First-wifeNirmala Jayaraman at The Quarterly Conversation:

In an interview with The Paris Review, writer Mia Couto reflected, “We have a saying in Mozambique—women don’t have a tribe. This proverb evokes women’s capacity to cross boundaries and create more cohesive and harmonious identities.” However, Chiziane, the first Mozambican woman to publish a novel in her country, writes in The First Wife, “In my husband’s land, I’m a foreigner. In my parents’ land, I’m merely passing through . . . No woman has a home in this land.” I do not see these two perspectives as irreconcilable, rather they capture what changing boundaries can both bring and take away from a character like Rami who observes, “But traditions are born and die, like life” with such a matter of fact tone. Perhaps all of these changes, which have both given and taken loved ones away from each character, have led to a shared difficulty in expressing suffering.

What will happen to Couto’s warm enthusiasm and Chiziane’s chilled criticism over time? Hopefully more translations of their work will continue to be sought after anyway. To be clear, Chiziane’s views are not cynical. There is a brainy passion that erupts from all of the characters in The First Wife. Polygamy is not just used as a marriage plot but also as a metaphor for a system that is “out of control,” where one State is married to multiple exchange systems and whose children will inherit many histories to sort through once they become the heads of their own households and the next generation’s postcolonial writers.

more here.

‘The Last Wolf’ & ‘Herman’ by László Krasznahorkai

41SH0f8BEaL._SX367_BO1,204,203,200_Adam Thirlwell at The Guardian:

Since his 1985 first novel, Satantango, the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai, winner of the 2015 Man Booker International prize, has put out a series of fictions that are at once melancholy, fantastical and entirely original. That sustained originality means that a new reader will not necessarily feel entirely at ease: his novels unfurl in grand sequences, often neglecting to provide either regular paragraph breaks or full stops (The Last Wolf, for instance, contains a single sentence, lasting for 70 pages). This may, however, be a disguise. The apparently austere movement of his endless sentences is also a form of jazzy improvisation; the unstoppable surface permits a kind of zany proliferation of meaning.

more here.

‘The Filter … Is Powerful’: Obama on Race, Media, and What It Took to Win

Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic:

In “My President Was Black,” The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates examined Barack Obama’s tenure in office, and his legacy. The story was built, in part, around a series of conversations he had with the president. This is a transcript of the first of those four encounters, which took place on September 27, 2016.

Lead_960OBAMA: You know, Bill Clinton told me an interesting story. He went back to Arkansas with a former aide of his when he was governor and when he was running, who ended up running for Congress and was about to retire from Congress. This was one of the last blue dogs. And as they were traveling around ,this former member of Congress said to Bill, “You know, I don’t think you could win Arkansas today.” And he said, “Well, why not?” He says, “You know, when we used to run, you and I would drive around to these small towns and communities out there, and you’d meet with the publisher and editor of the little small-town paper, and you’d have a conversation with them. And they were fairly knowledgeable about some of the issues, and they had their quirks and blind spots, but basically you as a Democrat could talk about civil rights and the need to invest in communities and they understood that. Except now those papers are all gone and if you go into any bar, you go into any barbershop, the only thing that’s on is Fox News.” And it has shaped an entire generation of voters and tapped into their deepest anxieties …

…You know, the genius of Mitch McConnell—and to some degree John Boehner—was a recognition that if we were about to go into a bad recession and the president had come in on this wave of good feeling, Democrats control the House, they control the Senate—if he’s completely successful in yanking us out of this and cleaning up a mess a Republican president had left behind, that we might lock in Democratic majorities for a very long time. But on the other hand, if Republicans didn’t cooperate, and there was not a portrait of bipartisan cooperation and a functional federal government, then the party in power would pay the price and that they could win back the Senate and/or the House. That wasn’t an inaccurate political calculation. And they executed well, and we got clobbered in 2010. So the lesson I drew there was a political lesson. It was not a racial lesson.

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

Saturday Poem

Making Children Behave

Do they think of me now
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
quite human
but myself
and my few grim friends
moving through them
in lines?

When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior,
is it me they conjure?

by W.D. Ehrhart
from Unaccustomed Mercy / Soldier-Poets of the Vietnam War
Texas Tech University Press, 1989

Two women, one cause: Amal Clooney and a Yazidi refugee

Robert Guest in The Economist:

AmalThey make an unusual team. Amal Clooney is an Oxford-educated human-rights lawyer married to a film star. Nadia Murad was born in a poor Iraqi village and once aspired to become a teacher. Clooney is tall, dazzling and so recognisable that people walk up to her in the street and tell her they love her. Murad is small, shy and avoids eye contact. Yet among her people, the Yazidis, Murad is better known and more admired than any other woman on Earth. Murad is a symbol of survival for a minority threatened with extermination. She was once a slave of Islamic State (IS). And, almost alone among former prisoners of IS, she is willing to testify publicly and repeatedly about the terrible things the jihadists did to her. Clooney is Murad’s lawyer, and the two women are working to bring the leaders of IS before an international court for inflicting genocide on the Yazidis. The story of their campaign is an extraordinary one: a tale of pious savagery pitted against truth, law and the soft power of celebrity.

It begins in August 2014, when Murad was a 21-year-old student. That month, IS fighters arrived in her village, Kocho, on the Nineveh plain. They were a terrifying mob, all of them heavily armed and many speaking languages that no one in Kocho understood. The jihadists saw Nadia and her neighbours as the worst sort of infidels. The Yazidi faith has no holy book, but draws on a mix of Mesopotamian traditions. Yazidis revere a peacock angel that temporarily fell from God’s grace; many Muslims regard this as devil-worship. Estimates of how many Yazidis there are range widely, from 70,000 to 500,000, mostly in Iraq but also in Syria and Germany. IS set out to reduce that number to zero, by forced conversion or Kalashnikov. On August 15th the IS fighters in Kocho summoned everyone to the village school and separated the men from the women and children. Nadia watched from a second-floor window as they marched the men away. They slaughtered 312 in an hour, including six of Nadia’s brothers and stepbrothers. They murdered the older women, too, including Nadia’s mother. They forced the young women and children onto buses and took them to Mosul, IS’s main stronghold in Iraq, which, as 1843 went to press, was under siege by Iraqi government forces.

Nadia was shut in a building with 1,000 other families. The women were sick with fear; they knew what was coming. The fighters were about to divide the spoils. A man came up to Nadia and said he wanted to take her. She looked up and saw that he was enormous, “like a monster”. “I cried out that I was too young and he was huge. He kicked and beat me. A few minutes later, another man came up to me…I saw that he was a little smaller. I begged for him to take me.” The jihadist who took Nadia told her to convert to Islam. She refused. One day, he asked for her hand in “marriage”. She said she was ill. A few days later, he forced her to get dressed and put on make-up. “Then, on that terrible night, he did it.” From then on, she was raped daily. When she tried to flee, a guard stopped her, forced her to strip and put her in a room with several guards, “who proceeded to commit their crime until I fainted”. She finally escaped when her captor left a door unlocked. She could not return home, because IS still controlled her village. Eventually, she found sanctuary in Germany, where she now lives.

More here.

Bharati Mukherjee, Writer of Immigrant Life, Dies at 76

William Grimes in the New York Times:

02mukherjee-obit-1-blog427Bharati Mukherjee, an Indian-born American writer who explored the internal culture clashes of her immigrant characters in the award-winning collection “The Middleman and Other Stories” and in novels like “Jasmine,” died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 76.

The cause was complications of rheumatoid arthritis and takotsubo cardiomyopathy, a stress-induced heart condition, her husband, the writer Clark Blaise, said.

Ms. Mukherjee, a native of Calcutta, attended schools in England, Switzerland and India, earned advanced degrees in creative writing in the United States and lived for more than a decade in Canada, affording her a wealth of experience in the modern realities of multiculturalism.

“The narrative of immigration is the epic narrative of this millennium,” she wrote in an autobiographical statement for the reference work Contemporary Authors in 2005.

In many of her novels and stories, a young woman — shaped, as she was, by a patriarchal culture — strikes out for the unknown, sometimes by choice and sometimes not. In the existential crisis that ensues, a new self emerges — or a series of selves, with multiple answers to the question “Who am I?”

More here.

New results from CERN could fill one of the biggest gaps in the Standard Model of physics

From Science Alert:

ScreenHunter_2570 Feb. 03 19.17Of the many unanswered questions that stand in the way of the Standard Model of physics being able to adequately explain the Universe and everything in it, the mystery of matter-antimatter asymmetry is one of the biggest.

The equal amounts of matter and antimatter produced by the Big Bang should have cancelled each other out, resulting in a Universe with barely any particles, and yet, here we are. Now, new results from a Large Hadron Collider detector at CERN could be our best chance at explaining the paradox of our own existence.

For a bit of background into our asymmetrical Universe problem, the laws of physics predict that for every particle of regular matter, there’s an equal but opposite antiparticle.

That means for every negatively-charged electron, there’s a positively charged positron. For every regular hydrogen atom, there’s an anti-hydrogen atom.

If an antiparticle happens to find a regular particle, they will annihilate each other, releasing energy in the form of light.

The problem arises when we consider that the Standard Model of physics predicts that the Big Bang would have produced equal amounts of baryon particles in matter and antimatter forms – called baryonic matter and antibaryonic matter.

Baryons are a crucial type of subatomic particle, because you know those protons and neutrons that make up most of the mass of the visible matter in the Universe? They’re baryons.

The fact that we ended up with so much more baryonic matter than antibaryonic matter in the Universe is a problem, because the equal amounts produced by the Big Bang should have instantly cancelled out almost everything, resulting in a Universe with barely any particles – just radiation.

More here.

American institutions won’t keep us safe from Donald Trump’s excesses

Corey Robin in The Guardian:

ScreenHunter_2569 Feb. 03 19.08I recently expressed skepticism that Trump is installing fascism in America. Someone then asked me: what did I think was going to happen with Trump? I answered her as truthfully as I could: I don’t know. The fact is none of us knows. Not even, I suspect, Trump or Steve Bannon. That’s because our political situation is not a fixed or frozen force field; it’s changing every day. It also – crucially – depends in part on what we do.

Before I wrote my book on conservatism, I was a student of the politics of fear. My first book, which was based on more than a decade of research, was an analysis of how political theorists since Hobbes have understood the politics of fear. In the second part of the book, I offered my own counter-analysis of the politics of fear in the United States. Fear, American Style, I called it.

Here’s what I learned about it: the worst, most terrible things that the United States has done have almost never happened through an assault on American institutions; they’ve always happened through American institutions and practices.

These are the elements of the American polity that have offered especially potent tools and instruments of intimidation and coercion: federalism, the separation of powers, social pluralism and the rule of law.

All the elements of the American experience that liberals and conservatives have so cherished as bulwarks of American freedom have also been sources and instruments of political fear. In all the cases I looked at, coercion, intimidation, repression and violence were leveraged through these mechanisms, not in spite of them.

More here.

The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound

52196947Robert Crawford at Literary Review:

Examining some of Pound’s late prose writings, Swift concludes that ‘Pound never calls for violence, but preaches brutality in code.’ His book concentrates on the period, between 1945 and 1958, when Pound was incarcerated in the huge Washington mental hospital of St Elizabeths – which Pound nicknamed ‘the bughouse’ – after his legal team had successfully argued that he could not be tried for treason because he was insane. Before joining about seven thousand other inmates at St Elizabeths, Pound had been detained in Guantanamo-like conditions in a prison camp near Pisa controlled by US forces. The crime he was accused of was making, throughout the Second World War, radio broadcasts for Mussolini in an attempt to convince Americans of, among other things, the rightness of the Fascist cause. For Pound, America’s modern political leaders had abandoned true American values; he considered Hitler to be a martyr, Churchill a supporter of ‘kikes’ and Mussolini a great ‘Boss’.

Pound was lucky not to be executed as a traitor. The defence of insanity saved him but also condemned him. From the asylum he submitted for publication his Pisan Cantos, which was soon awarded one of America’s most prestigious literary awards, the Bollingen Prize. This is a reminder, if one were needed, that he continued to be regarded as one of the 20th century’s leading English-language poets. He had, after all, been at the heart of the Imagist movement; he had also produced, in Cathay (1915), perhaps the greatest volume of verse translations in English and, Swift asserts, ‘arguably the book which invents modernist poetry’; his friend T S Eliot had described him as il miglior fabbro (‘the greater craftsman’) after Pound helped edit The Waste Land; his ongoing Cantos, an epic of Coleridgean and Ossianic ambition, ranked among the most provocative achievements in the poetry of the Anglophone avant-garde. At the heart of Swift’s book is the issue of how Pound could be at once Fascist, madman and great poet.

more here.

Arson and the long war on black progress

Emanuel-churchElias Rodriques at n+1:

IN THE EARLY 1800S, they called them hush harbors: as in, “Don’t tell anyone.” Mentioning their existence, much less their location, could invite violence. Congregations were signs of conspiracy.

White southerners passed slave laws that prohibited black gatherings without white supervision, including congregating at church, out of fear of revolution. They did so at different times in different states. In 1723, Virginia explicitly outlawed black assembly. In 1800, South Carolina prohibited slave assemblies without whites. The church, refuge for many slaves, seemed for whites the most potent symbol of potential insurrection.

The specter of slave rebellions inspired the first burning of the “Mother Emanuel” African Methodist Church in Charleston in 1822. According to trial documents, Denmark Vesey, a free black carpenter, hatched the idea of a revolt in the church. He organized members of the congregation and got them to spread the word to their families. Thousands of slaves, from Charleston to the countryside of South Carolina, pledged to join the revolution. They planned to capture weapons from a Charleston weapon store, burn down the city, board ships in the harbor, and sail to newly liberated Haiti.

more here.

Picabia’s Big Moment

Schwartz_2-022317Sanford Schwartz at the NYRB:

He was an ironist and a contrarian by temperament. In an era when writers and artists saw received opinions and all proprieties as so much sham, his contribution was the thought that diversions were what mattered. Independently wealthy, chubby, possessed of a wad of lustrous, dark hair (he was Spanish and of aristocratic descent on his father’s side), Picabia was known for his appreciation of showgirls, racing cars, and life with the party set. After he moved to the Riviera, in the mid-1920s, his appreciations also included gambling and yachting. (In snapshots of the era, he often has a tan.) When he wasn’t acting as a playboy, though—he supplemented his income in the 1930s by being an organizer of fetes and soirees—much of his energy went into producing and designing pamphlets and little magazines. He was often dashing off poems and aphorisms, and he wrote a novel but was unable to get it published.

The Modern has chosen one of his epigrams, “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction,” for the subtitle of its exhibition, and uses others, including “Every conviction is an illness,” to advertise it. Picabia’s words show him to have been as much an agent of disillusionment as he was a cultivator of frivolity. Sometimes, though, his words are no more than ordinary quips, and there being no selection of his writings in the catalog one assumes that in general they are slight. How assured and magnetic he could be as a person comes out in an Alfred Stieglitz photograph of him from 1915, in which he wears a bowtie and leans toward us, a slight smile on his face. (It is not reproduced in the catalog.) Picabia was often in New York between 1913 and 1917, and here Stieglitz, a good friend, caught a figure of considerable sensuous handsomeness. He looks like what might be called a Mediterranean banker prince.

more here.

Friday Poem

The Waters

Poet, oracle and wit
Like unsuccessful anglers by
The ponds of apperception sit,
Baiting with the wrong request
The vectors of their interest;
At nightfall tell the anglers lie.

With time in tempest everywhere
To rafts of frail assumption cling
The saintly and the insincere;
Enraged phenomena bear down
In overwhelming wave to drown
Both sufferer and suffering.

The waters long to hear our question put
Which would release their longed-for answer, but.

W.H. Auden
from Selected Poems
Vintage Books 1972

Melville and the Language of Denial

Toni Morrison in The Nation:

Laporte_slave_revolt_otu_img“Black slavery,” Toni Morrison wrote in her classic work of criticism, Playing in the Dark, “enriched” America’s “creative possibilities,” resulting in “a playground for the imagination.” Nothing better illustrates this observation than Herman Melville’s haunting Benito Cereno, a tale about a slave ship where nothing was as it seemed. Over the years, Morrison has noted how the deception that Melville masterfully depicted in his story replays itself again and again in the racial spectacles that regularly grip the nation, including Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I asked Morrison about the first time she read Benito Cereno and if she realized what Melville was up to. Below is her answer. —Greg Grandin

Since my earliest readings of Moby-Dick, I always sensed Melville’s deliberate misdirections: that he was telling some other story underneath the obvious one. So it was not hard to suspect his manipulation of the reader as well as his tendency to hide/display deeper revelations underneath the surface narrative. Benito Cereno fell quickly (for me) into that category because I didn’t believe a kidnapped African slave en route to ownership by a stranger in a foreign land would be so accommodating. Why would he care about the health and well-being of his captor? I understood that the massacre of violently rebelling slaves would be condoned in nineteenth-century “slave history” as the erasure of evil or the culling of herds. But I saw the equally violent response of the slaves on the ship as that of rational, if enraged, humans unwilling to be kidnapped for profit.

Following the discovery of Babo’s rebellion, Amasa Delano has a choice between fear and profit. But when measuring fear and the loss of control against money, money wins. Delano has to lie and promise his men gold and silver to encourage them to recapture the ship. More than two centuries have passed since the events on Benito Cerreño’s ship took place, but the deception of racial inferiority as an excuse for theft of resources and labor is worldwide and in important ways contemporary. Slavery was not unique; the Americas, Europe, Africa—all knew its benefits and engaged in a “moral rationale” of benevolent civilizing efforts in order to deflect from its lethal consequences. A stunningly deceitful discourse had to be developed among slaveholders and abolitionists alike.

More here.

The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

Sleep_promo_asset-master495Over the years, scientists have come up with a lot of ideas about why we sleep. Some have argued that it’s a way to save energy. Others have suggested that slumber provides an opportunity to clear away the brain’s cellular waste. Still others have proposed that sleep simply forces animals to lie still, letting them hide from predators. A pair of papers published on Thursday in the journal Science offer evidence for another notion: We sleep to forget some of the things we learn each day. In order to learn, we have to grow connections, or synapses, between the neurons in our brains. These connections enable neurons to send signals to one another quickly and efficiently. We store new memories in these networks.

In 2003, Giulio Tononi and Chiara Cirelli, biologists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposed that synapses grew so exuberantly during the day that our brain circuits got “noisy.” When we sleep, the scientists argued, our brains pare back the connections to lift the signal over the noise. In the years since, Dr. Tononi and Dr. Cirelli, along with other researchers, have found a great deal of indirect evidence to support the so-called synaptic homeostasis hypothesis. It turns out, for example, that neurons can prune their synapses — at least in a dish. In laboratory experiments on clumps of neurons, scientists can give them a drug that spurs them to grow extra synapses. Afterward, the neurons pare back some of the growth. Other evidence comes from the electric waves released by the brain. During deep sleep, the waves slow down. Dr. Tononi and Dr. Cirelli have argued that shrinking synapses produce this change.

More here.

Philosophy used to be a staple of television and the newspapers. Not any longer. So where did all the philosophers go?

David Herman in the New Statesman:

ScreenHunter_2567 Feb. 02 16.06The Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit died on New Year’s Day. He was one of the leading thinkers of his generation, yet his death was not widely reported outside the obituary pages of the broadsheets. The contrast with the response to John Berger’s death the following day is striking. Soon after Berger died, a number of pieces appeared on the Guardian and New Statesman websites, and there were tributes on the BBC’s News at Ten, Newsnight and Today programmes.

Parfit was an outstanding philosopher. However, few people outside academic philosophy could name one of his books. Perhaps more telling, how many could name any British academic philosopher?

It has not always been like this. The reaction could hardly have been more different when another leading Oxford philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, died in November 1997. BBC2 showed two hour-long programmes about him on consecutive days, and Radio 3 broadcast a two-and-a-half-hour tribute the following month. Berlin’s death was reported on the front page of the New York Times and memorial services were held in three countries. In less than two decades something fundamental has changed. Has academic philosophy lost its place in mainstream British culture? If so, who is to blame? Is it the fault of academic philosophers themselves, or the media, or are there other changes going on in British culture?

More here.

Two prose poems by Ghayath Almadhoun

Ghayath Almadhoun and Catherine Cobham (translation from Arabic) in The Guardian:

How I became…

ScreenHunter_2566 Feb. 02 15.54Her grief fell from the balcony and broke into pieces, so she needed a new grief. When I went with her to the market the prices were unreal, so I advised her to buy a used grief. We found one in excellent condition although it was a bit big. As the vendor told us, it belonged to a young poet who had killed himself the previous summer. She liked this grief so we decided to take it. We argued with the vendor over the price and he said he’d give us an angst dating from the sixties as a free gift if we bought the grief. We agreed, and I was happy with this unexpected angst. She sensed this and said ‘It’s yours’. I took it and put it in my bag and we went off. In the evening I remembered it and took it out of the bag and examined it closely. It was high quality and in excellent condition despite half a century of use. The vendor must have been unaware of its value otherwise he wouldn’t have given it to us in exchange for buying a young poet’s low quality grief. The thing that pleased me most about it was that it was existentialist angst, meticulously crafted and containing details of extraordinary subtlety and beauty. It must have belonged to an intellectual with encyclopedic knowledge or a former prisoner. I began to use it and insomnia became my constant companion. I became an enthusiastic supporter of peace negotiations and stopped visiting relatives. There were increasing numbers of memoirs in my bookshelves and I no longer voiced my opinion, except on rare occasions. Human beings became more precious to me than nations and I began to feel a general ennui, but what I noticed most was that I had become a poet.

More here.

First ever blueprint unveiled to construct a large scale quantum computer

From Phys.org:

ScreenHunter_2565 Feb. 02 15.46This huge leap forward towards creating a universal quantum computer is published today (1 February 2017) in the influential journal Science Advances (1). It has long been known that such a computer would revolutionise industry, science and commerce on a similar scale as the invention of ordinary computers. But this new work features the actual industrial blueprint to construct such a large-scale machine, more powerful in solving certain problems than any computer ever constructed before.

Once built, the computer's capabilities mean it would have the potential to answer many questions in science; create new, lifesaving medicines; solve the most mind-boggling scientific problems; unravel the yet unknown mysteries of the furthest reaches of deepest space; and solve some problems that an ordinary computer would take billions of years to compute.

The work features a new invention permitting actual quantum bits to be transmitted between individual quantum computing modules in order to obtain a fully modular large-scale machine capable of reaching nearly arbitrary large computational processing powers.

Previously, scientists had proposed using fibre optic connections to connect individual computer modules. The introduces connections created by electric fields that allow charged atoms (ions) to be transported from one module to another. This new approach allows 100,000 times faster connection speeds between individual quantum computing modules compared to current state-of-the-art fibre link technology.

More here. [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]

on the age of mass incarceration

782f7280-e876-11e6-a25d-096a58632842Clive Stafford Smith at the Times Literary Supplement:

By 2014 – the year of the latest available statistics – those under correctional supervision in the US had soared to 6,851,000. This is an extraordinary one in thirty-six American adults, but even that obscures more shocking figures: in the State of Georgia the rate was one in thirteen; male incarceration runs at five times the female rate; perhaps as many as one in three black males can expect to be imprisoned during his lifetime. And yet overall there has been a significant drop in the prison population – of more than 488,900 – from just seven years earlier.

At one level it is heartening, then, that David Dagan and Steven Teles detail a profound shift in attitudes in Prison Break: Why conservatives turned against mass incar­ceration. In the devolution of bogeymen, the authors note how domestic criminals replaced the “commies” of the Soviet Union. Politicians, the media and pop culture had encouraged Americans to fear the communists, who truly did have an unparalleled ability to do potential harm when we consider their access to nuclear weapons in conjunction with America’s own policy of Mutually Assured Destruction. In the same way the (primarily white) populous was taught to hate and fear (primarily black) criminals. After 9/11, though, the lens of vilification turned on the “Muslim Extremist”. And now, in the words of the new National Security Advisor, Lt General Michael Flynn, fear of Muslims is “rational” and “the term ‘moderate Islam’ is ugly and offensive – Islam is Islam”.

But let us celebrate where we may.

more here.