Weber for the 21st century

Religion-in-Human-Evolution-197x300Richard Madsen reviews Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution in The Immanent Frame:

For almost one hundred years, all sociologists of religion have taken Max Weber’s great work on comparative religions as a primary point of departure. Whole libraries of scholarship have been produced to explicate Weber, expand on Weber, disagree with Weber, revise Weber. In the next hundred years, I think, the point of departure will be Robert Bellah rather than Weber. Bellah’s new masterpiece, Religion in Human Evolution is comparable in scope, breadth of scholarship, and depth of erudition to Weber’s study of world religions, but it is grounded in all of the advances of historical, linguistic, and archeological scholarship that have taken place since Weber, as well as theoretical advances in evolutionary biology and cognitive science. There is enough complexity in Bellah’s work to generate as many academic inspirations and controversies—and, inevitably, oversimplifications and misunderstandings—as have arisen from Weber’s, but Bellah’s will have more resonance with contemporary issues than Weber’s century-old scholarship. Even more fundamental, however, is that Bellah’s new book is in style and pathos more in tune with the spirit of the early twenty-first century than Weber. What are some of the key contrasts between Bellah and Weber? First of all, having deeply absorbed the perspectives of Durkheim, Bellah is focused much more on religious practice, especially ritual practice. This puts him in line with the dominant contemporary trends in the anthropology of religion, trends that see religions mainly as ways of life rather than systems of ideas. Weber doesn’t ignore religious practices, but puts much more emphasis on the ideas that animate the great world religions. Bellah by no means ignores religious ideas, but he emphasizes how thinking about religion grows out of doing religion.

This emphasis on practice leads to a different style of exposition than Weber’s. Much more than Weber’s (or Durkheim’s or Parsons’), Bellah’s expository style is dominated by narrative. Religion in Human Evolution is a grand story, what Bellah calls a “deep history,” that extends all the way from the Big Bang to the axial age (with suggestive implications as to how the story will unfold in modern times). This leads to a much more fluid account of the origin and development of religions than Weber’s. In Bellah’s telling, religious practices emerge gradually over centuries, in constant interaction with social and political transformations.

The Euro and the Resilience-Stability Tradeoff

Eurozone-spread-history1.jpegAshwin Parameswaran over at Macroeconomic Resilience:

In complex adaptive systems, stability does not equate to resilience. In fact, stability tends to breed loss of resilience and fragility or as Minsky put it, “stability is destabilising”. Although Minsky’s work has been somewhat neglected in economics, the principle of the resilience-stability tradeoff is common knowledge in ecology, especially since Buzz Holling’s pioneering work on the subject. If stability leads to fragility, then it follows that stabilisation too leads to increased system fragility. As Holling and Meffe put it in another landmark paper on the subject titled ‘Command and Control and the Pathology of Natural Resource Management’, “when the range of natural variation in a system is reduced, the system loses resilience.” Often, the goal of increased stability is synonymous with a goal of increased efficiency but “the goal of producing a maximum sustained yield may result in a more stable system of reduced resilience”.

The entire long arc of post-WW2 macroeconomic policy in the developed world can be described as a flawed exercise in macroeconomic stabilisation. But there is no better example of this principle than the Euro currency project as the below graph (from Pictet via FT Alphaville) illustrates.

Instead of a moderately volatile mix of different currencies and interest rates, we now have a mostly stable currency union prone to the occasional risk of systemic collapse. If this was all there is to it, then it is not clear that the Euro is such a bad idea. After all, simply shifting the volatility out to the tails is not by itself a bad outcome. But the resilience-stability tradeoff is more than just a simple transformation in distribution. Economic agents adapt to a prolonged period of stability in such a manner that the system cannot “withstand even modest adverse shocks”. “Normal” disturbances that were easily absorbed prior to the period of stabilisation are now sufficient to cause a catastrophic transition. Izabella Kaminska laments the fact that sovereign spreads for many Eurozone countries (vs 10Y Bunds) now exceed pre-Euro levels. But the real problem isn’t so much that spreads have blown out but that they have blown out after a prolonged period of stability.

the united states of europe


Welcome to Europe, 2021. Ten years have elapsed since the great crisis of 2010-11, which claimed the scalps of no fewer than 10 governments, including Spain and France. Some things have stayed the same, but a lot has changed. The euro is still circulating, though banknotes are now seldom seen. (Indeed, the ease of electronic payments now makes some people wonder why creating a single European currency ever seemed worth the effort.) But Brussels has been abandoned as Europe’s political headquarters. Vienna has been a great success. “There is something about the Habsburg legacy,” explains the dynamic new Austrian Chancellor Marsha Radetzky. “It just seems to make multinational politics so much more fun.” The Germans also like the new arrangements. “For some reason, we never felt very welcome in Belgium,” recalls German Chancellor Reinhold Siegfried von Gotha-Dämmerung. Life is still far from easy in the peripheral states of the United States of Europe (as the euro zone is now known).

more from Niall Ferguson at the WSJ here.

this last intransigence of modernism


The word ‘blur’ has come up. ‘Richter’s blur’, it is called in the literature. Again, the term may be insufficient. When one gets to the moment in the show when Richter reinvents his ‘blur’ in the context of abstract painting – the two versions of Abstraktes Bild from 1977 are particularly astonishing, and still hard to look at – it is immediately clear how far from a description of what happens in the paintings, and what its effect might be on the viewer, the monosyllable is. Critics have come up with alternatives. In the context of abstraction – that strange episode in art’s endgame – all the suggestions seem charged. Have we to do, for instance, with some kind of deliberate loss of focus or of register? Maybe with a form of willed inaccuracy on the artist’s part. Or even vagueness. This last, it might seem, is very much not a modern art value; though that might mean Richter was right to try to make it one. I like the story Richard Rorty told against himself late in life, when he heard that a philosophy department had just hired someone whose speciality was vagueness, and he raised an eyebrow. ‘Dick, you’re really out of it,’ his host said. ‘Vagueness is huge.’

more from T.J. Clark at the LRB here.

deception starts with self


Deception is a very deep feature of life. Viruses practise it, as do bacteria, plants, insects and a wide range of other animals. It is everywhere. Even within our genomes, deception flourishes as selfish genetic elements use deceptive molecular techniques to over-reproduce at the expense of other genes. Deception infects all the fundamental relationships in life: parasite and host, predator and prey, plant and animal, male and female, neighbour and neighbour, parent and offspring. Viruses and bacteria often actively deceive to gain entry into their hosts: for instance, by mimicking body parts so as not to be recognised as foreign. Or, as in HIV, by changing coat proteins so often as to make mounting an enduring defence almost impossible. Predators gain from being invisible to their prey or resembling items attractive to them – a fish that dangles a part of itself like a worm to attract other fish, which it eats – while prey gain from being invisible to their predators or mimicking items noxious to the predator. Deception within species is expected in almost all relationships, and deception possesses special powers.

more from Robert Trivers at The New Statesman here.

George’s God

From The Weekly Standard:

HarrisonAs a reader who has compulsively consumed the ever-expanding body of Beatles literature for 40 years, I have trouble picking out a favorite anecdote or most memorable quote. Is it John’s “If there is such a thing as a genius, I am one”? Or the note Paul sent John one day in the waning days of the group: “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot s—”? Or maybe it’s the time an airline stewardess offered George a glass of wine, not knowing he was deep in meditation. “F— off,” the spiritual Beatle replied.

I don’t know. I could go on with stories like this all day. None of them involve Ringo, by the way.

Given the vastness and variety of the literature, it would be incorrect to say that the Beatles story has been whitewashed, not when it includes so many get-even tell-alls and book-sized sumps of sensational gossip. But there is a quasi-official version of events, and when it is reissued periodically from the tireless Beatles public relations machine, the narrative does tend to take on the unblemished pallor of approved history. For 50 years the Beatles have been the rock group you could take home to meet Mom, and nobody close to their stupendous commercial enterprise seems eager to undo the image.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Ball

As long as nothing can be known for sure
(no signals have been picked up yet),
as long as Earth is still unlike
the nearer and more distant planets,
as long as there's neither hide nor hair
of other grasses graced by other winds,
of other treetops bearing other crowns,
other animals as well-grounded as our own,
as long as only the local echo
has been known to speak in syllables,
as long as we still haven't heard word
of better or worse mozarts,
platos, edisons somewhere,
as long as our inhuman crimes
are still committed only between humans,
as long as our kindness
is still incomparable,
peerless even in its imperfection,
as long as our heads packed with illusions
still pass for the only heads so packed,
as long as the roofs of our mouths alone
still raise voices to high heavens–
let's act like very special guests of honor
at the district-firemen's ball
dance to the beat of the local oompah band,
and pretend that it's the ball
to end all balls.
I can't speak for others–
for me this is
misery and happiness enough:
just this sleepy backwater
where even the stars have time to burn
while winking at us

by Wislawa Szymborska
from Monologue of a Dog: New Poems
translation: C. Cavanagh and S. Baranczak

A Serving of Gratitude May Save the Day

Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:

ThanksThe most psychologically correct holiday of the year is upon us. Thanksgiving may be the holiday from hell for nutritionists, and it produces plenty of war stories for psychiatrists dealing with drunken family meltdowns. But it has recently become the favorite feast of psychologists studying the consequences of giving thanks. Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners. A new study shows that feeling grateful makes people less likely to turn aggressive when provoked, which helps explain why so many brothers-in-law survive Thanksgiving without serious injury. But what if you’re not the grateful sort? I sought guidance from the psychologists who have made gratitude a hot research topic. Here’s their advice for getting into the holiday spirit — or at least getting through dinner Thursday:

Start with “gratitude lite.” That’s the term used by Robert A. Emmons, of the University of California, Davis, for the technique used in his pioneering experiments he conducted along with Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami. They instructed people to keep a journal listing five things for which they felt grateful, like a friend’s generosity, something they’d learned, a sunset they’d enjoyed. The gratitude journal was brief — just one sentence for each of the five things — and done only once a week, but after two months there were significant effects. Compared with a control group, the people keeping the gratitude journal were more optimistic and felt happier. They reported fewer physical problems and spent more time working out.

More here.

Parrondo’s Paradox: Winning Two Games You’re Guaranteed to Lose

From io9:

Ce4c6bcdd21fd1621803609bab495fa0JM Parrondo is a casino and con artist's worst nightmare. In the 1990s, he invented two games that are sure to lose you everything. They're both mathematically designed to make you go broke, but play them one after another and you are guaranteed to win.

Parrondo's Paradox was dreamed up in the 1990s by physicist Juan Manuel Rodriguez Parrondo. It spawned a whole new approach to games — specifically, a distrustful approach to games by those who were sure the odds were stacked in their favor. The paradox is simple: two games, if played separately, will always result in you losing your shirt. They're played with a biased coin to make sure of it. If you switch off between them, though, you'll win a fortune. Suddenly, your loss turns into a win.

The first game is simple and always the same. You flip a coin, knowing that the two-faced, lying, no-good cheater you're playing against has weighted it so that your chance of winning is not fifty-fifty. Instead your chance of winning is (0.5 – x), with x being whatever the cheater dared weight it with. If you win, you get a dollar. If you lose, you lose a dollar. Since whenever “x” is more than zero you'll lose slightly more than you'll win, you are guaranteed to lose over the long run.

More here.

The Presidential Turkey “Pardon” as Dark Parody

Justin E. H. Smith in the New York Times:

Noco_obamaturkey_1125_480x360In just a few days, we will once again endure the annual spectacle of the president of the United States pardoning a turkey that would otherwise have been fated for the Thanksgiving table. This event is typically covered in the media as a light-hearted bit of fluff — and fluff is what it might well be, if there were not actual humans on death row awaiting similar intervention. In the current American context, however, the turkey pardon is a distasteful parody of the strange power vested in politicians to decide the earthly fates of death-row prisoners. There is in it an implicit acknowledgment that the killing of these prisoners is a practice that bears real, non-jocular comparison to the ritual slaughter of birds for feasts.

I am not saying that this slaughter of birds for food is wrong ― not here anyway ― but only that the parallel the presidential ritual invites us to notice is revealing. To riff on Dostoyevsky’s famous line about prisoners: you can tell what a nation is like by the way it treats its turkeys. Obama’s pardoning of one randomly selected bird at Thanksgiving not only carries with it an implicit validation of the slaughtering of millions of other turkeys. It also involves an implicit validation of the parallel practice for human beings, in which the occasional death-row inmate is pardoned, or given a stay by the hidden reasoning of an increasingly capricious Supreme Court, even as the majority of condemned prisoners are not so lucky. In this respect, the Thanksgiving pardon is an acknowledgment of the arbitrariness of the system of capital punishment.

More here.

Egypt’s uprising happened when three distinct currents of protest—labor, professional, and popular—finally converged

Mona El-Ghobashy in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_02 Nov. 22 11.07A revolution is inherently romantic, so it’s no surprise that Egypt’s has inspired exceptional narratives. Journalists saw something fundamentally novel in the eighteen days and the subsequent small-scale protests—“a new culture of street demonstrations,” said USA Today. The uprising became the defining event of Egyptian politics, a turning point separating before and after. Before, a brutal dictatorship maintained fear and silence. After, liberated citizens poured into the streets to exercise their freedom.

Against this temptation to cast the uprising as a watershed is the equally attractive idea that Egypt was ripe for revolt. In this telling, various public ills—rising food prices, unemployment, government corruption—are strung together into a neat chain that leads inexorably to social explosion.

But neither story does the revolution justice. The first erases the uprising’s pre-history; the second overdoses on the role of the past. Both conceal the very real contingency of the event, neither inevitable nor entirely alien to Egyptian politics.

Egypt’s was no cartoon dictatorship that indiscriminately banned protests. For at least a decade before Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians were doing their politics outdoors. Citizens assembled daily on highways, in factory courtyards, and in public squares to rally against their unrepresentative government. Mubarak’s regime responded with a million-man police force that alternately cajoled and crushed the demonstrators. The goal was not to ban protests, but to obstruct any attempt to unify different groups and prevent sympathetic bystanders joining them.

Egypt’s uprising happened when three distinct currents of protest—labor, professional, and popular—finally converged.

More here.

Stephen M. Walt to Judge 3rd Annual 3QD Politics & Social Science Prize

UPDATE 12/19/11: The winners have been announced here.

UPDATE 12/12/11: The finalists have been announced here.

UPDATE 12/11/11: The semifinalists have been announced here.

UPDATE 12/5/11: Voting round now open. Click here to see full list of nominees and vote.

Dear Readers, Writers, Bloggers,

IMPACT_10summer_waltWe are very honored and pleased to announce that Professor Stephen M. Walt, who was also the winner of the 3QD politics prize last year, has agreed to be the final judge for our 3rd annual prize for the best blog writing in politics & social science. (Details of the inaugural prize, judged by Tariq Ali, can be found here, and more about last year's prize, judged by Lewis H. Lapham can be found here.) Please note that we have explicitly widened the scope of possible entries to “politics & social science” so that writings in anthropology, economics, history, and sociology are also elligible.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer Professor of International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he served as Academic Dean from 2002 to 2006. He previously taught at Princeton and the University of Chicago, where he was Deputy Dean of Social Sciences. He is a contributing editor at Foreign Policy magazine, co-editor of the Cornell Studies in Security Affairs, and co-chair of the editorial board of the journal International Security. He was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in May 2005.

Professor Walt is the author of numerous articles and books on international relations, security studies, and U.S. foreign policy. His books include The Origins of Alliances, which received the 1988 Edgar S. Furniss National Security Book Award, and Taming American Power: The Global Response to U.S. Primacy, which was a finalist for the Lionel Gelber International Affairs Book Award and the Arthur Ross Book Prize. His most recent book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (co-authored with John J. Mearsheimer) was a New York Times best-seller and has been translated into twenty foreign languages. His daily weblog is

As usual, this is the way it will work: the nominating period is now open, and will end at 11:59 pm EST on December 3, 2011. There will then be a round of voting by our readers which will narrow down the entries to the top twenty semi-finalists. After this, we will take these top twenty voted-for nominees, and the four main editors of 3 Quarks Daily (Abbas Raza, Robin Varghese, Morgan Meis, and Azra Raza) will select six finalists from these, plus they may also add up to three wildcard entries of their own choosing. The three winners will be chosen from these by Professor Walt.

The first place award, called the “Top Quark,” will include a cash prize of one thousand dollars; the second place prize, the “Strange Quark,” will include a cash prize of three hundred dollars; and the third place winner will get the honor of winning the “Charm Quark,” along with a two hundred dollar prize.

(Welcome to those coming here for the first time. Learn more about who we are and what we do here, and do check out the full site here. Bookmark us and come back regularly, or sign up for the RSS feed.)


Politics-Announcement-2011The winners of this prize will be announced on December 19, 2011. Here's the schedule:

November 21, 2011:

  • The nominations are opened. Please nominate your favorite blog entry by placing the URL for the blog post (the permalink) in the comments section of this post. You may also add a brief comment describing the entry and saying why you think it should win. (Do NOT nominate a whole blog, just one individual blog post.)
  • Blog posts longer than 4,000 words are strongly discouraged, but we might make an exception if there is something truly extraordinary.
  • Each person can only nominate one blog post.
  • Entries must be in English.
  • The editors of 3QD reserve the right to reject entries that we feel are not appropriate.
  • The blog entry may not be more than a year old. In other words, it must have been written after November 20, 2010.
  • You may also nominate your own entry from your own or a group blog (and we encourage you to).
  • Guest columnists at 3 Quarks Daily are also eligible to be nominated, and may also nominate themselves if they wish.
  • Nominations are limited to the first 200 entries.
  • Prize money must be claimed within a month of the announcement of winners.

December 3, 2011

  • The nominating process will end at 11:59 PM (NYC time) of this date.
  • The public voting will be opened soon afterwards.

December 10, 2011

  • Public voting ends at 11:59 PM (NYC time).

December 19, 2011

  • The winners are announced.

One Final and Important Request

If you have a blog or website, please help us spread the word about our prizes by linking to this post. Otherwise, post a link on your Facebook profile, Tweet it, or just email your friends and tell them about it! I really look forward to reading some very good material, and think this should be a lot of fun for all of us.

Best of luck and thanks for your attention!



The Industrious God

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Temple-balaji-7The beleaguered liquor baron/industrialist/MP Vijay Mallya, considered to be the ‘Richard Branson of India’ by many, is currently seeking ways to rescue his debt-ridden airline. Having drastically cancelled flights over the last few weeks, the colourful airline promoter, who also has an Indian Premier League cricket team, an F1 racing car, one of the biggest private yachts in the world, a slew of vintage cars, amongst other baubles, has been defending himself against widespread criticism. Speculations of a possible government bailout have angered many around the country.

He is also a patron of the historic temple in the hills of Tirupati, in southern Andhra Pradesh, bordering Tamil Nadu. With a prominent guesthouse there, he is known to be an avid devotee of the resident god Venkateshwara (also Balaji, Srinivasa), and has never been shy with either devotion or largesse. Newspaper reports abound that every new aircraft of his first takes a flight of obeisance around the Tirumala hills where the temple is located, before ferrying passengers.

A former BJP minister of Karnataka and mining baron, G Janardhan Reddy, who is now in jail on charges of illegal mining, had donated to the temple a ‘2.5 foot long, 30 kg’ diamond encrusted gold crown worth over $10 million then in 2009. Recently the temple administration (the Tirumala-Tirupati Devasthanam trust or TTD) stated officially that there was no question of returning the gift in response to demands calling for its return. Political parties and other groups led protests against the ‘tainted’ offering, claiming that it “polluted the sacred ambience of the sanctum sanctorum”. Earlier this year, the now incarcerated politician and his brother (known as the Reddy brothers – partners in the controversial Obulapuram Mining Company) donated yet another diamond studded crown, gold laden garments and other ornaments worth around $3.5 million, to the deity at Srikalahasti temple, which is at the foothills of the main temple.

A rather entertaining news report by a regional TV station in April last year, informed viewing public that the reason for the Mumbai Indians cricket team loss to the Chennai Super Kings in the IPL final was due to a transgression by the owners, Mukesh and Nita Ambani. The temple remains closed between 12 AM and 2 AM, giving a chance for the industrious god to rest a bit. It was apparently during these hours, the wealthiest man in India and his entourage paid a private visit to the temple to pray for his team’s victory. Angered at the intrusion, the resident god, according to locals, in an act of divine annoyance, caused Ambani’s team to lose. Quite emphatically at that.

Read more »

Wall Street Symbolism

by Akim Reinhardt

Michael BloombergOn the morning after Mayor Michael Bloomberg had the New York City police expel the Occupy Wall Street Protestors from Zuccotti Park in the middle of the night, I wrote that the next 24-48 hours could very well be pivotal. Well, it’s now been forty-eight hours since I woke up to hear that Bloomberg had sent in riot police to clear out Zuccotti Park, supposedly in the name of a molly maid cleanup of the park; I’m writing this on Thursday morning since I will be traveling as of Friday.

The protestors have responded. Several hundred of them gathered this morning (last Thursday) and tried to prevent workers on Wall Street from working. Of course that literal action failed. But as far as this movement is concerned, it’s the symbolic actions that are most important, at least for the time being. Their presence was felt. Bloomberg’s actions have not put an end to this, far from it. And so the symbolism of Occupy Wall Street remains vital.

Why is the Occupy movement’s so important? The movement’s now famous horizontal organization, as opposed to a more typical top-down vertical structure, has created many opportunities for many people to participate. But it also means that specific agendas and specific action proposals have been sometimes slow to form. Consequently, in some way the real importance of the demonstrations thus far has been it’s ability to influence the national discourse and provide a symbolic stance against the corruptions and ethical shortcomings permeating American society.

It seems to me that of all the Occupy demonstrations that have emerged around the country, and indeed around the world (including the one right here in Baltimore where I live), that Occupy Wall Street is vitally symbolic for several reasons. Of course it was the first, the one that kicked off all the rest. But much more important than that, Occupy Wall Street is, well, at Wall Street. And I believe that matters quite a bit. To that end, Occupy Wall Street is central to the Occupy movement because nothing represents the current economic system in all its sodden disarray better than Wall Street.

Read more »

There’s No There There: Our Hollow President Obama

by Evert Cilliers aka Adam Ash

Obama-zuccotti-parkJust what exactly does President Obama whole-heartedly believe in?

It's not Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid. He was prepared to whittle away at all three of them in order to make a Grand Bargain with the GOP about our debt.

It's not peace: he's still fighting for no good reason in Afghanistan.

It's not the rule of law or habeas corpus: he's still got the extra-legal prison obscenity at Guantanamo Bay going.

It's not transparency: his administration goes after whistle-blowers like no other.

It's not a humane immigration policy: he deports more immigrants than any administration.

It's not justice: he didn't go after the Bushies who promoted torture, nor did he prosecute the fraudsters of Wall Street who ruined our economy.

It's not gay rights: he still doesn't agree with gay marriage.

It's not the labor movement: he never pushed for Card Check and he ignored the grassroots fight over union negotiating rights in Ohio and other heartland states (what if he had marched with them as he promised in his campaign? just imagine the galvanizing effect on labor, the Dems and himself).

It's not basic progressive principles, like Medicare for all, or at minimum a public option to give folks a real healthcare choice.

It's not even his own progressive base, who worked hard to elect him, and whom he and his acolytes disdain as “the professional left.”

It's not anything. In fact, it's nothing. President Barack Obama has a shell, but not a core. He's not a man of principle. He's a man of expedience. A so-called pragmatist.

In other words, he's our first thoroughly post-modern president. There is no objective truth: everything is relative, plural and contextual. Obama mistrusts ideology from a very unique perspective: he has no ideology of his own.

Read more »

Comics Creator Column #01: Alex de Campi and “Ashes”

by Tauriq Moosa

SmokeThis will be the first in, so far, a four-part series where I will be (reviewing the work of and) talking to comics creators. My aim is to provide an insight into the medium and the creative process, as well as exclusive interviews with some of the most talented people in the medium. This is mainly aimed at comic writers, rather than artists since that’s what I am (trying to be). In many instances, this is also an obvious plea for you, the readers, to help support this industry via the very creators who are doing the hard-work to produce quality. If you’re fed up with stagnant stories, stale characters and stereotypes (i.e. so much of the superhero genre), then these are the very people we need to be supporting.

The comics industry is a strange beast. Some view it as squatting in-between word-exclusive prose books and full-motion films. Lately, it has been the latter that’s been appropriating comics’ offspring – with Watchmen, Spider-Man, and The Walking Dead all appearing on the silver or television screen. Yet, viewing comics as nestled in-between prose and films is too simplistic a view of the medium, which has, for too long, become entangled in the webs and capes of superheroes. Indeed, many simply equate the comic medium with the superhero genre, which is like equating fiction books with only Dan Brown’s, um, ‘writing’. This does not mean the superhero genre is bad, but that the medium is not limited to one genre. Whether it’s the horror and drama of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Alan Moore’s complex investigation into psychopathy, Jack the Ripper and the history of England in From Hell, Neil Gaiman’s fantastical Sandman, or, my current focus, Alex de Campi’s mature, dystopian and elegantly-narrated Smoke, we have amazing stories wonderfully placed utilising the full extent of sequential art and words.

Comics elicit awe and wonder in the way art as a whole is (sometimes) meant to. It can be as simple as beautiful artwork – open any page of Gaiman and McKean’s Mr Punch to view the genius of Dave McKean – or amazing narration – Jamie Delano’s writing in John Constantine Hellblazer is better than most novels I’ve read. But, truly, it is the mixture of the two that shows what this medium can do. Alan Moore’s work uses everything the page offers to highlight his themes. Whether we are watching the Earth from space, as the narration compares the spinning of the earth to the idea of not having a hold on life (as he did in an issue of Swamp Thing); or whether we are watching a young man read a comic about pirates while, in his reality, men of power try usurp people’s freedom (in Watchmen); Moore and his art team utilise economy of words and illustration to tell powerful stories.

The friction of words and pictures ignites many themes. The trouble is, if not used correctly, it can therefore also completely destroy them.

Read more »

Michael S. Gazzaniga Challenges Old Ideas about Free Will

Just to stick with Robin's theme-of-the-day of what neuroscience means for free will, here is Gareth Cook in Scientific American:

ScreenHunter_12 Nov. 20 18.06Do we have free will? It is an age-old question which has attracted the attention of philosophers, theologians, lawyers and political theorists. Now it is attracting the attention of neuroscience, explains Michael S. Gazzaniga, director of the SAGE Center for the Study of the Mind at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of the new book, “Who’s In Charge: Free Will and the Science of the Brain.” He spoke with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

Cook: Why did you decide to tackle the question of free will?

Gazzaniga: I think the issue is on every thinking person’s mind. I can remember wondering about it 50 years ago when I was a student at Dartmouth. At that time, the issue was raw and simply stated. Physics and chemistry were king and while all of us were too young to shave, we saw the implications. For me, those were back in the days when I went to Church every Sunday, and sometimes on Monday if I had an exam coming up!

Now, after 50 years of studying the brain, listening to philosophers, and most recently being slowly educated about the law, the issue is back on my front burner. The question of whether we are responsible for our actions — or robots that respond automatically — has been around a long time but until recently the great scholars who spoke out on the issue didn’t know modern science with its deep knowledge and implications.

More here.

Don DeLillo’s prophetic soul

Martin Amis in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_11 Nov. 20 17.46When we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. Sometimes rather more than half, sometimes rather less. The vast presence of Joyce relies pretty well entirely on “Ulysses,” with a little help from “Dubliners.” You could jettison Kafka’s three attempts at full-length fiction (unfinished by him, and unfinished by us) without muffling the impact of his seismic originality. George Eliot gave us one readable book, which turned out to be the central Anglophone novel. Every page of Dickens contains a paragraph to warm to and a paragraph to veer back from. Coleridge wrote a total of two major poems (and collaborated on a third). Milton consists of “Paradise Lost.” Even my favorite writer, William Shakespeare, who usually eludes all mortal limitations, succumbs to this law. Run your eye down the contents page and feel the slackness of your urge to reread the comedies (“As You Like It” is not as we like it); and who would voluntarily curl up with “King John” or “Henry VI, Part III”?

Proustians will claim that “In Search of Lost Time” is unimprovable throughout, despite all the agonizing longueurs. And Janeites will never admit that three of the six novels are comparative weaklings (I mean “Sense and Sensibility,” “Mansfield Park,” and “Persuasion”). Perhaps the only true exceptions to the fifty-fifty model are Homer and Harper Lee. Our subject, here, is literary evaluation, so of course everything I say is mere opinion, unverifiable and also unfalsifiable, which makes the ground shakier still. But I stubbornly suspect that only the cultist, or the academic, is capable of swallowing an author whole. Writers are peculiar, readers are particular: it is just the way we are. One helplessly reaches for Kant’s dictum about the crooked timber of humanity, or for John Updike’s suggestion to the effect that we are all of us “mixed blessings.” Unlike the heroes and heroines of “Northanger Abbey,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Emma,” readers and writers are not expressly designed to be perfect for each other.

I love the work of Don DeLillo.

More here.