Death of a Marxist

Vijay Prashad in The Hindu:

On Sunday, August 12, Samir Amin died. With him went a generation of Egyptian Marxists who came of age in the time of Nasserism and departed with the world in tatters. Amin was born in 1931 in Cairo. He was doing his PhD in Paris when Gamal Abdel Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew the British-dominated monarchy in Egypt in 1952 and directed their country towards a path of non-alignment.

Amin’s thesis — in economics — was written while he was active in the French Communist Party. In the thesis, he thought hard about the problems of his native land and other countries despoiled by the colonial menace. For Amin, as with other dependency theorists, the Third World suffered from theft, plunder as well as deindustrialisation, and then unequal exchange. The policy space for the new Third World states — Nasser’s Egypt amidst them — was narrow. Emancipation would be difficult. It would take courage to break the yoke of monopoly capitalism, to rise from the penalty of colonialism and advance towards a necessary socialist future.

Amin, like others in his generation such as India’s Ashok Mitra and Brazil’s Celso Furtado, did not go immediately into the academy. He went home to Cairo, where he worked in Nasser’s Institute for Economic Management (1957-1960) and then to Bamako (Mali), where he worked as an adviser in the Ministry of Planning (1960-1963). Amin would talk fondly of these years, of the experience he had in trying to move an agenda for the development of his country and that of other African countries. The limitations set by the powerful countries of the world — the imperialist bloc led by the U.S. — and by the system of monopoly capitalism prevented any major breakthrough for states such as Egypt and Mali. Amin’s first book, published in the 1960s, was on the experience of development undertaken by Mali, Guinea and Ghana. It warned against any facile belief in progress. The unequal system in the world generated profits for the powerful and generated poverty for the weak.

More here.

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Elizabeth Warren has a Plan to Save Capitalism

Matthew Yglesias in Vox:

Warren wants to create an Office of United States Corporations inside the Department of Commerce and require any corporation with revenue over $1 billion — only a few thousand companies, but a large share of overall employment and economic activity — to obtain a federal charter of corporate citizenship.

The charter tells company directors to consider the interests of all relevant stakeholders — shareholders, but also customers, employees, and the communities in which the company operates — when making decisions. That could concretely shift the outcome of some shareholder lawsuits but is aimed more broadly at shifting American business culture out of its current shareholders-first framework and back toward something more like the broad ethic of social responsibility that took hold during WWII and continued for several decades.

Business executives, like everyone else, want to have good reputations and be regarded as good people but, when pressed about topics of social concern, frequently fall back on the idea that their first obligation is to do what’s right for shareholders. A new charter would remove that crutch, and leave executives accountable as human beings for the rights and wrongs of their own decisions.

More concretely, United States Corporations would be required to allow their workers to elect 40 percent of the membership of their board of directors.

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Digital Detox: Big Tech’s Phony Crisis of Conscience

Grafton Tanner in The LA Review of Books:

IN MAY 2017, ex-Google employee and design ethicist James Williams outlined his vision for a world in which technology companies are held responsible for what they do to and for society. At his talk entitled “Why (and How) to End the Attention Economy,”delivered at The Next Web (TNW) Conference, Williams addressed the cultural effects of ubiquitous digital technology and social media. He affirmed that, after nearly 10 years, the results are in: social media is highly addictive, and with so many billions logging in to get their next hit, the world could be on the verge of disaster.

Nothing that Williams said was particularly novel or earth-shattering. Talk of the mental health effects of social media had been circulating in lay discourse, and research had been published on the link between Facebook and general well-being. What Williams chose to focus on were the sociopoliticalconsequences of social media — mainly in response to the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. Ultimately, he declared that an addictive technology facilitated the proliferation of “fake news” that divided our country.

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Thursday Poem

.
THEN AY KNOW my horse,
let alive and out of days,
hide now paled, hind legs slow
to drag, lower head to lift,
hoof-split, burred and rough from the dirt.

Strange when Ay speak to him.
Tremble runs under him.
What owned him fills him.

Same horse Ay tamed are you the same?
Mane-tangled, lank, and under brow,
hims eye as from a coal half-burnt
sparked up. Ay pulled my body on-

start, rear, run-
and did not loose but stormed and shaken
held as leaf to stem. Sky could hear
the finding cry Ay made.

Joan Houlihan
from AY
Tupelo Press, 2014

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Neruda’s Voice

David Mason at Hudson Review:

Forty-five years after his death, Pablo Neruda’s poetry still has the power to astonish and appall, awaken and chill us and leave us shaking our heads in bafflement or respect. There is such breadth and profligate intelligence in the work, which ranges from opaque surrealism to bighearted populism to Pan-American epic to shocking propaganda, that one hardly knows where to place it in our era of thwarted emotions. Clearly it is not of our time. Given Neruda’s relations with women, it is certainly not of the time of #MeToo. The work will not always sit well beside a mature feminist consciousness, and of course it will not please ideologues who can’t tell one form of socialism from another. Neruda changed, and his circumstances changed. As a man he could be a monster of egotism and a courageous dissident, a purblind Stalinist and a Roosevelt democrat. His poetry incarnates these shifts and siftings and restless experiments. The past is a moving target. Poetry keeps it alive.

more here.

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Rediscovering Charlotte Lennox

Min Wild at the TLS:

Susan Carlile explains with good judgement in her introduction why it is time for a new, full, critical biography of Charlotte Lennox, who, along with Eliza Haywood in particular, acts as a linking presence between the Aphra Behn-inflected, rackety experiments of Delariviere Manley, in the early eighteenth century, and the more solidly respectable achievements of Austen and Frances Burney. This biography, “the first to consider Lennox’s entire oeuvre and all her extant correspondence”, gives the fullest account of her life yet (following pioneering work by Miriam Small, Gustavus Maynardier and Philippe Séjourné), and conducts readers through all of her major works. It arrives as a handsome, substantial volume, complete with full scholarly apparatus and a proselytizing zeal of application that is both good to see and a little perplexing in tenor: Lennox is simultaneously “representative and exceptional, innovative and illus­trative”. Lennox did have an “independent mind”, in whatever degree this was possible as one negotiated the path to Grub Street solvency, and Carlile was right to make this the book’s subtitle and leitmotif, rather than giving Lennox the “dangerous” or “powerful” mind she initially considered.

more here.

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On Nature Writing in a Filthy World

Kamil Ahsan at The Millions:

For the burgeoning fields of environmental humanities, it has long since become a commonplace notion that there isn’t really any such thing as “nature” or “wilderness”: both words used to connote real places—pristine and untouched places—but with the increasing knowledge that such a state of being likely never existed, the words come up empty. There are, however, new narratives: Through a case study of the global matsutake mushroom trade, anthropologist Anna Tsing shows compellingly in The Mushroom at the End of the World that the human-disrupted landscapes we find everywhere are worthy of study.

How far do we have to look to find that in the stories we tell today? Not far at all. Lauren Groff’s collection of stories, Florida, seems to see every landscape it describes as contaminated—the wreckage of things wrought by both humans and non-humans. In “Dogs Go Wolf”—a survivalist tale of two sisters stranded on an island, abandoned and threatened by adults—more than monkeys, more than dogs, it is a menacing man from whom the sisters hide. “He moved toward the boat and kicked it once, twice, then the girls saw the rotten wood break apart, and a hundred frightened bugs ran out.”

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21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Helen Lewis in The Guardian:

Yuval Noah Harari’s career is a publishing fairytale. An obscure Israeli academic writes a Hebrew-language history of humanity. Translated into English in 2014, the book sells more than a million copies. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg includes it in his book club in 2015. Ridley Scott wants to turn it into a TV series. Barack Obama says it gave him perspective on “the core things that have allowed us to build this extraordinary civilization that we take for granted”. Its sales spike when it is mentioned on Love Island.

That book was Sapiens, which is bold, breezy and engaging; romping its way from the discovery of fire to the creation of cyborgs in less than 500 pages. The future-gazing follow-up, Homo Deus, was also a global bestseller, and now Harari has turned his attention to the present with 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. It covers everything from war – Harari’s academic specialism – to meditation, his favourite leisure activity. (He does two hours a day, and a month-long retreat every year.) The collection of pieces aims to take stock of where humanity has reached, and where it might be going. Ultra-topical concerns such as “fake news” and the rise of authoritarians such as Donald Trump are set in the context of centuries of our biological and social evolution. As Obama said, this approach certainly gives the reader perspective. Ivan the Terrible was probably more, well, terrible than Trump. Cheer up! Until you remember climate change, at least – because, to his credit, Harari is one of the few futurists to factor ecological collapse into his predictions.

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How Women Came to Dominate Neuroendocrinology

Nicole M. Baran in Nautilus:

When Kathleen Morrison stepped onto the stage to present her research on the effects of stress on the brains of mothers and infants, she was nearly seven and a half months pregnant. The convergence was not lost on Morrison, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, nor on her audience. If there ever was a group of scientists that would be both interested in her findings and unphased by her late-stage pregnancy, it was this one. Nearly 90 percent were women. It is uncommon for any field of science to be dominated by women. In 2015, women received only 34.4 percent of all STEM degrees.1 Even though women now earn more than half of PhDs in biology-related disciplines, only 36 percent of assistant professors and 18 percent of full professors in biology-related fields are women.2 Yet, 70 percent of the speakers at this year’s meeting of the Organization for the Study of Sex Differences (OSSD), where Morrison spoke, were women. Women make up 67 percent of the regular members and 81 percent of trainee members of OSSD, which was founded by the Society for Women’s Health Research. Similarly, 68 percent of the speakers at the annual meeting of the Society for Behavioral Neuroendocrinology (SBN) in 2017 were women. In the field of behavioral neuroendocrinology, 58 percent of professors and 62 percent of student trainees are women. The leadership of both societies also skews female, and the current and recent past presidents of both societies are women.

It wasn’t always this way. As Elizabeth Adkins-Regan, a professor emerita at Cornell University and the recent past president of the SBN puts it: “The whole field was founded by guys!” “It was not a women’s field in the beginning,” agrees C. Sue Carter, director of the Kinsey Institute and professor of biology at Indiana University.

The field of behavioral neuroendocrinology grew out of what were known as the “West Coast Sex Meetings,”3 invitation-only gatherings of mostly male researchers that began in 1965. Among the meeting’s first organizers was Frank A. Beach.4 Beach, who studied the hormonal basis of sexual behavior in mammals, is considered to be the principal founder of the field of hormones and behavior. His ideas were profoundly influential and his gregarious personality (and occasionally off-color sense of humor) left an unmistakable imprint on the field. He was widely regarded as being an excellent graduate student mentor and his trainees were an important part of his legacy.

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August 15, 2018

Why the Left Is So Afraid of Jordan Peterson

Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic:

The left has an obvious and pressing need to unperson him; what he and the other members of the so-called “intellectual dark web” are offering is kryptonite to identity politics. There is an eagerness to attach reputation-destroying ideas to him, such as that he is a supporter of something called “enforced monogamy,” an anthropological concept referring to the social pressures that exist in certain cultures that serve to encourage marriage. He mentioned the term during a wide-ranging interview with a New York Timesreporter, which led to the endlessly repeated falsehood that he believes that the government should be in the business of arranging marriages. There is also the inaccurate belief that he refuses to refer to transgender people by the gendered pronoun conforming to their identity. What he refuses to do is to abide by any laws that could require compelled speech.

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Nabokov in Dreamland

David Potter at The Sydney Review of Books:

The authorship of Insomniac Dreams is surprisingly ambiguous. Yes, it contains the unpublished dream diary of Vladimir Nabokov – but that takes up just over sixty pages of a two hundred-odd page book. So what about the rest? The cover gives some indication. ‘Experiments with Time by Vladimir Nabokov’ is displayed on an index card – Nabokov’s favourite piece of stationery – that sits beneath a big white pillow emblazoned with the book’s title. Nabokov’s name is printed as a reproduction of his signature, as if the cover’s index card had been signed by Nabokov himself. And in a way it was; in its archival form, the dream diary consists of 118 index cards on which Nabokov recorded his dreams over about eighty days – from 14 October 1964 to 3 January 1965. Nestled modestly between the card and the pillow is the crux of the ambiguity – ‘Compiled, edited & with commentaries by Gennady Barabtarlo’.

In effect, this is a posthumous collaboration. Broken into five parts, there’s a three-two split between Nabokov and Barabtarlo respectively.

more here.

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The Tagorean Impulse

Amar Diwakar at The Baffler:

IN HIS AUTOBIOGRAPHY Raga Mala, sitar-virtuoso Ravi Shankar declared that if Rabindranath Tagore “had been born in the West he would now be [as] revered as Shakespeare and Goethe.” Principally a poet, Tagore was also a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, a lyricist, a composer, an artist, and a social reformer. He sparred with Gandhi and meditated on metaphysics with Einstein. Like Goethe, his ideas reverberated beyond Weltliteratur, seeping into politics and social life.

For someone who dialogued with some of the most influential figures of the past century, Tagore curiously failed to generate a lasting impact beyond the Indian subcontinent. It is reasonable to believe that a linguistic parochialism shackled his reputation from being sustained beyond the Bengali-speaking realm. Much was lost in insipid English translations (particularly of his poetry and songs), a handicap Tagore’s promoters in the West, among them W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, could not overcome.

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The Crushing Banality of Yuval Noah Harari

Dominic Sandbrook at Literary Review:

Framed as a book of ‘lessons’, his new work seems obviously inspired by such bestsellers as Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. In the acknowledgements, he explains that he wrote it ‘in conversation with the public’, since many of the chapters originated in answer to ‘questions I was asked by readers, journalists and colleagues’. If somebody asks Harari a question, and he then gives a 5,000-word answer, does that genuinely count as a ‘conversation’? In any case, it would surely be more accurate, as well as less pretentious, to describe it as a compilation of previously published articles, many of which appeared in the Financial Times and The Guardian and on Bloomberg View.

That gives a good indication of the tone. This book’s natural habitat is the airport bookshop, its natural reader the ambitious businessman who has a four-hour flight ahead of him but has forgotten his charger. No doubt that sounds a bit sniffy. I suppose it is meant to, because 21 Lessons strikes me as almost completely worthless.

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Wednesday Poem

Ovum

You’d take it for zero, or nothing,
or the spotless oval your lips make saying it,
as if you blew both yolk and albumen
through its pin-pricked head: the meat
of the word made orotund and Latinate.
It’s like putting your mouth to the smooth
breast of the ocarina, from oca, the goose,
hooting out its fledgling notes.
Unless you seal the gap it’s left, they fall
out, those other o-words, like bubbles
streaming through a soapy blow-hole:
from oblation and obloquy to oxlip and ozone,
and that sneaky Trojan obol,
coin-shaped, it’s true, but spawned
from the spiky Greek of obelus,
the death-mark, dagger or crucifix,
as phallic and obvious, now that you say it,
as that double o in spermatozoon,
which enters by its own locomotion –
the flagellum, its tiny whip and scourge.

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