Reading Sade in the Age of Epstein

Mitchell Abidor in the New York Review of Books:

Patrick Magee as the Marquis de Sade and Ian Richardson as Jean-Paul Marat in the 1967 film adaptation of Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade, directed by Peter Brook

The recent publication of two works by the Marquis de Sade enables us to see that sadism is not just “the impulse to cruel and violent treatment of the opposite sex, and the coloring of the idea of such acts with lustful feelings,” as Richard von Krafft-Ebing defined it in his 1886 Psychopathia Sexualis. Sadism, as it is depicted by Sade, is also, and perhaps primarily, the creation of a world in which the powerful and wealthy are able to lure the poor and powerless, hold them captive, and reduce their bodies and selfhoods to nothing.

In this, as some clear-sighted post–World War II writers have noted, Sade’s writing was, inter alia, a harbinger of fascism. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, for example, wrote that Sade “prefigures the organization, devoid of any substantial goals, which was to encompass the whole of life” under the totalitarianism that drove them from Germany. Reading Sade in the age of #MeToo and Jeffrey Epstein is an uncanny experience, for his novels are also a blueprint for the world of the sexual predators of today.

This winter brings the first complete English translation of Sade’s vast epistolary novel, Aline and Valcour, in a lavish, three-volume edition from Contra Mundum. The translation, by Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons, is a masterful one, allowing Sade’s prose to flow, neither assuming the language and rhythms of the eighteenth century nor interpolating anachronisms from English today.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Suresh Naidu on Capitalism, Monopsony, and Inequality

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Nations generally want their economies to be rich, robust, and growing. But it’s also important to person to ensure that wealth doesn’t flow only to a few people, but rather that as many people as possible can enjoy the benefits of a healthy economy. As is well known, the best way to balance these interests is a contentious subject. On one side we might find free-market fundamentalists who want to let supply and demand set prices and keep government interference to a minimum, while on the other we might find enthusiasts for very strong government control over all aspects of the economy. Suresh Naidu is an economist who has delved deeply into how economic performance affects and is affected by other notable social factors, from democracy to revolution to slavery. We talk about these, as well as how concentrations of economic power in just a few hands — monopoly and its cousin, monopsony — can distort the best intentions of the free market.

More here.

The Graveyard Talks Back: Arundhati Roy on Fiction in the Time of Fake News

Arundhati Roy in Lit Hub:

Graveyards in India are, for the most part, Muslim graveyards, because Christians make up a miniscule part of the population, and, as you know, Hindus and most other communities cremate their dead. The Muslim graveyard, the kabristan, has always loomed large in the imagination and rhetoric of Hindu nationalists. “Mussalman ka ek hi sthan, kabristan ya Pakistan!”—Only one place for the Mussalman, the graveyard or Pakistan—is among the more frequent war cries of the murderous, sword-wielding militias and vigilante mobs that have overrun India’s streets.

As the Hindu right has taken almost complete control of the state, as well as non-state apparatuses, the increasingly blatant social and economic boycott of Muslims has pushed them further down the societal ladder and made them even more unwelcome in “secular” public spaces and housing colonies. For reasons of safety as well as necessity, in urban areas many Muslims, including the elite, are retreating into enclaves that are often hatefully referred to as “mini-Pakistans.” Now in life, as in death, segregation is becoming the rule.

More here.

The Bilingual Brain – the science of learning

Patrick McGuinness in The Guardian:

A third of the way through this absorbing and engagingly written book, Albert Costa describes a family meal: “The father speaks Spanish with his wife and his son, but uses Catalan with his daughter. The daughter in turn speaks Catalan with her father but Spanish with the rest of the family, including the grandmother, who only speaks Spanish though she understands Catalan.” It’s what Costa calls “orderly mixing”, and, depending on which restaurants you visit, a common enough situation: everyone is bilingual here, but the language used changes according to who it is directed at. Given that everyone at the table understands both languages, would it not be easier and less confusing if everyone just chose one language and stuck to it? That sounds logical, but the bilingual mind doesn’t work that way. If you do not believe it, Costa suggests “having a conversation with a friend in the language you do not usually use and see how far you get”.

Not far, he observes. And Costa should know – not just because he was an expert in language acquisition (he died last year), but because the family he is describing is his own. One of the reasons this book makes sense of its complex material – from basic code-switching tests to the latest technology in brain imaging and transcranial magnetic stimulation – is that Costa is such a charming and witty guide. This is a rigorous book about complex science, and much of it could have been intractably technical or riddled with statistics. But Costa has a winningly informal style, a deadpan wit, and mixes laboratory findings of cognitive neuropsychology with examples from everyday life, TV programmes, sports and politics. In one set of cognitive tests, he shows how people are more risk-averse in their second language, and more gung-ho in their first. Costa suggests the practical applicablity of such research by advising us to visit casinos where people speak a language we are less comfortable in – it substantially reduces the likelihood of our going home shirtless and barefoot.

More here.

Ruby Bridges First Day of School Changed History

Betti Halsell in LA Sentinal:

The footprints of a child are small but on November 14, 1960, six-year-old Ruby Bridges walked with purpose as she became the first African American student to integrate an elementary school in the South. This venture leads to the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement and created a pathway for further integration across the southern parts of the U.S.

Before Ruby could crawl, the monumental court ruling in Brown V. Board of Education case (1954) had transpired in favor of ending segregation in public schools. There was resistance along the southern lines. Although the Supreme Court deemed segregation in public schooling was unconstitutional, integration was not being practiced in the South. In 1959, Ruby Bridges started her educational journey at a segregated kindergarten in New Orleans. A year later, the federal court ordered Louisiana to desegregate its public institutions of education. The school district created an entrance exam, to test if African American students were capable to withstand the same level of academics as their White counterparts. Along with five other Black students, Ruby passed the test.

Like all concerned parents, Abon and Lucille Bridges were apprehensive about the act of moving their small child into an all-White school. With the spirit of aggression and lack of understanding in the air, little Ruby’s safety was of utmost importance. Her well-being was the main reason for the hesitance in Abon’s mind. It was Ruby’s mother who favored the move to take place on the premise that her child will receive an education and opportunities that were once denied to her before.

The decision was made, but there was plenty of red tape from the school district that yielded  the steps towards change. At last, early Monday morning, Ruby, alongside her mother, took her first steps into victory over segregation. This was no ordinary first day of school; they were met with great adversity. Mobs of people chanted and shouted at Ruby and her mother. The only things between the rage of the people and the young girl were barricades clearing the pathway and the cops that escorted her in and surrounded the building. After Ruby entered William Frantz Elementary School, mothers of the other children barged in and ripped their children out from their classes; over 500 children walked out that day. For the first year, it was just a class of one. Ruby alone was taught by the only teacher willing, Mrs. Barbara Henry. Ruby had perfect attendance that year.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will honor The Black History Month. This year’s theme is “African Americans and the Vote.” Readers are encouraged to send in their suggestions)

Wednesday Poem

“To sin by silence, when we should protest, makes cowards out of men.” —Ella Wheeler Wilcox

On The Fifth Day

On the fifth day
the scientists who studied the rivers
were forbidden to speak
or to study the rivers.

The scientists who studied the air
were told not to speak of the air,
and the ones who worked for the farmers
were silenced,
and the ones who worked for the bees.

Someone, from deep in the Badlands,
began posting facts.

The facts were told not to speak
and were taken away.
The facts, surprised to be taken, were silent.

Now it was only the rivers
that spoke of the rivers,
and only the wind that spoke of its bees,

while the unpausing factual buds of the fruit trees
continued to move toward their fruit.

The silence spoke loudly of silence,
and the rivers kept speaking,
of rivers, of boulders and air.

In gravity, earless and tongueless,
the untested rivers kept speaking.

Bus drivers, shelf stockers,
code writers, machinists, accountants,
lab techs, cellists kept speaking.

They spoke, the fifth day,
of silence.

by Jane Hirshfield

Written for the 2017 March for Science in Washington, D.C., protesting the anti-fact, anti-truth, anti-science political climate of the current American administration.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

The affective roots of culture and cognition

Stephen T. Asma and Rami Gabriel in The Brains Blog:

When Darwin wrote the Origin of Species, he famously closed the book with the provocative promise that “light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.”[1] In his Descent of Man and his Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin began to throw some of that promised light –especially regarding the emotional and cognitive similarities (homologies) of mammals.[2] But shortly after this beacon, all went dark again. The rise of positivism in the early twentieth-century, paired with the turn toward genetics, and the ascent of behaviorism effectively lowered the curtain on biological speculations about the evolution of the mind.

When researchers finally turned again to the mind in the mid-twentieth century, it was the computer that both sparked the cognitive sciences revolution and served as its exclusive investigative tool. Yet, for all the successes of artificial intelligence (and they are impressive), our understanding of biological minds seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle. While algorithmic digital computation produces problem-solving machines, such problem solving lacks the obvious motivational or conative goads and other affective triggers observed in real sentient animals. In fact, artificial intelligence and artificial life research seem to have lost interest, unapologetically, in the biological creature.

In our new book The Emotional Mind: The Affective Roots of Culture and Cognition (Harvard University Press, 2019), we argue that emotional systems are central to understanding the evolution of the human mind (as well as those of our primate cousins). Following the pioneering affective science of researchers like Jaak Panksepp, Antonio Damasio, and Fran de Waal, we bring together insights and data from philosophy, biology and psychology to shape a new research program –an alternative approach to the algorithmic assumptions of cognitive science and the post hoc stories of some evolutionary psychology.

More here.

What are the safest sources of energy?

Hannah Ritchie in Our World in Data:

The increasing availability of cheap energy has been integral to the progress we’ve seen over the past few centuries. Energy access is one of the fundamental driving forces of development. The United Nations says that “energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today.”

But energy production has downsides as well as benefits. There are three main categories:

  • Air pollution: An estimated five million people die prematurely every year as a result of air pollution; fossil fuels and biomass burning are responsible for most of those deaths.
  • Accidents: As well as deaths caused by the byproducts of energy production, people die in accidents in supply chains, whether in the mining of coal, uranium or rare metals; oil and gas extraction; the transport of raw materials and infrastructure; construction; or their deployment.
  • Greenhouse gas emissions: Perhaps the most widely discussed downside is the greenhouse gases emitted by energy production, which are a key driver of climate change.

All energy sources have negative effects. But they differ enormously in the size of those effects. That difference can be easily summed up: by all metrics, fossil fuels are the dirtiest and most dangerous, while nuclear and modern renewable energy sources are vastly safer and cleaner.

More here.

Market economics has driven universities into crisis

Owen Jones in The Guardian:

The trebling of tuition fees would unleash a new golden age for English universities, or so we were told. They would become financially sustainable, competitive, liberated from stifling bureaucracy and responsive to the needs of students. And yet, nearly a decade later, higher education is in crisis.

Tuition fees have formed part of a full-frontal assault on the living standards of a generation battered by a housing crisis, stagnating wages and slashed services. And with 83% of student loans forecast to never be paid back in full, the promises of financial sustainability are a nonsense. Both frontrunners for the Labour leadership have committed to maintaining the party’s totemic commitment to abolishing this punitive attack on aspiration, recognising that university education is a social good. But the issue goes much, much wider – and has profound implications for the future of our society.

More here.

Beholding The Ascent of Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Rachel Syme at Bookforum:

The title of Fleabag: The Scriptures (Ballantine Books, $28) is a cheeky play on words: It refers to the shooting scripts for the television comedy Fleabag, which are reproduced here in full, and it also refers to the fact that the second (and, if creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge is to be believed, final) season of the show, which debuted on Amazon Prime in May 2019, is about the main character’s romantic attachment to an unattainable Catholic priest. But it also acknowledges that Waller-Bridge’s words—printed out on creamy paper stock, bound inside a smooth navy-blue cover, and embossed with gold serif letters like a Gideon Bible—have become a new kind of religious text, albeit one that preaches primarily to secular women living in major metropolitan areas. And there is some truth to this visual provocation: If anyone had a truly blessed year, it was Phoebe Waller-Bridge. A picture of her lounging at the Chateau Marmont after she swept the Emmy Awards in September, with a vodka gimlet in one manicured hand and a cigarette in the other, went viral overnight. Women set it as their phone lock screens and desktop backgrounds; they meditated on it like a rosary. It’s so victorious, so insouciant. Here was a woman not ground to a pulp by anger at the news cycle, but wringing the juice out of life. She appears to be luxuriating, a hard-earned repose after several years of grinding out scripts. And on the seventh day, Phoebe Waller-Bridge rested.

more here.

John Berger’s Life Between Aesthetics and Politics

Bruce Robbins at The Nation:

By the middle of the ’70s, Berger was publicly triumphant. Yet it was at this very moment that he chose to retreat from public life and move to a mountain village above Geneva. Sperling does not say—perhaps no one knows—how much that move owed to the breakup of his marriage to Bostock and his new relationship with Bancroft. (Sperling is frustratingly tight-lipped about Berger’s romantic life.) But we do learn a lot about his new existence. “Many of his older neighbors continued to live by agrarian methods more or less unbroken for centuries,” Sperling tells us, and “Berger started to work alongside them. They became his teachers.” Recalling these years, Berger observed, “It was like my university. I learnt to tap a scythe, and I learnt a whole constellation of sense and value about life.” Sperling lists the activities Berger participated in—ones involving hay, cows, trees, weeds, apples, and plenty of manure—and notes that “Berger found in the working life of Quincy not only a home but an anchor: a community.”

more here.

The Group That Freed Themselves by Inventing Rules

Anna Aslanyan at the TLS:

Should humanity lie back and be satisfied to watch new thoughts make ancient verses?” What compelled François Le Lionnais to ask this question was a conversation he had with Raymond Queneau in 1960. A writer interested in mathematics, Queneau told his friend, a chemist interested in art, about a book he was working on, a sequence of ten sonnets such that any line in any of them could replace the corresponding line in any other. To experiment with this and other literary forms, the pair founded “a sort of secret society”, initially a group of eight, which began meeting monthly in Paris. “That which certain writers have introduced with talent (even with genius) in their work … the Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Oulipo) intends to do systematically and scientifically, if need be through recourse to machines that process information”, Le Lionnais wrote in what was to form the group’s first manifesto. Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes – amounting to a hundred thousand billion rhymed, grammatically correct combinations – was published in 1961, the first book to be billed as Oulipian.

more here.

The Cancer Industry: Hype vs. Reality

John Horgan in Scientific American:

First, some basic facts to convey the scale of the problem. Cancer is the second most lethal disease in the U.S., behind only heart disease. More than 1.7 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2018, and more than 600,000 died. Over 15 million Americans cancer survivors are alive today. Almost four out of ten people will be diagnosed in their lifetime, according to the National Cancer Institute. Cancer has spawned a huge industrial complex involving government agencies, pharmaceutical and biomedical firms, hospitals and clinics, universities, professional societies, nonprofit foundations and media. The costs of cancer care have surged 40 percent in the last decade, from $125 billion in 2010 to $175 billion in 2020 (projected). Cancer-industry boosters claim that investments in research, testing and treatment have led to “incredible progress” and millions of “cancer deaths averted,” as the homepage of the American Cancer Society, a nonprofit that receives money from biomedical firms, puts it. A 2016 study found that cancer experts and the media often describe new treatments with terms such as “breakthrough,” “game changer,” “miracle,” “cure,” “home run,” “revolutionary,” “transformative,” “life saver,” “groundbreaking” and “marvel.”

…What’s the reality behind the hype? “No one is winning the war on cancer,” Azra Raza, an oncologist at Columbia, asserts in her 2019 book The First Cell: And the Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last. Claims of progress are “mostly hype, the same rhetoric from the same self-important voices for the past half century.” Trials have yielded improved treatments for childhood cancers and specific cancers of the blood, bone-marrow and lymph systems, Raza notes. But these successes, which involve uncommon cancers, are exceptions among a “litany of failures.”

More here.

The revolutionary legacy of Richard Wright

David Thurston in Nucomintern:

Wright was born near Natchez, Mississipi a century ago in 1908.  Early in life, while living in Memphis, Wright’s father abandoned the family.  Soon afterward, his mother suffered a severe stroke, leaving her disabled, and leaving Richard Wright and his brother Leon to live at the mercy of a their extended family.  Wright’s early life is powerfully recounted in many biographies, but the most vivid source is Black Boy, his own autobiography, published in 1946.

In Black Boy, hunger serves as a powerful running metaphor, a literal description of Wright’s condition for much of his childhood, but also a way of describing his own desire to live beyond the boundaries proscribed by Jim Crow segregation in the South.

He writes:

Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant.  Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly… Whenever I begged for food now my mother would pour me a cup of tea which would still the clamor in my stomach for a moment or two; but a little later I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. (BB: 14-15)

As Wright grew older, he came to love reading and desperately sought whatever literary material he could find.  This was quite controversial in the household of his grandmother, who viewed any secular reading as the work of the devil.  Wright links his physical hunger to the hunger for knowledge in this moving passage:

School opened and I began the seventh grade.  My old hunger was still with me and I lived on what I did not eat.  Perhaps the sunshine, the fresh air, and the pot liquor from the greens kept me going.  Of an evening I would sit in my room reading, and suddenly I would become aware of the smelling meat frying in a neighbor’s kitchen and I would wonder what it was like to eat as much meat as one wanted.  My mind would drift into a fantasy and I would imagine myself a son in a family that had meat on the table at each meal; then I would become disgruntled with my futile daydreams and would rise and shut the window to bar the torturing scent of meat. (BB: 137)

Throughout Wright’s years in the South, the threat of brutal racist violence cast a pall across his life.

More here. (Note: Throughout February, at least one post will honor The Black History Month. This year’s theme is “African Americans and the Vote.” Readers are encouraged to send in their suggestions)

Tuesday Poem

FranÇOise And The Fruit Farmer

In town to sell his fruit, he saw her—
Françoise in her summer slacks—
turning to him, coming back
to feel the swelling plums,
one held in each soft hand, breast-high,
above them her eyes enclosing him
in quietness brushed up to colors,
urgings green, thrustings yellow.

A vine-like touch, her promise seemed all profit,
surplus to lay aside and store,
quick harvest if he collapsed his stand,
pulled down his crates, rolled away his canvas:
full bounty if he washed his hands and followed,
trailing her fragrances
of melons in their prime, of berries bursting.

She turned to go, her scent adrift
as if from glistenings in soil turned off a spade.
His yearning had no time
to plant and cultivate
and wait for rain,
yet he was quick to catch a peach about to fall—
that brightness of his wrist
costing the moment that concealed her in the crowd;
and yet a perfect peach lay in his hand,
his only means to feel the way good seasons end.

A lucky day, he thought,
begins with plums.

—James A. Emanuel was born in 1921 in Alliance, Nebraska. His books include Jazz from the Haiku King (1999), Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958–1989 (1990), The Broken Bowl: New and Uncollected Poems (1983), Black Man Abroad: The Toulouse Poems (1978), and At Bay (1969). He is also the author of Langston Hughes (1967) and the editor, with Theodore L. Gross, of Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (1968). An expatriate African-American, Emanuel lived in Paris.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Achilles Heel of Liberal Democracy

by Pranab Bardhan

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi

Many find fault with liberal democracy because it exacerbates inequality, particularly when wedded to unbridled capitalism. But inequality has been rampant in authoritarian countries as well, with or without capitalism. Many non-capitalist countries in actual history have been friendly neither to liberty nor equality, never mind the soaring rhetoric, whereas some liberal democracies have provided their alert citizenry with the means of taming the harshness of capitalism, showing the possibility of liberty and equality working together at least up to some distance.

Others find fault with liberal democracy because its emphasis on individual freedom may loosen community bonding and rootedness, but ‘liberty’ and ‘fraternity’ need not work at cross-purposes, and one should keep in mind that communitarian excesses without liberalism can hurt interests of minority and dissident or non-conformist groups and individual autonomy. For a discussion of these issues see my piece, “Can the Local Community Save Liberal Democracy?”. Yet why is liberal democracy so fragile? All around us demagogues rule even in traditional bastions of democracy; and majoritarianism so easily hollows out democracies and keeps only the shell (and even sometimes triumphantly gets that shell described by the oxymoronic term ‘illiberal democracy’).

In my article, “Coping with Resurgent Nationalism” I have suggested that if the constitution in some democratic countries incorporates liberal inclusive values and is reasonably difficult to change, it can provide the basis of some form of civic nationalism (or what Habermas called ‘constitutional patriotism’) that may resist the marauding forces of majoritarianism or exclusivist ethnic nationalism. But the ethnic nationalist leaders are so adept at whipping up our primordial or visceral evolutionary defensive-aggressive urge to fight against so-called ‘enemy’ groups, that such resistance is currently crumbling in many countries –for example, conspicuously in India under the onslaught of Hindu nationalism, even after several decades of reasonably successful civic nationalism based on values of pluralism enshrined in the constitution and undergirded by centuries of folk-syncretic tradition of tolerance and pluralism of faith among the common people. Read more »

The Impact of Philosophy – and the Philosophy of Impact

by Robert Frodeman and Evelyn Brister

Where is philosophy in public life? Can we point to how the world in 2020 is different than it was in 2010 or 1990 because of philosophical research?

On the first day of class, philosophy professors tell their students that philosophy promises to make us better citizens and to increase our understanding of science, politics, and art. Or in the words of the American Philosophical Association’s guide for undergraduates, philosophy develops the capacity to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other cultures; it enhances one’s ability to perceive the relationships among the various fields of study; and it deepens one’s sense of the meaning and variety of human experience.

We agree. But more needs to be said about the relevance of philosophy to shaping society than that. People want to know that philosophy and the humanities are valuable not only to college students while taking a class or two, but also how the massive bodies of professional research that are being produced are relevant to society at large.

This is where philosophy (and the humanities generally) has failed: philosophers don’t investigate the specificities of philosophy’s relevance. Granted, there’s a pile of works (e.g., Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit, Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education, Michael Roth’s Beyond the University) that provide a general defense of the humanities. But when the question is put: “How specifically is humanities research relevant to society?,” any answer is seen as either a political challenge aligned with a defense of ignorance or else as being self-evident.

We think that asking—and answering—this question is neither a disrespectful nor a trivial task. Read more »

Monday Poem


Click to enlarge

the complexity of your crossed purposes
beauty and war, grace and wastefulness,
you rest solidly at sea upon a liquid
without yet dropping through,
a steel log with algorithmic spurs
hollow inside of rust and rot, a contradiction,
weighty, weightless, floating

divine swan human pawns
Jesus weeps Mars is gloating
Jim Culleny
Pen & ink 1997, Jim C.