against activism

Rosenwald_Activist0201B30.3_72Astra Taylor at The Baffler:

As my friend Jonathan Matthew Smucker, whom I met at Zuccotti Park during the early days of Occupy Wall Street, argues in a forthcoming book, the term activist is suspiciously devoid of content. “Labels are certainly not new to collective political action,” Smucker writes, pointing to classifications like abolitionist, populist, suffragette, unionist, and socialist, which all convey a clear position on an issue. But activist is a generic category associated with oddly specific stereotypes: today, the term signals not so much a certain set of political opinions or behaviors as a certain temperament. In our increasingly sorted and labeled society, activists are analogous to skateboarders or foodies or dead heads, each inhabiting a particular niche in America’s grand and heterogeneous cultural ecosystem—by some quirk of personality, they enjoy long meetings, shouting slogans, and spending a night or two in jail the way others may savor a glass of biodynamic wine. Worse still, Smucker contends, is the fact that many activists seem to relish their marginalization, interpreting their small numbers as evidence of their specialness, their membership in an exclusive and righteous clique, effectiveness be damned.

While there are notable exceptions, many strands of contemporary activism risk emphasizing the self over the collective. By contrast, organizing is cooperative by definition: it aims to bring others into the fold, to build and exercise shared power. Organizing, as Smucker smartly defines it, involves turning “a social bloc into a political force.” Today, anyone can be an activist, even someone who operates alone, accountable to no one—for example, relentlessly trying to raise awareness about an important issue. Raising awareness—one of contemporary activism’s preferred aims—can be extremely valuable (at least I hope so, since I have spent so much time trying to do it), but education is not organizing, which involves not just enlightening whoever happens to encounter your message, but also aggregating people around common interests so that they can strategically wield their combined strength.

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A new biography of Charlotte Brontë

Cover00Daphne Merkin at Bookforum:

There is something about the Brontë sisters that is enduringly fascinating, something about their strange, gifted, and woefully abbreviated lives (none of them lived to forty) that reads like the stuff of myth. Perhaps it’s the combination of great personal privation and great artistic willfulness, the mixture of geographic isolation and literary renown, that lends their story an elemental note of warring forces both within and without. To think of these three motherless and conspicuously inbred young women—Charlotte, Emily, and Anne—living off in a parsonage on the Yorkshire moors together with an eccentric curate father and an alcoholic brother, in a Victorian climate that was unconducive to the creative aspirations of the female gender, and yet all the same producing a clutch of game-changing novels (Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Agnes Grey), is to wonder at the ways in which character and imaginative vision can triumph over circumstance.

Among the bevy of books about this compelling family that have come out in recent years, there have been Juliet Barker’s heroically researched 1997 biography, The Brontës: A Life in Letters, and Lucasta Miller’s The Brontë Myth, published in 2004. Miller’s gracefully written and wonderfully entertaining account—or “meta-biography,” as she calls it—reexamined the ways in which the Brontës’ “lonely moorland lives” underwent a process of mythification even before Charlotte, the last sister, died in 1855. This “beguiled infatuation,” as Henry James put it, began with Elizabeth Gaskell’s landmark Life of Charlotte Brontë, which Miller describes as “arguably the most famous English biography of the nineteenth century” and one that “set the agenda which would turn the Brontës into icons.”

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Evil that Lurks in those Woods

Frances Chiem in Two Serious Ladies:

Tumblr_ndy0r1ymGJ1r87tiqo1_1280-1024x647The mountain that appears behind the “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign in the show’s title sequence is in fact a real topographical feature, not a facade or even a composite image. The real “Twin Peaks” are Mt Si and Little Si, two of the most popular hiking areas in Washington’s King County. The gender parity on the trails is pretty impressive, even for the outdoor-recreation oriented Pacific Northwest. You are as likely to see groups of women in Lululemon as you are to see Boy Scout troops and families being dragged along by multiple purebred dogs. Both the fictional wilderness of Twin Peaks and the real wilderness near my home are, without a doubt, male dominated, but progressive Seattle is working to lessen this gender parity. The REI flagship store – a sprawling complex complete with indoor bike paths and a climbing wall a few minutes from my downtown office – hosts climbing, backpacking and mountain bike classes just for women. There is a concerted effort to get women into the wild. Multiple regional nonprofits like the Washington Trails Association and Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust also have programs with this end in mind. The popular trails 40 minutes from Seattle continue to play a significant role in getting urban women outside. These are safe, friendly spaces transformed into something abjectly unfriendly in Twin Peaks. Though the series’ iconic peaks reside in Western Washington, it would make the most sense politically and geographically to assume that the series itself is meant to be set on the Eastern side of the state.

In the pilot episode, abusive trucker Leo Johnson calls his teenage bride from the road (allegedly from Butte, Montana) and abruptly shows up in the driveway the following morning. He would not have been able to make it from Montana to Twin Peaks as quickly as he did if the town were west of the Cascades. David Lynch has also said that the town was somewhat based on Missoula, Montana, which shares a topography more similar to the right side of Washington than the left. That level of specificity may seem nitpicky, but the east/west distinction is essential to understanding Washington’s political identity. Western Washington is liberal, the land of Microsoft, Boeing and multiple national parks. Eastern Washington is rural, mostly conservative, its industry is the land.

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Bird genomes contain ‘fossils’ of parasites that now infect humans

From PhysOrg:

BirdgenomescIn rare instances, DNA is known to have jumped from one species to another. If a parasite's DNA jumps to its host's genome, it could leave evidence of that parasitic interaction that could be found millions of years later—a DNA 'fossil' of sorts. An international research team led from Uppsala University has discovered a new type of so-called transposable element that occurred in the genomes of certain birds and nematodes. The results are published in Nature Communications. Dr. Alexander Suh at Uppsala University is an expert on the small stretches of DNA that tend to jump from one place to another, called transposable elements. Working with a team from eleven institutions in five countries, the researchers discovered a new type of transposable element that occurred in certain bird genomes but not others. By searching DNA databases, the team discovered that the only other animals that shared the new transposable element were that are parasites of humans and other mammals.

'This finding was so unexpected that we were literally speechless at first,' says Alexander Suh. By comparing the DNA sequences of each instance of the transposable element, Suh and his team were able to figure out that the transfer of DNA between nematodes and occurred in two waves across the entire tropics, including remote places like Madagascar. They involved charismatic groups of birds such as parrots, hummingbirds, manakins. Certain human diseases, such as avian flu and HIV/AIDS, are known to have jumped onto our species from animal hosts. Epidemiologists have only recently realized the importance of these so-called 'zoonoses'.

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Review: J. D. McClatchy’s Secret Autobiography, in Quotations

Dwight Garner in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_1874 Apr. 20 18.12The books of quotations that rarely let you down are commonplace books, those intellectual scrapbooks made for personal use and compiled by a single avid reader. Packed with miscellaneous delights — phrases, jokes, anecdotes, lovely sentences — they read like secret autobiographies, back catalogs of joy and heartbreak. You can apply them like compresses on the ugly bruises of life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson kept one; so did Thomas Hardy. W. H. Auden issued his under the title “A Certain World” (1970). A lesser-known figure, the English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947) had his collected in“Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks,” published in 1981. It’s become a bit of a cult item.

These days, it’s rare that anyone publishes one. This is a reason to welcome the poet J. D. McClatchy’s “Sweet Theft: A Poet’s Commonplace Book.” Another reason is that it’s civilized and civilizing while being intimate and offbeat. It’s a treat to walk its aisles and browse its well-stocked shelves.

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Dandy Highwaymen

Zaheer Kazmi in 3AM Magazine:

ScreenHunter_1873 Apr. 20 17.54Refracting the exhibitionism of Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century flâneur through the gaze of today’s consumer culture, Susan Buck-Morss has observed that ‘In commodity society all of us are prostitutes, selling ourselves to strangers; all of us are collectors of things.’ The figure of the flâneur, later to be theorised by Walter Benjamin, lived on in mid-twentieth century psychogeography and assimilated the practices of Baudelaire’s rarefied urban gent to those of the lower classes. The Situationist dérive – an act of unmapped urban drifting – was intended to create an alternative cartography which transcended the panoptic confines of the late modern city’s disciplining street grid where nobody could lose themselves in the crowd. A spontaneous walk off the beaten path, rejecting state-controlled urban planning, was reimagined as a crime against bourgeois convention and a gesture towards freedom.

Hiding in plain sight, unable to ever fully escape the ubiquitous reach of the city’s watchful eye, however, the flâneur was not only spectator but spectacle, a seller as well as collector of things. Often identified with dandyism, the decadent liberty of the flâneur – embodied in flamboyant ways of deportment and sartorial choices – was also a subversive expression of art and sexuality that revealed a deeper intimacy between liberty and criminality in the Western public sphere.

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While biology shows us gender can be fluid, our brains struggle to see it that way

Robert Sapolsky in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_1872 Apr. 20 17.48Biologists have long known about exceptions to the boring, staid notion that organisms are, and remain, either female or male. Now our culture is inching toward recognizing that the permanent, cleanly binary nature of gender is incorrect.

Along with the high-profile Caitlyn Jenner, and Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox, America has seen openly transgender individuals serve as a mayor, state legislator, judge, police officer, a model for a global cosmetics brand, and a high school homecoming queen. Even amid the appallingly high rates of discrimination and violence against transgender individuals, there is a growing recognition that gender designation need not be permanent.

Many people are questioning whether there is even such a thing as “gender.” These are individuals whose psychosexual self-image may be of both genders, a third gender, no gender, or whose visceral perception of the social world does not include implicitly seeing people as gendered.

This new continent was formalized by as august and ancient an institution as Facebook, which offers 58 gender specification options on one’s profile page. These include Agender, Bigender, Intersex, Gender Fluid, Gender Questioning, Non-binary, Pangender, and my two favorites—Two-spirit, with a vaguely Native American grooviness to it, and Other, which basically implies that, Whoa, Nellie, we’ve barely scratched the surface!

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is that even a thing?

17stern-blog480Alexander Stern at the The Stone (New York Times):

Speakers and writers of American English have recently taken to identifying a staggering and constantly changing array of trends, events, memes, products, lifestyle choices and phenomena of nearly every kind with a single label — a thing. In conversation, mention of a surprising fad, behavior or event is now often met with the question, “Is that actually a thing?” Or “When did that become a thing?” Or “How is that even a thing?” Calling something “a thing” is, in this sense, itself a thing.

It would be easy to call this a curiosity of the language and leave it at that. Linguistic trends come and go. Why has “That really gets my goat” survived for so long when we have pretty much given up “You know your onions”? One could, on the other hand, consider the use of “a thing” a symptom of an entire generation’s linguistic sloth, general inarticulateness and penchant for cutesy, empty, half-ironic formulations that create a self-satisfied barrier preventing any form of genuine engagement with the world around them.

I don’t want to do either. My assumption is that language and experience mutually influence each other. Language not only captures experience, it conditions it. It sets expectations for experience and gives shape to it as it happens. What might register as inarticulateness can reflect a different way of understanding and experiencing the world.

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5174pRLiKOL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Nathaniel Popkin at Cleaver Magazine:

Wilson leads the reader into his classic work of naturalist philosophy, Biophilia, published in 1984, by describing the experience of entering a forest in Surinam, as if, like Moresco’s unnamed narrator-protagonist, drawn to light, into another world. “In a twist my mind came free and I was aware of the hard workings of the natural world beyond the periphery of ordinary attention,” he writes,

where passions lose their meaning and history is in another dimension, without people, and great events pass without record or judgment. I was a transient of no consequence in this familiar yet deeply alien world that I had come to love.

Since that 1960s field study, the entomologist has spent nearly six more decades immersed in nature. He sees human history as inextricably connected to the much longer biological history of the earth and yet he’s conscious of man’s latent power. As a practical matter, it’s just better if—aside from field biologists like himself—we stay away, let nature be nature, at least for the world’s most sensitive biospheres. Moresco, from an opposite tact (his narrator’s life is fading), imagines flora and fauna taking back the planet after humans “have disappeared from the face of this little planet lost in the galaxies.” Giono, whose startling novels immersed in the pre-modern world of rural Provence are just now reaching contemporary English readers, imagines his peasant characters in constant dialogue with unpredictable nature, which even in the most benign circumstance is close at hand. A similar claustrophobia inhabits the fog gray Wales that Jones has created in Everything I Found at the Beach and his earlier The Dig, where to survive people must get their hands dirty. In Jones’s Wales, nature exploited for man is profit for some, subsistence, or worse, for most others.

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Crisis in Brazil

20160102_FBD001_0Perry Anderson at the London Review of Books:

Half-hidden, the roots of this debacle lay in the soil of the PT’s model of growth itself. From the outset, its success relied on two kinds of nutrient: a super-cycle of commodity prices, and a domestic consumption boom. Between 2005 and 2011, the terms of trade for Brazil improved by a third, as demand for its raw materials from China and elsewhere increased the value of its principal exports and the volume of tax receipts for social expenditures. By the end of Lula’s second term, the share of primary commodities in the Brazilian export package had jumped from 28 to 41 per cent, and manufactures had fallen from 55 to 44 per cent; by the end of Dilma’s first term, raw materials accounted for more than half the value of all exports. But from 2011 onwards the prices of the country’s leading tradable goods collapsed: iron ore dropped from $180 to $55 a ton, soya from $18 to $8 a bushel, crude oil from $140 to $50 a barrel. Compounding the end of the overseas bonanza, domestic consumption hit the buffers. Throughout its rule, the core strategy of the PT had been to expand home demand by increasing popular purchasing power. That was achieved not only by raising the minimum wage and making cash transfers to the poor – the Bolsa Família – but by a massive injection of consumer credit. Over the decade from 2005 to 2015, total debt owed by the private sector increased from 43 to 93 per cent of GDP, with consumer loans running at double the level of neighbouring countries. By the time Dilma was re-elected in late 2014, interest payments on household credit were absorbing more than a fifth of average disposable income. Along with the exhaustion of the commodity boom, the consumer spree was no longer sustainable. The two motors of growth had stalled.

In 2011 the aim of Mantega’s new economic matrix had been to kick-start the economy by lifting investment. But his means of doing so had diminished. State banks had been steadily increasing their share of loan capital, from a third to a half of all credit since he took over in 2006 – the portfolio of the government’s development bank, BNDES, rose sevenfold after 2007. Offering preferential rates to leading companies that added up to a much larger subsidy than outlays to poor families, the ‘Bolsa Empresarial’ cost the treasury about double the Bolsa Família.

more here.

Art Is a Dark Mirror

Olivia Schwob in Harvard Magazine:

PixEllen Harvey ’89 is between shows, so most of her work is packed up, the walls of her studio baring their industrial concrete. Only one piece, unfinished, is propped by the entrance: a massive grayscale cityscape. Blending in with its surroundings, it at first resembles a blown-up photograph. Careful scrutiny gradually reveals thin strokes of oil paint, which bring out the window ledges of warehouses and a water tower’s spindly legs; daubs name the trees and clouds. Where most of her work takes the form of multi-part installations, this painting stands alone. But in another sense, it’s a classic Harvey: its power lies in the accumulation of small moments into an overwhelming whole.

Harvey works in other media, but may be best known for her exhaustive collections of paintings about painting: a copy of every nude in Miami’s Bass museum; a miniature version of every work in the Whitney Museum catalog; a portrait of every piece of metalwork in the Barnes Foundation’s collection. The projects are rapturous bordering on obsessive-compulsive, but reducing them to genre-worship would be a mistake. Harvey uses her fascination with traditional art techniques to comment on “art” as an enterprise, and to point out its potential for multiple “failures”—failures to communicate, to preserve, to record, to hold value; she readily acknowledges painting’s potential to become merely “wallpaper for the rich.” This interest in failure derives from her own unconventional start as an artist: Harvey switched careers after attending Yale Law School, and has never studied art formally. Though recognition of her work is growing, and art institutions worldwide seek her out more frequently, she still considers herself something of an outsider in that world.

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Wednesday Poem

“In war there are only humans, method and grief.”
………………………………….. —Enoch Smith

Song of the Forward Artillery Observer

I saw them first as the ghosts I would make them,
Green in the sorcery of Starlight.
Don’t put them under the trees, I willed him,
It’s tombs not foxholes they’ll dig themselves there,
But he put them under the trees. I killed them
First on that hill, with tree-bursts in mid air.

Don’t run them out over the saddle, I pleaded,
You want concealment not speed, go downslope
To bush—but fear knew what it needed;
They bolted up over the saddle. That’s when
I cursed him, adjusted, and killed them again.

For God’s sake west not south I yelled, the winds
Have changed and the shadow’s gone, but south
Was the way he took them. Where the valley bends
I hung my rounds in the monsoon’s mouth
And got that extra half second’s fall
When they bunched at the river, and I killed them all.

I say my one prayer in quietest numbers
Always heard to the hilt: in less
Than a year I built cathedrals of bones
Where a thunderous god descended to bless
My enemies in their benightedness
And left them prostrate, confirmed among the stones.
by Rob Schwab

Notes. Most infantry units had an FAO assigned whose specialty was to call in and adjust artillery fire. His messages to the artillery support bases, usually miles away, were brief and almost completely numerical.

A Starlight scope is a night-vision device that intensifies ambient light and shows everything in shades of blurred green.

A shadow, with reference to artillery, is a place theoretically within range but one that cannot be hit because of interposed terrain features or wind, or a combination of both.

Enemy dead counted in the field were said to be confirmed.

Inner Earth Is Teeming With Exotic Forms of Life

Sandeep Ravindran in Smithsonian:

Nematode_stalactite_jpg__800x600_q85_cropAncient bacteria from nearly two miles below Earth's surface: that's what first drew Tullis Onstott to begin his search for life in the most unlikely of places. The geomicrobiologist had just attended a 1992 U.S. Department of Energy meeting about rocks estimated to be more than 200 million years old—older than most dinosaurs. These prehistoric rocks had been unearthed from a gas exploration well, and they turned out to be teeming with bacteria. “That was pretty amazing to me,” says Princeton University's Onstott. “The idea that these bacteria had been living in these Triassic rocks since they were deposited at a time prior to the age of the dinosaurs, that idea caught my fancy,” he says. These rocks were among the first substantial evidence that life existed miles underground, and they jumpstarted researchers’ efforts to study life in the so-called deep subsurface. Over the past 20 years, Onstott and others have found that there is a greater variety of life in a lot more inhospitable places than anyone had imagined.

Deep life has been found all over the world and under a variety of conditions—in oil fields and gold mines, beneath ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and in sediments and rocks below the ocean floor. These places can be extremely hostile environments, with pressures 10 to 100 times that at the surface. Temperatures can range from near freezing to more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. A mile or more below the surface there's no sunlight and very little oxygen. In these austere environments, creatures have to scratch out a living on whatever energy they can muster from their surroundings. This means that the pace of life down there can sometimes be incredibly slow. These microbes can be a thousand- or million-fold less abundant than their brethren above ground. And some may have been around for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years—real microscopic Methuselahs.

More here.

A Mother Gone Supernova

Scott Bly in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

First-Time-She-DrownedTHE FIRST TIME SHE DROWNED is every bit as “lyrical,” “complex,” and “hypnotic” as the galley blurbs proclaim. And while Kerry Kletter’s debut YA/adult crossover novel is all of those things, it also serves as an introduction to the world of mental illness and a broken mental health system. Kletter’s book is especially important in a political climate that sidesteps discussions of gun violence by demonizing mental illness. The stigma of mental illness is real, and Kletter’s novel shines a bright and unflinching light into the mind of one young girl as she passes through a minefield of self-doubt following her release from a two-year commitment to a mental hospital.

Cassie O’Malley, the novel’s protagonist, turns 18 at the beginning of the story, which is told in present tense. Cassie is bright, a headstrong and mischievous (but ultimately unreliable) narrator. Turned loose from the institution where she has been held against her will since her mother had her committed for an undisclosed reason (the details of which unfold in flashbacks), Cassie is understandably fixated on her narcissistic parent and her withheld maternal love. The mystery of the circumstances surrounding Cassie’s commitment are revealed layer by layer as the “whodunit” of her mental state unfolds. I devoured the book, surprised at the sharp character insights and observations of the world. The dual-timeline narrative kept the pages turning right up until the climactic reveal and optimistic resolution.

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Why There’s No ‘Right’ Way To Speak English

Natalie Zarrelli in Atlas Obscura:

ScreenHunter_1871 Apr. 19 16.55Jenny Suomela grew up in Sweden, but began learning English in school as a young child. She currently lives in the United States, and is married to a man whose only language is English. If she's speaking with Swedish friends, however, you might hear more than a few English words and phrases thrown in: “det är awesome”, for example, means “it is awesome.” Popularly called Swenglish, this use of English in Sweden is a mix of the two languages; a practice common throughout the world.

This meddling of English with other tongues has become increasingly pervasive, used in schools, business meetings, online forums, and everywhere in between. There are estimated to be two billion people speaking dozens of varieties of English in the world, a number far beyond the estimated 340 million native English speakers. “I think there is international awareness of the global role of English, mainly because it is so ubiquitous, and inescapable,” says Robert McCrum, author of the book Globish and co-writer of the BBC series and book, The Story of English.

More here.