When You’re Strange

When_Youre_Strange_jpg_470x408_q85 Paul Theroux in the NYRB:

Until I went to live in Africa, I had not known that most people in the world believe that they are the People, and their language is the Word, and strangers are not fully human—at least not human in the way the People are—nor is a stranger’s language anything but the gabbling of incoherent and inspissated felicities. In most languages, the name of a people means “the Original People,” or simply “the People.” “Inuit” means “the People,” and most Native American names of so-called tribes mean “the People”: For example, the Ojibwe, or Chippewa, call themselves Anishinaabe, “the Original People,” and the Cherokee (the name is not theirs but a Creek word) call themselves Ani Yun Wiya, meaning “Real People,” and Hawaiians refer to themselves as Kanaka Maoli, “Original People.”

As recently as the 1930s, Australian gold prospectors and New Guinea Highlanders encountered each other for the first time. The grasping, world-weary Aussies took the Highlanders to be savages, while the Highlanders, assuming that the Aussies were the ghosts of their own dead ancestors on a visit, felt a kinship and gave them food, thinking (as they reported later), “They are like people you see in a dream.” But the Australians were looking for gold and killed the Highlanders, who were uncooperative. The Lakota, Indians of the North American plains, who called white men washichus, Nathaniel Philbrick writes in The Last Stand, “believed that the first white men had come from the sea, which they called mniwoncha, meaning ‘water all over.’” In an echo of this accurate characterization, and at about the same time, the historian Fernand Braudel tells us, “To West Africans, the white men were murdele, men from the sea.”

Otherness can be like an illness; being a stranger can be analogous to experiencing a form of madness—those same intimations of the unreal and the irrational, when everything that has been familiar is stripped away.

The Argumentative Theory

From Edge:

Argument Last July, opening the Edge Seminar, “The New Science of Morality”, Jonathan Haidt digressed to talk about two recently-published papers in Behavioral and Brain Sciences which he believed were “so important that the abstracts from them should be posted in psychology departments all over the country.” One of the papers “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory,” published by Behavioral and Brain Sciences, was by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber. “The article,” Haidt said, “is a review of a puzzle that has bedeviled researchers in cognitive psychology and social cognition for a long time. The puzzle is, why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?”

“Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That's why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.”

More here.

Lila Azam Zanganeh: ‘I’ve always wanted to push myself to do things I don’t know how to do’

From The Guardian:

Lila-azam-zanganeh-007 Zanganeh, who is 34, has just published her first book, a deeply unconventional, even eccentric, study (although “study” is hardly the right word) of the Russian émigré writer. The Enchanter: Nabokov and Happiness is a book that's almost impossible to describe, being so unlike anything else I've ever come across. Although it contains elements of memoir, biography and criticism, it might more accurately be described as a playful, semi-fictionalised sequence of elaborations – or variations – on the experience of being a passionate Nabokov reader. There's no linear narrative, no sustained argument. Its approach is episodic, fragmentary.

Each chapter addresses the central theme – Nabokov's concept of happiness – from a fresh angle. So one chapter, inspired by a Q&A passage in James Joyce's Ulysses, consists of the complete transcript of an imaginary interview between Zanganeh and Nabokov that took place, she tells us, on the shores of Lake Como “about 10 months after he completed Ada” (that is, nearly a decade before she was born). Another is a compendium of dazzling Nabokovian words, replete with definitions: “cochlea”, “hymenopteroid”, “lambency”, “uvula”. Other chapters are slightly more conventional: biographical snapshots, summaries of Nabokov's great works. There are commentaries on celebrated passages and accounts of encounters with Nabokov's son, Dmitri, whom Zanganeh befriended while writing the book. There are drawings, photographs, typographical oddities.

More here.

Sunday Poem

i sing of Olaf

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel (trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but–though an host of overjoyed
noncoms (first knocking on the head
him) do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments–
Olaf (being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but–though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation's blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat–
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president, being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon, where he died

Christ (of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

by e.e.cummings
from The Complete Poems: 1904-1962
Liveright Publishing Corporation.

R.I.P. Gilbert “Gil” Scott-Heron (April 1, 1949 – May 27, 2011)

The obituary from the NYT, by Ben Sisario:

Gil Scott-Heron, the poet and recording artist whose syncopated spoken style and mordant critiques of politics, racism and mass media in pieces like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” made him a notable voice of black protest culture in the 1970s and an important early influence on hip-hop, died on Friday at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 62 and had been a longtime resident of Harlem.

His death was announced in a Twitter message on Friday night by his British publisher, Jamie Byng, and confirmed early Saturday by an American representative of his record label, XL. The cause was not immediately known, although The Associated Press reported that he had become ill after returning from a trip to Europe.

Mr. Scott-Heron often bristled at the suggestion that his work had prefigured rap. “I don’t know if I can take the blame for it,” he said in an interview last year with the music Web site The Daily Swarm. He preferred to call himself a “bluesologist,” drawing on the traditions of blues, jazz and Harlem renaissance poetics.

Yet, along with the work of the Last Poets, a group of black nationalist performance poets who emerged alongside him in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Mr. Scott-Heron established much of the attitude and the stylistic vocabulary that would characterize the socially conscious work of early rap groups like Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions. And he has remained part of the DNA of hip-hop by being sampled by stars like Kanye West.

“You can go into Ginsberg and the Beat poets and Dylan, but Gil Scott-Heron is the manifestation of the modern word,” Chuck D, the leader of Public Enemy, told The New Yorker in 2010. “He and the Last Poets set the stage for everyone else.”

The Flight of Curiosity

Stone_curiosity-tmagArticle-v3 Justin E. H. Smith in The NYT's Opinionator:

Must one be endowed with curiosity in order to become a philosopher?

Today, in the academic realm, at least, the answer is surely and regrettably “no.” When a newly minted philosopher goes on the job market, her primary task is to show her prospective colleagues how perfectly focused she has been in graduate school, and to conceal her knowledge of any topic (Shakespeare’s sonnets, classical Chinese astronomy, the history of pigeon breeding) that does not fall within the current boundaries of the discipline.

But how were these boundaries formed in the first place? Did they spring from the very essence of philosophy, a set of core attributes present at inception, forever fixed and eternal? The answer to that latter question, is also “no.” What appears to us today to be a core is only what is left over after a centuries-long process by which the virtue of curiosity — once nearly synonymous with philosophy — migrated into other disciplines, both scientific and humanistic. As this migration was occurring, many curiosity-driven activities — such as insect-collecting and star-gazing, long considered at least tributaries of philosophy — were downgraded to the status of mere hobbies. This loss of curiosity has played an important but little noticed role in the widespread perception that professional philosophy has become out of touch with the interests of the broader society.

The Dumbest Story Ever Told: On David Brooks

150px-DavidBrooks Gary Greenberg in The Nation (photo from Wikipedia):

It is easy to wish, upon reading The Social Animal, that Brooks had stayed in his basement with his collection of books and scientific journals, occasionally sprinkling anecdotes about the latest amazing neuroscientific finding into his columns and lectures and Beltway chitchat. Not for our sake—after all, the book is no less genial, and no more infuriating, than his day-job commentary—but for his. The Social Animal is a deep and public embarrassment, a lumpy hybrid of fiction and science that fails at both, and so miserably that at least for a moment you feel bad for the guy. Because it is clear that he means every word, that this loose baggy monster, the bastard offspring of Malcolm Gladwell and Kilgore Trout, is a true love child. And when a man, especially one who confesses that he is “naturally bad” at expressing his emotions, and whose previous books have been gentle and geeky self-effacing satire, opens his heart to you; when he writes effusively and earnestly and often of “soulcraft” and “soul mates” and “the neverending interpenetration of souls,” of love and God and the meaning of life; when he lays himself bare like this and it just doesn’t work out—well, you want to avert your eyes and spare him the shame of being seen at less than his best. You want, despite yourself, to throw a warm coat around him and whisper reassurance in his ear.

This response, it turns out, isn’t despite myself at all. It’s exactly how my brain wants me to react—so badly, in fact, that it took a mere 200 to 250 milliseconds to fashion the response. At least that’s what, according to Brooks, the researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics have discovered. Before I could even think about it, I just felt bad for the guy—a reaction for which I evidently have something called mirror neurons to thank. The brains of primates, Brooks reports, are wired for empathy because they reflexively re-create the goings-on in the brains around us. Pop a peanut in your mouth in front of a macaque monkey, and the monkey’s brain will do the same thing it does when the monkey eats a peanut. Put people into an MRI scanner and feed them some porn, and not only will they get hard or soft, depending on their gender and orientation, but their brains will react as if they themselves are having sex. Show them a chase scene and…well, you get the idea.

The Logic of Accusation Has No End

Michnikplesubw_234w Adam Michnik and Andrei Plesu in Eurozine:

[Adam Michnik:] The communist regime wanted to teach us something new about culture, about history. Those who wrote books about Kant, Shakespeare or Dante defended the fundamental values of European culture. They didn't quote Stalin or Ceausescu, they simply wrote an honest book. This often required courage. Whatever resistance there was in Russian, Romanian or Polish cultures, it was due not so much to those people who went to the barricades, but those who simply did a job well. I was taught at university by lecturers who, during the war, had been active in the resistance movement. In 1945, when the Soviets came to power, they had to make a choice: either join an anti-communist movement, emigrate, or take up a post at a university and teach things that were true. I'm in their debt, I thank them for not joining an anti-communist movement or emigrating, for staying in Poland to teach instead.

That would be my first observation. The second one is this. If I understand it correctly, Herta Müller reproached Romanian intellectuals for not being heroes. However, you are allowed to expect heroism only from yourself, not from someone else. There will always be people who will say “you were not a hero till the end”. This is a Bolshevik attitude. In Russia there is a whole legion of people who use this kind of argument. Why was Solzhenitsyn arrested? Was it for his anti-communism? No, it was because he was a Trotskyite. And how is communism different from Trotskyism? It isn't. So why should we respect Solzhenitsyn? He wrote books, he went to America and made a lot of money. Why should we respect him? Sakharov? He invented the nuclear bomb! Viktor Nekrasov? He received the Soviet “Nobel Prize”. Rostropovich? And so on.

what’s the use of travel books?


There are those who believe that technology has hijacked the whole of the visitable earth, snatched it away, miniaturised and simplified it, making travel so accessible on a flickering computer screen that there is no need to go anywhere except to your room. In a related way, the travel book is believed to have been not just diminished but made irrelevant by the same technology. Since we know everything – the information is easily dialled up – and the world has been so thoroughly winnowed by travellers, what is the use of a travel book? Where on earth would you go to remark each anxious toil, each eager strife, or watch the busy scenes of crowded life? Surely it has all been written. This isn’t a new conjecture. In 1972, in a blasé magazine piece of postmodernism, entitled “Project for a Trip to China”, the American writer Susan Sontag sat in her New York apartment ruminating on China. Sontag was that singular pedant, a theorist of travel rather than a traveller. She concluded her piece: “Perhaps I will write the book about my trip to China before I go.” To such complacent and lazy minds, here is a suggestion. Try Mecca. After prudently having himself circumcised, learning to speak fluent Arabic, dressing as an Afghan dervish and calling himself Mirza Abdullah, the British explorer Sir Richard Burton travelled to the holy city of Mecca, a deeply curious unbeliever among devout pilgrims. This was in 1853.

more from Paul Theroux at the FT here.

the good war?


In February, the last surviving American veteran of the First World War died. It is hard to imagine the day when we say goodbye to the last survivor of the Second World War, so large do the “good war” and the “greatest generation” still loom in the national imagination. But the calendar and the census do not lie. Some 16 million Americans served in the military during World War II. On the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 2001, about 5.5 million were still living. This year, as we prepare to mark the 70th anniversary, the number is closer to 1.5 million, and it drops by almost a thousand a day. The passage of time doesn’t just turn life into history; it also changes the contours of history itself. Over the last several years, historians, philosophers and others have begun to think about the Second World War in challenging and sometimes disturbing new ways, reflecting the growing distance between the country that fought the war and the country that remembers it. As always when history is debated, the stakes are not just the past but the present and future as well. Even as the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have made Americans less confident about the ways we use our military power, the struggle with the Axis remains the classic example of American might deployed for virtuous ends.

more from Adam Kirsch at the NYT here.

Saturday Poem


my grandmother
doesn’t know pain
she believes that
famine is nutrition
poverty is wealth
thirst is water
her body like a grapevine winding around a walking stick
her hair bees’ wings
she swallows the sun-speckles of pills
and calls the internet the telephone to america
her heart has turned into a rose the only thing you can do
is smell it
pressing yourself to her chest
there’s nothing else you can do with it
only a rose
her arms like stork’s legs
red sticks
and i am on my knees
howling like a wolf
at the white moon of your skull
i’m telling you it’s not pain
just the embrace of a very strong god
one with an unshaven cheek that prickles when he kisses you.

by Valzhyna Mort
from Factory of Tears
Publisher: Copper Canyon Press,
© 2008
translation: Valzhyna Mort, Franz Wright
and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright

The new parenting catfight: Tiger Moms vs Fun Slobs

From Spiked:

Tiger The latest battle of the parenting tribes pits the Tiger Moms against the Fun Slobs. In one corner growls Amy Chua, proud hot-houser of her daughters, whose book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother extols the virtues of achievement-oriented, ‘Chinese-style’ parenting. In the other chills Bryan Caplan, whose book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids tells us that we could have more fun raising our little darlings if we just recognised that none of this pushy parenting works in any case. Our children’s fate is in their genes, apparently – and nothing that parents do (at least after very early childhood) makes a blind bit of difference to how our children will turn out.

…The truth is that there is a lot more to raising children than this. As adults, it doesn’t really matter if we see ourselves as Tiger Moms, Fun Slobs, or some other category entirely, provided that we are clear on two things. First of all, to the extent that parents can shape how our children turn out, it will not be determined by the number of hours parents put into their children’s piano practice, but by the context of our family lives as a whole. It is simply bizarre to pretend that the impact of particular parenting practices can be separated out from other factors, from where families live and how they earn their living, to their values, relationships and experiences. In any event, there are all sorts of other experiences that children have – through friends and schools, for example – that will have a big impact beyond the realm of the family.

More here.

How Paris Created America

From The New York Times:

Schiff-1305740070045-popup-v2 David McCullough has stressed France’s pre-eminent role in American history for years. We would not, he has argued, have a country without the French, who have permanently and profoundly shaped us. If anyone could get away with suggesting that room be made on Mount Rushmore for Astérix it is McCullough. He seems to have had something else in mind, however. With “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” he explores the intellectual legacy that France settled on its 19th-century visitors. The result is an epic of ideas, as well as an exhilarating book of spells.

The tradition began very much as a case of “Lafayette, nous voici.” The first pilgrims were nearly all single, wealthy men in their 20s, serious of purpose and ambitious by nature. A number of them had played a role in the French general’s triumphant return to America. They were provincial and inexperienced. They had never before sailed. They knew little French literature. They did not yet suspect that one could be seduced by breakfast. Following a tradition established years earlier by John Adams, they came to Paris to do their homework. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Sumner and Samuel F. B. Morse looked to the city as library and laboratory rather than as liberation. The idea was to settle in Paris to “study hard,” a concept that would put most junior-year-abroad programs out of business.

More here.

With digitized text from five million books, one is never at a loss for words

Brian Hayes in American Scientist:

Istock_000004215765xsmall Books are being blown to bits. New ones are “born digital”; millions of old ones are being assimilated into the mind of the machine.

Some people question the wisdom of this transition to digital reading matter. Paper and ink have served us pretty well for a thousand years or more. Is it prudent to store everything we know in tiny smudges of electric charge we can’t see or touch? Critics also worry about who will wind up owning our cultural heritage. And then there are the sentimentalists, who say it’s just not the same curling up by the fireside with a good Kindle.

Well, I for one welcome our new computer overlords. And I would like to point out that books are not only for reading. There are other things we (and our computers) can do with the words in books. We can count them, sort them, make comparisons among them, search for patterns in their distribution, classify them, catalog them, analyze them. Yes, these are nerdy, mechanical, reductionist assaults on literature—but they are also methods of extracting meaning from text, just as reading is. And they scale better.

More here.

Protests and Violence On the Lebanon-Israel Border

James Reddick in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_04 May. 27 17.24 In the hills of South Lebanon, just beyond Bint Jbeil, the convoy of buses carrying Palestinians and Lebanese sympathetic to their cause toward the border with Israel finally reached an impasse—a rural traffic jam. The winding, narrow roads didn’t have the capacity for a full-scale “Return to Palestine,” as the organizers of the May 15th Nakba demonstrations were calling it. Preferring to climb by foot, crowds emerged from the buses and streamed across the hills.

Sixty-three years before, along this same stretch of road, thousands had crossed the border in the other direction to flee the 1947–48 civil war in Mandatory Palestine and then the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Today, Nakba, or “catastrophe,” is mourned on the same day Israelis celebrate independence. The elderly—those few who may recall an adolescence spent in their homeland of Palestine—trudged alongside the hordes of youth born mostly into Lebanon’s refugee camps. Here and there the marching column widened to pass the elderly who had collapsed in the road from exhaustion and were being tended to by their families.

We marched around the last winding bend before the farm land of Israel came into view, unaware that Palestinian demonstrators along the Syrian border with the Golan Heights had managed to breach the fence and pour into the Israeli town of Majdal Shams. Had we known this at the time we may have had a sense of what was to come.

More here.

The Perspective of Terrence Malick

Jon Baskin in The Point:

ScreenHunter_03 May. 27 17.18 The director of four films beginning with Badlands in 1973, Terrence Malick studied philosophy with Stanley Cavell at Harvard before abandoning a doctorate on Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein. A promising journalist and academic—as well as an outstanding high school football player—in 1969 Malick published what is still the authoritative translation of Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons. That same year he ended his academic career and enrolled alongside David Lynch and Paul Schrader in the American Film Institute’s new conservatory, developed to encourage “film as art” in America. Although his background has long encouraged commentators to investigate his influences and sources, Malick’s films also merit consideration as artistic achievements that confront their audiences with a distinctive experience. Like any great filmmaker, Malick demands that we see in a new way. Unlike most filmmakers, his films are also about the problem of seeing—that is, of perspective.

Each of Malick’s films presents a conversation or debate between what he suggests is the dominant Western worldview and a competing perspective. Malick follows Heidegger in identifying the Western worldview with the Enlightenment drive to systematize and conquer nature. According to this point of view, man demonstrates his significance through technical and scientific mastery—and on an individual level, he falls into insignificance when he fails to win the acclaim of other men. The competing perspective in Malick’s films is the artistic or filmic perspective, of which the paragon example is Malick’s camera itself. Malick’s goal as a filmmaker is to educate the human eye to see like his camera does.

More here.

genetic surprises


Just where did our ancestors come from? Indian diversity has long been reduced by many historians to a simple story of an invasion of Aryans pushing Dravidians further south in the Subcontinent. But an analysis of the genes that Indians bear throws up enough evidence to rubbish that theory, pointing instead to a far more complex set of migrations—and perhaps reverse migrations—many millennia earlier than commonly supposed. To get a clearer picture of our origins, Open sent DNA samples of a couple of celebrities, John Abraham and Baichung Bhutia, alongwith those of four magazine staffers to the National Geographic Deep Ancestry Project. Based on the genetic markers thus identified and other research conducted by scientists, we present a plausible map of our origins. Be prepared for some surprises.

more from Hartosh Singh Bal at Open Magazine here.