality. But today’s adolescent male–or postadolescent, since one must assume the editors of GR have reached their majority–pays attention to girls in a broader and better way than did the boys of, oh, say, twenty-five years ago. The GR pieces are oddly inspired; they dive onto issues at an acute, bombardier’s angle, quirky and revealing.

In its spring issue, a chipper interview with Gedde Watanabe, the Asian-American buffoon who played Long Duk Dong in John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, opened up the world of a “successful” Asian-American actor. It is a world of stereotype, of bit parts as doctors and judges and what Watanabe (whose recent roles include Chan the Waiter and Male Asian Tourist) ruefully calls “accented roles.” Inquiring GR reporters also conduct a strong Q&A with Cheng Pei-Pei, the former reigning queen of kung fu movies who also appeared in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Though its focus is on entertainment, GR is always circling more political issues: the defeminization of Asian action films, for example, or the stereotyping in the West of Asian women.

In terms of its Mad-ness, that issue also includes stories on Takeru Kobayashi, another icon because he was the 2001 winner of Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest (he ate fifty in twelve minutes); an all-girl skateboarding competition; the return of Cambodian psychedelic rock (yes); Jerry Hsu, a young skateboarding genius known as the Asian Elvis; as well as amusingly written, culturally eye-popping pieces on Japanese toilet technology and Singaporean public johns.

Another fact brought to light by GR is that Astro Boy, a favorite big-eyed, fire-powered cartoon hero of the baby boom era, was a Japanese creation, developed by Osamu Tezuka, the founding father of Japanese comic books (or manga); it became Japan’s first cartoon series in 1963. (Theme song: “Astro boy there you go/Will you fight friend or foe?,” a brilliant, ambivalent lyric for the Vietnam generation.)

A cover feature called “88 Things” presents a list of items that a “discerning” GR reader ought to know, including this: “The average age of comfort women was 12.”

* * *

NB: In a long and worthwhile section on Beauty, the current


includes an article called “The Abuse of Beauty,” a spirited and fascinating essay by Arthur Danto, based on lectures he gave before the American Philosophical Association a year ago, that begins with the morally hideous question of whether the attack on the World Trade Center can be understood, ever, as “art.” The answer is, nowadays, “yes,” and Danto’s deeply historical, scholarly piece looks at how such an answer became possible.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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