Overdoing Democracy

Ed Tarkington in Chapter 16:

In prose both sophisticated and accessible to the lay reader, Robert B. Talisse’s Overdoing Democracy sets forth the case for a national reckoning on how our addiction to politics is undermining the purposes for which democracy was conceived.

Talisse, who serves as W. Alton Jones Professor and chairs the philosophy department at Vanderbilt University, specializes in pragmatism. The term bears a broader, more complex definition when referring to the philosophical tradition descending from Charles Peirce and William James to the likes of Robert Brandom, Richard Rorty, and Talisse himself; nevertheless, if we take being ‘pragmatic’ to mean dealing with things realistically with the goal of a workable method or solution, the term is doubly appropriate to Overdoing Democracy.

Talisse introduces the text with an anecdote all too familiar in the Trump era: a conversation with a friend worried that her large family Thanksgiving dinner might “erupt into a bitter clash between politically opposed relatives.” This dilemma is so common, it seems, that a Google search for “Survive Thanksgiving politics” yields more than 40 million hits.

More here.

Re-thinking the Victorian Novel

Emer Nolan at The Dublin Review of Books:

November 22nd, 2019 is the bicentenary of the birth of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-80). Eliot was the last in an extraordinary sequence of women novelists in nineteenth century England that included Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell. Her novel Middlemarch (1871-72) is generally considered to be the culminating achievement of the Victorian realist tradition. In transposing the ethical capital of Christianity to the secular world, she retained a fervent belief in the redemption offered by the expansion of human knowledge and a co-ordinate growth in sympathetic feeling. Most of her heroines yearn for education and a sense of social purpose as well as for love and marriage. How do such ambitions look in the globalised, information-saturated present, where many young women have far greater opportunities for specialised education? Can we still imagine that the novel could contribute to the redemption of the world? Sally Rooney’s allusions to Eliot, as well as to Austen, in her two best-selling campus-based novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), offer an unexpected Irish millennial salute to this humanist line of ameliorative fiction by English women.

more here.

Reframing Modernism at the New MOMA

Andrea K. Scott at The New Yorker:

Prunella Clough, a superbly weird British modernist who died in 1999, at the age of eighty, was fond of a quote by Édouard Manet: “Painting is like throwing oneself into the sea to learn to swim.” Looking at art can be like that, too—both a crash course and a full-body experience. Visitors to the newly renovated moma are invited to take that kind of plunge in the show “The Shape of Shape,” installed in a small gallery on the fifth floor, filled with an exhilarating abundance of seventy-one paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings, and prints in the museum’s collection. They were selected by the voraciously smart Amy Sillman, a superbly weird painter herself (she contributes a blood-crimson wall work, equal parts shadow and viscera), who chose the catchall concept of “shape” because it’s off the grid, rarely discussed, as opposed to related principles like color or systems. Sillman muses in her introductory wall text that shape may be “too personal, too subjective, to be considered rigorously modern.” In keeping with the rehang throughout the new building, hidebound hierarchies of modernism are reconsidered. While the show doesn’t stint on acknowledged Masters (no Manet, but there is a Matisse), the emphasis is on oddballs like Clough, whose orphic 1985 painting “Stone” is included.

more here.

Out of The Shadows: Pre-Raphaelite Sisters

Susan Owens at Literary Review:

‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters’ takes the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, fades out the central figures and asks those previously known for their supporting or peripheral roles to step forward. It pays attention to models such as Fanny Cornforth and Annie Miller, investigates the activities of the wives of some of its leading figures, including Jane Morris, Georgiana Burne-Jones and Effie Gray Millais, and celebrates the art of such sculptors and painters as Maria Zambaco and Marie Spartali Stillman. It is, in effect, a cultural history of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in its focus on how clients were tended, studios managed, costumes stitched, parallel careers pursued, opportunities for work seized and respectability either sought or rejected. It unfolds a fascinating series of interconnected life stories.

Of the twelve women explored, each in a discrete section, some remain elusive. One of the most intriguing figures is Fanny Eaton, a black model who, as Marsh points out in the book accompanying the exhibition, has been ‘hiding in plain sight’ in paintings by Joanna Boyce Wells (another ‘sister’ represented here), Albert Moore and Simeon Solomon, who asked her to serve as a model for both African and Middle Eastern figures. 

more here.

The Paradox of Self-Consciousness

Markus Gabriel in Edge:

One of the central questions I’m asking myself is how to fit the human being into our current understanding of both natural scientific fact and the social and general mental and interpretative facts unearthed by the humanities and social sciences. Where do we locate the human being and what we know about ourselves from humanistic, historically oriented research vis-à-vis contemporary technology, the digital sphere, cutting-edge research in physics, neuroscience, etc.?

Philosophy’s central object is the human being and its position in the mindless universe. How do we fit into reality with our perspectival minds? That’s fundamentally the kind of question that I’m working on, using various tools hopefully suited for trying to tackle that very hard question. One of the tools I’m deploying is the whole category box of contemporary theoretical epistemology. Epistemology asks the following questions: What is knowledge? How far does knowledge extend? What can we really know about the universe and ourselves as knowers of the universe? Many people think there’s a problem with how we can fit consciousness, or the mind, into a mindless universe. But there’s an even deeper problem at the outset of this enterprise, which is how can we know ourselves as knowers and our position in the universe?

Knowing anything about the universe requires being causally in touch with it. We cannot know anything about the universe without, to some extent, intervening in it. We don’t know anything relevant about the universe a priori, that is, by just thinking about it. We didn’t discover bosons by thinking harder about the composition of physical reality; we had to run thought experiments and develop the right mathematical tools in order to check whether our understanding of the universe matches the facts. Checking thought experiments requires causal intervention. The limits of causal intervention are, thus, real, physical obstacles to human knowledge. Currently, we do not know where exactly (if ever) we will hit a knowledge ceiling. In any event, modern science tells us that it is basically impossible to know absolutely everything about physical reality. There simply are scientific reasons that underpin research into meta-physical issues, i.e., into facts beyond the ken of physics and physical intervention.

More here.

Can the Catholic Church Help Explain Western Psychology?

Drew Pendergrass in Harvard Magazine:

The authors’ argument goes like this. The emergence of agriculture 12,000 years ago favored societies that could work together on big projects, like growing crops. This kind of collaboration required people to be members of tightly bound social networks, strengthened by individuals who showed solidarity with one another. Families in farming societies fostered intense connection among people, because their survival depended on it: extended relatives lived under one roof, polygamy was often allowed, and people married within their own communities and families. Practices like ancestor worship and shared ownership further strengthened these bonds, both in Europe and in many farming societies around the agricultural world.

When the Catholic Church emerged, everything changed. The medieval church in western Europe promulgated unusually strict rules about families: newlyweds were often required to move to a new house, polygamy was weeded out, arranged marriages were discouraged, remarriage was banned, and legal adoption was stopped. Above all, the church harshly condemned incest. People were forbidden to marry their sixth cousins or anyone closer, as well as in-laws and “spiritual relatives” like godparents. Priests and elders would do background checks before the ceremony to uncover any hidden overlap in family trees. The motivations for these new rules are somewhat unclear, but church fathers like Ambrose and Augustine condemned incest in their writings, and various early councils saw it as an affront to God.

“I was surprised just how preoccupied medieval Europe was with the fear of incest,” said Schulz. “Natural disasters such as the plague were attributed to God’s punishment for incest.” When ministers at weddings ask if anyone has an objection to a couple tying the knot, they are drawing on a tradition that was designed to catch incestuous marriages before they happened.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Netty Moore

Lost John’s sittin’ on a railroad track
Something’s out of whack
Blues this mornin’ fallin’ down like hail
Gonna leave a greasy trail

Gonna travel the world is what I’m gonna do
Then come back and see you
All I ever do is struggle and strive
If I don’t do anybody any harm,
I might make it back home alive

I’m the oldest son of a crazy man
I’m in a cowboy band
Got a pile of sins to pay for and I ain’t got time to hide
I’d walk through a blazing fire, baby, if I knew you was on the other side

Oh, I miss you, Nettie Moore
And my happiness is o’er
Winter’s gone, the river’s on the rise
I loved you then, and ever shall
But there’s no one left here to tell
The world has gone black before my eyes

Well, the world of research has gone berserk
Too much paperwork
Albert’s in the graveyard, Frankie’s raising hell
I’m beginning to believe what the scriptures tell

I’ve gone where the Southern crosses The Yellow Dog
Get away from these demagogues
And these bad luck women stick like glue
It’s either one or the other or neither of the two

Read more »

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Zadie Smith on Celia Paul’s Memoir

Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books:

Accounts of the muse–artist relation were anchored in the idea of male cultural production as a special category, one with particular needs—usually sexual—that the muse had been there to fulfill, perhaps even to the point of exploitation, but without whom we would have missed the opportunity to enjoy this or that beloved cultural artifact. The art wants what the art wants. Revisionary biographies of overlooked women—which began to appear with some regularity in the Eighties—were off-putting in a different way (at least to me). Unhinged in tone, by turns furious, defensive, melancholy, and tragic, their very intensity kept the muse in her place, orbiting the great man.

Celia Paul’s memoir, Self-Portrait, is a different animal altogether. Lucian Freud, whose muse and lover she was, is rendered here—and acutely—but as Paul puts it, with typical simplicity and clarity, “Lucian…is made part of my story rather than, as is usually the case, me being portrayed as part of his.” Her story is striking. It is not, as has been assumed, the tale of a muse who later became a painter, but an account of a painter who, for ten years of her early life, found herself mistaken for a muse, by a man who did that a lot. Her book is about many things besides Freud: her mother, her childhood, her sisters, her paintings. But she neither rejects her past with Freud nor rewrites it, placing present ideas and feelings alongside diary entries and letters she wrote as a young woman, a generous, vulnerable strategy that avoids the usual triumphalism of memoir.

More here.

Can Lifelong, Invasive Screening Eradicate Cancer?

John Horgan in Scientific American:

Azra Raza, an oncologist at Columbia, has watched too many people die from cancer. They include her patients and her husband, also a cancer specialist. She has poured her frustration into a new book, The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last.

“No one is winning the war on cancer,” Raza says. Claims of progress are “mostly hype, the same rhetoric from the same self-important voices for the past half century.” Her book details the excruciating suffering endured by her husband and others during largely futile treatment. She proposes a radical “new strategy” that switches from treating cancer to preventing it from occurring.

Oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee, author of the 2010 bestseller The Emperor of All Maladies (which I wrote about here) calls First Cell a “powerfully written and far-reaching book that will change the conversation around cancer for decades to come.” I, too, admire Raza’s passion and eloquence, but I fear her “new strategy” would make a bad problem worse.

More here.

Yanis Varoufakis reviews “Good Economics for Hard Times” by recent Nobel winners Abhijit V Banerjee and Esther Duflo

Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian:

Good Economics for Hard Times is the latest attempt by economists to defend their profession. It is, happily, an excellent antidote to the most dangerous forms of economics bashing: the efforts of opportunistic politicians to weaponise discontent with mainstream politics and to press it into the service of a xenophobic ideology that denies facts and serves the interests of a nativist, global oligarchy.

The book’s authors, MIT economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, write beautifully and are in full command of their subject. They examine the most crucial issues humanity faces (migration, trade wars, the scourge of inequality, climate catastrophe) with a combination of humility over what economics cannot tell us and pride over its contributions to our limited understanding. On every page, they seek to shed much-needed light upon the distortions that bad economics bring to public debates while methodically deconstructing their false assumptions. In their words, the book’s noble, urgent task is “to emphasise that there are no iron laws of economics keeping us from building a more humane world”.

More here.

A Manifesto on Gender and Desire

Johanna Fateman at Bookforum:

In 1988, Valerie Solanas, the author of the 1967 female-supremacist pamphlet SCUM Manifesto, died from pneumonia at the age of fifty-two, in a single-occupancy hotel room in San Francisco. The decomposing body of the visionary writer, who famously set forth her plans “to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex,” was discovered kneeling, as though in prayer, slumped over the side of the bed. The image lends itself to hagiographic depictions of Solanas—as a fallen soldier, a suffering genius, a latter-day entrant into the modernist pantheon of great artists exiled by society. Or perhaps that’s just how she appears to me. I’d rather imagine her within a tragic male tradition than an abject female one—though you’ll soon see why I’ve begun to wonder if there’s any difference.

Consumed with loathing, finding only fleeting euphoric reprieve in her own ideas, Solanas is feminism’s Antonin Artaud. She’d spit at the comparison, of course.

more here.

In early study results, Grail’s blood test identifies 12 cancers before they spread

Conor Hale in Fierce Biotech:

New, early data from Grail showed its liquid biopsy test not only was able to detect the presence of 12 different kinds of early-stage cancer but could also identify the disease’s location within the body before it spreads using signatures found in the bloodstream. The test also demonstrated a very low rate of false positives, at 1% or less. The former Fierce 15 winner presented the returns from a substudy of its Circulating Cell-free Genome Atlas (CCGA) project at this year’s annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago. Detection rates varied among the dozen prespecified and potentially fatal types of tumors in earlier stages—from 59% in lung cancers up to 86% in cancers of the head and neck. When analyzed by cancer stage, the test showed sensitivity rates of 34%, 77%, 84% and 92% across all tumor types, from stage I to stage IV, respectively. Additionally, tissue-of-origin results were provided for 94% of all cancers detected, with correct identifications being made in 90% of cases.

…“The high detection rate of stage II cancers at 77 percent in the group of 12 deadly cancers is particularly compelling and supports the potential benefit of our multi-cancer approach,” said Klausner, a former director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute. The study’s 12 cancer types—and the test’s sensitivity rates for detecting stage I-III disease—included anorectal (79%), colorectal (74%), esophageal (76%), gastric (78%), head and neck (86%), hormone receptor negative breast (64%), liver (68%), lung (59%), ovarian (67%) and pancreatic (78%) tumors, as well as multiple myeloma (71%) and lymphomas (70%), excluding leukemias. According to Grail, these cancer types account for nearly two-thirds of all cancer deaths in the U.S., with the test demonstrating an overall detection rate of 76% across all stages.

More here.

Maladaptive Decadence in The Amazon Basin

Nell Zink at Harper’s Magazine:

The rule of thumb for temperate rainforests is one third live trees, one third snags, one third nurse logs. I saw almost no dead trees in Amazonia, standing or otherwise. Things rot too fast. A dead tree can’t defend itself or maintain a symbiotic relationship with someone who will (ants). Apparently a forest can be unimaginably ancient without having a single organism make it past a few dozen years.

A toucan appeared in a neighboring tree. The glossy black toupee of an aspiring Sicilian shepherd boy sat awkwardly on his reddish mullet. His yellow shirt was set off by crimson chaps. His eyes were those of a chameleon. His bill bore tattooed teeth. His white face had five-o’clock shadow. His feet were greenish. Macaws passed over, tanagers flocked in the branches closest to us, but my gaze kept returning to my friend. He perched there for half an hour, occasionally swiveling to make sure I got an adequate impression of his mind-fucking lacquered hairstyle. I mean, sorry. Evolution, all right, sure, whatever. But this?

more here.

Shifting the Focus of Breast Cancer to Prevention

Jane Brody in The New York Times:

Efforts to reduce deaths from breast cancer in women have long focused on early detection and post-surgical treatment with drugs, radiation or both to help keep the disease at bay. And both of these approaches, used alone or together, have resulted in a dramatic reduction in breast cancer mortality in recent decades. The average five-year survival rate is now 90 percent, and even higher — 99 percent — if the cancer is confined to the breast, or 85 percent if it has spread to regional lymph nodes. Yet, even though a steadily growing percentage of women now survive breast cancer, the disease still frightens many women and their loved ones. It affects one woman in eight and remains their second leading cancer killer, facts that suggest at least equal time should be given to what could be an even more effective strategy: prevention. Long-term studies involving tens of thousands of women have highlighted many protective measures that, if widely adopted, could significantly reduce women’s chances of ever getting breast cancer. Even the techniques now used to screen for possible breast cancer can help identify those women who might be singled out for special protective measures.

For example, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recently updated recommendations for offering risk-reducing medications to women whose personal or family history or findings on a mammogram suggest they face more than the average risk of developing breast cancer. The task force found “convincing evidence” of at least moderate preventive benefit from three well-established cancer-blocking drugs: tamoxifen, raloxifene and aromatase inhibitors. Dr. Lydia E. Pace of Brigham and Women’s Hospital said that “a lot of studies of preventive medication have shown a moderate reduction in risk of developing breast cancer.” But, she added, the drugs reduce the risk of those breast cancers that are generally the most curable and the least likely to cause death and have yet to be shown to reduce the overall risk of dying from the disease.

More here.

How Punk Changed Berlin

Jude Rogers at The New Statesman:

When walls are built through a city, strengthened with reinforced concrete and steel, separated by a strip of land where you can be shot and left to die, you don’t expect things to break through. But radio broadcasts don’t stop at borders. Political regimes can’t stop soundwaves. They just travel.

This is revealed powerfully in Tim Mohr’s Burning Down the Haus, an exploration of how punk changed Berlin, and still defines it today, 30 years after the Wall fell. It begins in 1977, the Silver Jubilee year, with the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen; throughout the Wall years, British stations broadcast in the West could still be heard in the East. Angry rallying cries resonated with teenagers living in a repressive state, oddly enough. The context in which they were received, though, was very different.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Kelly Recalls 1963

I still call
The year 1963
Season of Nightmares
After Medgar Evers
Was killed I
Would lie awake
And wait for
My uncle Joe
To get home
Safely he and
My Aunt Blanche
Had the same
Carport Mr. Evers
Had I know
Because I read
The story concerning
His assassination over
And over in
Ebony magazine even
When he my
Uncle was safely
Seated on the
Couch I could
Not sleep because
I now knew
That we were
Hated for being
Who we were
And are then
The four little
Girls in Birmingham
Died in that
Bombing who will
Protect us I
Asked the moon
On more than
One sleepless night

by Reuben Jackson
from Split This Rock

Monday, November 11, 2019

Review of Richard Robb’s “Willful”

by Michael Liss

Economics. The dismal science. All those numbers and graphs, formulas and derivations, tombstone-sized copies of Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus’s Macroeconomics (now apparently in its 19th edition), and memories of the detritus that came with them: half-filled coffee cups and overfilled ashtrays, mechanical pencils and HP-45s.

As you might imagine, with that as background, I approached Willful: How We Choose What We Do with a bit of primal trepidation, something deep inside my limbic system. To add to my anxiety, I had just seen a review of the latest Piketty missive under the ominous headline “Thomas Piketty’s new War and Peace-sized book…” and wondered what kind of dense read I was getting myself into.

I was wrong. Once Mr. Robb’s book was in my hands, I realized that I was looking at an entirely different animal, one that didn’t scream at or lecture you, but, in calm, measured tones laid out a fairly remarkable thesis—that existing, accepted theories of why we do things (such as the redoubtable “Rational Choice”) don’t tell the whole story.  We aren’t all calculating machines all the time, either consciously or subconsciously doing the math to maximize the return from each transaction. Rather, as humans, we can be motivated by individual, personal factors that have meaning and value to us beyond just what a rational choice analysis might direct. These factors go into the process of what Mr. Robb calls “For-Itself Choice.”  Read more »

Monday Poem

If you talk about it, it’s not Tao
If you name it, it’s something else

What can’t be named is eternal
Naming splits the eternal to smithereens
…………………………… —Lao Tzu, 6th Century BC

Lao Tzu’s Lament

at first I think, I’ve got it!
then I think, Ah no, that’s not it
I think, it’s more like a flaming arrow
shot into the marrow
of the bony part of everything

………. but some summer nights
………. it’s hanging overhead so bright

then right there I lose it
I let geometry and time confuse it
then it’s silent and won’t sing a thing

………. but some summer nights
………. it’s croaking from a pond so right

then again I lose it
let theology and time confuse it
then it’s silent and won’t sing a thing

……………….. I’m thinking I’ve been here before
……………….. feet two inches off the floor
……………….. I’m thinking, is this something true?

sometimes I think, I’ve lost it!
though I never could exhaust it
because it’s lower than low is
and wider than wide is
deeper than deep is
higher than high is

………. but some fresh spring days
………. it’s cuttin’ through the fog and the haze

……………….. I’m thinking I’ve been here before
……………….. feet two inches off the floor
……………….. I’m thinking, is this something true?

by Jim Culleny, 6/15/15
Copyright: Jim Culleny, 6/23/15