On the frontlines of humanity with Tim Hetherington

by Edward Rackley

The occasion to commemorate Tim Hetherington's life and work is now upon us; let it not pass in silence. He died on April 20, 2011 from a Libyan mortar on the streets of Misrata. I didn't know him personally, as did many friends and colleagues, but followed his work from the early 2000s in Liberia through the Oscar-nominated Restrepo in 2010. Even in his earliest published work, a new creative force was clearly behind the lens.

Tim-hetherington-2An uncanny talent for capturing the grace of strangers amidst the peril of explosive circumstances, he framed them not as cannon fodder or cardboard victims but as dignified members of a forlorn species. “Often we see scenes of disaster and forget that the people imaged are individuals with individual stories and lives,” Tim explained in this clip on his working process. The moral complexity of his subjects matched my own experiences in crumbling dictatorships and nations rent asunder by grievance and the promises of insurrection. From Liberia to Darfur and Afghanistan, Hetherington's different media projects untapped their own turgid fount of memories sweet and sour.

His early Liberia photos were memorable for their fleeting dignity and searing panic of private moments in battle, serendipitous snaps of civilians and combatants with poignant acumen. Others miraculously wove the social, political and economic threads of a conflict into a single image–a West African Breughel sans folly or satire. Child soldiers lording over diamond diggers sprawled in open mud flats, sifting for riverbed gems to fund campaigns of mass amputation, beheading and rape. Portraits of human industry absent any social or political aim beyond self-serving blood and lucre.

This was early Hetherington: still mystified by the paroxysms of humanity in the throes of war. Not a bad start, but embedding in warzones is not hard to do, after all. Anyone can become cannon fodder, and journalists have been accessing armies and frontlines for over a century.

Read more »

Sonia Delaunay at the Tate Modern

by Sue Hubbard

017-new-delauYou really do wonder, sometimes, just how long some women artists have to be around before anyone takes notice. When asked by a callow journalist how she felt, in her 90s, at having recently become famous, the artist, Louise Bourgeois replied acerbically: “I’ve been ‘ere all along.”

That this current show at Tate Modern, by the artist, Sonia Delaunay, should be her first retrospective in the UK, despite her 60 year-long career, is surprising. Though not a household name, long before such things were au courant, she created a hallmark style as an avant-garde painter, and an innovative fashion and theatre designer. Anyone born in the 40s or 50s, whether they realise it or not, will be familiar with the influence of her abstract designs on post war fabrics. To be a woman artist during the height of modernism was something of a paradox. Modernism and its playground Paris certainly gave women new freedoms in terms of art education, living arrangements, travel and relationships. But art history has, despite inroads made in the 70s by feminist critics, been a narrative written largely from a male perspective.

Born Sara Élievna Stern in 1885, the youngest of a modest Jewish family from Odessa, Delaunay’s life reads like that of the heroine from a 19th century novel. Sent by her parents to live with her wealthy uncle, Henri Terk, she adopted the name Sofia Terk (though was always known as Sonia). Through her uncle she was introduced to the great museums of St. Petersburg, spent summers in Finland, and became familiar with European culture. At the age of 18 she went off to study art in Germany. Seeking to emancipate herself from her middle-class background she went in search of artistic freedom, reading books on psychology and philosophy, including the book of the moment, Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil. She also developed a passion – one shared with her contemporary the poet Rainer Maria Rilke – for all things Slavic, perhaps as a way to stay in touch with her childhood. And she started to sew.

Read more »

Political Name-Calling: A Defense

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Screen-Shot-2013-09-27-at-10.00.10-AMIn the United States, the political season is almost upon us. Campaigns are gearing up, contrasts are being drawn, and debates are beginning to emerge. This is an important time for those who are interested in the norms of argument and public deliberation. Fallacy-detection is a favorite pastime, and we ourselves are enthusiastic participants. However, there is considerable confusion surrounding one of the most widely-known and commonly-attributed fallacies, the ad hominem (“to the man”).

Fallacies are improper inferences, popular ways of drawing conclusions from premises that in fact offer them no support. In its most common variety, ad hominem fallacy takes the following form:

Premise: Subject S is in some specified way vicious.

Conclusion: We should reject the things S says.

The vices identified in the premise of course vary. Depending on the context, it might be claimed that S is philanderer, a hypocrite, an alcoholic, a drug abuser, a child abuser, a racist, a pervert, a neoliberal, a lowbrow, an egghead, a neocon, a snob, a pinhead, a knownothing, and so on. To be sure, some of these traits may not be actual vices, but the effective deployment of the ad hominem depends only on the speaker's audience believing that the trait attributed in the premise is indeed vicious. The ad hominem's strategy is that of identifying the purported vice ascribed to S in the premise as sufficient grounds for rejecting the things S has said.

The prevalence of the ad hominem in political debate is easy to explain. Given the carefully curated and time-constrained forums in which most public political discourse occurs, it is just easier for disputants to talk about each other than the ideas and policies over which they disagree. Consequently, discussions of politics all too regularly become wranglings over personalities. Yet, despite its understandable prevalence, the garden-variety ad hominem is obviously fallacious.

Read more »

Narrative Clarity and Dramatic Tension in “Greed” by C.K. Williams

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

In a lineated poem, the line-breaks are used to produce verbal or sonic emphasis, in addition to creating a structure that is arranged such that it is easy to parse and comprehend the poem. When line-length varies, emphasis shifts and dramatic tension or narrative effect is produced. Generally speaking, in a free-verse poem, line-length varies without a set pattern, and the variation depends on where the poet wants emphasis, but in his (free-verse) poem “Greed,” C.K. Williams uses a pattern to arrange the lines. He uses long lines (flush right-margin) that are alternated by short lines constituting five to eight syllables. The lines are enjambed and form remarkably long sentences. Such sentences may ordinarily be in danger of becoming unwieldy or out of control. Williams brings aesthetic order to the poem by using a typographical pattern and a pattern of sonic devices, thereby creating a piece that has narrative clarity as well as narrative impact or dramatic tension.
Typographically, Williams’ style of predictably continuing each long line till flush right margin and indenting each alternate line, establishes a pattern that helps the eye get accustomed to this arrangement and to parse the sentences with ease:

A much-beaten-upon-looking, bedraggled blackbird, not a starling, with
A mangled or tumorous claw,
an extra-evil air, comically malignant, like something from a folktale
meant to frighten you,
gimps his way over the picnic table to a cube of moist white cheese into
which he drives his beak.

There is a suspended syntax in this long sentence, but the words are strung together alliteratively and with the deft use of diction that creates sound patterns forming sonic clusters, making the sentence cohere and aiding comprehension. In the above stanza, “bedraggled black-bird,” “extra-evil” are alliterations. There is a sonic partnership or inter-play in diction such as “starling,” “mangled” and “malignant” or between “gimp” and “picnic” or “cheese” and “beak” or in the phrase” folktale/ meant to frighten you.” These patterns of sonic play establish a harmony which can be said to contribute to clarity in its cohesive effect. The pattern becomes more and more vivid as the poem continues:

Then a glister of licentious leering, a conspiratorial gleam, the cocked
brow of common avarice:
he works his yellow scissors deeper in, daring doubt, a politician with
his finger in the till,
a weapon maker’s finger in the politician, the slobber and the licking
and the champ and the click.

Read more »

Why Physics Needs Philosophy

Tim Maudlin at the PBS Nova website:

Plato_Seneca_Aristotle_medieval620How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality?….Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge. —Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

This passage from the 2012 book “The Grand Design” set off a firestorm (or at least a brushfire) of controversy. Has philosophy been eclipsed by science in the quest for understanding reality? Is philosophy just dressed-up mysticism, disconnected from scientific understanding?

Many questions about the nature of reality cannot be properly pursued without contemporary physics. Inquiry into the fundamental structure of space, time and matter must take account of the theory of relativity and quantum theory. Philosophers accept this. In fact, several leading philosophers of physics hold doctorates in physics. Yet they chose to affiliate with philosophy departments rather than physics departments because so many physicists strongly discourage questions about the nature of reality. The reigning attitude in physics has been “shut up and calculate”: solve the equations, and do not ask questions about what they mean.

More here.

History, morality and the clash of civilizations

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

Moral-compass‘With the rise of China’, Martin Jacques writes in his book When China Rules the World, ‘Western universalism will cease to be universal – and its values and outlook will become steadily less influential. The emergence of China as a global power in effect relativizes everything.’ The transformation of China into an economic superpower raises important and challenging questions about how we perceive the world. Our understanding of history and culture will unquestionably change. The Era of the Warring States may come to be seen as significant as the Peloponnesian War, or 1911, the end of the dynastic era, as important a date as 1789, and the fall of the French monarchy. Kongzi, Mo Tzu and Zhu Xi may become as well known as Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas. Lu Xun could be regarded as fine a writer as James Joyce.

But what about our understanding of morality? To what extent will the rise of China and the decline of Europe and America transform the way we understand moral values? Will universalism be seen merely as a form of Western particularism? To what extent will ‘everything be relativised’?

The story of this book is the story of how the centre of gravity of moral thinking has historically shifted. In the ancient world, Greece, Israel, Persia, India and China were all sources of civilization and of distinctive moral philosophies. The concepts that developed at each source were shaped by the particularities of the local culture and social needs; there were, nevertheless, also common themes that spanned continents, from the idea of virtue to the Golden Rule. The rise of monotheism, and in particular of Christianity, transformed the discussion of ethics in Europe, establishing the idea of rule-based morality, guided and anchored by a divine intelligence, and developing ideas of universalism. The emergence of Islam at the end of the first millennium CE, and its expansion through the beginning of the second, created a new centre of intellectual gravity. Drawing upon the heritage of Greece, Persia and India, as well as the Judaic and Christian traditions, the Islamic Empire came to be a bridge both between the Ancient world and early modernity and between East and West. The only empire that in its day could challenge the philosophical and technological supremacy of the Islamic Empire was China, where the arrival of Buddhism from India triggered a renaissance in Confucian thinking. What we can see in this history is not moral progress, in the sense we can witness scientific or technological progress, but the maturing, development and deepening of moral philosophy.

More here.

Editing Human Embryos: So This Happened

Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:

ScreenHunter_1163 Apr. 26 16.02Earlier this week, Chinese researchers reported that they edited the genes of human embryos using a new technique called CRISPR. While these embryos will not be growing up into genetically modified people, I suspect this week will go down as a pivotal moment in the history of medicine. David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon broke the news today at Nature News. Here I’ve put together a quick guide to the history behind this research, what the Chinese scientists did, and what it may signify.

There are thousands of genetic disorders that can occur if a mutation happens to strike an important piece of DNA. Hemophilia, sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis– the list goes on and on. As I wrote in the Atlantic in 2013, a particularly cruel genetic disorder, fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva causes people to grow a second skeleton. It’s caused by a mutation that changes a single “letter” of a single gene, called ACVR1. The protein encoded by the gene doesn’t work properly, triggering a wave of changes in people’s bodies, with the result that when they heal from a bruise, they replace entire chunks of muscle with new bone.

In some cases, people can offset many of the symptoms of genetic disorders with simple changes, like watching what they eat. In other cases, like hemophilia, they have to take regular doses of drugs to remain healthy. In other cases, like fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, there’s no effective treatment yet.

For decades, scientists have tried to develop a new way to treat genetic disorders like these: to heal the patient, heal the gene.

More here.

Dave Eggers: We spy on each other

Robert Collins in The Telegraph:

Eggers_illo_rgb_3278654bDave Eggers has just been reminded why he can’t allow himself near the internet. The night before I meet him in Paris to talk about his latest three novels – published in a burst of creativity over the past three years – he has been up until 3am watching videos on YouTube on a houseboat he has rented in Amsterdam. “I got back, and to wind down I watched the comedy duo Key & Peele,” he says, while we sit in a bijou hotel overlooking the Place du Panthéon. “There’s just hundreds of YouTube clips. I couldn’t stop. That’s my thing. I can’t be near that stuff. I can’t have it in the house. I would never work again.” Eggers, you see, has been working very hard indeed. Since his 2000 debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir about his parents’ deaths from cancer within five weeks of each other and his subsequent rearing of his then eight-year-old brother, Christopher – Eggers has published short stories, novels, anthologies and children’s books. In 2002, he founded a literacy centre, 826 Valencia, for schoolchildren in San Francisco. On the back of its success, he opened a string of them across America, which led to others being set up in Europe. Eggers has come to Paris to visit the latest of these.

In between all this, he has written screenplays – including the film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are, directed by Spike Jonze in 2009 – and founded an organisation that helps American university students find funding. He runs his own publishing house and literary magazine, McSweeney’s. And he has set up another literary magazine, The Believer, as well as founding a series of oral histories about human rights crises, a theme he covered in his 2009 book Zeitoun, which recounted the ordeal of a Syrian-American arrested in New Orleans in the chaos following Hurricane Katrina. Eggers is not so much a literary darling as a one-man social enterprise.

More here.

Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will

Salley Vickers in The Guardian:

WillJulian Baggini is that happy thing – a philosopher who recognises that readers go glassy-eyed if presented with high-octane philosophical discourse. And yet, as his latest book, Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will, makes clear, it is in all our interests to consider crucial aspects of what it means to be human. Indeed, in this increasingly complex world, maybe more so than ever. Freedom is one of the great, emotive political watchwords. The emancipation of slaves and women has inspired political movements on a grand scale. But, latterly, the concept of freedom has defected from the public realm to the personal. How responsible are we as individuals for the actions we take? To what degree are we truly autonomous agents?

…The neural information that has made waves, however, is the fact that scans indicates the brain’s chemistry consistently determines a decision prior to our consciously making that decision. So when I deliberate over a menu and finally choose a mushroom risotto over a rare steak, my brain has anticipated this before I am aware of my choice. At first, this looks alarming. I am not the mistress of my gastric fate, my brain chemistry is. But that is to fail to recognise that my brain’s chemistry may be responding to a vast array of accumulated information about my reading of restaurant reviews, my health, the kind of day I’ve had, my relationship to my weight, my dining companion, my views on animal rights. This is a process not dissimilar to intuition, which is no more than the mind’s ability to process a number of clues too complex to be consciously registered.

More here.

Sunday Poem


You stand far from the crowd, adjacent to power.
You consider the edge as well as the frame.
You consider beauty, depth of field, lighting
to understand the field, the crowd.
Late into the day, the atmosphere explodes
and revolution, well, revolution is everything.
You begin to see for the first time
everything is just like the last thing
only its opposite and only for a moment.
When a revolution completes its orbit
the objects return only different
for having stayed the same throughout.
To continue is not what you imagined.
But what you imagined was to change
and so you have and so has the crowd.

by Peter Gizzi
from The Outernationale
publisher: Wesleyan, Middletown CT, 2007

Wislawa Szymborska’s ‘Map: Collected and Last Poems’

Richard Lourie in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_1162 Apr. 25 23.26The mass of men may “lead lives of ­quiet desperation,” as Thoreau wrote, but the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska (1923-2012) did just the opposite: She lived a life of quiet amazement, reflected in poems that are both plain-spoken and luminous. Many of them are gathered now in “Map: Collected and Last Poems.”

Born in the countryside, Szymborska moved in 1931 to Krakow, city of kings and culture, and lived there until her death. Though her life was most eventful inwardly, there was no escaping history in Poland. Indeed, Szymborska lived in four quite different Polands: the anxious interwar Poland that had regained its independence in 1918 after more than a century’s absence from the map of Europe; the Poland of the Nazi occupation, the death camps and uprisings, which began shortly after she turned 16; postwar Poland under Soviet domination, where she herself was a Communist until breaking with the party in 1966, about the time she was finding her voice as a poet; and, last, post-Soviet Poland, free, successful, blessedly ordinary.

Szymborska neither evades nor fetish­izes her country’s travails. She can be tough and blunt toward them, as in the poem “Starvation Camp Near Jaslo,” where “the meadow’s silent, like a witness who’s been bought.” But Szymborska is always more interested in the individual. ­After saying, “History rounds off skeletons to zero. / A thousand and one is still only a thousand,” the poem goes off to wonder about that uncounted individual. In “Innocence,” she muses on young German girls blissfully unaware they were “conceived on a mattress made of human hair,” and in “Hitler’s First Photograph” she has a little macabre fun at the Führer’s expense: “And who’s this little fellow in his itty-bitty robe? / That’s tiny baby Adolf, the Hitlers’ little boy!” Of course, as with any newborn, you can’t help wondering what his future will turn out to be: “Whose tummy full of milk, we just don’t know: / printer’s, doctor’s, merchant’s, priest’s?”

More here.

Has Narendra Modi cleaned up India?

James Crabtree in Prospect:

ScreenHunter_1161 Apr. 25 23.23Narendra Modi stood on the walls of New Delhi’s Red Fort on a blustery morning last August, a man at the height of his recently-acquired powers. It was his first Independence Day speech, and also the first given by an Indian Prime Minister born after the end of colonial rule in 1947. Coming just a few short months after his thumping victory in national elections in May, it provided Modi with the most prominent stage afforded to any Indian leader to outline his plans for the nation.

Not a man known for modesty, he began humbly enough, painting himself “not as the Prime Minister, but as the Prime Servant.” Dressed in a white kurta and flamboyant, flowing red polka-dot turban, he stressed his separation from India’s establishment, too: “Brothers and sisters, I am an outsider for Delhi… I have no idea about the administration and working of this place.” His hands jabbing the air for emphasis, he even made brief nods toward harmony between India’s many religions, and the importance of the rights of women—mentions that drew modest praise from anxious liberals worried that Modi might prove to be a right-wing firebrand, in hoc to the Hindu nationalist base of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Beyond the showmanship, there were hints of substance. As wind whipped around the ramparts, Modi laid out themes that would define his early period in power: an economic revival after years of stagnation; transforming India into a Chinese-style manufacturing powerhouse; and a focus on the concerns of the poor, from building toilets to sprucing up squalid streets. Yet on one issue—indeed, perhaps the most important that lay behind his electoral landslide—Modi had surprisingly little to say: corruption.

More here.

The Revolution in Rojava


Meredith Tax in Dissent magazine image (Biji Kurdistan/Flickr):

While the Syrian opposition is understandably bitter that the YPG and YPJ withdrewmost of their energy from the war with Assad, leftists worldwide should be watching the remarkable efforts being made by Syrian Kurds and their allies to build a liberated area where they can develop their ideas about socialism, democracy, women, and ecology in practice.

They have been working on these ideas since 2003, when the PYD (Democratic Union Party) was founded by Syrian members of Turkey’s banned Kurdish party, the PKK. By January 2014, they had established a bottom-up system of government in each canton, with political decisions made by local councils and social service and legal questions administered by local civil society structures under the umbrella of TEV-DEM (Democratic Society Movement). TEV-DEM includes people from all the ethnic groups in the cantons, who are represented by more than one political party, but most of its ideological leadership comes from the PYD.

According to Janet Biehl, who was part of an academic delegation to the Cizîre canton in December 2014, the district commune is the building block of the whole structure. Each commune has 300 members and two elected co-presidents, one male, one female. Eighteen communes make up a district, and the co-presidents of all of them are on the district people’s council, which also has directly elected members. The district people’s councils decide on matters of administration and economics like garbage collection, heating-oil distribution, land ownership, and cooperative enterprises. While all the communes and councils are at least 40 percent women, the PYD—in its determination to revolutionize traditional gender relations—has also set up parallel autonomous women’s bodies at each level. These determine policy on matters of particular concern to women, like forced marriages, honor killings, polygamy, sexual violence, and discrimination. Since domestic violence is a continuing problem, they have also set up a system of shelters. If there is conflict on an issue concerning women, the women’s councils are able to overrule the mixed councils.

In short, the Rojava revolution is fulfilling the dreams of Arab Spring—and then some. If its ideas can be sustained and can prevail against ISIS, Kurdish nationalism, and the hostile states surrounding the cantons, Rojava will affect the possibilities available to the whole region. So why isn’t it getting more international support?

More here.

Karl Ove ­Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle: Book 4’

26-COVER-sfSpanJeffrey Eugenides at The New York Times:

“The last time I was in New York,” Karl Ove Knausgaard wrote recently in The New York Times Magazine, in his account of traveling through the ­United States, “a well-known American writer invited me for lunch. . . . I tried desperately to think of something to say. We had to have something in common, we were about the same age, did the same thing for a living, wrote novels, though his were of considerably higher quality than mine. But no, I couldn’t come up with a single topic of ­conversation. . . . When we got back to Sweden, I received an email from him. He apologized for having ­invited me to lunch, he had realized he never should have done it and asked me not to reply to his email. At first I didn’t understand what he meant. . . . Then I ­realized he must have taken my silence personally. He must have thought I didn’t find it worth my time talking to him.”

Knausgaard doesn’t reveal the identity of the American writer he had lunch with. But I will: It was me. I may be the first reviewer of Knausgaard’s autobiographical works who has appeared in one of them. Therefore, I’m in a perfect position to judge how he uses the stuff of his life to fashion his stories. Ever since Knausgaard turned me into a minor character, I have an inside track on what he’s doing.

more here.

L.A.’s hidden history in ‘Terminal Island’

La-et-jc-looking-back-terminal-isand-pictures--008David L. Ulin at the Los Angeles Times:

When we think of Terminal Island, after all, what do we imagine? Do we know that it was once (in a manner of speaking) two islands, Rattlesnake Island and Deadman’s Island, before they were joined, first by a jetty and then by more direct intervention? Do we know that it was, initially, “a tourist destination with no hotels … a recreational spot for those who loved the outdoors and nature”? As early as 1888, it was declared, by The Times, to be an interesting destination, if “rough looking.”

Hirahara and Knatz are smart and detailed on this early history, framing the development of Terminal Island through the filter of the growth of Los Angeles itself. By 1891, there was a rail line, and the island was renamed, as bathhouses and hotels were built.

A decade later, the authors tell us, “People flocked to Terminal Island for the summer. … The Times extolled the ‘virtues’ of the island: the best French chef, everything was clean and fresh, and … [o]n holidays like July the Fourth, there was such a demand for bathing suits that it was hard to rent a dry one.”

more here.