a nineteenth-century Anglo-German bourgeois

Marx

Karl Marx, writes Jonathan Sperber in this splendid new biography, was “a true and loyal friend, but a vehement and hateful enemy”. To be in his small circle was to feel part of something historic, but also to be exposed to constant critical scrutiny. Once he feared for his political reputation, Marx let no politesse hold him back. One close colleague, Karl Liebknecht, remembered him as “the most accessible of men … cheerful and amiable in personal relations”. It was as well, perhaps, that Liebknecht remained unaware of his sniping remarks about him in private letters. Marx’s closest friendship was with Friedrich Engels, a man many found to be extremely off-putting in person: strongheaded, rather vain and arrogant. It may be that his buddy relationship with Engels licensed Marx to ditch responsible leadership and blow off steam, and their mutual correspondence is certainly full of unedifying abuse of almost everyone they knew. But it is Marx’s ability to inspire loyalty and awed respect that comes through most clearly from the recollections of those who knew him.

more from at the Dublin Review of Books here.

the carbon story

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In 2005, the rate of production of oil in countries outside the United States hit a plateau, above which it has not been able to move.18 Even to stay on that plateau, as we know, new oil fields must be brought into production each year to compensate for the decline in production from existing fields. The rate of decline, a production-weighted average of the rate of increase or decline in oil produced from all the world’s major fields, is difficult to estimate. In June 2012, the Geopolitics of Energy project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University, a project funded by BP and other energy companies, published a wildly optimistic forecast of low decline rates and hence increasing supplies, which news media around the world reported with enthusiasm. Scholars in the UK quickly showed that the forecast was based upon misreading the available data and an elementary and embarrassing, but less widely reported, arithmetical mistake.19 Facing an annual decline rate of 4 or even 4.5 percent, the world must discover and bring online the equivalent of a new Saudi Arabia—or one could equally say, a new United States, complete with shale boom—every four years, or perhaps every three, in order merely to maintain current rates of production.

more from Timothy Mitchell at Dissent here.

the unbearable

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This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the suicide of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932–1963), and as one might expect given the sensational details of her short and appalling life, both her US and UK publishers are celebrating the occasion with a kind of vulpine festivity. Faber has just issued an “anniversary” edition of The Bell Jar (1963)—the harrowing autobiographical novel Plath had just published at the time of her death—and has been marketing it, distastefully enough, as “chick lit” avant la lettre. A clutch of new biographies (including the two reviewed here) are likewise among the morbid tie-ins. “Sylvia Plath may be the most fascinating literary figure of the twentieth century”—so the publisher’s copy for one of them gushes. “Even now, fifty years after her death, writers, students, and critics alike are enthralled by the details of her 1963 suicide and her volatile relationship with Ted Hughes.” Such ambulance-chasing fans no doubt also dote on Frida Kahlo’s near-fatal impaling by the tram rail. Yet however unsavory, the ongoing interest in Plath’s story—Otto the bogeyman “Daddy” and smother-mother Aurelia; the precocity and self-destructiveness; the breakdowns and electroshocks; Cambridge and poetry and the tumultuous marriage to Hughes; the mental illness and scarifying death (she gassed herself one bitter London winter morning, her two small children asleep in the next room)—may reflect something rather more than mere readerly voyeurism.

more from Terry Castle at the NYRB here.

Of Harmony and Regret

Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:

ID_IC_MEIS_BIERS_AP_001The elk are looking right at us. There are three of them down there at the bottom left-hand side of the painting (and the hazy forms of more elk further off, in the distance of the meadow). A stream curves around a copse of trees to the left of the elk. The sheer cliff of a mountain rises above. The sun is glowing in its setting just beyond the trees. It is a moment of intense beauty at Hetch Hetchy Canyon.

The painting “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” was created by Albert Bierstadt in 1875. Bierstadt was once the most famous painter in America. Along with Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, he’s a central figure in the Hudson River School of painting. These painters favored landscapes. They captured American nature in its grandiosity. Bierstadt’s “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” records a scene in a remote area near Yosemite in California.

The painting now lives in Massachusetts, at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. It was also recently on display as the centerpiece of an exhibit called “Albert Bierstadt and the Legacy of Concern.” Bierstadt’s painting was the first painting ever purchased by the museum, inaugurating its collection. On the face of it, the painting is a strange choice to inaugurate the collection of a museum in Massachusetts. What does a remote canyon way out west have to do with Massachusetts?

The answer is Emerson. In 1875, Ralph Waldo Emerson was still alive. He was living out his final years in Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson had spent his whole life sending the imaginations of American artists out into nature. He’d done it with his famous essay, Nature, written in 1836, and furthered his cause with the stream of essays and lectures that flowed from his pen in the years following.

More here.

The Bias within the Bias

Samuel McNerney in Scientific American:

800px-Finger_trap_toysRecall this pivotal scene from the 1997 movie, Men in Black. James Edwards (Will Smith, or Agent J) arrives at the headquarters of MiB – a secret agency that protects Earth from extraterrestrial threats – to compete with “the best of the best” for a position. Edwards, a confident and cocky NYPD officer, completes various tests including a simulation where he shoots an ostensibly innocent schoolgirl. When asked why, Edwards explains that compared to the freakish aliens, the girl posed the biggest threat. He passes the test: potentially dangerous aliens are always disguised as real humans. Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) offers him a position at MiB and the remaining candidates’ memories are erased. They return to normal life without ever realizing that the aliens were a ruse – a device for Agent K to detect how sagacious the candidates really were.

This wily test of intelligence and mindfulness is defined by two characteristics. The first is that most people fail it; the second is a subtle trick intentionally implemented to catch careless thinking (the schoolgirl for example). Narratives in literature and film that incorporate this test go something like this: scores have tried and failed because they overlooked the trick – even though they confidently believed they did not – until one day a hero catches it and passes the test (Edwards).

More here.

On Writing With Others

John Kaag in the New York Times:

0624DRAFTlahan-blog427Sometimes I need some guarantee that another human being will actually read this little thing I’m spending far too much of my life creating. The silent covenant that I make with myself before writing anything — namely that I promise not to destroy it in the end — is simply not enough to prevent self-sabotage. On these occasions, the loneliness of being a professional philosopher is more intolerable than usual. This is why I frequently write with others.

I become a co-author because I can’t stand writing by myself.

Margaret Atwood has said, “Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow.” Perhaps she’s just wrong about this. Many children may scrawl their names in snow — and in sand, on dirty windows, bathroom stalls and old desks — with the secret hope that someone will take note. At least some of these children go on to become academics whose feverish scrawling belies the fear that all of it will go unacknowledged. If they go into the humanities, as I did, this fear may never go away.

If I’m really honest, I’ll acknowledge that it’s this fear that drove me to do the unthinkable, at least for a philosopher. It drove me to write with others.

More here.

The Social Life of Memory

From Harvard Magazine:

MemoryLeading a healthy social life depends on the ability to predict the behavior of others accurately. Most people expect a loud, aggressive bully to be cruel, and a passive, quiet loner to shy away from confrontation. More often than not, that’s correct. Yet exactly how the brain predicts such behavior has long been unclear.

Now research by Kenan professor of psychology Daniel Schacter and several coauthors, published in the March issue of the journal Cerebral Cortex, suggests that the brain, when making behavioral predictions, uses the part devoted to memory. During the past decade, Schacter says, a revolution has occurred in the field of memory science: researchers have shown that memory is responsible for much more than the simple recall of facts or the sensation of reliving events from the past. “Memory is not just a readout,” he explains. “It is a tool that’s used by the brain to bring past experience to bear when thinking about future situations.” In fact, Schacter continues, memory and imagination involve virtually identical mental processes; both rely on a specific system known as the “default network,” previously thought to be activated only when recalling the past. This discovery led to a rich vein of research, he reports. For instance, the link between memory and imagination could explain why those with memory problems, such as amnesiacs or the elderly, often struggle to envision the future.

More here.

Plants perform molecular maths

From Nature:

PlantAs if making food from light were not impressive enough, it may be time to add another advanced skill to the botanical repertoire: the ability to perform — at least at the molecular level — arithmetic division. Computer-generated models published in the journal eLife illustrate how plants might use molecular mathematics to regulate the rate at which they devour starch reserves to provide energy throughout the night, when energy from the Sun is off the menu1. If so, the authors say, it would be the first example of arithmetic division in biology. But it may not be the only one: many animals go through periods of fasting — during hibernations or migrations, for example — and must carefully ration internal energy stores in order to survive. Understanding how arithmetic division could occur at the molecular level might also be useful for the young field of synthetic biology, in which genetic engineers seek standardized methods of tinkering with molecular pathways to create new biological devices. Plants make the starch reserves they produce during the day last almost precisely until dawn. Researchers once thought that plants break down starch at a fixed rate during the night. But then they observed that the diminutive weed Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant favoured for laboratory work, could recalculate that rate on the fly when subjected to an unusually early or late night2.

To Alison Smith and Martin Howard of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK, and their colleagues, this suggested that a more sophisticated molecular calculation was at work. The team hypothesized the existence of two molecules: one, S, that tells the plant how much starch remains, and another, T, that informs it about the time left until dawn. The researchers built mathematical models to show that, in principle, the interactions of such molecules could indeed drive the rate of starch breakdown such that it reflected a continuous computation of the division of the amount of remaining starch by the amount of time until dawn. For example, the models predicted that plants would adjust the rate of starch breakdown if the night were interrupted by a period of light. During that period of light, the plants could again produce starch. When the lights went out again, the rate of starch breakdown should adjust to that increase in stored starch, the models predicted — a result that the researchers confirmed in Arabidopsis plants. The team then trawled the literature looking for Arabidopsis mutants with known handicaps at different steps along the starch-degradation pathway. These showed that the models were compatible with the behaviour of these mutants, which result in a higher than usual amount of starch remaining at the end of the night.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Factory

These were her father’s last words: “I have a dread of chaos in my heart.”
Or, “I have a dread of the chaos in my heart.” The two others present–
her mother, her brother—and she later cannot agree. It was perhaps

a critique of the cryptic vehicles of concealment—symmetry and white noise,
city blocks and hinterlands—she thinks now, as she watches her son watch
a praying mantis watch a caterpillar. The caterpillar is famously playing

dead. Suddenly she wonders if her father is watching her
watching her son watching the praying mantis watching the caterpillar
playing dead. Windows within windows within something window-shaped.
“Kilroy was here” means he’s not anymore—a kind of geometry nobody
cannot configure. She imagines her father working, somewhere, in a factory
that churns out checkerboards, one after another, black and red,

ordinate and abscissa, drawing the axis between obsess and abyss.
Confess and confuse: there is a blind spot in her blind spot in the shape of
a heart in chaos, or chaos in a heart, red on black, or vice versa.
.

by Jessica Goodfellow
from Thrush Poetry Journal, March 2010

You Are an Abstraction: Mistakes of Metaphysical Individualism

by Stephen T. Asma

Stick-familyHow can we fix all those lunatics on the other side of the planet? This seemingly fresh and pressing question is actually one of the oldest. All cultures have relished their barbaric “other.” Asking how we can civilize the foreign hordes is undoubtedly the wrong question, but it seems downright irresistible. Even liberal Western “doves” have magic-bullet theories that try to get at the heart of social violence and pathology.

Steven Pinker expresses a well-worn normative suggestion when he says that the world should move away from tribal or group thinking and feeling, and embrace the “rights tradition” of individualism. He argues, in The Better Angels of Our Nature, that violence recedes as individualism rises. The rest of the world could profit from the recognition, Pinker argues, that we are individuals, and individuals are the ones that “really count” (they actually feel the pleasure and pain). “Groups,” he says, “are a kind of abstraction.”[1]

I'm going to disagree here and argue, somewhat counter-intuitively, that Pinker is the abstraction. I am the abstraction. You, gentle reader, are the abstraction.

The independent individual is a hero to WEIRD cultures (Western, Educated Industrialized, Rich and Democratic), and it serves as the starting place for both pessimistic and romantic theories of the social contract. Whether you're a Hobbesian who thinks the selfish ego must be constrained by the community, or a Rousseauian who laments such constraint (or even a Rawlsian), you still start from a metaphysic of individualism. But what if the individual is actually an ecological, developmental, and political construct?

The primacy of the individual is what philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1889-1943) might call an “absolute presupposition” –an assumed principle that governs certain inquiries and ways of thinking. In fact, digging down to these deep presuppositions was the preferred way, according to Collingwood, to do metaphysics (without getting hung-up on ontology). So, in the spirit of Collingwood's metaphysics, let me suggest an alternative, wherein the collective group is primordial and the individual is derivative.

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Inverted Image

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

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I felt in the pit of my stomach the proximity to my school as the car approached the Air Force base and the diminutive Air Force planes in (almost pretty) earth tones became visible on the runway through the large gates. The car would now turn into the school lane and another day, the stuff of nightmares, would begin for me with the tension stomachache known in Urdu as “twisted stomach.”

The daily assembly at P.A.F school started with the music master leading an uninspired rendition of Iqbal's famous poem “lab peh ati,” a powerful lyric utilizing the classical metaphor of the devoted moth desiring the candle of knowledge; Iqbal's passionate verses warped into the whiney trill of children interested only in live experiments of their own vocal range, utterly oblivious to the poetry. The national anthem was sung, which, being mostly in Farsi, was beyond us Junior School students. In class five I would understand the anthem and admire the beauty of the words, and wonder why it had to be written in the high Urdu that no one understood, not that I would ever want to change the song; the clipped monosyllabic “qom,” “mulk” swelling into a crescendo with the lofty “sul-tan-at,” and drowning into the high note of “Pa-inda ta-binda baad” and then the decrescendo, the softening into a prayer “shaad baad manzil-e-Murad,” roughly translated as “may you happily find your noble destiny,” a prayer like a broken thing, open in its cracks to let in endless sadness— the sadness of an endlessly breaking people.

I was in Prep A, the kindergarten room with the overwhelming aroma of French toast (Pakistani French toast is much “eggier” and sweeter), and Rooh Afza, the super sweet herb drink in little chubby flasks. The smell came from a mountain of lunch boxes in a corner that the ayah arranged and fussed over. Here, in this room I spent one whole year learning little other than the fact that I was too fat to be selected for the role of the coveted “Dolly” for the class play on the annual Sports Day, and I must come to terms with the fact that the role of Miss Polly was good in its own way.

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Public Philosophy?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Rembrandt_-_The_Philosopher_in_MeditationNot long ago, a few philosophers went out for lunch at a small café. As they ate, they argued about the morality of infanticide. Eventually another patron of the café approached the table of philosophers and asked indignantly, “What’s wrong with you people?”

Philosophers have always cultivated an antagonistic relationship with the society in which they work. But recently many philosophers, along with the American Philosophical Association (the principal professional organization for philosophers in the United States), have begun to clamor for philosophers to go public. Within the profession these days, the call for “public philosophy” is loud, but not clear. That is, it is difficult to discern precisely what is being called for, what it means for philosophy to be “public.” Here we want to identify a few possibilities.

First, the call for more public philosophy might be a call for philosophy in public. This would be the suggestion that philosophers should simply take themselves out of their offices and into more public settings. They should go about their usual business, but create and participate in forums where their academic work can be accessed by the general public. Our lunchers above were engaged in public philosophy in this sense. The result was not especially encouraging.

So it seems that the call for public philosophy is not simply a call for a change of scenery. “Public philosophy” must be a different kind of philosophy. Hence the idea that philosophers must go public is the idea that they must do something different from what they currently do. But there are many different kinds of thing that philosophers currently do. What must change in order for philosophy to be “public” in the requested sense?

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Enduring Sharedom

by Jalees Rehman

“The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.”

—Hannah Arendt

The recent revelations by the whistleblower Edward Snowden that the NSA (National Security Agency) is engaged in mass surveillance of private online communications between individuals by obtaining data from “internet corporations” such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft as part of a covert program called PRISM have resulted in widespread outrage and shock. The outrage is understandable, because such forms of surveillance constitute a major invasion of our privacy. The shock, on the other hand, is somewhat puzzling. In the past years, the Obama administration has repeatedly demonstrated that it is willing to continue or even expand the surveillance policies of the Bush government. The PATRIOT Act was renewed in 2011 under Obama and government intrusion into our personal lives is justified under the mantle of “national security”. We chuckle at the absurdity of obediently removing our shoes at airport security checkpoints and at the irony of having to place Hobbit-size toothpaste tubes into transparent bags for a government that seems to have little respect for transparency. Non-US-citizens who reside in or travel to the United States know that they can be detained by US authorities, but even US citizens who are critical of their government, such as the MacArthur Genius grantee Laura Poitras, are hassled by American authorities. Did anyone really believe that the Obama administration with its devastating track record of murdering hundreds of civilians – including many children – in drone attacks would have moral qualms about using the NSA to spy on individual citizens?

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The Stasi analogy

One of the obvious analogies drawn in the aftermath of Snowden's assertions is the comparison between the NSA and the “Stasi”, the abbreviated nickname for the “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit” (Department of State Security) in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR or DDR). Articles referring to the “United Stasi of America” or the “Modern Day Stasi-State” make references to the massive surveillance apparatus of the East German Stasi, which monitored all forms of communications between citizens of East Germany, from wire-tapping apartments, offices, phones and secretly reading letters. The Stasi “perfected” the invasion of personal spaces – as exemplified in the Oscar-winning movie “The Lives of Others“. It is tempting to think of today's NSA monitoring of emails, Facebook posts or other social media interactions as a high-tech version of the Stasi legacy. A movie director may already be working on a screenplay for a movie about Snowden and the NSA called “The Bytes of Others“. However, there are some key differences between the surveillance conducted by the Stasi and the PRISM surveillance program of the NSA. The Stasi was a state-run organization which was responsible for amassing the data and creating profiles of the monitored citizens. It did not just rely on regular Stasi employees, but heavily relied on so called IMs – “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” or “informelle Mitarbeiter” – informal informants. These informal informants were East German citizens who met with designated Stasi officers, reporting on the opinions and actions of their friends, colleagues and relatives and at times aiding the Stasi in promoting state propaganda. In the case of the PRISM program, the amassing of data is conducted by private “internet corporations” such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft, who then share some of the data with the state. Furthermore, instead of having to rely on informal informants like the Stasi, “internet corporations” simply rely on the users themselves who readily divulge their demographic information, opinions and interests to the corporations.

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Rediscovering Renata Adler

by Mara Jebsen

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One of Claire Messud's interviews for “The Woman Upstairs” has got a lot of people talking about literature and likeability, and about whether a book’s protagonist ought to be warm, and about whether expectations about that warmth are gendered. Messud, in a tone and with a vividness that ultimately pleased even the interviewer, took exception to a question about the pleasing-ness of her character, and gave with the following response:

“For heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that? Would you want to be friends with Humbert Humbert? Would you want to be friends with Mickey Sabbath? Saleem Sinai? Hamlet? Krapp? Oedipus? Oscar Wao? Antigone? Raskolnikov? Any of the characters in The Corrections? Any of the characters in Infinite Jest? Any of the characters in anything Pynchon has ever written? Or Martin Amis? Or Orhan Pamuk? Or Alice Munro, for that matter? If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’ ”

So what shall we make of Jen Fein, the gossip columnist and protagonist of Renata Adler’s “Speedboat”? Jen is both likable and unlikable—but I keep reminding myself that that is not the question to ask. Jen, who considers the possibility that a rat she spotted in one part of New York City is likely the same rat she saw earlier, in another part of the city, seems to think in prose poems crammed with something between wit and wisdom. She rejects her mind’s own proposition about the rat, summarily, with this: “I think sanity, then, is the most profound moral option of our time.”

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