Perry Anderson in New Left Review:

The American political scene since 2000 is conventionally depicted in high colour. For much native—not to speak of foreign—opinion, the country has cartwheeled from brutish reaction under one ruler, presiding over disaster at home and abroad, to the most inspiring hope of progress since the New Deal under another, personifying all that is finest in the nation; to others, a spectre not even American. For still others, the polarization of opinion they represent is cause for despair, or alternatively comfort in the awakening of hitherto marginalized identities to the threshold of a new majority. The tints change by the light in which they are seen.

For a steadier view of US politics, line is more reliable than colour. It is the parameters of the system of which its episodes are features that require consideration. These compose a set of four determinants. The first, and far the most fundamental, of these, is the historical regime of accumulation in question, governing the returns on capital and rate of growth of the economy. The second are structural shifts in the sociology of the electorate distributed between the two political parties. The third are cultural mutations in the value-system at large within the society. Fourth and last—the residual—are the aims of the active minorities in the voter-base of each party. The political upshot at any given point of time can be described, short-hand, as a resultant of this unequal quartet of forces in motion.

What remains unchanging, on the other hand, is the monochrome ideological universe in which the system is plunged: an all-capitalist order, without a hint of social-democratic weakness or independent political organization by labour. The two parties that inhabit it, Republican and Democratic, have exchanged social and regional bases more than once since the Civil War, without either ever questioning the rule of capital. Since the 1930s there has been a general, if not invariable, tendency for those at the bottom of the income pyramid—should they cast a ballot, which large numbers do not—to vote Democrat, and those at the top, Republican. Such preferences reflect the policies by and large pursued by the two parties: Democratic administrations have typically been more redistributive downwards than Republican, in an alignment shadowing, without exactly reproducing, divisions between left and right elsewhere. But these are rarely differences of principle. A salient feature of the consensus on which the system rests is the flexibility of relative positions it allows. Policies associated with one party can migrate to the other, not infrequently assuming forms in the cross-over more radical than they possessed in their original habitat. A glance at the history of the past half-century is a reminder of these eddies within the system.

Transnational Gender Vertigo


Kimberly Kay Hoang in Contexts:

I first met Tram in 2006 in a tiny bar on Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), in a neighborhood frequented by backpackers from abroad.

Tram and other sex workers in the bar, disguised as bartenders, catered to Western budget travelers seeking brief encounters or longer relationships-for-hire. They were the bar’s key attraction, but the women received no wages from the owner; they were independent entrepreneurs in a niche of the sex trade.

Tram, 27 years old and adorned with bracelet, rings, and a diamond necklace, was a model of success and economic mobility. She lived in a brand-new luxury condo with two servants, a full-time housecleaner and a cook who prepared Western foods for her new American husband. Tram had come from a poor village, she told me, where the only jobs were in the rice fields. In Ho Chi Minh City, she worked first as a maid and then in a clothing factory. But after two years of earning no more than the equivalent of US$70 a month, Tram had saved no money, could barely cover food and rent, and saw no hope for improvement. “Life in the city is so expensive,’’ she said. She saw sex work as her best route out of poverty.

Tram met William, 70, as a client, and quickly began to develop a more intimate relationship with him, hoping that her emotional labor might lead to ongoing economic support—in a remittance relationship, or marriage. Many Western men come to Vietnam seeking wives, or they become attached to women they hired once there, sympathizing with their plight, and wanting to take them out of the sex trade and care for them. Six months after they met, William asked Tram to marry him and move to North America. They were married in 2007.

In 2009, I reconnected with Tram, along with William and their three children at an airport outside of Montreal, Canada. As we drove the three hours to their home, passing lumber farms, acres of undeveloped land, and pastures sprinkled with sheep, I commented on its beauty and tranquility. But Tram expressed no such sentiments. She had never intended to escape small town Vietnam, she said, only to end up in another small town in rural Canada. She had hoped to move to the United States, and had dreamed of living in Los Angeles or New York, “a big city, like the movies.”

Instead, she found herself isolated, in a cold climate and working long hours.

The Evolutionary Ethics of E. O. Wilson


Whitley Kaufman in The New Atlantis (image form wikimedia commons):

In his new book The Social Conquest of Earth (2012), naturalist E. O. Wilson argues that our best chance at understanding and advancing morality will come when we “explain the origin of religion and morality as special events in the evolutionary history of humanity driven by natural selection.” This is a bold claim, yet a familiar one for Wilson, who has been advocating something like this approach to human morality ever since his landmark 1975 work Sociobiology.

In that book, Wilson provocatively argued that “scientists and humanists should consider together the possibility that the time has come for ethics to be removed temporarily from the hands of the philosophers” and that ethics should instead be “biologicized”: questions once debated seemingly without end by philosophers will be settled by biologists using the same methods by which they have explained digestion, reproduction, and all of the other evolved drives and functions of the body.

The unification of science and morality, on Wilson’s count, would be a much-needed revolution for ethics. But it has also long been one of the desiderata of the Enlightenment project — which has been so successful in fulfilling its promise of advancing our scientific knowledge and our material wellbeing, yet seems to have made so little progress in settling debates over ethics. The consilience of the human and natural sciences that Wilson’s sociobiological project promises would carry on the scientific method’s “unrelenting application of reason” to the field of ethics, and finally begin to establish a stable, wise, and enduring ethical code for the future.

Wilson’s vision has earned him the title of prophet from social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, and his work has been seminal in the field of evolutionary ethics — the study of the evolutionary origins of our moral beliefs and practices. Yet, though Wilson can be considered one of the most articulate proponents of the project to biologicize ethics, his work also, in spite of itself, reveals the greatest barriers to carrying it out.


Alice Whitwham in The White Review:

THE WHITE REVIEW — Let’s talk about your most recent book, The Word on the Street. When did you start making music and playing songs?

ScreenHunter_236 Jul. 06 20.01PAUL MULDOON — Strictly speaking, the first person I worked with who really got me started on it was Warren Zevon. He’s unfortunately nowhere near as well-known as he should be. But I think he was a truly amazing songwriter, really. He met Stravinsky when he was a kid, and then he played piano with the Everly Brothers on tour. And he was involved with Jackson Browne, and the Eagles, and all that crowd. He was a songwriter I admired for a long time, and as it happened I had the opportunity to write something for him. And that was really how it started.

THE WHITE REVIEW — How did the opportunity come about?

PAUL MULDOON — It came about because I wrote him a fan letter. Out of the blue. He was writing an album with various other people, which is something he’d done right the way through. I learned a great deal from him, insofar as one learns anything about anything. Of course one does, one has to believe one learns. Particularly as a teacher, I have to believe that I can teach somebody something, otherwise I shouldn’t be doing it. On the other hand, it’s actually doubtful how much one learns oneself. I realise as I get older how little I know about anything. That’s a truism but it’s true. In all areas of life.

More here.

Demoting Democracy in Egypt

Shadi Hamid in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_236 Jul. 06 19.02When Mohamed Morsi became Egypt’s first democratically elected president last year, it was an especially sweet victory for the Muslim Brotherhood, the region’s oldest and most influential Islamist movement. After a long history of repression, the Brotherhood had finally tasted triumph. But their short-lived rule ended Wednesday when Egypt’s army deposed Mr. Morsi.

The Brotherhood’s fall will have profound implications for the future of political Islam, reverberating across the region in potentially dangerous ways. One of the most important political developments of recent years was the decision of Islamist parties to make peace with democracy and commit to playing by the rules of the political game. Leaders counseled patience to their followers. Their time would come, they were told.

Now supporters of the Brotherhood will ask, with good reason, whether democracy still has anything to offer them. Mr. Morsi’s removal will breathe new life into the ideological claims of radicals. Al Qaeda and its followers have long argued that change can’t come through the democracy of “unbelievers”; violence is the only path. As the Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri once said, “What is truly regrettable is the rallying of thousands of duped Muslim youth in voter queues before ballot boxes instead of lining them up to fight in the cause of Allah.”

More here.

House Party: Much Ado About Nothing

Amanda Shubert in Critics at Large:

ScreenHunter_235 Jul. 06 18.56Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing evolved out of the parties Whedon used to throw for the casts of his television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spin-off Angel: he got his actors together for Shakespeare readings, which he would cast and direct. To make Much Ado About Nothing, Whedon reserved his week off – the twelve days in between wrapping his horror movie Cabin in the Woods and starting production on the Marvel Comics flick Avengers – and invited his company from past projects to rehearse and film the picture, using his house and grounds as the location. (He gives the play a modern day setting.) The product is a Joss Whedon home movie – two scenes were shot during real house parties – and it has the cheerful desperation of a lot of talented people winging it while trying to hide from one another what their gut tells them: that they’re not going to pull this thing off.

The material is not the problem. Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s most loveable comedies, and it’s also completely within Whedon’s range. It may not have vampires and demons (Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Angel) or space-age cowboys and aliens (Firefly; Serenity), but it distills the qualities that make Whedon’s supernatural and extraterrestrial epics such compelling mythographies of real life experience. It’s a comedy that brings romantic happiness to the brink of disaster and back again, where erotic desire can be the source of complete wreckage as well as matrimonial union, and jealousy, hatred and rage are the shadow-presences of the profoundest love. That’s the attitude Whedon took towards high school in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the emotions of the teenage characters were so volatile they combusted into paranormal activity.

More here.

Eye to Eye: Taher Shah, Unlikely Overnight Pop Sensation

Celebrating the overdue arrival of this summer's unrepentantly vapid icon.

James Hamblin in The Atlantic:

I have actually not yet met this summer's international pop sensation-in-the-making. I requested an interview but am still waiting. Maybe it's all part of the mystique.

Taher Shah's digital tail is short, almost eating itself. The most credible Twitter account in his name (Or is it this one? There are impostors) was just opened at the end of April, and it is little more than an exaltation of the human eye.

The one thing we know for sure about the self-described singer/lyricist/writer/model/actor/producer/director/businessman is that he has a super-hot single. Despite YouTube being banned in his home country, his recently released debut “classic epic song and video” has already been viewed half a million times around the world.

If you haven't seen it, here it is. I don't think there's really anything I can say to prepare you.

The single is entitled “Eye to Eye” (“Ankhon he Ankhon Mei” in Urdu). Yes, a good amount of it is him looking pretty longingly at another incarnation of himself. He also lays claim to your heart without regard for your perspective on the matter. (“Your heart is mine because I love you.”) But let's not get on him about syntax; any effort at working multilingually is a noble one.

The Internet adores it. Or adores hating on it, or ironically adoring it. However the Internet feels about things it makes popular; that new emotionless amalgamation of emotions. It's doing that.

More here.

In Search of the Indian Hipster


Aastha Atray Banan and Gunjeet Sra in Open the Magazine:

None of those who use the term ‘hipster’ seem entirely clear about what it means. According to the aggregate wisdom of Wikipedia, to which Sharma turned for clarity, ‘hipster’ refers to ‘a subculture of young, urban middle class adults and older teenagers that appeared in the 1990s… associated with independent music, a varied non-mainstream fashion sensibility, progressive or independent political views, alternative spirituality or atheism/agnosticism, and alternative lifestyles’. This is such a wide definition, it sounds like a complicated way to say ‘non-conformist’.

The hipster emerged as a cross-subcultural figure in the late 1990s out of ‘neo bohemia’ which was defined by sociologist Richard Lyod as a culture of artists who primarily work in bars, coffee shops and rock clubs while providing an unintentional milieu for ‘late capitalist’ commerce in design, marketing, web development and the so-called ‘experience economy’. It has now turned into a movement influenced by a range of subcultures—from hippie to punk to beatnik to grunge.

In his essay What Was the Hipster? A Sociological Investigation, Mark Greif, professor of literary studies at New School university and founder-editor of the magazine n+1, writes that the contemporary hipster ‘emerges out of a thwarted tradition of youth subcultures, subcultures which had tried to remain independent of consumer culture, alternative to it, and had been integrated, humiliated and destroyed.’

Books have been written about this phenomenon in the West, but based on observation, a hipster is a person who sneers at Dan Brown, wears vintage clothing, doesn’t care who forms the government, doesn’t care if God exists, who eats organic food and drinks chamomile tea.

Saturday Poem

A Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends 
A bee circles a clover, 
A fisherman mends a glimmering net. 
Happy porpoises jump in the sea, 
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing 
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends 
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas, 
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn, 
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street 
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island, 
The voice of a violin lasts in the air 
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder 
Are disappointed. 
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps 
Do not believe it is happening now. 
As long as the sun and the moon are above, 
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose, 
As long as rosy infants are born 
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet 
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy, 
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes: 
There will be no other end of the world, 
There will be no other end of the world. 

by Czeslaw Milosz
from The Collected Poems
Penguin Books 1988                            
translated by Anthony Milosz  

rereading Maurice by EM Forster

Laurence Scott in The Guardian:

MAURICE-008This year marks the centenary of one of the best known gropes in English letters. A hundred years ago, the writer Edward Carpenter's young lover George Merrill placed a hand on the indeterminate region between EM Forster's buttocks and back. Shortly thereafter, Forster began his novel Maurice, and in a “Terminal Note” written almost 50 years later he identified Merrill's touch as its inspiration. While this genesis story gets a lot of press in Forster circles, for me what is more striking is Forster's description of Maurice as belonging “to an England where it was still possible to get lost”. The militaristic demands of two world wars – the extensive mapping of England in the name of security – had, for Forster, robbed the island of its wild places. In Maurice, the ability to become lost in “the greenwood” provides the book's homosexual lovers their escape from society's punishments, and indeed even this happy ending can be traced back to the upper slope of Forster's bottom. As well as sparking a novel, Merrill's caress further initiated Forster into the comradely haven of his and Carpenter's rural domesticity: a Derbyshire homestead, safe from public scrutiny.

Throughout his life, Forster kept Maurice from mass consumption. Today it isn't widely considered a literary success, but, despite its failings, both the book's plot and its life as a secret manuscript have something to say about a major debate of our times: the extent to which the bounds of privacy are being redrawn. By means of the posthumous publications of Maurice and the homoerotic short stories of The Life to Come, Forster's ghost fought in the battle against censorship. The decriminalisation of homosexuality was tied to its demystification, and the fact that same-sex love now has a public dimension is a triumph of civilisation. But while the publishing history of Maurice engages with the politics of free expression and visibility, the novel's text radiates a nostalgia for reticence and a desire to fall off the grid. This instinct for withdrawal and obscurity speaks to present critiques of digitised life. In a world increasingly patrolled by online analytics and social media, Maurice's political dilemma still resonates: how might you not be in hiding while not being on display?

More here.


Meghan O'Rourke in The New York Times:

DeathDeath has been a great literary theme for so long you might think there’d be little left to say on the subject, but in recent decades the literature of death has taken an interesting and novel turn. Writers are recording their own deaths as they happen. In “Endpoint” (2009), John Updike chronicles his last years and his struggles with metastatic lung cancer. In “Mortality” (2012), a collection of his final columns for Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens documented his brutal experiences with cancer; Roger Ebert did the same in “Life Itself: A Memoir” (2011), as did the Washington Post columnist Marjorie Williams in her shattering essays collected in “The Woman at the Washington Zoo.” Earlier examples include Anatole Broyard’s “Intoxicated by My Illness” (1992), in which the author, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, muses on dying, having learned he has late-stage prostate cancer; Paul Zweig’s memoir “Departures” (1986); and James Merrill’s final poetry collection, “A Scattering of Salts” (1995). Today’s literature of death consists mainly of a subgenre, the literature of dying.

…Hitchens’s “Mortality” — an extraordinary book — offers an exquisitely detailed portrait of dying underscored by the author’s reluctance to be sentimental and his hatred of self-pity. (Losing one’s writerly control is one of the obvious pitfalls here.) One day, Hitchens finds himself covered with a red radiation rash — “To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way it hurt on the inside.” He describes being “recently scheduled for the insertion of a ‘PIC’ line” — a procedure meant to take 10 minutes. Two hours later, he lies “between two bed-pads that were liberally laced with dried or clotting blood.” He quips about the medical paperwork (“curse of Tumortown”) and the “boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite,” offering all the details that Nora Ephron wrote about not wanting to burden friends and family with. This is the special humiliation of the slow death — the days spent on what Sidney Hook (as Hitchens reminds us) called a “mattress grave.” Hitchens makes us contemplate the central question of the modern death: Are these slow, medicated processes worth the pain? No, you think, fiercely — but, he acknowledges, he’s glad he bought himself more time.

More here.

Europe in the Trap


Claus Offe in Eurozine:

Europe finds itself in what may well be its worst crisis since 1945. More and more historically aware commentators are reminded of the situation prior to 1933. If this crisis cannot be overcome, then the political project of European integration will suffer serious harm, as will the European and even the global economy – not to mention the far-ranging social harm that the crisis has already caused in the countries of the European periphery.

The crisis is so serious because of the seemingly insoluble contradiction it presents. In simple terms: the course of action so urgently needed is extremely unpopular and thus cannot be implemented by democratic means. Nor does the post-democratic, technocratic option present a feasible solution. Experts are “in principle” agreed on what is required – namely a long-term debt-sharing agreement, or other grandiose transnational measures to spread the burden – but it is difficult to make electorates in the rich nations listen.

The situation in the countries of the periphery is similar: they must quickly become more competitive and remain so, while driving down labour costs to achieve some semblance of a sustainable balance of trade and a half-way manageable budget deficit. The experts and elites regard all this as “necessary”, but it is clearly unattainable without seriously damaging these nations' democratic sovereignty, since their populations “demand” exactly the opposite. Thus the mismatch between what is economically necessary and what is politically feasible can be seen on both sides of Europe's north-south divide today. If the eurozone collapses because it proves impossible to square that circle, this will most likely mean the end of the EU as well. Chancellor Merkel is quite right to warn of this outcome.

Review of Paul Theroux’s supposedly last book on Africa

Graeme Wood in The American Scholar:

ImagesPaul Theroux’s globe, if it had a pin stuck in it for every visited city and town, would bristle like a frightened porcupine. The west coast of Africa has remained one of its last barren patches, and for good reason: hostile governments, tropical disease, ravaged environments, and predators, both human and non. In 2003’sDark Star Safari, he traveled bumptiously down the east coast of the continent, which, compared with Africa’s left coast—to say nothing of its interior—is virtually Scandinavian in its safety and ease of movement.

The Last Train to Zona Verde advertises itself as Theroux’s “final African adventure,” and few who read it will doubt his promise never to return. In his previous Africa book, he wrote convincingly of the destructive effects of foreign aid and how it robs Africans of the ingenuity and initiative they displayed when he taught in Malawi (then Nyasaland) as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 1960s. On this return journey, he begins where he left off, in Cape Town, deeply perturbed and skeptical about the future of the continent. He heads for points north and west, first to Namibia and Botswana, then to Angola. I spoil little by saying that Theroux’s original plan to proceed to Timbuktu is thwarted, and the total mileage covered in this book is the least of any of his travelogues.

Theroux’s great realization—starting with The Great Railway Bazaar in 1975—was that travel writing didn’t require, or even reward, the sort of quasi-omniscient narration that one finds in guidebooks, or the inhumanly sunny disposition of magazine writing. Instead, the pleasures of the genre could be character-driven (“I sought trains; I found passengers”) and leave in the bits about hassles and inconvenience that make up the bulk of the experience of getting from place to place. No depiction of Kabul would be frank if it included Babur’s gardens but omitted the city’s daily horrors and bloodshed.

More here.

Sean Carroll: What is science?

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Sean_carroll_biopic-smallDefining the concept of “science” is a notoriously tricky business. In particular, there is long-running debate over the demarcation problem, which asks where we should draw the line between science and non-science. I won’t be providing final any final answers to this question here. But I do believe that we can parcel out the difficulties into certain distinct classes, based on a simple scheme for describing how science works. Essentially, science consists of the following three-part process:

  1. Think of every possible way the world could be. Label each way an “hypothesis.”
  2. Look at how the world actually is. Call what you see “data” (or “evidence”).
  3. Where possible, choose the hypothesis that provides the best fit to the data.

The steps are not necessarily in chronological order; sometimes the data come first, sometimes it’s the hypotheses. This is basically what’s known as the hypothetico-deductive method, although I’m intentionally being more vague because I certainly don’t think this provides a final-answer definition of “science.”

The reason why it’s hard to provide a cut-and-dried definition of “science” is that every one of these three steps is highly problematic in its own way.

More here.



Paleontologists tell us that no new species was domesticated after the era of animal sacrifices. Were animals domesticated then—that is, made partially human—in order to sacrifice them, with domestication as a structural by-product of the religious? At the beginning of his essay “Goya’s Dog,” László Földényi quotes a line from an aboriginal Creation Myth—“Once upon a time when the animals were still human.” He remarks that, though the ancient aborigines saw an evident kinship between animals and humans, to suggest today that somebody has something “animalistic” about him is a not inconsequential judgment. It might have been possible for these aborigines to have felt that somebody (what we would recognize as a human) lacked the full qualities of being animal. “The animal is for us the extreme point of humanity. For the ancients, however, the extreme point of animality was the human.” Rilke in his Eighth Duino Elegy saw animals as looking out with full sight into the “open,” which is written all over them, our eyes being, as it were, turned back on themselves to form “traps” for the rest of the world as it emerges into our visual field. We are still in Plato’s cave, or in a deeper cave behind what we thought was philosophy’s back wall.

more from Iain Bamforth at Threepenny Review here.