Move over, Kerouac! “Grand Theft Auto” is the American Dream narrative now

Ryan Leas in The Atlantic:

GtaAin’t the American Dream grand? Michael, one of three playable characters in “Grand Theft Auto V,” yells this periodically during firefights, typically when you’re rampaging against cops. In a nutshell, that context is all you need to understand the wicked smirk specific to the GTA franchise’s exaggerated vision of America. It’s always hard to pin down exactly what the ultra-successful series is. “GTA” is equal parts incisively clever and on the nose. It pushes boundaries with some of the most mature content in mainstream video games while channeling that content toward juvenile ends, tapping into latent teenage dreams of anarchy. The games acerbically critique American consumerism while also offering a world in which driving up on a sidewalk and running down civilians is cause for laughing out loud.

Throughout, one thing has been consistent. In its continual mining of classic American crime dramas, from “The Godfather” to “Scarface” to “Heat,” the GTA franchise automatically inherits that tradition’s outlaw take on undying American Dream tropes. The upward mobility, the rags to riches, all with a pistol in one hand and a bag of money in the other. Through its knowing recalibration of this traditional structure, “GTA” would like to position itself as subversive. And, no doubt, its vision of America has always been an amusingly satirical one, that proclamation of “Ain’t the American Dream grand?” delivered with a healthy amount of sarcasm. But it’s also fantasy fulfillment. As much as this newest iteration of “GTA” skewers American culture, it also captures how the GTA franchise as a whole plays into a more contemporary tradition — a new, digital American frontier in which to play out our inherited myth over and over. One that urges us to press “Start” once more, but on the pretense of what is, ultimately, a batch of false promises.

Read more here.

Camille Paglia: A Feminist Defense of Masculine Virtues

Bari Weiss in The Wall Street Journal:

Camille'What you're seeing is how a civilization commits suicide,” says Camille Paglia. This self-described “notorious Amazon feminist” isn't telling anyone to Lean In or asking Why Women Still Can't Have It All. No, her indictment may be as surprising as it is wide-ranging: The military is out of fashion, Americans undervalue manual labor, schools neuter male students, opinion makers deny the biological differences between men and women, and sexiness is dead. And that's just 20 minutes of our three-hour conversation. When Ms. Paglia, now 66, burst onto the national stage in 1990 with the publishing of “Sexual Personae,” she immediately established herself as a feminist who was the scourge of the movement's establishment, a heretic to its orthodoxy. Pick up the 700-page tome, subtitled “Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, ” and it's easy to see why. “If civilization had been left in female hands,” she wrote, “we would still be living in grass huts.” The fact that the acclaimed book—the first of six; her latest, “Glittering Images,” is a survey of Western art—was rejected by seven publishers and five agents before being printed by Yale University Press only added to Ms. Paglia's sense of herself as a provocateur in a class with Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. But unlike those radio jocks, Ms. Paglia has scholarly chops: Her dissertation adviser at Yale was Harold Bloom, and she is as likely to discuss Freud, Oscar Wilde or early Native American art as to talk about Miley Cyrus.

…She starts by pointing to the diminished status of military service. “The entire elite class now, in finance, in politics and so on, none of them have military service—hardly anyone, there are a few. But there is no prestige attached to it anymore. That is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “These people don't think in military ways, so there's this illusion out there that people are basically nice, people are basically kind, if we're just nice and benevolent to everyone they'll be nice too. They literally don't have any sense of evil or criminality.”

More here.

cheap crap and Europe

Jergovic_468wMiljenko Jergovic at Eurozine:

However, as I made my way through the endless crowds and neared the end of Wroclaw's enormous, bazaar-like market, I realised that instead of getting more interesting, more select, more redolent of the past, the goods simply became cheaper and tattier, until finally they just turned into rubbish. In among this rubbish were a few items from the socialist period: the odd Soviet badge bearing the profile of Vladimir Lenin, a broken Romanian water heater, and piles of vinyl records featuring the kind of second-rate Western pop that had probably meant something to someone in the Poland of the 1970s and 1980s. But there was nothing of local provenance, nothing original, nothing that bore the stamp of the city or its collective memory. It was as if Frankfurt had preserved more of itself in the wake of the air-raids of 1945 than Wroclaw could muster for the entire period prior to 1990.

I was disappointed, but not exactly surprised. I felt as if I was at home in the Balkans. Our own open-air markets frequently look pretty similar: a mountain of cheap clothes, but very little in the way of history or memory. In essence, that is what the Balkans are today: a worthless pile of cheap clothes, without history, memory or true identity. It is from this basic pattern that all of today's Balkan nationalisms have been cut. And it is only by means of these bloodthirsty and mindless nationalisms that politics and culture in the Balkans can be recognized.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Oxbow Lake

From Lesotho to Sullivan’s Quay,
Maurice Scully inscribed in his book
of poetry to me. Because I caught
wind of him mentioning a Basotho blanket
in one of his poems. We got
talking—how we both went to Lesotho:
seeking adventure, growing our hair.
And we ran through places
we visited there, like a river snaking down
the mountains, till our paths
criss-crossed here—converging
like an oxbow lake. From The Kingdom in the Sky
to the People’s Republic of Cork
below the sea. And under his signature
X marked the spot to me.

X marked the spot to me
below the sea, and under his signature,
to the People’s Republic of Cork.
Like an oxbow lake from The Kingdom in the Sky,
criss-crossed here—converging
the mountains. Till our paths
we visited there, like a river snaking down.
And we ran through places,
seeking adventure, growing our hair.
Talking—how we both went to Lesotho
in one of his poems. We got
wind of him mentioning a Basotho blanket
of poetry to me. Because I caught
Maurice Scully—inscribed in his book,
From Lesotho to Sullivan’s Quay.

by Adam Wyeth
from Landing Places: Immigrant Poets in Ireland
Dedalus Press, Dublin, 2010

The Brain, in Exquisite Detail

James Gorman in The New York Times:

BRAIN-sfSpanAs a professor at Washington University and a leader of one of five teams there working on the Human Connectome Project, Dr. Barch focuses her research on the way individual differences in the brains of healthy people are related to differences in personality or thinking. For instance she said, people doing memory tasks in the M.R.I. machine may differ in competitiveness and commitment to doing well. That ought to show up in activity in the parts of the brain that involve emotion, like the amygdala. However, she points out that the object of the Connectome Project is not to find the answers to these questions, but to provide the database for others to try to do so.

Perhaps the greatest challenge is that the brain functions and can be viewed at so many levels, from a detail of a synapse to brain regions trillions of times larger. There are electrical impulses to study, biochemistry, physical structure, networks at every level and between levels. And there are more than 40,000 scientists worldwide trying to figure it out. This is not a case of an elephant examined by 40,000 blindfolded experts, each of whom comes to a different conclusion about what it is they are touching. Everyone knows the object of study is the brain. The difficulty of comprehending the brain may be more aptly compared to a poem by Wallace Stevens, “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Each way of looking, not looking, or just being in the presence of the blackbird reveals something about it, but only something. Each way of looking at the brain reveals ever more astonishing secrets, but the full and complete picture of the human brain is still out of reach. There is no need, no intention and perhaps no chance, of ever “solving” a poet’s blackbird. It is hard to imagine a poet wanting such a thing. But science, by its nature, pursues synthesis, diagrams, maps — a grip on the mechanism of the thing. We may not solve the brain any time soon, but someday achieving such a solution, at least in scientific terms, is the fervent hope of neuroscience.

More here.

F. P. Ramsey’s Marvelous Theorem

by Jonathan Kujawa

There is a delightful episode of Radiolab entitled “Emergence''. In it they look at the remarkably complicated structures which can emerge from large groups of remarkably dumb individuals each doing their own thing. You see this in ant colonies, flocks of birds, human cities, capitalist marketplaces, and the human brain. Remarkably, we find the same phenomenon in the (seemingly) inert world of mathematics.

You have a problem. You're planning your annual post-New Year's party and as the consummate host you know that parties are deadly dull unless you have just the right mix of friends and strangers. A core group of witty friends or interesting strangers to keep things lively is just the thing. For the moment let's say you would be equally happy to have three people at your party who are all friends or all strangers. Unfortunately, your co-host believes parties are best when well mixed. At all costs they would like to avoid a group of three friends or three strangers.

You make a bold offer to your co-host: If you get to pick the number of guests, the co-host can decide who is invited.

Does your gambit work? Can you now successfully outmaneuver your co-host by making the invitation list sufficiently long as to ensure a group of three friends or three strangers no matter who ends up on the list? And, if so, how many? Or have you made a horrible mistake in this strange high strategy battle over the most minor of stakes?

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Landings

by Tamuira Reid

“Planes have always been a theme in my life,” my father says and asks me how the essay is going. I tell him fine. It has some problems, but fine. Still trying to work out the structure. I hear him smile to fill the distance between us.

The last decade was bad for airplanes.

Hudson. Turkey. Buffalo. Tokyo.

And Air France. Twice.

MAN was killed instantly when a Boeing (INSERT MODEL HERE) Jet lost control and crashed into his house. He was asleep at the time, a hand positioned under his pillow, unfinished Sunday crossword on the nightstand. WIFE AND DAUGHTER managed to escape seconds before the plane hit. They would have to start their lives over now, start from scratch.

SEASONED PILOT, male, lands Boeing (INSERT MODEL HERE) Jet safely into the Hudson River after a BIRD STRIKE on BOTH ENGINES. All CREW and PASSENGERS were evacuated from the plane safely. No major INJURIES were reported.

In 1950 a CESSNA two-seater nose-dived in to the Pacific Ocean, just outside of San Francisco. The plane held TWO MEN; one of them was MY GRANDFATHER.

Is it possible to miss someone I've never met?

_____

Would you call my father a liar if he told you the perfect story? If he told you that at exactly 1 p.m. he fell into a fence, blinded by a white light so strong and pure it knocked his feet from under him, a math book open in the gutter, seedless grapes hanging in clusters from a vine above his head?

At exactly 1 p.m. my grandfather's plane crashed into the ocean. The velocity with which he hit the water was enough to tear the clothes from his body. Shoes too.

You always remember the grapes. They looked like tiny Christmas bulbs.

After the funeral, you paced around the back yard, the one that would become a basketball court but wasn't yet. You stepped on weeds, pressed their bodies to the ground. Tossed pebbles into the grass to watch them sink.

What words did you choose when you told your little brother about the accident? Your mind was someplace else by then. Left the body to fend for itself.

_____

2012: Discovery Channel filmmakers purposefully crash a 727 Jet into the Mexican desert in the name of passenger safety research. It was concluded that following the guidelines on the seat-back safety cards might actually increase your chances of survival.

It was also noted that real people were replaced by crash test dummies.

The Coast Guard found my grandfather's wallet at the scene of the accident. Two pictures were still tucked neatly inside; one of his children standing in front of a lopsided Christmas tree and the other of his wife in a bikini.

My father fell into the cracks of his own life but clawed back out, “tooth and nail” his mother would say. “Tooth and nail, that Johnny.” I imagine him scaling trees with his bare hands.

You were fifteen and didn't want to lose your father but you did. That's the way it worked. He was there and then he wasn't. Just like that.

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Monday Poem

Tiny Megalomaniacs
.
being good
you take responsibility for everything
and credit for nothing,
otherwise you’re sliding down
the slippery slope at an accelerating clip
until you’re taking credit for everything
and responsibility for zip

just a short slip down that slope
you’ve already sloughed goodness
many times like snake skin
for the sake of some small gain
some little leverage, some edge, some in
elbowing out some less able
contestant in Darwin’s world
to gain what turns out to be
a plot of worthless sand
by means of tiny sins

it’s tough, discernment’s not easy
in the muddle of desire
everything you think you require is righteous
so you turn to gods that fan that fire
you whisper prayers into corners first
then, picking up a head of steam,
you’re bellowing your righteousness from peaks
as your minions mutter lies up and down mean streets
and many bubbles burst

but more often than not you don’t get that far
you settle for a provincial fiefdom
running a big firm or corner bar,
equally worthy jobs
if your heart’s in the right place
and you understand the limits of all
and know you’re in this universe
under an umbrella of chance,
lucky to be small
and know you have just a tiny part
in the making of this
curious dance
.

by Jim Culleny
12/28/2013

Length, height, and breadth

by Alexander Bastidas Fry

4277683751_3cff2ffe43_zImagine that reality is as strange as string theory predicts. String theory calls for ten perhaps eleven space-time dimensions where strings and membranes vibrate to generate the particles and ultimately all emergent phenomena of the natural world. The dynamics of such a universe quickly escapes our ability to describe it with ordinary language or to conceive of it at all. A theory that successfully predicts the behavior of the universe is good, but a theory that precisely describes nature while it simultaneously inspires our imaginations would be best. String theory wallows in that cross roads of imagination and science such that if you don't know what string theory is yet you aren't just missing science you are missing critical modern culture.

Issues of interpretation are not uncommon in science. “People slowly accustomed themselves to the idea that that the physical states of space itself were the final reality” Einstein said. He was commenting on the fundamental principle of his theory of general relativity wherein the distribution of energy and matter determines the geometry of space time. Einstein spoke to the public with precise words. Here he is stating that the reality we experience is given by space-time itself. He is also suggesting a larger kind of scientific realism where there is an objective world independent of our capacity to know it. In this view reality is a purely physical manifestation of the natural laws of physics. Yet, the underlying dynamics of nature are not directly accessible to human perception, as Einstein said it, “imagination is everything.”

“Should overwhelming evidence gathered using a diversity of methods confirm the existence of a phenomenon in the world, it ought to be taken to be objectively real; for example, that the universe consists of three spatial dimensions: length, height, and breadth” states Sean Miller in his 2013 book Strung Together. The existence of extra dimensions is prescribed by the formalism of string theory (in M-theory there are ten dimensions of space and one of time). This claim contradicts current theories. String theory will attain the status of scientific knowledge only if predictions like this can be validated. String theory makes such sweeping claims about our universe that it is a so called theory of everything. Though regardless of whether or not string theory is strictly correct our imaginative understanding of what it means may continue to progress.

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A Belated Reply to Plato

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse Plato

Plato is among the most famous critics of democracy. His criticism is relatively simple, but potentially devastating. It runs as follows. Politics aims at achieving justice, and so political policy must reflect the demands of justice. Only those who know what justice is and have the self-control to enact what justice requires are capable of doing politics properly. Alas, the average citizen is dumb and vicious. Hence Plato's conclusion is that democracy is a fundamentally corrupt form of politics; it is the rule of those who neither know nor care about justice. In The Republic, Plato's Socrates argues for a philosophical monarchy, the rule of the wise and virtuous.

Citizens of modern democracies naturally tend to recoil at Plato's argument, and his positive proposal that philosophers should rule is often met with understandable ridicule. And yet Plato's crucial premise that the average citizen is too dumb and undisciplined for democracy is widely embraced, especially among those who find themselves on the losing side of a democratic vote. For one example, consider a common reaction among social and fiscal conservatives to Barack Obama's re-election in 2012; it was routinely claimed that the People had been “duped” and “mislead.” Furthermore, it seems that a second crucial Platonic premise – namely that a proper political order must place those who have knowledge and integrity in charge – is also widely endorsed. Consider here the popular criticisms of President Bush that fix upon his alleged lack of intelligence.

So we must ask: Could Plato be right?

We should begin by noting that many philosophers, including us, hold that democratic citizens ought to take seriously Plato's criticisms. There is nothing anti-democratic about earnestly confronting democracy's critics, and arguably there's something on the order of an imperative to engage with democracy's smartest detractors. As John Stuart Mill once argued, “He who knows only his own side of an argument knows little of that.”

Now, there are several responses to Plato, and we'd like to survey a few popular rejoinders before sketching our own. First, one may respond to Plato by denying that politics has anything at all to do with ideals so lofty as wisdom and justice. Politics, the response continues, is not about discerning truths, but producing stable government. And stability is not a matter of getting things right, but getting things done in ways that prevent revolution, and that's what a democracy accomplishes.

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Argentina, or Notes on Knausgaard

by Madhu Kaza

ScreenHunter_483 Jan. 06 10.51I began to read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle last year after I heard a conversation between two writers who were puzzling over the book. They both agreed that the absence of plot in the novel was not compensated for by a strong prose style. One writer even called the writing “bad.” Yet they both found the book utterly compelling. What they were trying to figure out was why this should be so. Intrigued by this puzzlement of theirs, I began to read the book to look for an answer myself. Shortly after, I went to an event at 192 Books in New York, where Knausgaard discussed the book with Paris Review editor Lorin Stein.

I admit my interest in Knausgaard was also related to a longstanding preoccupation with Scandinavia and the North (from the age of seven I've owed a particular debt of allegiance to Denmark, proof in my mind that one doesn't exactly choose one's imaginary homeland). But even if the nets of affiliation pull in strange catch, they are not cast randomly: Knausgaard noted that My Struggle was originally titled Argentina, which he later explained was the country of his dreams. “I can't believe Argentina exists,” he said. “It's like literature.” He spoke of Borges and also of Witold Gombrowicz, who spent much of his life in exile in Argentina. It makes sense that a Norseman would find himself drawn to Borges (who was obsessed with Old Norse and the Icelandic Sagas), and through Borges imagine that the realm of literature itself was a land called Argentina.

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Goethe: The Sufi of Weimar

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Johann_wolfgang_von_goetheIt was in a small, black, hardbound volume of Iqbal’s Urdu verse, that I saw the name Goethe for the first time. Iqbal’s Baang e Dara had belonged to me since before I could read and it became an object of mystery, likely due to the manner in which it entered my psyche: in candlelight, and in my mother’s voice. Prone to studying shadows, I was terrified of power outages at night, so my mother lit me a candle and read Iqbals’ poems for children in Baang e Dara: the dialogue between a spider and a fly, a mountain and a squirrel and other adaptations of English poems, in her lucid yet slightly elfin voice. The pages were turned right to left but a non-reader sees a text of poetry much in the cubist’s way— shapes centered on the page, squares or long rectangles, with tightly woven letters inside and wide margins to roam free in.

Over the years, the binding slackened from wear only under the section of children’s poems. When I was older I perused the rest of the book and found the poems complex but I was drawn to the miraculous harmonies formed of Urdu’s polygenetic beauty; its Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Turkish diction fitting as if synaptically, only in this poet-philosopher’s hands, to create a unique musical-intellectual whole.

I also found, to my astonishment, Iqbal’s poems addressing the greats belonging to a variety of cultures: Rumi, Shakespeare, Ghalib, Goethe, Hafiz, Ghazali, Blake, Emerson and other influential thinkers and poets. Iqbal’s century was changing the map fast, making his reflections on the learning of the East and West ever urgent. While rejecting the title “Sir” from the Raj, he continued to honor philosophers such as his own mentor (at Government College, Lahore) Dr. Thomas Arnold in his poems. Among great western thinkers, Goethe held a special place for Iqbal: Our soul discovers itself when we come into contact with a great mind. It was not until I had realized the infinitude of Goethe's imagination that I discovered the narrow breadth of my own.

Time and again, Goethe’s name stood out when I approached Iqbal’s poetry— there were many reasons for this, but the most memorable one was a typewritten response from the celebrated German scholar Annemarie Schimmel to my letter about my interest in Sufi poetry. She had read my poems closely and her brief letter was full of light and love. I heard the cosmic yes whispered in it, deep enough to give me a measure of patience, knee-deep as I was in raising my children while struggling to find time to read.

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We the Puppeteers

by Quinn O'Neill Marionette

An alarm clock radio wakes me up each morning. For a while, it was set to a radio station that featured mostly pop music and mindless celebrity gossip, mainly because of its clear reception. It also frequently played an advertisement for an insurance company serving military members who have “honorably served” and their families. The ad cast military service in an unquestionably postive light and was played often enough that I could pretty well recite it. One morning, having heard it one time too many, I pushed the button on my alarm over to the buzzer option. “I'll decide for myself what I think of the military,” I naively thought.

At the gym later that day, I found myself on a treadmill before a TV screen playing music videos interspersed with military recruitment advertisements. After my workout, on my way to the locker room, I passed a military recruitment stand with an array of brochures for the taking. I stopped for a few minutes and perused its offerings. As I saw it, the stand was wanting for alternative views, but it was clear that only one viewpoint was to be served to the gym goers, and it wasn't for me to decide.

In 1928, Edward Bernays, a pioneer of propaganda and public relations published his seminal book titled Propaganda.1 In this important, but little known book, he defines propaganda as “a consistent, enduring effort to create or shape events to influence the relations of the public to an enterprise, idea or group.” (p.52) Though the term has acquired a negative connotation, owing to its association with German use in WWI, the practice continues today, euphemized as “public relations”.

This exerpt from the 1928 book could equally apply to our current state of affairs:

“We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. […] Whatever attitude one chooses toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons – a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty million – who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.” (p.37)

Whether we like it or not, we are being manipulated by an unseen, unelected minority. Society may have grown and evolved over the years, but the changes have served only to intensify the power that these invisible leaders have over us. Control over the media is concentrated today to an extreme degree. As of 2011, just 6 corporations controlled 90% of our media. In 1983, this power was shared among 50 companies.

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Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do

by Misha Lepetic

“I am putting myself to the fullest possible use,
which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.”
~ Arthur C. Clarke

HqdefaultArtificial intelligence has been a discomforting presence in popular consciousness since at least HAL 9000, the menacing, homicidal and eventually pathetic computer in Kubrick's adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL initiated our own odyssey of fascination and revulsion with the idea that machines, to put it ambiguously, could become sentient. Of course, within the AI community, there is no real agreement of what intelligence actually means, whether artificial or not. Without being able to define it, we have scant chance at (re-)producing it, and the promise of AI has been consistently deferred into the near future for over half a century.

Nevertheless, this has not dissuaded the cultural production of AI, so two recent treatments of AI in film and television provide a good opportunity to reflect on how “thinking machines” may become a part of our quotidian lives. As is almost always the case, the way art holds up a mirror to society allows us to ask if we are prepared for this coming reality, or at least one not too different from it. I'll first consider Spike Jonze's latest film, “Her,” followed by an episode of the Channel 4 series “Black Mirror” (sorry, spoilers below).

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