Friday, March 24, 2017
Hannah Arendt or Simone Weil?
Vicenzo Binetti and Gareth Williams’ translation of Roberto Esposito’s The Origin of the Political: Hannah Arendt or Simone Weil? (Fordham U Press, 2017) fills an important gap in the Italian thinker’s philosophical trajectory, connecting the early works on the impolitical (Categorie dell’impolitico, Nove pensieri) to the latest elaborations on negative community and the impersonal (Terza persona, Due, Da Fuori). Origins is also an important meditation on the problem of thought, and Esposito admits that had he written this work today, he would have dwelled more on this question central to his own philosophical project up to Da Fouri and the turn to “Italian Thought” (pensiero vivente). Nevertheless, The Origin of the Political is a unique contribution that crowns a systematic effort in mapping the rare misencounter and esoteric exchange between two great Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century: Hannah Arendt and Simone Weil.
In a sequence of thirteen sections, Esposito dwells on the question of the origin of the political in light of western decline into nihilism, empire, and modern totalitarianism. He is not interested in writing a comparative essay, and this book could not be further from that end. Rather, Arendt and Weil are situated face to face in what Esposito calls a “reciprocal complication”, in which two bodies of work can illuminate, complement, and swerve from instances of the said and unsaid (Esposito 2). Albeit their dissimilar intellectual physiognomies and genealogical tracks, which Esposito puts to rest at times, the underlying question at stake is laid out clearly at the beginning.
a new Belarus?
Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka is not known for surprises that knock your socks off, so to speak. But “Daddy” (bat’ka), as Belarusians refer to their autocratic president, has rarely been seen so emotional. On 3 February 2017 Lukashenka held a press conference that lasted a record seven-and-a-half hours. This one-man show touched on many topics, which Lukashenka expounded on with much hot air and pathos, without giving concrete answers to the questions posed to him. There was one subject, however, on which the president, who has ruled the republic of Belarus since 1994 with a decided tendency towards autocracy, was very specific: Russia.
Relations with this powerful neighbour and its president, Vladimir Putin, have always held great significance for Lukashenka’s autocracy. But now they are worsening at a worrying pace. Lukashenka gave a monologue that topped 30 minutes, complaining about the overinflated gas and oil prices that Russia is demanding from him. He accused Russia of violating international agreements: on 1 February 2017, the neighbouring state had put up undeclared border checkpoints on the Belarusian-Russian border in the areas around Smolensk, Pskov and Briansk. Up to that point, no border controls had existed.
From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.
by Li-Young Lee
from To Read a Poem
Edited by Donald Hall
Harcourt Brace, 1992
What’s in an apology?
Benabdullah and Villalon in Africa is a country:
In a recent interview on a private Algerian TV news station, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron called France’s colonial history an act of barbarism and a crime against humanity; if elected head of state, he would issue an official apology to all victims of colonialism. With this condemnation and promise, coming already more than half a century after the independence movements that marked the end of the old colonial project, Macron, the leader and founder of the progressive En Marche! party and current front-runner in what has proven a turbulent race, has rekindled a divisive debate in France ahead of the first round of voting on April 23.
… Of course, this is not to discount the symbolism of an apology. To be sure, France is not the only country to glaze over its brutal colonial past; if Macron were to be elected and issue an official apology to France’s former colonies, it could set a precedent for other European states and pave the way for reparations. Such an apology might also serve to humble those who are quick to promote the French self-image of liberté, égalité, fraternité, doubtless a noble credo, but one that is often mobilized along the fault lines of the old colonial imagination to distinguish a just France from its corrupt and unstable former colonies. However, in an already divisive political climate exacerbated by Islamophobia, in light of the recent attacks in France, such an apology could also lead to further entrenchment into progressive and nationalist camps. Nevertheless, for French citizens of Algerian or other African descent, an admission of the destructive nature of colonialism would amount to an initial recognition by the French state of the phenomenon that underpins the structural racism they encounter in their daily lives. However, Macron’s comments also invite former French colonies to consider their own national memories. In Algeria especially, there is a certain paradox in the fact that national identity has been so strongly constructed in opposition to the colonial power that delineated it as a coherent territory. In some sense, Algeria, the “country of a million martyrs,” has depended on the image of a colonial France in order to create a unified national memory across its vast geographic and cultural expanse; this is especially true of the FLN, whose legitimacy is bound up in the struggle for independence against the French. Of course, an apology would be welcomed by the Algerian government, but an unresolved debate with France on the effects of French colonialism has been able to serve as an end in itself.
Molecule kills elderly cells, reduces signs of aging in mice
Mitch Leslie in Science:
As we get older, senescent cells build up in our tissues, where researchers think they contribute to illnesses such as heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes. In the past, scientists have genetically modified mice to dispatch their senescent cells, allowing the rodents to live longer and reducing plaque buildup in their arteries. Such genetic alterations aren’t practical for people, but researchers have reported at least seven compounds, known as senolytics, that kill senescent cells. A clinical trial is testing two of the drugs in patients with kidney disease, and other trials are in the works. However, current senolytic compounds, many of which are cancer drugs, come with downsides. They can kill healthy cells or trigger side effects such as a drop in the number of platelets, the cellular chunks that help our blood clot. Cell biologist Peter de Keizer of Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and colleagues were investigating how senescent cells stay alive when they uncovered a different strategy for attacking them. Senescent cells carry the type of DNA damage that should spur a protective protein, called p53, to put them down. Instead, the researchers found that a different protein, FOXO4, latches onto p53 and prevents it from doing its duty.
To counteract this effect, De Keizer and colleagues designed a molecule, known as a peptide, that carries a shortened version of the segment of FOXO4 that attaches to p53. In a petri dish, this peptide prevented FOXO4 and p53 from hooking up, prompting senescent cells to commit suicide. But it spared healthy cells. The researchers then injected the molecule into mutant mice that age rapidly. These rodents live about half as long as normal mice, and when they are only a few months old, their fur starts to fall out, their kidneys begin to falter, and they become sluggish. However, the peptide boosted the density of their fur, reversed the kidney damage, and increased the amount of time they could scurry in a running wheel, the scientists report online today in Cell. When the researchers tested the molecule in normal, elderly mice, they saw a similar picture: In addition to helping their kidneys and fur, the molecule also increased their willingness to explore their surroundings.
Thursday, March 23, 2017
The American abroad, from James to Highsmith and Ozick
Ryan Ruby in Lapham's Quarterly:
At the beginning of the twentieth century Henry James returned to the international theme, the subject that he had made his own and had made him famous. James was not the first novelist to send Americans back to Europe to see what would happen when New World manners and morals came into contact and conflict with those of the Old World, nor would he be the last. But to this day no other author is as closely associated with the figure of the American abroad as James is. James’ early studies in contrast—The American, “An International Episode,” Daisy Miller, and especially The Portrait of a Lady—would prove to be as essential to the process of defining what it means to be an American as Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Emerson’s “Self Reliance,” and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
But in the years between Isabel Archer’s arrival at Gardencourt in the last chapter of The Portrait of a Lady (1881) and Lambert Strether’s arrival at Chester in the first chapter of The Ambassadors (1903)—sometimes known as James’ “middle period”—the author turned his attention to other things, including an ill-fated attempt to write for the theater. During that time America’s place in the world was undergoing a dramatic change. Having already skimmed off the northern provinces of Mexico, cleansed the West of its aboriginal inhabitants, and connected the Atlantic to the Pacific by rail, James’ native country had begun to look overseas for new places to apply the doctrine of Manifest Destiny.
In 1893 the United States participated in the overthrow of the monarchy of Hawaii, which it officially annexed in 1898. That year it also went to war with Spain under dubious pretenses and came away with new territories in Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. When the Filipinos—who no more wanted to be a colony of the U.S. than of Spain—declared their independence, they were “benevolently assimilated” (in President William McKinley’s words) by the American military in a war that would last for another three years and leave at least fifty thousand Filipino soldiers and civilians dead.
James was appalled by these events.
A 130-Year-Old Fact About Dinosaurs Might Be Wrong
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
When I first read Matthew Baron’s new dinosaur study, I actually gasped.
For most of my life, I’ve believed that the dinosaurs fell into two major groups: the lizard-hipped saurischians, which included the meat-eating theropods like Tyrannosaurus and long-necked sauropodomorphs like Brontosaurus; and the bird-hipped ornithischians, which included horned species like Triceratops and armored ones like Stegosaurus. That’s how dinosaurs have been divided since 1887. It’s what I learned as a kid. It’s what all the textbooks and museums have always said. And according to Baron, a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge, it’s wrong.
By thoroughly comparing 74 early dinosaurs and their relatives, Baron has radically redrawn the two major branches of the dinosaur family tree. Defying 130 years of accepted dogma, he splits the saurischians apart, leaving the sauropods in one branch, and placing the theropods with the ornthischians on the other. Put it this way: This is like someone telling you that neither cats nor dogs are what you thought they were, and some of the animals you call “cats” are actually dogs.
More here. [Thanks to Ali Minai.]
I'm a Silicon Valley liberal, and I traveled across the country to interview 100 Trump supporters — here's what I learned
Sam Altman in Business Insider:
This was a surprisingly interesting and helpful experience — I highly recommend it. With three exceptions, I found something to like about everyone I talked to (though I strongly disagreed with many of the things they said). Although it shouldn't have surprised me given the voting data, I was definitely surprised by the diversity of the people I spoke to — I did not expect to talk to so many Muslims, Mexicans, Black people, and women in the course of this project.
Almost everyone I asked was willing to talk to me, but almost none of them wanted me to use their names — even people from very red states were worried about getting "targeted by those people in Silicon Valley if they knew I voted for him." One person in Silicon Valley even asked me to sign a confidentiality agreement before she would talk to me, as she worried she'd lose her job if people at her company knew she was a strong Trump supporter.
I wanted to understand what Trump voters liked and didn't like about the president, what they were nervous about, what they thought about the left's response so far, and most importantly, what would convince them not to vote for him in the future.
Elon Musk, Stuart Russell, Ray Kurzweil, Demis Hassabis, Sam Harris, Nick Bostrom, David Chalmers, Bart Selman, and Jaan Tallinn discuss with Max Tegmark (moderator) what likely outcomes might be if we succeed in building human-level AI
Video length: 1:00:14
France’s uneasy relationship with the Holocaust
When, in 2004, Irene Némirovsky’s lost manuscript,Suite française, came out in France, it became the literary sensation of the year. And when, three months later, it was awarded the prestigious Prix Renaudot – the first time it had gone to a dead writer – it also turned into a bestseller. By the time it appeared in English the following year, it had sold 600,000 copies in France alone. It stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for two years. What made Suite française so remarkable was that it depicted, as almost never before, the exode, the moment when 6 million French people took to the roads, in a long river of cars, bicycles, horse-drawn carts, prams, lorries fleeing before the German advance, and that it did so almost like reportage, with a cool, measured tone.
But then a backlash set in. Readers turned to Némirovsky’s earlier novels, and in particular to David Golder – the portrait of a greedy and heartless Jewish banker who never quite sheds the marks of his beginnings as a pedlar – and accused her of being a “self-hating Jew”. Ruth Franklin, a senior editor on the New Republic, suggested that she had trafficked “in the most sordid anti-semitic stereotypes”. Némirovsky, it was pointed out, had continued writing for the French magazine Gringoire long after its extreme anti-Semitism had become plain. Susan Rubin Suleiman was herself put off by this aspect of Némirovsky’s work. But then, as she writes, she became captivated “not only by the author’s tragic history . . . but because of the message-in-a-bottle quality of the work itself”.
Derek Walcott’s Dueling Legacies
It is telling that, when confronted with the work and the life, Walcott emphasizes the work, Rhys, the life. For Walcott, it sometimes seems as if all of life is what passes “through your pen’s eye,” as he wrote in the poem “Exile”—what is transformed into word and image. The artist is a vessel for life, which would otherwise drain away into the white abyss between words, and for that we revere him. But when I asked a colleague about Walcott last Friday, the day he died, she replied that Walcott was a “literary great” but “a bad person,” as if the two things were of equal weight. More damningly, she meant that they cancelled each other out. When I told my wife about this exchange, she said, “Good. I am tired of revering these men.”
They were both responding to multiple allegations of sexual harassment that erupted into the open in 2009, forcing Walcott to withdraw his candidacy to be the professor of poetry at Oxford. One former student at Harvard had accused Walcott of punishing her with a C grade for her poetry, which he called “formless, rhythmless, and incomplete,” after she refused to sleep with him. Another former student, Nicole Kelby, said he threatened to block the production of her play unless she acquiesced to sex. Kelby filed charges against him, charges that were rejected by both Walcott and Boston University. (One school official defended him by saying, “The way one teaches poets and playwrights and fiction writers is different than the way one teaches mathematics students.”)
on telling one's story
A few years ago, in a piece entitled “Premonition,” I wrote a lapidary phrase, which to me is perhaps the mother of all lapidary phrases, mainly because it’s false (actually any lapidary or simply assertive phrase has always seemed false to me, or in any case prone to correction): I don’t intend to tell my family history. Since that day, telling my family’s story has become my greatest desire. It seems even then it was one of my greatest desires, but I wasn’t aware of it or I didn’t want to admit it or I didn’t want to accept it. From the moment I wrote its opposite, I could no longer deny it. To more closely approximate the truth, I should have written: “Telling the story of my family is too complicated, and I’m afraid I might not be up to it, so I’d rather pretend I don’t want to do it, although it is clear to everyone, even to those who don’t know me, that my family is the subject I’ve circled around since I started writing.” The lapidary phrase was a prelude to another thought (just as lapidary): I’ll try to make it short (lots of people have had a difficult childhood, and almost all of these have had one more difficult than mine, and there is nothing more tedious than other people’s difficult childhoods, nothing more intolerable than the bellyaching of others). I meant that my family’s story wasn’t worth telling (even though I’d done nothing but that since the beginning, albeit behind the mask of fiction) because it wasn’t dramatic or adventurous enough.
Freud, 1938, Vienna
“...men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved...; they are
on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is
to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness.”
—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
Vienna, 1938, Freud, 82.
Nazis and their allies parade in the streets,
flag after flag and those raised arms,
ceaseless enthusiasm and hatred of the Jews.
Incoherent fury of centuries alive once more.
They called the old analyst’s work
”a pornographic Jewish specialty.”
He’d worked fifty years in the exquisite old city
struggling to free the human spirit.
Lately, he’d become more pessimistic.
Neurosis was the price of civilization.
The Nazis insisted he absolved the police
before they allowed him to leave.
“I can heartily recommend the Gestapo
to anyone,” he wrote.
And the old Jewish pessimist,
leaving Vienna remarked: “Today
they are content with burning
my books. In the Middle Ages
they would have burned me.”
by Lewis Lipsitz
Marina Bolotnikova in Harvard Magazine:
Psychology professor Matthew Nock has spent his career studying self-harm, but he remains humbled by how little is yet understood about why people kill themselves. Suicide is the tenth highest cause of death in the United States, and the rate remained roughly steady across the population for the last century, before rising somewhat during the last few decades. Academic theories of suicide emerged in the nineteenth century. Émile Durkheim wrote about social determinants of suicide in his foundational (though now controversial) text on the differences in suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics in Europe. Freud thought depression and suicide reflected inwardly directed anger. As psychology became the domain of empirical research, clinicians came to rely on factors correlated with suicide—like depression, poor impulse control, or substance abuse—to determine whether a patient was at risk. But a recent review of several hundred studies of suicidal thoughts and behaviors during the last 50 years, co-authored by Nock and a team of fellow scholars in the Psychological Bulletin, finds that risk factors have been virtually no better than random guesses at predicting suicide.
...The predictive failure of individual risk factors may be linked with psychologist Thomas Joiner’s theory of suicide. He has argued that suicide risk depends not just on the will to die, but also on an additional “acquired capability” to kill oneself: the ability to overcome the fear of death through previous experiences of one’s own or another’s trauma, or intentional self-harm.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017
DANIEL DENNETT’S SCIENCE OF THE SOUL: A philosopher’s lifelong quest to understand the making of the mind
Joshua Rothman in The New Yorker:
Four billion years ago, Earth was a lifeless place. Nothing struggled, thought, or wanted. Slowly, that changed. Seawater leached chemicals from rocks; near thermal vents, those chemicals jostled and combined. Some hit upon the trick of making copies of themselves that, in turn, made more copies. The replicating chains were caught in oily bubbles, which protected them and made replication easier; eventually, they began to venture out into the open sea. A new level of order had been achieved on Earth. Life had begun.
The tree of life grew, its branches stretching toward complexity. Organisms developed systems, subsystems, and sub-subsystems, layered in ever-deepening regression. They used these systems to anticipate their future and to change it. When they looked within, some found that they had selves—constellations of memories, ideas, and purposes that emerged from the systems inside. They experienced being alive and had thoughts about that experience. They developed language and used it to know themselves; they began to ask how they had been made.
This, to a first approximation, is the secular story of our creation. It has no single author; it’s been written collaboratively by scientists over the past few centuries. If, however, it could be said to belong to any single person, that person might be Daniel Dennett, a seventy-four-year-old philosopher who teaches at Tufts. In the course of forty years, and more than a dozen books, Dennett has endeavored to explain how a soulless world could have given rise to a soulful one. His special focus is the creation of the human mind. Into his own he has crammed nearly every related discipline: evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, artificial intelligence. His newest book, “From Bacteria to Bach and Back,” tells us, “There is a winding path leading through a jungle of science and philosophy, from the initial bland assumption that we people are physical objects, obeying the laws of physics, to an understanding of our conscious minds.”
The Story of O: A Recollection by Oliver Sacks’s Surviving Partner
Christopher Bram in the New York Times:
The British neurologist Oliver Sacks transformed the medical case study into a new literary form. In books like “Awakenings,” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “An Anthropologist on Mars” he presented not just clinical facts but recognizable human beings, people we could identify with despite their otherness. He enabled us to see the world through the eyes of men and women with autism, Tourette’s syndrome or memory loss: those who experienced reality differently and expanded our conceptions of emotion, time and space. His stories read like metaphysical fairy tales.
Shortly before he died of cancer in 2015, Sacks turned his attention on himself in an autobiography, “On the Move,” followed by a frank set of articles in The New York Times later published as “Gratitude.” He shared not only his thoughts about life and death but, for the first time, his sexuality and how he had recently found love with a fellow writer, Bill Hayes.
Hayes has now written his own memoir, “Insomniac City.” The reader goes to it hoping that he will do for Sacks something like what Sacks did for his subjects, painting a portrait that mixes intimacy with intellectual understanding. But this is a different kind of book, a loose, impressionistic collection of prose snapshots, street photographs and journal entries. And Sacks isn’t Hayes’s only focus. His other subjects are New York City and himself.
Foucault’s work on power matters now more than ever
Colin Coopman in Aeon:
Imagine you are asked to compose an ultra-short history of philosophy. Perhaps you’ve been challenged to squeeze the impossibly sprawling diversity of philosophy itself into just a few tweets. You could do worse than to search for the single word that best captures the ideas of every important philosopher. Plato had his ‘forms’. René Descartes had his ‘mind’ and John Locke his ‘ideas’. John Stuart Mill later had his ‘liberty’. In more recent philosophy, Jacques Derrida’s word was ‘text’, John Rawls’s was ‘justice’, and Judith Butler’s remains ‘gender’. Michel Foucault’s word, according to this innocent little parlour game, would certainly be ‘power’.
Foucault remains one of the most cited 20th-century thinkers and is, according to some lists, the single most cited figure across the humanities and social sciences. His two most referenced works, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) and The History of Sexuality, Volume One (1976), are the central sources for his analyses of power. Interestingly enough, however, Foucault was not always known for his signature word. He first gained his massive influence in 1966 with the publication of The Order of Things. The original French title gives a better sense of the intellectual milieu in which it was written: Les mots et les choses, or ‘Words and Things’. Philosophy in the 1960s was all about words, especially among Foucault’s contemporaries.
Neil Turok on the Astonishing Simplicity of Everything
Video length: 1:23:07
rediscovering Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Given the restrictions on Krzhizhanovsky’s work, it’s unsurprising that people (or sometimes creatures) desperate to find an audience for their tall tales feature heavily in his stories. If there can be said to such a thing as a typical Krzhizhanovsky story – this is, after all, a person who wrote stories in which the Eiffel Tower tries to join the Soviet cause, a man gets lost in a tiny room, and a toad from the River Styx bemoans the lack of exclusivity in the underworld – it would be “Someone Else’s Theme” in which a dishevelled man offers a stranger an entire philosophical system in exchange for dinner. Krzhizhanovsky’s pessimism about publishing under the Soviets is exemplified by his novella The Letter Killers Club, in which writers gather to tell each other stories under the strict condition that none of them can be written down. Throughout Krzhizhanovsky’s work there are withering assessments of the kind of literature that did satisfy the demands of the state. In “The Bookmark” he speaks of “the long, bare literary pavement of today,” while in “Seams” he bemoans the fact that “If in the past writers looked for themes in their inkwells, close at hand, in and around themselves, now they don’t look at all: Themes are assigned.”
The tall tale of Baron Munchausen was a perfect fit for Krzhizhanovsky. The real-life inspiration for this purveyor of the fabulous was Baron Hieronymus von Münchhausen, a German nobleman who fought with the Russians against the Turks in the mid-18th century. After his retirement, the Baron threw lavish dinners at which he regaled his guests with exaggerated versions of his military exploits.
toward a life beyond mechanistic science
When I wrote my book about Tesla, I thought he belonged to me alone. I had never heard of him before. No one had ever taught me about him in school, and certainly no one had ever named a car after him. I knew only of Tesla the hair-metal band. When I discovered Tesla the poet-inventor, who built a motor powered by june bugs at age nine, and later harnessed Niagara Falls, and later concocted ways to photograph thought, it seemed I’d dreamed him into existence. Thus he belonged to me, only me.
Tesla worked independently in laboratories he built himself with little corporate or military interference. He invented radio. He invented our modern AC electrical system. But as he often failed to protect his patents—not believing a person could own thunder and lightning—eventually he could no longer afford a proper laboratory. He then made his inventions in his New York City hotel rooms, in his mind.
What’s the difference between invention and discovery? Is it just a question of ego? Or is it one of money?
Living with Tesla’s legacy and papers for more than three years of research, one hard thought kept cropping up. Everywhere I knew people who were making buildings, mugs, plays, paintings, sweaters, chocolate, operas, but I didn’t know any people, except children, who were trying to fly, who were grafting DNA for wings. I didn’t know anyone with a basement lab made for playing with protons. I wondered why we are well acquainted with the phrase starving artist while the term starving scientist does not even exist.
the whitney biennial
The work in the Biennial that you are most apt to remember, “The Meat Grinder’s Iron Clothes” (2017), by the Los Angeles artist Samara Golden, marries technique and storytelling on a grandiose scale. Golden has constructed eight miniaturized sets of elaborately furnished domestic, ceremonial, and institutional interiors. They sit on top of and are mounted, upside down, beneath tiers that frame one of the Whitney’s tall and wide window views of the Hudson River. Surrounding mirrors multiply the sets upward, downward, and sideways, to infinity. To reach a platform with a midpoint view of the work, you ascend darkened ramps, on which ominous hums, bongs, and whooshes can be heard. Concealed fans add breezes. Politics percolate in evocations of social class and function, with verisimilitude tipping toward the surreal in, for example, a set that suggests at once a beauty parlor, a medical facility, and a prison. But the work’s main appeal is its stunning labor-intensiveness: sofas and chairs finely upholstered, tiny medical instruments gleaming on wheeled carts. Golden is the most ambitious of several artists in the show who appear bent on rivalling Hollywood production design, with a nearly uniform level of skill. I’m reminded of a friend’s remark, apropos of the recent New York art fairs: “I thought I missed good art, but that’s always rare. What I miss is bad art.”
Why Milton still matters
Boyd Tonkin in The Spectator:
Just 350 years ago, in April 1667, John Milton sold all rights to Paradise Lost to the printer Samuel Simmons — for £5, with another £5 due once Simmons had the first run of 1,300 copies off his hands. That sounds like a bargain for the 12-book epic poem of Satan’s war with Heaven, Eve’s ‘fatal trespass’ and the expulsion from Eden that soon became a monumental pillar of the literary canon. Samuel Johnson — who as a Tory deplored Milton’s revolutionary politics — placed it first (for design) and second (for execution) ‘among the productions of the human mind’. Some readers, though, have always found it dear at any price. Deeply torn between his awe at the ‘wonderful performance’ of Paradise Lost and his horror at the ideas of this ‘acrimonious and surly republican’, Johnson in his Life of Milton leads the prosecution as well as the defence. ‘Its perusal is a duty rather than a pleasure,’ he sniffs. ‘We read Milton for instruction, retire harassed and overburdened, and look elsewhere for recreation.’ As the sort-of anniversary nears, even Milton’s champions put on apologetic airs. Professor John Carey, who made his name as a scholar with a brilliant edition of Milton’s shorter poems, has now abridged Paradise Lost into a reader-friendly 230-page volume, The Essential Paradise Lost. Carey neatly condenses the argument rather than just cherry-picking an assortment of golden goals from the untiring dazzle and swagger of its verse. Even this lifelong Miltonian, however, kicks off with a cringe, sighing that ‘almost no one reads it’ now.
Enough. Milton, as much as Shakespeare, remains our contemporary. As Wordsworth put it in a sonnet from 1802, ‘Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee.’ One half of a nation almost as bitterly — if not as bloodily — divided as in his day needs to understand how the blind, scorned radical, ‘though fallen on evil days… In darkness, and with dangers compassed round’, channelled his dismay at the failure of England’s revolution and the restoration of monarchy into a masterpiece that finds salvation through despair. In 1660, Milton was arrested, imprisoned and might have gone to his death as an impenitent regicide without a few well-placed admirers. His epic, with its aim to ‘assert eternal providence/ And justify the ways of God to men’, climbs from his pit of disillusion to find meaning and hope in calamity. A hero for Remainers, then.
World of webs: artworks woven by thousands of South American spiders
Philip Ball in Nature:
The famous warning never to work with animals or children seems not to have reached Tomás Saraceno. The Argentina-born, Berlin-based artist embraces the unpredictability and scene-stealing capacity of orb-weaving spiders. Thousands of the arachnids are his collaborators in a forthcoming exhibition at the Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art. Visitors will wander amid more than 190 square metres of webs woven by Parawixia bistriata, an orb-weaving spider native to several South American countries. A second space hosts an “arachno concert”. For this, the web of another indigenous orb-weaver, Nephila clavipes, is connected to sensors that pick up the movements of plucked threads. These vibrations are broadcast through loudspeakers, stimulating the spiders' movements in a feedback loop. Meanwhile, acoustic waves from the loudspeakers propel “cosmic dust” — fine particles of chondrite meteorites — into the air, their dancing motions picked out by beams of light. Saraceno wants to suggest a conceptual link between spider webs and the “cosmic web” of matter — galaxies, nebulae, dust and dark matter — that permeates the Universe, a topic he has discussed with astrophysicists.
The social behaviour of P. bistriata is complex. The spiders live in a colony; during the day, they build a communal hive-like nest. At dusk, they add individual webs linked into a network, for capturing prey. As they mature, the spiders start to hunt alone. Thus Saraceno's installation is very much a group project, built from an estimated 40 million or so individual threads. He calls each a “trace in the air”, like the trajectory of a grain of dust. As he explains, visitors first see “only faint details”. Then, “as they navigate through interlacing, glittering web fibres, harbours of nebulae and hybrid clusters of galaxies appear, introducing microcosms of cooperation”. Visitors are encouraged to lie down and look up at this silken cosmos.
The N. clavipes installation, meanwhile, is an elaborate symphony. The tiny meteoritic particles — sourced in cooperation with the Berlin Museum for Natural History — mingle with dust in the air to become part of the sonic landscape. Their movements are tracked by video and magnified on a screen, while a custom-built algorithm translates the trajectories into low-frequency sound, sent through 24 loudspeakers. Dust, webs, spiders and visitors' incidental sounds are woven into an acoustic tapestry.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017
Did His Mind Make Him Do It? How Neuroscience Entered the Courtroom
Caleb Carr in the New York Times:
Since ancient philosophers first began to ponder the problem of criminal behavior, great minds in science and law have sought a single holy grail, the point at which the two fields intersect: What nervous or brain dysfunctions can explain how people become so incapacitated that they are not responsible for their own criminal behavior?
The latest candidate is neuroscience. With functional magnetic resonance imagery (fMRIs), positron emission tomography (PET scans) and other related methods, scientists can observe the brain in action as it responds to various forms of stimuli. Yet this is an obscure, highly specialized world; group studies in a laboratory, most scientists maintain, cannot yet be applied to the behavior of an individual, especially an individual’s commission of a violent crime.
But defense lawyers have rushed to bring brain scans into courtrooms. Some of what they propose is out-and-out chicanery; some may hold real value; whatever the case, the job of piloting the public through the complex neuroscientific maze — in order that potential jurors may better judge whether a violent offender should be condemned to death, to a long or life sentence in America’s barbaric present-day prison system, or should have their sentences reduced or changed because of a brain irregularity or insult — is vital to society.
The latest person to offer his services as guide in this regard is Kevin Davis, in “The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms.”
Mohsin Hamid on Trump's Travel Ban
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