Ten questions about anthropology, feminism, Middle East politics, and publics: Interview with Lila Abu-Lughod

Sindre Bangstad in American Ethnologist:

ScreenHunter_2403 Nov. 27 21.52On the occasion of the publication of Columbia University anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod’s article, “The Cross-Publics of Ethnography: The Case of “the Muslim woman,’” in the November 2016 issue of the journal, we have invited Norwegian anthropologist Sindre Bangstad to interview Abu-Lughod on fundamental issues underlying her work as a feminist anthropologist, a public intellectual, and an ethnographer of the Middle East and Islamophobia. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Abu-Lughod’s landmark ethnography Veiled Sentiments, which has inspired an entire generation of scholars and students to rethink their understanding of gender, power, and poetics. I thank Lila and Sindre for sharing their conversation with the readership of the journal. —Niko Besnier, editor

Sindre Bangstad (SB): You and I met in 2014 because we had both turned, as anthropologists, to address a disturbing public issue: Islamophobia. This opened us up to forms of hostility that our earlier ethnographic work in Muslim communities, yours in Egypt and mine in South Africa, had not. In your article in the November issue of AE, “The Cross-Publics of Public Ethnography,” you consider what anthropologists can bring to contentious public debates. You confess that your most recent book, Do Muslim Women Need Saving? took you out of the comfort zone of our discipline. I’d like to talk with you about the meaning of this transition to what I’ve explored as public anthropology in a series of interviews in my forthcoming Anthropology of Our Times: An Edited Anthology in Public Anthropology. You prefer to call it public ethnography, following Didier Fassin. I’d like to talk about your early work first.

More here. [Thanks to Nadia Guessous.]

The Genetics of Success

Chhay Lin Lim in Notes on Liberty:

ScreenHunter_2401 Nov. 27 21.45We are living in extremely interesting times. We may have reached a tipping point in genomic research. It seems that we can now weakly predict life outcomes based on genetic tests. Daniel Belsky from Duke University and his team of researchers have recently released a paper asserting that genetic tests can predict adult life outcomes. The magnitude of correlation between genomic tests and adult life outcomes is still very modest, but I believe that the predictions will grow more accurate once we gain more knowledge about the genetic makeup of ‘success’. I believe that this is big news, since this is the first well-developed psychometric/genetic research I have read so far that asserts that life success is to some extent related to our genetic makeup.

When Belsky et al looked at the genetic profiles and the people they studied, they found that people with higher polygenic scores did not only have greater educational attainments, but also had more prestigious occupations, higher incomes, more assets, greater upward social mobility, and were more likable and friendly.

More here.

Darcy James Argue’s Terrific Thrill: A staggeringly ambitious album explores the themes of cultural paranoia and false truth

David Hajdu in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_2399 Nov. 27 21.41I cannot imagine a work in any art form that could evoke the particular madness of our time with more potency than Real Enemies, the album of jazz-orchestra music released this fall by the Brooklyn-based, Canadian-born composer Darcy James Argue. Conceived more than a year before this November’s presidential election, it was not intended as a statement on Trumpism explicitly. Rather, it was designed to explore the broader themes of cultural paranoia and false truth, which infuse the current climate and have laced through the history of American politics. Real Enemies is sweeping and meticulous, as serious as music can be, and, at the same time, a terrific thrill to experience.

Argue efficiently established his reputation as a major musical voice with his two previous albums, Infernal Machines (2009) and Brooklyn Babylon (2013), both of which were composed for and recorded by Argue’s ongoing ensemble, the 18-piece band called Secret Society. The group, by nature of its instrumentation, qualifies as a jazz big band, though the music is not big-band jazz by a definition Count Basie or Buddy Rich would have used. The Secret Society rarely swings in the traditional way, though it can cook up a sly, churning funk groove when Argue wants it to. If Argue’s society of 21st-century virtuosos has a secret, it’s the fact that it could be a ballroom band with all the pizzazz of, say, Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, if it had a leader less creative and forward-thinking than Darcy James Argue.

More here.

How neoliberal doctrine undermined the Obama administration and ushered in the age of Trump

John Weeks in Open Democracy:

Obama_0The iconic slogan “Yes, we can!” inspired the wave of enthusiasm that swept up millions of Americans during the presidential election of 2008 and carried Barack Obama to the White House. If that slogan epitomized the beginning of the Obama presidency, he had an equally iconic ending: the first African-American president shaking hands with the first president-elect in at least 100 years endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In November 2008 Barack Obama won the presidency with almost 53% on a voter turnout of 58%. The winning percentage was the highest since 1988 and the turnout the largest for 50 years. The first non-white president took office on a surge of enthusiasm exceeding any since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 (by comparison John Kennedy went to the presidency with less than half of total votes and a winning margin of 0.2 percentage points).

The enthusiasm for Obama arose from fervent hope for specific changes: 1) a universal, affordable health system; 2) the end of two disastrous wars (Afghanistan and Iraq); 3) economic recovery from the worst collapse in 80 years; and 4) action against banks and bankers to prevent a recurrence of the collapse.

To fulfil these hopes, Obama had majorities in both houses of Congress, 58 of 100 Senators (largest majority of any party in 30 years) and 257 seats in the House (most since 1992). By any measure the new president enjoyed an overwhelming majority. Under some circumstances the Republican minority in the Senate could prevent voting, but a determined and bold president could force votes within the arcane Senate rules.

More here.

How Your Brain Decides Without You

Tom Vanderbilt in Nautilus:

RabbitPrinceton’s Palmer Field, 1951. An autumn classic matching the unbeaten Tigers, with star tailback Dick Kazmaier—a gifted passer, runner, and punter who would capture a record number of votes to win the Heisman Trophy—against rival Dartmouth. Princeton prevailed over Big Green in the penalty-plagued game, but not without cost: Nearly a dozen players were injured, and Kazmaier himself sustained a broken nose and a concussion (yet still played a “token part”). It was a “rough game,” The New York Times described, somewhat mildly, “that led to some recrimination from both camps.” Each said the other played dirty. The game not only made the sports pages, it made the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Shortly after the game, the psychologists Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril interviewed students and showed them film of the game. They wanted to know things like: “Which team do you feel started the rough play?” Responses were so biased in favor of each team that the researchers came to a rather startling conclusion: “The data here indicate there is no such ‘thing’ as a ‘game’ existing ‘out there’ in its own right which people merely ‘observe.’ ” Everyone was seeing the game they wanted to see. But how were they doing this? They were, perhaps, an example of what Leon Festinger, the father of “cognitive dissonance,” meant when he observed “that people cognize and interpret information to fit what they already believe.”

In watching and interpreting the game footage, the students were behaving similarly to children shown the famous duck-rabbit illusion, pictured above. When shown the illusion on Easter Sunday, more children see the rabbit, where on other Sundays they are more likely to see the duck.1 The image itself allows both interpretations, and switching from seeing one to the other takes some effort. When I showed duck-rabbit to my 5-year-old daughter, and asked her what she saw, she replied: “A duck.” When I asked her if she saw “anything else,” she edged closer, forehead wrinkled. “Maybe there’s another animal there?” I proffered, trying not to sound as if magnet school admission was on the line. Suddenly, a shimmer of awareness, and a smile. “A rabbit!”

More here.

Reading Dostoyevsky For Thanksgiving

Laurie Sheck in billmoyers.com:

A Few Facts

Vasily_Perov_-_Портрет_Ф_М_Достоевского_-_Google_Art_Project-1280x7201. He wore 5-pound shackles on his ankles every day for four years.

2. This was in the prison camp in Omsk where he was serving out a sentence of hard labor after being convicted of sedition for being part of a revolutionary cell dedicated to the liberation of the serfs and freedom of the press.

3. For the seven months following his arrest, he’d been kept in solitary confinement in the Peter and Paul Fortress on the Neva, his cell window smeared with an oily paste to prevent any daylight from seeping through.

4. One morning he was suddenly taken to Semyonov Square, where he was given a white death-shirt to put on and allowed to kiss the cross. He was sixth in line for execution, with only minutes left to live, when the announcement came that the Czar had decided to spare the prisoners’ lives. Apparently this had been planned all along.

5. On the way to the prison camp, they stopped for the night in Tobolsk where a town bell had been sent into exile, convicted of ringing for seditious purposes. Its sentence was eternal silence.

6. In Tobolsk, he met a man who was chained to the wall. He had been chained there for eight years. The chain was 7 feet long and extended from his sleeping pallet to the opposite wall. The man spent every day walking from the pallet to the wall and back. He said he didn’t mind. He showed where the chain attached to his underclothes, and the most comfortable way to lie down on the sleeping pallet. When he spoke, his voice was mild with a slight lisp. He said he had once been a government official.

7. It was in Omsk that the epileptic seizures began. They came mostly once or twice a month. Sometimes, though rarely, twice a day. They could lie dormant for as long as four months. After each seizure something in him grieved. Words blackened or grew muffled for days, sometimes a week, their distant contours alien and heavy. He tried but couldn’t lift them.

8. He wasn’t allowed a single book for almost four years. Except the Bible.

9. “Awkward, immobile, silent … his pale, thin, earthen-colored face covered in dark red spots,”a young prison guard described him years later.

10. “I look at their pale faces, at their poor beds, at all of this impassable nakedness and poverty — I peer in — and it is as if I want to make sure that it is not the continuation of a disfigured dream, but actual truth. But it is truth: I hear someone’s groan, someone throws out his hands heavily and clangs his chains,” he would remember in The House of the Dead.

…Dostoyevsky experienced more than one hundred major seizures, walked in chains and prison garb, wasn’t permitted to hold a pen or pencil for nearly four years or read any book but one. He watched two children die and wrote several times of a man’s inner life in the minutes and seconds before execution. He had Myshkin think about a donkey’s goodness and importance, and led him to the room where he would stroke and soothe Rogozhin. His books offer the words to feel into pursued to their radical end, embodied. To feel into — which doesn’t mean to understand, or analyze, or interpret, or heal. Doesn’t mean to solve, define, make steady, claim knowledge of, but has something to do with drawing close, with how there’s a radiance more mysterious, more unspeakable than horror; more private in its wounds, more lasting.

More here.


Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker:

ScreenHunter_2398 Nov. 26 17.49The Jamaican-born poet Ishion Hutchinson’s second book, “House of Lords and Commons,” is a study of place and memory rendered in what used to be called “the grand style”: the timeless, high-literary idiom that nearly anyone who has ever learned the language would identify as “poetry,” based on its sound alone, and that nonplussed readers of contemporary poetry sometimes say they miss. Of course, the irony is that timelessness itself can seem dated; modernism emerged in part to change the acoustics within which lines of poetry were heard. Our ears changed, and fewer and fewer poets of note wanted to make those old sounds. There are analogues in nearly every art: modes and vocabularies that we accept in the work of the past but which seem, in new work, like period reënactment or, if the seams are exposed, like postmodern bricolage.

More here.

Advanced Nuclear Energy and the Battle Against Climate Change

Josh Freed at the Brookings Institution:

ScreenHunter_2397 Nov. 26 17.42So what, after a 30-year drought, is drawing smart young people back to the nuclear industry? The answer is climate change. Nuclear energy currently provides about 20 percent of the electric power in the United States, and it does so without emitting any greenhouse gases. Compare that to the amount of electricity produced by the other main non-emitting sources of power, the so-called “renewables”—hydroelectric (6.8 percent), wind (4.2 percent) and solar (about one quarter of a percent). Not only are nuclear plants the most important of the non-emitting sources, but they provide baseload—“always there”—power, while most renewables can produce electricity only intermittently, when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining.

In 2014, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations-based organization that is the leading international body for the assessment of climate risk, issued a desperate call for more non-emitting power sources. According to the IPCC, in order to mitigate climate change and meet growing energy demands, the world must aggressively expand its sources of renewable energy, and it must also build more than 400 new nuclear reactors in the next 20 years—a near-doubling of today’s global fleet of 435 reactors. However, in the wake of the tsunami that struck Japan’s Fukushima Daichi plant in 2011, some countries are newly fearful about the safety of light water reactors. Germany, for example, vowed to shutter its entire nuclear fleet.

More here.

Artist Uses Calligraphy Brushes to Create Breathtaking Watercolor Paintings of Birds

ScreenHunter_2396 Nov. 26 17.23

Alice Yoo in My Modern Met:

“In painting and calligraphy, the first stroke is the most important. It comes from nothing and manifests something.” San Francisco-born artist Karl Martens creates beautiful paintings of birds using materials not often paired together – Japanese and Chinese calligraphy brushes with watercolor. What's most fascinating is that he paints all of his works by memory, without reference to any guide. What you'll notice first are the sweeping brushstrokes and then you'll see all the fine details. While he uses large Japanese and Chinese calligraphy brushes to create the general shape and posture of the birds, the intricate markings of them are done using charcoal pencil and smaller calligraphy brushes. Martens studied birds for so long that he knows how to paint both the large and subtle differences including the birds' beaks.

Martens is inspired by Shih-t’ao (1642-1707), one of the most famous Chinese painters in the early Qing dynasty. He was considered revolutionary during that time because he didn't believe in imitating old masters, while he respected them, he forged his own path. He valued innovation, and as such, he used bold, impressionistic brushstrokes and he left white space to suggest distance. Above all, Shih-t’ao believed that the artist must trust his or her own ability. He coined the term Holistic Brushstroke, which means that one could create something out of nothing. As Martens describes it, “Optimally, it contains no planned thought. It emanates from 'emptiness.'”

More here. [Thanks to Frans de Waal.]

Fidel Castro, Cuban Revolutionary Who Defied U.S., Dies at 90

Anthony DePalma in the New York Times:

Fidel-Castro-obituary-slide-P9CB-superJumbo-v6Fidel Castro, the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959 and then defied the United States for nearly half a century as Cuba’s maximum leader, bedeviling 11 American presidents and briefly pushing the world to the brink of nuclear war, died Friday. He was 90.

His death was announced by Cuban state television.

In declining health for several years, Mr. Castro had orchestrated what he hoped would be the continuation of his Communist revolution, stepping aside in 2006 when he was felled by a serious illness. He provisionally ceded much of his power to his younger brother Raúl, now 85, and two years later formally resigned as president. Raúl Castro, who had fought alongside Fidel Castro from the earliest days of the insurrection and remained minister of defense and his brother’s closest confidant, has ruled Cuba since then, although he has told the Cuban people he intends to resign in 2018.

Fidel Castro had held on to power longer than any other living national leader except Queen Elizabeth II. He became a towering international figure whose importance in the 20th century far exceeded what might have been expected from the head of state of a Caribbean island nation of 11 million people.

More here.

Winged insights

H. Charles J. Godfray in Nature:

WingedCombining a personal memoir with serious discussion of a scientific subject is a difficult literary trick. The Finnish biologist Ilkka Hanski succeeded with aplomb in his last book, Messages from Islands, in which each chapter begins with insights from an island that moulded his thinking about ecology, evolution and conservation. Hanski, one of the foremost ecologists of his generation, died in May (A.-L. Laine Nature 534, 180; 2016). Finland is a land of lakes and islands, so perhaps it is not surprising that Finnish ecologists are drawn to investigating how populations and communities persist in fragmented habitats. Hanski is most celebrated for developing the ecological concept of a metapopulation — a population of populations connected by dispersal — and its applications to conservation. There are several types, but a classical metapopulation is sometimes likened to a collection of “blinking lights”, with individual short-lived populations winking in and out of existence while the whole ensemble persists.

Hanski explored the concept through his 25-year, and ongoing, study of the Glanville fritillary (Melitaea cinxia) in the Åland Archipelago between Finland and Sweden. This checkerspot butterfly has exacting habitat requirements: it occupies a fluctuating number of the small woodland meadows that constitute a habitat archipelago within the geographical archipelago. The meadows are so tiny that they support only a small butterfly population; each has a high risk of extinction every year. Hanski, his colleagues and an ever-changing army of students surveyed all 4,000 or so meadows, which support 400–800 populations each year. Through this and many experiments, such as quantifying rates of dispersal between patches, they constructed a model of the butterfly's metapopulation — the most detailed and satisfying description of such a population structure currently available, by some distance.

More here.

‘Odessa Stories’ By Isaac Babel

PushkinOdessaStories-219x300Robert Minto at Open Letters Monthly:

The Odessa stories are less well known than Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, a collection of reports from the front of the Polish-Soviet War that secured his reputation as one of the greatest 20th century Russian writers, and they have their own quite different atmosphere. Pushkin Press has published them together in a short volume, retranslated by Boris Dralyuk, to highlight the unity of the set. The book is broken into parts which show Odessa in its romantic heyday, run by the gangsters, and then in its Soviet decline, as it is ruthlessly standardized, normalized, and drained of color. Babel’s autobiographical notes and essays about Odessa are tacked onto the end, to make the book a complete testament to his vision of the city.

That vision is complex and tragic. Odessa in pre-Soviet days may have been a region of mythic heroes, who share something of the amoral vigor of the bandits and warriors of folklore, but it also hosted a plundered populace. A city run by bandits is a paradise for no one but the strong. Still, compared to the regime that pacified the city, old Odessa may not have been so bad after all. The Soviet government rooted out corruption and crime, but it also cracked down on religion and innocent customs, reorganizing here as everywhere according to the blunt dictates of unnuanced rationality.

more here.