Tuesday, May 31, 2011
Reading Nabokov to Nabokov
Lila Azam Zanganeh in The Daily Beast:
For three days and three nights, on a damp February weekend in Palm Beach, Florida, I read Nabokov to Nabokov. I had traveled from New York to Palm Beach with a manuscript in my suitcase to visit Dmitri Nabokov, the only son and literary executor of Vladimir Nabokov.
The manuscript, my first book, contained a number of Nabokov quotes for which I needed to obtain rights before I could approach an American publisher. I knew that, in 1999, Dmitri had threatened to sue an Italian author named Pia Pera over a book titled Lo’s Diary, a rewriting of Lolita from Lolita’s point of view. To avoid an infringement lawsuit, Pera’s American publisher had printed a scathing preface by Dmitri (“Pia Pera [henceforth PP], an Italian journalist and author of some stories that I have not read …”). Aside from this, Dmitri had built a forbidding reputation in the literary world for attacking the works of many a would-be Nabokovian. Fearing the worst, I had emailed Dmitri the manuscript, hoping he would read it before I made it to Florida, and that we might spend the evening discussing potential issues.
My book was a curious combination of fiction and essay, of invention and interpretation. It posited that Nabokov was the great writer of happiness. A notion that, over the years, almost invariably turned small talk into opinionated tirades. Happiness, evidently, did not keep good company with nymphets and nympholepts.
Palm Beach felt like a sort of grotesque inversion of Nabokov’s short story “Spring in Fialta”: gigantic pine trees; juniper shrubs; sorry-go-rounds of concrete high-rises. With a map and a bicycle, I’d made my way to Ocean Drive. I rehearsed with myself how I might parry various lines of attack: breathe, acquiesce, qualify. “Your father hated didactic writings, hence this book had to be extremely playful ... I had to imagine him.” With an accelerated heart rate, I rang the bell of Dmitri’s apartment. A beaming nurse opened the door, and I stepped into a living room adorned with posters outlining, in 19th-century font, the casts of productions Dmitri had sung in during his operatic career. La Bohème stood out—a memorable performance, as Dmitri later recounted, at the Teatro di Reggio Emilia, where he had sung his debut role on the same night as Pavarotti, nearly half a century ago. On the door to his bedroom, to the left, a glossy poster of Kubrick’s Lolita displayed the famous pair of heart-shaped red glasses. Among mirrors and modern cream-white furniture, one could glimpse various miniature models of racing cars, another of his life’s passions.
Remy Debes reviews George Kateb's Human Dignity, Harvard University Press over at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:
You really should read this book. I think . . .
George Kateb's Human Dignity has the ring of popular philosophy. It isn't rigorously researched, especially with regard to the literature on human dignity. It overreaches, making substantive claims not just about the nature and basis of human dignity, but also human rights, liberty, morality, mind, consciousness, self-consciousness, identity, imagination, language, autonomy, and agency. And it defends more than a few contentious positions, including the central claim that human dignity is underwritten by human uniqueness in the strong sense that humans are partly divorced from the natural order -- a claim, it must be added, which is on the one hand intended secularly and on the other hand defended unabashedly from the armchair. Still -- you should probably read this book.
It is a rewarding book. Rewarding because of its scope -- or more exactly, because of its enviable ability to be (generally) deep despite the incredible scope. Rewarding because of its style -- its intentionally personal tone and scholastically unencumbered pace. And it is rewarding because it is so bold. Given the timid and hedge-prone state of recent work on human dignity, Kateb's confident viewpoint is refreshing and engaging even when it is frustrating, wildly speculative, and wrong. In short, Human Dignity is one of the more interesting contributions on the subject of human worth in the last few decades. It absorbed me when it succeeded. And it absorbed me when it failed.
Ironically, one of this book's more important successes may be one Kateb himself appreciates least: unlike most work on human dignity, Kateb uses the right method. Abstracting from his substantive and normative claims about the nature of dignity, claims which are the focus of the book, Kateb implicitly appears to appreciate the need to get clear on, and be led by, what I have recently called the form of dignity.
Curse of the Bomb
Rafia Zakaria in Guernica:
[L]ike so many other things—infrastructure and institutions, roads and rituals—the bomb too has failed Pakistan. In the past month, Pakistan’s borders have been casually ignored, security walls scaled and planes destroyed—all this despite the possession of the omnipotent trump card residing at the sacred altar of our national consciousness.
The bomb that was supposed to deter and defeat has been unable to frighten anyone into leaving us alone. It has revealed, instead, the flimsy remains of our national pride and a confused, conspiracy-infested mental landscape. Never united otherwise, Pakistanis can now share the heartbreak of knowing that they were never invincible after all, that a few men could easily outwit and outsmart, and that situating their self-worth in a bomb is exacting an infinitely bloody price.
No longer cosseted by the myth of a cure-all weapon, the bomb like an unveiled bride must be assessed in the fluorescence of a depressing and unwelcome day. It was widely known to have been procured through deception and disguise, lies and falsehoods. The man, who developed it, was chastised publicly and heroised privately, despite what some saw as his mendacity.
These sins we forgave, unwilling to recognise their potent if silent attack on national morality now poised to elevate someone accused of selling nuclear technology and promoting proliferation. It is poised to accept that it is entirely forgivable to sacrifice what is right for what is needed and most damningly that the power to destroy is more venerable than the power to befriend and create.
The losses brought by the bomb would likely be forgiven by Pakistanis if they were moral concerns alone. In the cold estimations of post-Soviet calculations, nuclear power was a deterrent, its possession meant that others would stay away, that possession alone equaled power, especially for small countries with few friends.
However, in the era of terrorism, where every living thing is a target and the propagation of fear is a means to control, a markedly different equation of nuclear power is in operation. Under its deductions, weak states with nuclear weapons attract rather than deter non-state enemies.
Ascent into Antwerp
Antwerp is an unappreciated beauty with a dubious reputation. But the city, which has fallen into disrepute as a bastion of Flemish nationalism, surprises its visitors with its cultural cosmopolitanism. A top source of pride is the fashion scene, which showcases its creations in the hip neighbourhood surrounding Dries van Noten's fashion temple and the Fashion Museum opened in 2002, which the Ghent architect Marie-José Van Hee furnished with a theatrically stepped foyer serving both as an ideal place to pose and a catwalk. As the city on the Schelde became a fashion mecca towards the end of the 1980s, thanks to the meteoric rise of the "Antwerp Six", a small architectural miracle emerged. On the rundown waterfront along the Schelde, Bob van Reeth, the father of new Flemish architecture, built the eye-catching, striped Huis Van Roosmalen and also – as part of the restoration of the burned down riverbank terraces – the Zuiderterras Café that resembles the form of a ship, while Willem-Jan Neutelings erected an apartment building whose wooden facade was intended to recall Antwerp's maritime tradition. Gradually, politicians began to realise that Antwerp, all too entrenched in its glorious past, needed an urban renewal initiative. Inspired by the revitalisation of decrepit ports in Barcelona, San Francisco, and Sydney, a competition was organised for rejuvenating the "stad aan de stroom" situated between the highway intersection to the south and Eilandje Docks to the north, now made redundant by the new container harbour – with awards going to big names, such as Toyo Ito, Rem Koolhaas, Bob van Reeth, and Manuel de Sola-Morales. But the ambitious projects ended up being shelved, and revitalisation – based on a new master plan – proceeded on an informal basis and haltingly.more from Roman Hollenstein at Sign and Sight here.
In a 1970 Arts Magazine article, art critic Gregory Battcock said: “The new curator is more concerned with communication than with art.” In a 1958 essay on Jackson Pollock, Happenings artist Allan Kaprow said: “They will discover out of ordinary things the meaning of ordinariness.” In a 1981 interview, poet John Giorno said: “I certainly won’t curl up in a chair with a book of poetry.” Dial-a-Poem, Giorno’s New York City–wide poetry installation instigated in 1968, used the technology of the telephone, a plastic handheld thing, to relay poetry as if it were simple information. The messages were poems recorded by poets and artists, from John Ashbery to Bobby Seale. For a period of about four years, anyone could dial 212.628.0400 on a rotary telephone and hear a poem. Art and writing at the end of the 1960s had expanded into new kinds of experience. Almost anything could suddenly be labeled “art”—a pile of tires, a conversation, the sound of rain outside a window. Turning away from the heroics associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement—the grand gesture—artists and writers suddenly understood the actions of an ordinary life as a type of poetry. In addition to art’s expansion, the poem on the page expanded, the definitions of “media” expanded, the frame of the picture expanded. Art and life, for a short time, became concomitant.more from Katie Geha at Poetry here.
Chernobyl in Belarus
WHEN THE reactor at Unit 4 of the V. I. Lenin Atomic Power Station, Chernobyl, exploded twenty-five years ago, the people of Belarus were sacrificed by a secretive political system. Pilots such as Major Aleksei Grushin were sent into the air above Belarus to seed clouds with silver iodine so they would rain down what had spewed from the inner core of the reactor onto the fields below. That political decision kept Muscovites safe—but as a result, 60 percent of the disaster’s radiation fell on the hapless people of Belarus. It was a national catastrophe. As author Svetlana Alexievich points out in her masterful Voices from Chernobyl, the Nazis took three years to destroy 619 Belarusian villages during the Second World War; Chernobyl made 485 villages uninhabitable in hours. Today, 2,000,000 Belarussians, including 800,000 children, live in contaminated areas. To give an idea as to how contaminated this land is, 100,000 people live on land with a radiation level 1,480 times greater than the level typically found on a nuclear bomb test site. Between 1990 and 2000, the incidence of thyroid cancer in adolescents in the region increased by 1,600 percent.more from Michael Harris at Dissent here.
It’s wine I need. Is it a sin to have another?
No harm in merlot, no harm in another.
In Ramadan, we’ll break our fast with dates and wine—
Must we pray in one room and dance in another?
Crushed blossoms at the end of the summer: teach me
how to coax nectar from the bloom of another.
Burned rice on the stove again: what’s to love
but my imperfections—you’ll forgive me another.
Butter by a kettle always melts, warns the proverb.
Heated, greased, we slip one into the other.
When, inexplicably, you enter my prayers,
I hear messages from one god or another.
Me encanta cantar, cuando estoy sola, en el carro.
My mother tongue dissolves. I speak in another.
Heart thief, enter the fields like a woman in love,
vase in one hand, shears in the other.
by Dilruba Ahmed
from Blackbird, Spring 2010
Feud for thought
From The Guardian:
Well, it was fun while it lasted. After 15 years, novelists Paul Theroux and VS Naipaul have finally ended their bookish bust-up, with a little help from Ian McEwan. Friends for three decades, the pair fell out in the mid-90s after the Trinidadian sold off one of Theroux's books – personally dedicated to Naipaul – for $1,500. Theroux responded with a memoir of their friendship, Sir Vidia's Shadow, which labelled Naipaul a racist, an egoist and a mercenary. All this hand-wringing came to an end last weekend with a simple handshake. Spotting Naipaul in the green room at the Hay festival, Theroux turned to McEwan and asked what he should do. "Life is short," McEwan replied. "You should say hello." And with that, handbags were holstered. But all is not lost. Ever since Tolstoy challenged Turgenev to a duel, the vendetta has been part and parcel of literary life – and it will survive even Theroux and Naipaul. These feuds appear to be alive and well:
The novelists fell out in the late 80s, when Le Carré criticised Rushdie's Satanic Verses. After Le Carré was accused of anti-semitism in 1997, Rushdie waded in, writing to the Guardian about his lack of sympathy. "Rushdie's way with the truth is as self-serving as ever," replied Le Carré in the next day's edition. A further missive from Rushdie called the crime writer "a pompous ass".
Possible peacemaker: At the time Christopher Hitchens muddied the waters, calling Le Carré "a man who, having relieved himself in his own hat, makes haste to clamp the brimming chapeau on his head". It's his job to clean things up.
The Bilingual Advantage
From The New York Times:
A cognitive neuroscientist, Ellen Bialystok has spent almost 40 years learning about how bilingualism sharpens the mind. Her good news: Among other benefits, the regular use of two languages appears to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease symptoms. Dr. Bialystok, 62, a distinguished research professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, was awarded a $100,000 Killam Prize last year for her contributions to social science.
Q. So what exactly did you find on this unexpected road?
A. As we did our research, you could see there was a big difference in the way monolingual and bilingual children processed language. We found that if you gave 5- and 6-year-olds language problems to solve, monolingual and bilingual children knew, pretty much, the same amount of language. But on one question, there was a difference. We asked all the children if a certain illogical sentence was grammatically correct: “Apples grow on noses.” The monolingual children couldn’t answer. They’d say, “That’s silly” and they’d stall. But the bilingual children would say, in their own words, “It’s silly, but it’s grammatically correct.” The bilinguals, we found, manifested a cognitive system with the ability to attend to important information and ignore the less important.
Q. How does this work — do you understand it?
A. Yes. There’s a system in your brain, the executive control system. It’s a general manager. Its job is to keep you focused on what is relevant, while ignoring distractions. It’s what makes it possible for you to hold two different things in your mind at one time and switch between them. If you have two languages and you use them regularly, the way the brain’s networks work is that every time you speak, both languages pop up and the executive control system has to sort through everything and attend to what’s relevant in the moment. Therefore the bilinguals use that system more, and it’s that regular use that makes that system more efficient.
Monday, May 30, 2011
Hieroglyphics and Written Kisses: Deciphering Desire
by Tom Jacobs
How on earth did anyone get the idea that people can communicate with one another by letter! Of a distant person one can think, and of a person who is near one can catch hold – all else goes beyond human strength. Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. Humanity senses this and fights against it in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create natural communication, the peace of souls; it has invented the railway, the motorcar, the aeroplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish (226).
~ Franz Kafka, “Letters to Felice”
I happened once, one fine summer afternoon several years ago, to be standing on a street corner in downtown Chicago, waiting for the light to change. I had taken a late lunch from my crappy temp job, and I usually bought a sandwich and then sought refuge from work in the Cultural Center, where daily lectures on a range of topics were given by graduate students from the University of Chicago. I had just listened to one of these as I gnawed on a turkey sandwich and was walking back to work through clouds of muddled thoughts about (in this case) ancient Greece and the use of masks in theater. This all had the effect of abstracting me from the modern realities of the skyscrapers that towered vaguely menacingly above me.
It was just then that I happened to look up and see a school bus slowly roll through the intersection before me. Perhaps it was on its way to a field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. I saw a little boy, perhaps eight years old, sitting in the very last seat of the bus and looking directly at me. We held each other’s gaze for perhaps two seconds, and then, just as the bus lurched forward, and just as I was about to smile and return to mundane day, he put his hand up and gave me the finger.
An old joke: Socrates, after he’s been given the hemlock, asks, “excuse me, but I drank what!?
I giggled for quite some time about this moment, of this kid giving me the finger, and then when I stopped giggling, I began to think about what made me giggle. Whatever motivated him to flip me off, it somehow didn’t resolve itself into anything in particular. It didn’t, for instance, seem mean spirited or angry. It seemed to come from nowhere, really, which is what made and continues to make that remembered moment so powerfully interesting to me. Perhaps it was meant as some private expression of resentment toward one individual in the larger tides of tourists, workers in suits and ties that wash backwards and forwards through Chicago’s loop. Perhaps I reminded him of his hated brother, or father, or uncle. I will never know. Still, there’s the kid’s finger, and a bucketful of unanswered and unanswerable questions. And, ultimately, I’m less interested in figuring out his motivations than I am with figuring out what it means to me.
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worthwhile
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all. That is not what I meant, at all.
~T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
I once wrote a series of love letters to an old girlfriend. They were full of intimacies and private languages and things that I would never be able to admit to anyone else. I don’t know that they ever reached their recipient. Of course they did—they were emails—but still, I don’t know if they ever got there. Something was stolen. I was here and she was there. Ghosts stole something important along the way. There are even hungry ghosts on skype. Kafka would have understood this.
Love letters, or maybe any letters written when one is not in one’s “right” mind, when one is unsettled and ableboodled in the keepy, inevitably lose something on their way. When you escape the language of bureaucracy, nothing is certain. Perhaps all of these residues that have fallen away wind up in the dead letter office. Perhaps there is some Bartleby who sifts through these and throws them into the fire of forgotten history. There must be. Whoever it is, I pity him. And here’s poor Bartleby:
Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness. Can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.
This is extraordinarily sad. Somewhere there is a Bartleby, a fella who handles our dead letters, the ghost who reads all the undelivered letters and messages. The saddest job in the world. But someone has to do it, and thank god it’s not me.
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.
~ Stevie Smith
I have recently been fascinated by a blog that collects people’s responses to what they would retrieve if their house were burning down. What would be that one thing that you would go back to get? A six year old whom was asked responded that he would retrieve his “Garfield mug.” An old friend understands the way signification and value (and the two are not so different) are profoundly related to the very specific and current moment in which one exists. Maybe that kid who gave me the finger, for instance, had just been humiliated and wanted to take it out on some stranger on the street. Anyway, my friend responded as follows:
Until you have kids when you realize that they are mostly spitting out whatever comes to their mind at any given time. For instance I will bet you that kid said, "Garfield mug" because he happened to be holding it at the time not for any sentimental reasons we would like to ascribe to it. It's their way of saying, "Are you talking because I would sure like to watch this TV program about a pirate and a talking pig without being interrupted by your nonsense questions." Or is that just my kids?...
When you point to something in the presence of an infant, do they see the thing you are pointing at, or do they just see your pointy finger (as David Foster Wallace once noted, much more eloquently)?
This kid, giving me the finger, it was like a gift, this unbidden gesture he bequeathed to me to work through and consider for, well, the rest of my life, actually, (however overblown that might seem. For me, at least, many of these strange little gestures haunt me for years, decades, even. I assume it’s the same for all of us). I wasn’t fast enough to reciprocate (not that I wanted to, really), so it was a one-way exchange, and I was left to figure out how to live with the obligation to understand, or at least to entertain the possibility of understanding.
I saw into a small window into this stranger’s life, which he made infinitely more interesting than he might otherwise have, and now I feel obliged to care for it, to think about how to integrate the ghost of that moment into the machine of my understanding. It is no unlike those moments when you are walking down a street at night and happened to catch an Edward Hopper painting in progress through the window…a couple, maybe; maybe a family, each involved in their own worlds, and each signaling to the universe something of their own loneliness. It happens all the time, it’s just that we don’t see or notice it very often. It helps when it’s framed.
And what I think it means is that In that moment I came face to face with the very scene and the most basic choreography required for a signal to be sent. Usually a sign doesn’t come from nowhere; it is produced in response to a prior stimulus (“hello.” “hey, hello,” type of thing).
But it does seem to me to be possible that signification or communication can emerge with no prior engagement. The cave drawings in France, for instance. These seem to me to just be a pure effluence of the desire to express, to sign, regardless of whether they mean anything to anyone or whether they will ever be seen. It’s incredibly hard to imagine these cave paintings as not speaking to us, in some profound way. But of course they aren’t. Although it is virtually impossible to see them in any other way today, the dude/lady who painted them was not, obviously, thinking about us. S/he was just expressing. There was no goal or audience in mind. Something needed to be said. That’s why, I like to think, that kids give fingers to strangers.
This puts me in the mind of the reviewers of Terence Malick’s most recent film, The Tree of Life. Many of these critics are put into a kind of manic thrall of Malick’s vision and his ability to find extraordinary beauty in ocean waves, or the way the light comes in through a window in the early evening, or the way the wind ripples through grass. For Malick, nature seems to have less to do with meaning that with a sincere and sacred acknowledgment of its mysterious beauty. It is not malefic; it is beautiful. And we have a choice to view it one way or the other.
Why, it has often occurred to me, are clouds so lovely? Why is snow so unimaginably beautiful to watch fall, drift, whisper against the windowpane, and land on the hand of a child stunned by the intricacy of the individual snowflake? It all seems so unlikely. Snow isn’t black or green. Clouds aren’t rectilinear. They are gorgeously puffy and cottony. And I know, I know, this is a stupid thing to say...our sense of beauty is predicated on physical phenomena. If clouds were black and gooey, and if the physical laws of the universe produced pellets that smelled like balls instead of delicate white snowflakes, we would privilege those and that. It’s probably true. But before Shelley, no one found Mount Blanc anything to write home about. So it goes both ways, I think. We are lucky and we have been blessed. When the snow falls as it does from time to time, one can’t help but feel rejuvenated. I pity countries with no snow; it’s a ridiculously beautiful thing.
Why do we sign in the presence of no one? Why is there something rather than nothing? This little boy’s middle finger gives me a clue. It presents a challenge to my interpretive abilities, to the conventional ways through which I understand communication. Both cognition and affect are involved—both thought and feeling—but they don’t cohere or match. There’s a story there somewhere, a story about why entities or individuals produce signs or signals, and about what they mean, and about how they are understood. None of these things are available to me except the last—it’s like a shard of a story. We have to reverse engineer it.
There is the well-known distinction between natural signs and conventional signs (which is something that has intrigued poets ever since: viz. the pleasures to be found in conflating the two). If there is a difference between a sign that is created specifically for the purposes of communication (i.e., a conventional sign) and a sign that is just sort of there because it’s just an unintended side-effect of natural processes (i.e., a natural sign), which of the two is more interesting?
I think signs become interesting when we take them. In the same way that money or gold becomes ours when we take it. Not from the underprivileged or from the poor or anything like that, but rather from nature, and not in the Chevron sense of the thought. No, it’s not about “taking” resources from the earth, it’s about making the earth (or what Heidegger would call the “world”), signify in ways that we can understand. We have to, lest we languish in linguistic or semiotic prisons of our own making. The difference between taking and making is large, but it’s not so large that we can’t figure it out. The world gives us signs and symptoms, and we refuse them at our peril. Here’s H.D. Thoreau, examining a banked scar cut through the land by human hands for the sake of a railway. Nature and culture coalesce, and you figure out what’s bidden, what’s unbidden, what’s natural, and what’s not. And keep in mind that somewhere there is a child in the back of the train who will give you the finger.
The whole bank, which is from twenty to forty feet high, is sometimes overlaid with a mass of this kind of foliage, or sandy rupture, for a quarter of mile on one or both sides, the produce of one spring day. What makes this sand foliage remarkable is its springing into existence thus suddenly. When I see on the one side the inert bank,—for the sun acts on one side first,—and on the other this luxuriant foliage, the creation of an hour, I am affected as if in a peculiar sense I stood in the laboratory of the Artist who made the world and me,—had come to where he was still at work, sorting on this bank, and with excess of energy strewing his fresh designs about. I feel as if I were nearer to the vitals of the globe, for this sandy overflow is something such a foliaceous mass as the vitals of the animal body. You find thus in the very sands an anticipation of the vegetable leaf. No wonder that the earth expresses itself outwardly in leaves, it so labors with the idea inwardly. The atoms have already learned this law, and are pregnant by it. […] Thus it seemed that this one hillside illustrated the principle of all the operations of Nature. The Maker of this earth but patented a leaf. What Champollion will decipher this hieroglyphic for us, that we may turn over a new leaf at last?
The leaf, I think, is right there before us. Who has the balls to turn it over and explain?
Miler Lagos. Tree Ring Dating - 396 Rings. 2010
Newspaper collage, 61 x 61 inches.
Creationism in the Classroom: A Tragic State of Affairs
by Quinn O'Neill
The latest battle in the long standing war between evolution and creationism was lost in Louisiana last week. 17-year-old Zack Kopplin spearheaded a valiant effort to repeal Louisiana’s Science Education Act, an Act that opens the door to the teaching of Creationism in science classrooms. Tragically, the bill was shelved and the anti-evolution Act retained.
Some might wonder what could be so terrible about teaching students that we were created in our current form by a kind and loving God. It’s an idea that can help people to cope with mortality and uncertainty and offer a sense of purpose to our existence. It may seem pretty harmless.
The teaching of Creationism as science constitutes a tragic failure of science education for a number of reasons, some of which don’t get mentioned often enough. When debate bubbles up on the internet, it tends to revolve around what is and isn’t true, with talk of facts and evidence. Certainly evolution is true and there are reams and museums of supporting evidence; but the rejection of facts and evidence itself isn’t really tragic in my opinion, it’s just disappointing and frustrating.
The real tragedy has more to do with the power and utility of evolution than with its truth. Evolution is a potent concept that can transform the way we see the world and everything in it. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life, Daniel Dennett compares the concept to a sort of “universal acid” that’s so powerful it will inevitably eat through anything used to contain it. In Dennett's words, evolution “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.”
But evolution doesn’t just change the way we look at things, it’s necessary for making sense of much of science. Major science organizations have acknowledged this vital role. The American Association for the Advancement of Science states:
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences has echoed this sentiment, noting that evolutionary theory “has become the central unifying concept of biology and is a critical component of many related scientific disciplines.”2 What level of science literacy can we expect students to achieve without a solid understanding of such a fundamental and unifying concept?
"The modern concept of evolution provides a unifying principle for understanding the history of life on earth, relationships among all living things, and the dependence of life on the physical environment. While it is still far from clear how evolution works in every detail, the concept is so well established that it provides a framework for organizing most of the biological knowledge into a coherent picture."1
Understanding evolution is also vitally important in the field of medicine, which should interest not only physicians and medical researchers, but anyone who might at some point be affected by a medical condition - in other words, all of us. The field of Darwinian medicine has grown rapidly, and by 1997, the literature already contained more than 1200 related articles.3 Evolutionary principles are indispensible in the management of antibiotic resistance and in vaccine design, since pathogens are continually adapting to our strategies for killing them. We are susceptible to a variety of diseases and conditions because we've evolved in environments that are radically different from those in which we now live. According to the hygiene hypothesis, the increased prevalence of allergic and autoimmune conditions in the developed world is explained by our cleaner, modern environments. Our immune systems evolved in coexistence with microbes and parasites that have been largely eliminated by improvements in hygiene. As a result, our immune systems may no longer be kept in proper balance.
Perhaps the most objectionable part of evolution for many is the idea of common descent, that we share an ancestor with non-human primates and other organisms. It's understandably difficult for some people to accept the fact that fruit flies are members of our extended family.
Common ancestry, however, provides valuable tools for improving our approaches to disease. It’s the reason why we share many aspects of our biology with other animals - we are the products of variations of a common genetic recipe - and it’s because we have so much in common that we can use animal models to study human diseases and conditions. Fruit flies, for example, can be used to study mitochondrial dysfunction which underlies a number of neurological disorders. An important gene that may contribute to mitochondrial dysfunction in Down syndrome has a fruit fly homolog - a gene that’s very similar to the human version due to a common evolutionary origin.4
Sarah Palin, poster girl for science illiteracy, famously displayed her ignorance of both evolution and its role in medical reseach with her derisive comment about the wastefulness of fruit fly research. “Some of these pet projects,” she explained, “they really don’t make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars they go to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good, things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.” As the mother of a child with Down syndrome, Palin ought to have a greater appreciation for these tiny, winged friends of science.
If evolution didn’t have such an impact on our lives, it wouldn't be so important to teach it well. Evolutionary theory is sometimes compared to gravitational theory, which is similarly well-established, but a better comparison might be to germ theory. Just as evolution provides a unifying framework for understanding biology, germ theory is a cornerstone of medicine and clinical microbiology. Rejection would have consequences for all of us and they wouldn’t be pretty.
Evolution’s opponents often point to destructive ideologies, like eugenics, that once co-opted Darwin’s ideas. But understanding evolution and natural selection doesn’t mean we ought to let those who might be deemed weak die. On the contrary, it offers powerful tools for understanding our constitutional and physiological weaknesses and enables us to obviate the major effects of natural selection. The consequences of failing to impart students with a solid understanding of evolution may ultimately stifle our ability to help those with poor health.
Principles of evolution were also misused to justify racist views in Victorian times, but evolution actually provides a powerful antidote to racism. From an evolutionary point of view, we’re all African and our differences really are insignificant. A literal interpretation of the bible, on the other hand, would permit ownership of slaves as long as they come from neighboring nations. Leviticus 25:44 states that 'Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.” Rigid adherence to a literal interpretation of the bible is a very bad idea for obvious moral reasons.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Creationism’s creep into the classroom is that it reflects a greater social pathology. We live in a society in which money is power and gross imbalances of wealth are possible. If you have enough money, you can advance any agenda you’d like.
Creationists aren’t the only group taking advantage of this, with their well-financed lobby groups and monstrous, nonsensical theme parks. The John Templeton Foundation, with an endowment of $1.5 billion, aims to "to explore spiritual and moral progress through the use of scientific methods," or as Jerry Coyne has argued, “to give credibility to religion by blurring its well-demarcated border with science”. Putting aside the inappropriateness of mixing science and religion, there’s a bigger question here: should wealthy people have the power to reshape the very nature of science? Or to direct educational reform?
In a recent article in The Daily Beast, Diane Ravitch argued that Bill Gates is “using his vast resources to impose his will on the nation and to subvert the democratic process.” She asks “Why have we decided to outsource public education to a well-meaning but ill-informed billionaire?”. Good question! The power to reshape science and education - which have important consequences for sustainability, equality, human health and well-being, and ultimately for the survival of our species - has fallen into the hands of people who are not only unqualified for the job, but who may have very different values than we do.
The current distribution of power isn’t compatible with democracy, and in a society that depends heavily on science and technology, neither is public science illiteracy. We are ill-equipped to participate in decision-making that profoundly affects us. Carl Sagan explained this best in his last interview:
“we live in an age based on science and technology with formidable technological powers and if we don’t understand it, [...] then who’s making all the decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of a future our children live in? Just some members of congress? But there’s no more than a handful of members of congress with any background in science at all, and this combustible mixture of ignorance and power sooner or later is going to blow up in our faces. I mean, who is running the science and technology in a democracy if the people don’t know anything about it?”.
The solution is a solid science education that imparts critical thinking skills and a comprehensive understanding of fundamental concepts in science. This demands a curriculum that is shaped by experts and not by groups with money and their own agendas. The most recent battle over Creationism in the science curriculum is just one in a long history of similar struggles, but the battlefield has changed and the stakes are higher than ever. At a time when we've become completely dependent on science and technology for our survival, the loss of the integrity of science education portends a grim future. On a brighter note, the youthful and prodigiously savvy leadership of Zach Kopplin offers a ray of hope that the next generation of decision-makers will have greater vision. We’d do well to follow his lead.
“Darwin matters because evolution matters. Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.” ~Michael Shermer
1 American Association for the Advancement of Science (1990). Science for all Americans: Oxford University Press New York.
2 Science and Creationism: A View from the National Academy of Science, Second Edition (1999). National Academy of Sciences.
3 Stearns SC, Ebert D. (2001). Evolution in health and disease. Quarterly Review of Biology 76:417-432.
4 Chang, KT, Min, KT (2005). Drosophila melanogaster homolog of Down syndrome critical region 1 is critical for mitochondrial function. Nature Neuroscience 8:1577-1585.
photo credits: Wikimedia Commons
The Elusive City
I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, 1974, p4
In the headlong rush to lead us to the promised land of the “Smart City” one finds a surprising amount of agreement between the radically different constituencies of public urban planners, global corporations and scruffy hackers. This should be enough to make anyone immediately suspicious. Often quite at odds, these entities – and it seems, most anyone else – contend that there is no end to the benefits associated with opening the sluices that hold back a vast ocean’s worth of data. Nevertheless, the city’s traditional imperviousness to measurement sets a high bar for anyone committed to its quantification, and its ambiguity and amorphousness will present a constant challenge to the validity and ownership of the data and the power thereby generated.
We can trace these intentions back to the notoriously misinterpreted statement allegedly made by Stewart Brand, that “information wants to be free.”* Setting aside humanity's talent to anthropomorphize just about anything, we can nevertheless say that urban planners indeed want information to be free, since they believe that transparency is an easy substitute for accountability; corporations champion such freedom since information is increasingly equated with new and promising revenue streams and business models; and hackers believe information to be perhaps the only raw material required to forward their own agendas, regardless of which hat they happen to be wearing.
All three groups enjoy the simple joys of strictly linear thinking: that is to say, the more information there is, the better off we all are. But before we allow ourselves to be seduced by the resulting reams of eye candy, let us consider the anatomy of a successful exercise in urban visualization.
A classic example of the use of layered mapping to identify previously unknown correlations occurred in London in 1854. An epidemic of cholera had been raging in the streets of London, and Dr. John Snow was among the investigators attempting to pinpoint its causes. At the time, the medical establishment considered cholera transmission to be airborne, while Snow had for some time considered it to be waterborne. By carefully layering the cholera victims’ household locations with the location of water pumps, Snow was able to make the clear case that water was in fact cholera’s vector.
This anecdote is by no means unknown, having become a favourite warhorse of epidemiologists and public health advocates; it has now been gladly co-opted by information technology aficionados as an example of a proto-geographic information system (GIS). However, it is worth a further unfortunate mention, as described by Martin Frost, that:
After the cholera epidemic had subsided, government officials replaced the Broad Street Handle Pump. They had responded only to the urgent threat posed to the population, and afterwards they rejected Snow's theory. To accept his proposal would be indirectly accepting the oral-fecal method transmission of disease, which was too unpleasant for most of the public.
Thus even the starkest illuminations by data may yet find little purchase among the policymakers for whom it is ultimately intended.
Another point worth mentioning about Snow’s discovery is that he found exactly the result for which he was seeking. He was, in fact, testing a hypothesis, and not engaging in a cavalier quest for serendipity. The lynchpin of the exercise’s success was the fact that Snow was mapping not just the street plan, but also the locations of the shallow wells. The map did not include any of the other aspects of urban infrastructure, which might have obfuscated the sought-after relationship. On the other hand, without including the wells, what might the map have taught the health authorities? That Broad Street required quarantining?
Even more importantly, the good Dr. Snow put down his quill and went into the field, where he was able to interview residents and understand how the deaths that were further afield of the contaminated pump were in fact connected to it: the residents simply considered it to be better water, and, much to their misfortune, considered the extra effort to go to a more distant well to be worth the trouble.
Several conclusions should be clear from this exceedingly elegant (and therefore admittedly rare) result: 1) It helps to know what it is you are looking for; and 2) The initial hypotheses indicated by the data can only be validated by field-level observation and correlation. These traits – falsifiability and reproducibility – are two hallmarks of the scientific method. Armchair technologists need not apply.
So how replicable is Snow's example? In this "scientific" sense, Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED Conference and all-star curmudgeon, questions our ability to even understand what a “city” is. For example, he posits that we do not have a common language to describe the size of a city, or of how one city relates to another, or what an “urban area” is. If there are six different ways of describing Tokyo, and those six ways lead to boundaries variously encompassing populations of 8.5 million to 45 million people, which is the “real Tokyo,” and of what use is the concept of a “border”? We have no unified way of showing density, collecting information, no common display techniques, and no way of showing a boundary. We have no common way of talking about a city. Accordingly for Wurman, the consequence is that ideas cannot be built on one another, and urbanists forego benefits of the scientific method. However, if we consider Snow’s process, the map was a means to an end, a supporting role in the scientific discourse, and was not meant to be anything more than that.
Of what use, then, is the deluge of data, and the pretty pictures that we draw from it? One can find endless examples on the Web of beautiful visualizations derived from datasets that are either partial or self-selected, with results that range from the obvious to the quixotic to the inscrutable. During the Cognitive Cities conference, held in Berlin in February of this year, more than one presenter was asked the question that went more or less along the lines of “Well, that is very nice but it does not tell me anything I don’t know already. What has surprised you about your findings?”
While the end results may be oftentimes trivial, and the lack of Wurman’s standards of measurement worthy of our best Gallic shrug, there is far more unease concerning how and where urban data is being generated, and for whose benefit. At the aforementioned Cognitive Cities conference, Adam Greenfield delivered a powerful keynote which struck a stridently skeptical note towards the various technologies that are rapidly contributing to the manifestation of the networked city. He goes through an increasingly disturbing catalogue of “public objects” whose technologies harvest our participation in public space, creating rich data flows for the benefit of advertisers or police or other bodies, and this generally entirely without our knowledge.
For example, certain vending machines in Japan now have a purely touch-screen interface, but the available selections are selected by algorithms based on the machine's sensing the age and gender of the person standing before it. Therefore, I might see the image of a Snickers bar while you might see the image of a granola bar. The ensuing selections help to refine the algorithm further, but a great deal of agency has been removed from the consumer, or, in the words of Saskia Sassen, we have moved from “sensor to censor”.
Even in initiatives where the public’s initial voice is sought and respected, technology has a way of subverting its alleged masters. Greenfield documents how residents of a New Zealand city voted in a public referendum to allow the installation of closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras for the purposes of monitoring traffic and thereby increasing pedestrian safety. It was an unobjectionable request, and the referendum passed decisively. However, a year later, the vendor offered the city government an upgraded software package, which included facial recognition functionality. The government purchased the upgrade and installed it without any further consultation with the public, bringing to Greenfield’s mind Lawrence Lessig’s axiom “Code is Law:”
...the invisible hand of cyberspace is building an architecture that is quite the opposite of its architecture at its birth. This invisible hand, pushed by government and by commerce, is constructing an architecture that will perfect control and make highly efficient regulation possible. The struggle in that world will not be government’s. It will be to assure that essential liberties are preserved in this environment of perfect control. (Lessig, pp4-5)
Greenfield’s remedy to make public objects play nicely is problematic, however; his requirement for “opening the data” starkly contradicts significant economic trends. As a simple example, it is doubtful that advertisers will do anything but fight tooth and nail to keep their data proprietary, and given the growing dependence municipalities have on revenue generated by private advertising in public spaces, it is difficult to see the regulatory pendulum swinging Greenfield’s way.
Instead, we see a further complexification of the terms of engagement. Consider the popular iPhone/Android application iSpy, which allows users to access thousands of public CCTV cameras around the world. In many cases, the user can even control the camera from his or her phone touchpad, zooming and panning for maximum pleasure. In this sense, at least, we have succeeded in recapturing aspects of the surveillance society and recasting them as a newly constituted voyeurism.
And yet, there are signs that the radical democratization of data generation is alive and well. Consider Pachube, a site devoted to aggregating a myriad varieties of sensory data. Participants can install their own sensors, eg, a thermometer or barometer, follow some fairly simple instructions to digitize the data feed and connect it to the Internet, and then aggregate or “mash” these results together to create large, distributed sensory networks that contribute to the so-called “Internet of things.” Lest one consider this merely a pleasant hobby, consider the hard data that is being generated by the Pachube community built around sensing radiation emitted during the Fukushima nuclear disaster (and contrast it with the misinformation spread by the Japanese government itself).
The broader point worth emphasizing is that communities appropriate and aggregate sensor data to serve specific purposes, and when these purposes are accomplished these initiatives are simply abandoned. No committee needs to publish a final report; recommendations are not made to policymakers. There is no grandiose flourish, but rather the passing of another temporary configuration of hardware, software and human desire, sinking noiselessly below the waves of the world’s oceans of data.
Cities are and have always been messy and defiantly unquantifiable. Because of this – and not despite it – they are humanity’s most enduring monuments. In this context, our interventions do not promise to amount to much. Rather, these interventions may be best off as targeted, temporary and indifferent to a broader success which would be largely dependent on the difficulties of transcending context. Should it surprise us that cities, which manage to outlast monarchs, corporations and indeed the nations that spawn them, are ultimately indifferent to our own attempts to explicate and quantify them? And, upon embarking on an enterprise of dubious value and even more dubious certainty, are we not perhaps better off simply asking, What difference does a difference make, and acting accordingly?
* Brand’s actual statement was “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine---too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property', the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.” Viewed in its entirety, there is really very little to disagree with. We should add that, since it was originally formulated around 1984, it has aged extremely well.
Bizarro World, Summer 2011
You know things have once again reached a pretty pass when you start recalling Seinfeld episodes in the midst of the morning newspaper read. By the end of this past week, it seemed to me that a goodly part of America had become Seinfeld’s Bizarro World, a place where down was up, left was right, and the violation of common sense a comic premise.
What’s funny on Seinfeld is very unfunny as a description of a country’s politics. Many nations slip in and out of Bizarro World. Cults of personality can create laugh riots, if you are not murdered or left to die tortured in a cell because you laughed out loud. Italy’s Berlusconi lives in a world so bizarre that he took to button-holing his G-8 colleagues last week in Deauville, France to complain about how “Communist” judges were persecuting him, as if being prosecuted for sleeping with 17-year olds were somehow nothing more a political setup.
If only America’s descent into Bizarro World were simply a Seinfeld episode, a story about nothing that like cotton candy melts in your mouth and disappears leaving nothing more than the disagreeable sensation of acute indigestion. But of course, it’s not. We need suffer those who don’t get the joke, and their insistent upside-down vision of the world sends the national gyroscope into a tizzy.
So, if you thought that Bizarro World was receding every so slightly, the birther matter having been laid in the crib and Barack Obama having been declared white by Cornel West, let’s review the past week and some days shall we?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attacks American foreign policy in a joint session of the U.S. Congress and gets more standing ovations than most Presidents receive when either declaring war or presenting the state of the union.
The majority of members of Congress find defaulting on the country’s debt an appropriate political tactic even though the world only just avoided financial collapse less than three years ago.
A majority of the House of Representatives wants to abolish Medicare, one of two government programs, the other being Social Security which they would like to abolish too, that unlike everything else they and their historic brethren have done has indisputably changed people’s lives for the better.
Last but not least, and to show that living in Bizarro World is a bipartisan experience, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad became for a time one of “our sons of bitches.”
Well, where to start?
Let’s start with the utter fecklessness of Congress – unmatched perhaps since they gave a rousing cheer to that “old soldier,” Douglas MacArthur, who had just been cashiered by Harry Truman because the Generalissimo wanted to take the Korean War to China and ultimately become Emperor of the Free World to boot. Set aside Netanyahu, a political rightist who for a generation has tried to lead his country into the abyss of endless war. Here is the U.S. Congress cheering madly for a foreign leader directly interfering in the making of American foreign policy, opposing an expressed policy direction from the President of the United States uttered just four days before Netanyahu’s “bloody shirt” speech. Does this mindless majority really want to follow Israel cascade into the underworld? Only in Bizarro World can a sitting Congress disregard the national interest, the separation of powers, and for Democrats their own President, and urge Israel on a suicide mission that a majority of its citizens have no wish to join.
Once more Bizarro World Congress’ other concurrent death wish was on display in the fight over whether to default on the national debt. It would be kind to attribute the cupidity of Congress to something like post-traumatic stress stemming from our great depression near-miss, except that PTSD would have made them more sensitive to new traumas such as creating another credit crisis, this time a national credit crisis with world-stopping possibilities. These lean, mean young men (and Ms. Bachmann) portray themselves as fathers protecting their children from a mountain of debt, when in fact they act like spiteful, angry sons wanting to annihilate their fathers, or at least Dad’s debts. Threatening a national default is the neurotic peevishness of people who refuse adult responsibility.
They must hate not only Dad, but Mom too, for the Congress wants to take away the only welfare programs that really work – Social Security and Medicare – and the two programs that actually help their Moms and Dads. Despite our abusive American lifestyle with its obesity, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment and under-employment, seniors’ life expectancy is high and their poverty rates very low. In terms of human outcomes, these programs ain’t broke.
But the notion of giving seniors vouchers to purchase their own medical insurance in lieu of Medicare only makes sense in Bizarro World. Medicare is expensive because seniors use more medical care than any other age group. The cost of senior care would be higher if the Medicare administration were not constantly resisting price hikes, and often pushing hospital and doctor bills downward. If Congress had given the Medicare administration the power to negotiate drug prices (because Congress has been bribed by big pharma, that hasn’t happened), Medicare would be even more effective in holding medical costs down.
Senior “vouchers” for medical insurance really is an idea that probably doesn’t even make sense in Bizarro World, unless living in Bizarro World constrains you not only to avoid common sense at all costs, but also commits you to spread misery rather than happiness where ever you go. Currently, unlike most Americans, Medicare patients can seek treatment almost anywhere they like, though some doctors in the exercise of their ill-used liberties can refuse to treat them. In every world except Bizarro World, they are exercising consumer choice, something libertarians who have been able to keep their heads out of Bizarro World can appreciate. Private insurance, of course, can make no such guarantees, at least at any cost feasible for most seniors. People with private insurance see physicians and visit hospitals they are told to see by their freedom-loving insurance plans.
As to cost, no one seriously believes that vouchers will cover seniors’ insurance costs. No plan but a national plan with universal contributions could support health care for the sickest segment of the population. More’s the point, vouchers will simply establish a floor for private insurance premiums not a ceiling. Seniors as individuals will have no less chance of escaping escalating insurance and medical costs than those of us enjoying the poison fruits of the present private system. And absent a big player like Medicare pushing back against higher health costs, our incurable medical inflation rate is bound to worsen.
Lest it be thought that only Republicans live in Bizarro World, consider why Ryan and Cantor, the Bizarro Brothers, pushed insurance vouchers in the first place. Their Bizarro World Democratic brethren, having enshrined the concept of private and unequal health insurance for all instead of a national program of universal health care, so enraged the Bizarro Brothers that for spite, they want to gut Medicare, a truly social insurance program, and turn it into the individual private insurance program so that now once more the elderly must fight for their care with companies like the rest of us. In Bizarro World, this passes as equal opportunity.
Finally, how did Bashar al-Assad end up becoming “our son of a bitch,” as Franklin Roosevelt once called Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo? This is surely something that can only be true in Bizarro World. Yet, there is our bizarro President, surely no stranger to sanctimony, with lips sealed until this past week, even as the death toll of Syrians protesting the regime passes the number killed during the recent Egyptian revolution. Remind me: what great plank of American hegemony is al-Assad holding down? His own hegemony over Lebanon? His alliance with Iran? His border with Israel? Did the Syrian people join up too late and missed our quota for the amount of political and social change that the United States can tolerate in one season?
Or is it just too difficult to imagine other people acting on their common sense and choosing better lives, given the vicissitudes of Bizarro World?
The problem with Bizarro World is that you have to be a native for it to make sense, even as getting to know it risks losing one’s common sense in the bargain. Yet, like body-snatchers, the Bizarro-Worlders have been so successful that the costs of not confronting them with their nonsense far outweigh the damage they do to our common sense.
Love is What You Want: Tracey Emin Hayward Gallery
Full of iconoclastic verve they filled the Royal Academy for Charles Saatchi’s infamous 1977 exhibition Sensation with unmade beds , pickled sharks and an image of the serial killer Myra Hindley painted using children’s handprints. Now their waist lines are thickening and they face the slow decline from the excitement and glamour of being YBAS (Young British Artists) to MABAS (Middle Aged British Artists). In the case of the Queen of the Britart pack, Tracey Emin, she has also renounced her role as official enfant terrible by recently coming out in support of the Tories as "natural patrons" of the arts. There can be few artists in recent years in Britain, except Damien Hirst, who can be so readily identified in the public consciousness by a single work. Everyone has an opinion of her 1999 Turner Prize exhibit My Bed with its sex-tossed sheets, stained knickers, spent condoms and cigarette stubs. As with her igloo-like tent appliquéd with the names of all the people she has ever slept with, (lost in the MOMART fire), the subject is herself. It is her only subject. Her work chronicles the child abuse, the teenage rape, the broken relationships and her botched abortion. In this, her first London retrospective, the solipsism is evident in titles such as Conversation with my Mum, 2001, Details of Depression When you’re sad you only see sad things, 2003, The first time I was pregnant I started to crochet the baby a shawl 1998-2004 and Those who suffer love, 2009.
I first met Tracey Emin when I went to interview her for Time Out at her audaciously named The Tracey Emin Museum on Waterloo Road in the mid 1990s. She was young, slightly cookie and evidently suffering from a bit of a hangover but there was something engaging about Mad Tracey from Margate with her Tammy Wynette sentimentality and her wonky teeth dancing around the space in her short skirt and bare feet amid pieces of unfinished art and scraps of confessional writing. Fresh from running a shop on Bethnal Green Road in East London with her fellow artist Sarah Lucas where thy sold decorated key-rings, wire penises, T-shirts emblazoned with "I'm so fucky", or "fucking useless", her work seemed confrontational and challenging; shoving her dysfunctional private life in everyone’s faces. She wore her heart and her hangovers on her sleeve, hitting a wider public consciousness when, in an arguably brilliant (if unintentional) PR stunt, she mouthed off drunk on live TV. It was not that she was saying anything particularly original in her work but that she has had a genius for voicing the emotional concerns and obsessions of young women. This was Bridget Jones and Amy Winehouse made visual.
Emin’s work grew from the fertile cultural soil of 70s feminism that produced novels such as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time or Mary Kelly’s installations displaying soiled nappies. Other women responded to the work not because it was high art but because it reminded them of the emotional chaos of their own lives. Her early blankets made and stitched herself rather than, as now, by assistants – the first Hotel International 1993 was made in response to a request for a CV– have a genuine rawness. Like a teenage girl’s private diary they are full of self-pity, anger and poignancy as they assault the viewer with phrases in dyslexic script such as ‘youre good in bed’ or ‘at the age of 13 why the hell should I trust anyone. No fucking way.’ In Pysco slut 1999, where she announces she hasn’t had sex for three days, a damaged psyche can be seen trying to make sense of an unforgiving world through the medium of art. While I do not expect, 2002 is a painful meditation on motherhood (Emin is childless) where she says“I do not expect to be a mother but I do expect to die alone.”
She has been extremely clever in collecting the detritus from her life: the needles and medical paraphenalia from her abortion, the tiny china dogs and knickknacks bought with her dinner money as an unhappy child in Margate and reassembling them as art. But the more self-conscious the works become and the further away they move from the secret contents of a shoebox of adolescent keepsakes, the less plausible and more emotionally manipulative they become.
Further into the Hayward Gallery there is a case containing her used tampons. In an accompanying text she tells how she never bled much to begin with, and now bleeds even less. That’s because she is now 47 and verging on the menopause. But there is a queasy feeling that this is all just too much information. The truth is I don’t honestly care very much about Tracey’s waning menstrual cycle while other less privileged women (she is now very rich) of the same age are worrying about whether their kids are going to pass their exams or are smoking too much dope. At an age when it might become her to do otherwise Tracey is still fixated on Tracey.
Her genius for self promotion is evident in the project when she sought financial support for her work by sending out 80 letters asking friends to invest £10 in her creative potential. In return subscribers received regular pieces of correspondence that along with other personal ephemera have become art works that are displayed here and are now, no doubt, worth a great deal of money. But it is the body that is her true territory as in the photograph of her shoving coins into her cunt like in an demented version of Titian’s Danae and the Shower of Gold or the video of her masturbating, long legs splayed, like some animated Egon Schiele drawing. It is also her less sensational paintings that are the most resonate and serious works. She is, in fact, an interesting painter. In these small-scale subdued, yet expressionistic works, where the subject (herself) is often faceless, there is a subtlety and poetic ambivalence rarely achieved in her more ‘sensational’ installations.
There is no doubt that this exhibition will be popular. The private view was packed and when I went back again in order to write this it was heaving. There is nothing difficult about her work. What you see is what you get. She is the popular face of art, the Judy Garland of the art world tugging at public’s heart strings with yet another tale of ‘poor me’. Like some torch singer pouring out her heart she wails: Love is what you want. Like listening to Alanis Morissette late at night over a bottle of wine after being jilted by a recent lover, she touches something universal. Yet when one wakes the next day from the alcoholic haze of emotional indulgence one might hopefully realise that there are other concerns in the world; politics, social deprivation, philosophy and other people - yet Tracey’s world contains none of these.
Tony Blair once declared another brilliant self-publicist, who caught the imagination of the public with her maudlin self-pity, Princess Diana, the People’s Princess. I would now like to offer a similar title to Tracey Emin: stand up the People’s Princess of Art.
1 Love is what you want 2011
2 Running Naked, 2000
3 Hotel International, 1993
4. I’ve got it all, 2000
Installation views of the exhibition. All works copyright Tracey Emin. All photos David Levene
The Eclipse of Pragmatism
Pragmatism is widely regarded as the Unites States’ only indigenous philosophical movement. Founded by a quirky and largely isolated genius, Charles Peirce, pragmatism was introduced as a method for clear thinking which insisted that all words and statements be understood in terms of concrete experience. It was popularized by William James in a series of lectures delivered in Boston and New York 1906 and 1907. Indeed, many of the connotations of the term as it is used in popular parlance derive from James’s writing; it was James who identified pragmatism with the doctrines the truth is what “works” and that statements should be accepted or rejected in part according to their success. Yet pragmatism received its most sustained articulation in the philosophy of John Dewey, who in the course of his long academic career incorporated central insights of Peirce and James into an all-embracing philosophical system of experimental naturalism. In Dewey’s hands, pragmatism became the philosophical basis for accounts of art, experience, mind, knowledge, language, communication, education, happiness, science, religion, and politics. And Dewey embodied the pragmatic commitment to unifying theory and practice. He was a tireless public intellectual whose activities ran the gamut from marching in support of women’s suffrage to helping to found the NAACP to presiding over the Trotsky trial in Mexico. It is with good reason, then, that contemporary philosophers who are most keen to ally themselves with this “classical” pragmatist movement tend to idolize Dewey.
Within the community of contemporary advocates of “classical” pragmatism there is a prevailing narrative according to which Dewey and pragmatism were marginalized, dismissed, or “eclipsed” in the years following Dewey’s death in 1952. According to the Eclipse Narrative post-war professional philosophy in the United States fell under the spell of a style of philosophizing imported from England and championed by Bertrand Russell, G. E. Moore, and the early Ludwig Wittgenstein, a style generally called analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy, with its pretensions to logical rigor and scientific precision, deemed pragmatism “soft” and unserious, driving pragmatist ideas and texts out of the professional mainstream and ultimately underground.
Like many persecution stories, the Eclipse Narrative culminates with a resurrection. It runs as follows: Thanks primarily to Richard Rorty’s influential work, pragmatism saw a renaissance in the 1980s, and is today again considered a major philosophical force. Yet, from the point of view of contemporary classical pragmatists, the resurrection of pragmatism was bittersweet. Rorty had indeed revived pragmatism, but Rorty’s “neo-pragmatism” is, by the Deweyans’ lights, a perverted and emaciated pragmatism, a pragmatism not worth resuscitating. And so, even though pragmatism is now widely recognized as philosophical force, current proponents of classical pragmatism see themselves as marginalized.
And with this sense of marginalization comes resentment. Consequently, it is almost impossible to find a recent work about Dewey’s philosophy that does not rehearse the Eclipse Narrative; and the Narrative is often accompanied by a Cassandra-esque insistence that John Dewey has solved all the philosophical problems and has shown the way to philosophical salvation, if only the professional philosophical mainstream would listen. An academic industry has since emerged devoted to publishing books and articles about What Dewey Said, What Dewey Would Have Said, and Things Dewey Said Before Anyone Else Thought To Say Them. That so much self-avowedly pragmatist philosophy should be so transfixed on ideas and texts that are nearly a century old is staggeringly ironic. After all, pragmatism describes itself as an intrinsically forward-looking philosophy.
As we have argued in our introduction to The Pragmatism Reader (Princeton University Press, 2011), this irony is compounded by the fact that the Eclipse Narrative is rooted in an untenable view of pragmatism’s past. In the first place, the Eclipse Narrative presupposes an unduly unitary conception of the classical pragmatists, failing to notice that Peirce, James, and Dewey disagreed significantly on many substantive philosophical questions, and their differences often track traditional disputes throughout the history of philosophy. Once these differences are properly noted, it is difficult to imagine what a wholesale eclipse of pragmatism could involve.
Secondly, the Eclipse Narrative relies upon an objectionably narrow conception of pragmatism. It is true that in the final decade of his life, Dewey receded from center stage. The majority of his major works were written in the 20s and 30s, and post-war American philosophers did not write much by way of explicit commentary on Dewey’s philosophy. However, this is because many of Dewey’s key insights had been incorporated into the philosophical mainstream; explicit discussion of Dewey was unnecessary because the general thrust of Deweyan naturalism had become the lingua franca of philosophy in America. Thus one finds frequent affirmation of ideas and arguments with an identifiably pragmatist pedigree in the work of post-War luminaries like Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, Morton White, Nelson Goodman, Sidney Morgenbesser, W. V. O. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and Rudolf Carnap. Oddly, many of these thinkers are identified by those who promote the Eclipse Narrative as the “analytic” philosophers who marginalized pragmatism. On a more responsible reading, Nagel, Goodman, Quine and the others advanced pragmatism beyond its Deweyan articulation. And it is precisely the developments they introduced which have enabled contemporary pragmatist philosophers-- Nicholas Rescher, Issac Levi, Hilary Putnam, Richard Gale, Susan Haack, Donald Davidson, Elizabeth Anderson, Robert Brandom, Cheryl Misak, Cornel West, and others-- to make their own contributions.
Finally, the Eclipse Narrative encourages the mistaken view that non-pragmatist philosophy simply ignored the classical pragmatists. Again, this view is not sustainable. What one finds in non-pragmatist 20th Century philosophy is a constant engagement with pragmatist opponents, beginning with the criticisms of William James proposed by Russell and Moore, to the nativism defended by Noam Chomsky and Jerrold Katz, the fallibilist foundationalism in epistemology proposed by Roderick Chisholm, the Kantian but yet empirical methodology for moral theory introduced by John Rawls, and the property-dualism in philosophy of mind championed by John Searle. In all of these cases (and there are many others), non-pragmatist philosophers are found developing their views in direct response to pragmatist challenges and alternatives, most often conceding the success of pragmatist critiques of earlier non-pragmatist views.
In short, the Eclipse Narrative is corrosive in that it obstructs deeper and potentially fruitful engagements between current philosophy and some of the classical expressions of pragmatism. Perhaps more importantly, the Eclipse Narrative is demonstrably false. Far from being a once marginalized and only recently revived movement, the arguments and ideas introduced by the original pragmatists have been alive and well since the end of the 19th Century. Indeed, pragmatism is the picture of a successful and enduring philosophical program.
The Heart and the Beard: a surgical story told mainly in aphorisms (of 140 characters or less)
By Liam Heneghan
To Vassia, best friend and partner in matters of the heart!
Context: The young doctors who had been prodding me a day or so after an appendectomy ran alarmed from my hospital bedside to call in a senior consultant. As a consequence of the high temperature I was running, a heart murmur, presumably there since birth, sounded especially pronounced. Each beat was followed by the acoustic swish of blood plashing back into the chambers of my heart. A follow up with a cardiologist in Dublin confirmed that the aortic valve was defective (stenotic and regurgitative) and that, at some point in my life, it would need to be replaced. I doubted this. The year was 1978; I was fifteen years of age. This, coincidentally, was also the year I grew my first beard. A fine display of very fine chin-hair; I have sported aggressive facial hair since that time.
Though I doubted that my heart would ever need attention (I felt immortal in those days), nevertheless, I had my various doctors through the years examine it. In the mid 1990s a doctor in Georgia, one whose name reminded me of non heart-healthy products, told me that without immediate surgery I would die. The news was a jolt and so consternated my beloved that she got her one and only parking ticket as we ruminated upon this news in Jittery Joe’s in Athens. Follow up examination revealed that the EKG leads used in that heart test had been switched round and the doctor had been seeing my heart inverted – the ventricles seemed atrophied and my atria appeared to be perched on that malformed muscle like outsized berets .
At the end of last year while traveling in India with students I experienced some difficulties that retrospectively appeared to have been signs of congestive heart failure. Subsequent visits with my physician, my cardiologist and my cardio-thoracic surgeon resulted in my going in for an aortic valve replacement on May 10th 2011. Typically, I wait for years before writing about personal events; however, I had been tweeting on the topic in the weeks running up to this surgery, and had provided some commentary on the subsequent and ongoing recovery. During the week of the surgery, a relatively miserable one, I had been digitally silent; however, I jotted down some observations which I now reproduce as part of this twitobiography (“The Missing Tweets”). In reviewing this output I noticed that my beard and my heart, twinned since my teen years, had co-starring roles in this little drama.
- Whenever I see my doppelgänger these days, it's pretty clear both us have seen better hair days.
- You shave my groin and ask me when I last used Viagra: Oh angiogram nurse you old flirt!
- The heart: the evolution of the coelom made it private; iodine dye makes it manifest.
- Observation: A subcutaneous hematoma is hilarious till it happens to you.
- According to last night's dream my beard is detachable. Cool.
- My life has become Greek myth: cardiologist visit today to determine how much of my heart needs to be cut out of my living body!
- So doctor, when you say "we are going to have to pop a new valve in”, are you referring to my bicycle?
- If only I could get bear cartilage for my knees; that along with my new pig valve would make me Al Gore.
- There's a pig out there growing me a new heart valve. Frankly Pig, I'd prefer to eat you as rashers and sausages.
- Humorous and terrifying. Great qualities in a B movie. In a surgeon...not so much.
- What I was calling “challenging workouts” was congestive heart failure. What else have I been misidentifying?
- An elite surgical unit, a Seal Team for impaired flesh will rappel into my chest's fortress next week; bye-bye useless flap of flesh.
- Excellent news: though my heart is still f*@ked, my beard got a reprieve. Repeat: no beard removal.
- To assist my cardiologist I am going to swab internally with alcohol before any procedures.
- Preparing playlist for descent to hell. Counter-intuitive maybe: but I am going down with Bach, then re-ascending to Gallagher's guitar
- Side note: Valvefest 2011 postponed till later in the summer; replaced by Porkfest 2011 in Fall.
- Kid in coffee shop (brightly): You look like Santa! Me (tartly):...or Karl Marx; Her:... ! Me:....! Her (emphatic): No.., like Santa.
- So long for now friends and thanks for all the fish.
The Missing Tweets
- V misdirects me on proper garbing protocol for a surgical robe – the rule it seems: genitals covered, arse exposed!
- Research assistant wants permission to study my response to intraoperative pain medication. Pain relief by coin toss. What could go wrong?
- Surgeon marks my sternum with lavender marker – I wonder do cooks provide this aesthetic service to Dublin bay prawns?
- Anesthesiologist declares that despite previous assurances beard must go. He and V share a complicit look; V hoists fist in victory.
- Last thing I remember before surgery: a growing bank of soft graying beard hair accumulating up on my chest like ploughed slush.
- First post-op words (lentement): W-a-t-e-r or some b-e-e-r might be nice!
- Anesthesiologists cautiously interviewed me post-surgery - the consensus is that I was awake during the operation. Will this be in a study?
- Night seems different somehow when you experience each moment of it - head pounding, chest searing.
- Delirium tremens: Pissed off with the intensive care nurse who tells me that my sweats are from “coming off the alcohol”.
- Oh my, how they must have laughed assembling the menu for the a la carte hospital dining.
- Flesh over sternum re-glued: I look like a walnut that has been smashed and carelessly reassembled.
- This man whose hands have palpated my heart doesn’t do small talk.
- In theory I know I have innards, I simply don’t have the urge to fill them with “old fashioned pot pie”, or indeed anything.
- When you specialize in heart ailments you can’t be expected to know much on afflictions of the head. Headache, my worst recovery obstacle.
- What graciousness in the universe has determined that the only food I can seriously consider is a milk shake?
- Wandering gingerly and bent through the hallways of cardiac unit, long gray hair flowing, cheeks beardless, referred to as “Mam”. Low point.
- 20lb overweight with surgical fluids; each footfall sploshes.
- Mistook the night nurse’s gentle grasping of my hand as a maternal gesture during my hour of need. But she was just checking my pulse.
- Nightmare: night; feeling dread; kitchen of childhood home; light switch, body slowly drawn off feet, crystal glass in hand, hand immobile
- I think I have invented a new way of snoring; the trick is to snort only on the exhale. Try it out and let me know if you like it.
- Because of the surgical removal of my beard, I now look like an elderly Irish poetess.
- Open heart surgery: open hearted smiles' uglier, meaner cousin, loses its charm very quickly. Avoid it.
- Sleep: extended period of immobility accompanied by phantasms + snorting + gasping, which seemed to last 8hrs but in fact was only 2.
- Post-Op Rumination: Amazed by the number of things that must simultaneously be working well for us to not feel like shit every day.
- Nightmare: headless body of Macbeth witch; maggots like a collar on neck and cheek; wanting to touch me.
- Recovery note: a small piece of beard not removed in the OR, a sort of piliated vestigial organ, was cleanly removed by V this morning.
- Slept though night, no nightmares, chest pain feels like moderate workout burn, scar still like a pink walnut shell. 75% miracle?
- Loving this man-swine collaboration going on in my chest: it sure delivers a wallop of O2, and makes me good at rooting out tubers.
- Was not expecting to be able to make Nutella crepes for the young Masters Heneghan so soon after the surgery.
- Back in hospital. Slight lung collapse. Can't wait to order off that delicious menu again.
- Thankfully there’s only one clot in this hospital room (and it’s not in my lungs). Perhaps I shall be unleashed #FreeLiamNow
- Released on my own recognizance.
- Unseemly noise: the two sides of my sternum gliding slightly against each other like tectonic plates passing along the San Andreas fault.
- Heinous new post-surgery symptom: an addiction to Glee.
All photos Vassia Pavlogianis (the first illustrates the usefulness of a beard as a pencil holder).
Follow me on Twitter @DublinSoil for 140 character updates on my columns. Links to previous 3QD columns here.
Sunday, May 29, 2011
Under the Volcano
Dara Kerr in Guernica:
On a muggy November afternoon in 1974, Dolores Alfaro and her husband descended El Salvador’s Chichontepec volcano. They’d been picking coffee beans in one of the plantations dotting the steep slopes, and were returning home with full wicker baskets. Walking through the forest, Alfaro saw a half-dozen olive green trucks, packed with soldiers, cresting a hill and slowly rolling into town. There had been tensions between laborers and the military but seeing troops standing on the flatbed trucks, rifles aimed, fingers on triggers, made her realize something had changed.
On that day, a faction of the national military raided a village of unarmed civilians. The soldiers moved from house to house. By dusk, they murdered six people, imprisoned twenty-eight, and wounded dozens. This practically unknown event, named La Cayetana after this village at the foot of the volcano, marked a change in the nature of persecution in El Salvador—going from sporadic repression of select individuals to deliberate attacks on entire communities. It set the pattern for scores of government massacres to come.
Six years later, in 1980, the country’s archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated—shot in the heart while celebrating Mass—his death catalyzing El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, which was marked by roving paramilitary death squads and the murder of tens of thousands. For more than a decade, the U.S. government supplied the Salvadoran military with an average of $1 million per day and trained its troops in counterinsurgency tactics. Much of what happened was shrouded after the war ended in 1992, and the nation’s congress passed amnesty laws—absolving war criminals—and official amnesia set in.
The Naturalness of (Many) Social Institutions: Evolved Cognition as Their Foundation
Pascal Boyer and Michael Petersen in Journal of Institutional Economics (forthcoming):
General accounts of social institutions should provide plausible and testable answers to questions of institutional design, such as, why do social institutions have the specific features that we observe in human societies? Why do we observe common institutional features in otherwise very different cultural environments? Or, why do some institutions seem natural and compelling to participants, while others are considered alien or coercive? Here we develop the view that present institutional theories do not properly address such design questions, and that this can be remedied only by taking into account what we call the ‘naturalness’ of institutions, their connection to human expectations and preferences that result from evolution by natural selection. This perspective may help us understand commonalities across cultures, but alsowhy some institutions are more successful and compelling than others and why they change in particular directions.
To some extent, this suggestion echoes a defining feature of the neoinstitutional approach. From the beginning, neo-institutionalism has been oriented towards developing realistic models of the actors, countering the Homo oeconomicus model inherent in older institutional accounts and emphasizing the cognitive limits of human decision makers (Brousseau and Glachant, 2008). From this perspective, important lines of inquiry have been developed with regards to, first, how institutions carry a range of unintended consequences given the cognitive limits of their designers, and, second, how a function of institutions is to counter such limits (North, 1990). At the same time, however, this perspective of bounded rationality provides only a partial description of human cognition. While one line of research within the cognitive sciences has been preoccupied with the biased and fallible nature of human cognition, a complementary line of research has developed the view that human cognition is in fact ‘better than rational’ (Cosmides and Tooby, 1994). Evolutionary psychologists have argued that human cognition includes a multitude of domain-specific cognitive programs, each optimally geared (within evolutionary constraints) to solve particular problems in the course of human evolutionary history (Barkow et al., 1992). The inferential power of these specialized programs comes from their content-rich nature. That is, they are loaded with inbuilt assumptions about their domain. Environments that fit these inbuilt assumptions appear intuitive and readily understandable.
Our aim is to outline the argument that institutions are effective not despite human cognition but, in part, because of human cognition. Essentially, we argue that the content-rich nature of evolved intuitions provides a foundation which can be and is often used in the design of many social institutions. Institutions that fit these intuitions, we propose, develop more easily, require less effort to conform to and are more culturally stable.
How a Sex Rebel was Born
Tracy Clark-Flory interviews Susie Bright in Salon:
There are lots of things about your early sex life that could be quite controversial -- you're underage and sleeping with much older adults. But you write about the experience like it was very positive overall.
Oh, I feel that way. When I talk nonchalantly publicly about becoming sexually active at 16, people are like, "Oh my god you were underage!" And I'm like, "Are you kidding me?!" You think I was wearing diapers? You want to see a picture of me at 16? I'm working, I'm going to school, I'm having sex, I have a huge social life, I'm politically involved in meetings from morning to night, I take care of a household with my dad. I'm a beginning grown-up. I had the foolishness and naiveté and clumsiness of a teenager, but when you're ready you're ready. When you think about this on more of a global or species level, it's kind of ridiculous how we infantalize teenagers.
From there you were introduced to this world of casual sex where the idea was that, as you say, "sex would be friendly and kind and fun. You'd get to see what everyone was like in bed." How did that idea pan out in practice?
Well, first of all, I detest the term "casual sex" -- since when is it actually casual, this so-called casual sex? Every time I was with someone it was intimate. It was intense. I got to know them and they got to know me on levels we certainly wouldn't have known if we hadn't gotten together -- and I don't just mean what their bottom looked like, I mean their personality, their feelings. You're vulnerable with someone. I mean, some people say, "No, I'm made of steel. I just go in there and fuck." Have I ever experienced that, at all? I just don't find sex to be this jaded, cynical, stoic exercise. How do you manage to do that and have an orgasm? I don't.
When You’re Strange
Paul Theroux in the NYRB:
Until I went to live in Africa, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human—at least not human in the way the People are—nor is a stranger’s language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated felicities. In most languages, the name of a people means “the Original People,” or simply “the People.” “Inuit” means “the People,” and most Native American names of so-called tribes mean “the People”: For example, the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, call themselves Anishinaabe, “the Original People,” and the Cherokee (the name is not theirs but a Creek word) call themselves Ani Yun Wiya, meaning “Real People,” and Hawaiians refer to themselves as Kanaka Maoli, “Original People.”
As recently as the 1930s, Australian gold prospectors and New Guinea Highlanders encountered each other for the first time. The grasping, world-weary Aussies took the Highlanders to be savages, while the Highlanders, assuming that the Aussies were the ghosts of their own dead ancestors on a visit, felt a kinship and gave them food, thinking (as they reported later), “They are like people you see in a dream.” But the Australians were looking for gold and killed the Highlanders, who were uncooperative. The Lakota, Indians of the North American plains, who called white men washichus, Nathaniel Philbrick writes in The Last Stand, “believed that the first white men had come from the sea, which they called mniwoncha, meaning ‘water all over.’” In an echo of this accurate characterization, and at about the same time, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, “To West Africans, the white men were murdele, men from the sea.”
Otherness can be like an illness; being a stranger can be analogous to experiencing a form of madness—those same intimations of the unreal and the irrational, when everything that has been familiar is stripped away.
where did the night go?
The Argumentative Theory
Last July, opening the Edge Seminar, "The New Science of Morality", Jonathan Haidt digressed to talk about two recently-published papers in Behavioral and Brain Sciences which he believed were "so important that the abstracts from them should be posted in psychology departments all over the country." One of the papers "Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory," published by Behavioral and Brain Sciences, was by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. "The article,” Haidt said, "is a review of a puzzle that has bedeviled researchers in cognitive psychology and social cognition for a long time. The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?"
"Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That's why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, "The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things."