False Idols of the Enlightenment: Q&A with Pankaj Mishra

Ratik Asokan in The Baffler:

DownloadRatik Asokan: Age of Anger feels like a continuation of a project that began with your first book, Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, and which you’ve approached from various angles—memoir, fiction, reportage, now intellectual history—since then. Perhaps its subject can be described as “latecomers to modernity”?

Pankaj Mishra: As a writer, you can’t afford to become too self-conscious. You can’t become too aware of your origins or background. Because that impairs your capacity to think spontaneously. There are certain crucial experiences we have early on that set our trajectory. It’s for other people to identify them . . .

You’re right in that this particular quest started twenty years ago, with Butter Chicken in Ludhiana, which is an account of the provinces in India. Now looking back—I haven’t looked at the book for a long time—I think, and this is something I’ve been thinking of writing about, that something missing from much political, and literary-intellectual discourse, at least in the last three decades or so, is the experience of the provincial. Of the outsider from the provinces.

I have been insisting all along that that experience is very crucial, that it’s going to shape our futures, especially our cultural future. And what we are seeing today, is a political assertion of people who did not really have a voice in our political and literary discourses. That’s one reason why we find ourselves so politically and intellectually helpless before contemporary phenomena. We simply have no inkling what people in these places who felt ressentiment—felt excluded, marginalized, disdained, scorned—that they might at some point strike back by electing figures like Modi and Trump.

More here.

The Black Intellectuals’ Common Fate and Uncommon Problems

Sanford Pinsker in VQR:

BlackEnter the new generation of black intellectuals—everyone from Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Stephen Carter, and Cornel West to Shelby Steele, Orlando Patterson and Stanley Crouch. Taken together, they represent a direction that began 40 years ago with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision and continued through the civil rights movement. In short, the black intellectual voices now speaking out from our most prestigious universities are, as the title of Stephen Carter’s 1991 book would have it, “affirmative action babies.” From token representation in the 1950’s and 60’s-—when, say, Harvard typically admitted ten blacks per class—enrollments have fairly soared as Afro-American studies programs took root (often in response to student protest) and universities slowly but surely embraced a new educational paradigm based on race, class, and gender. In the process, culture became, well, one of those words. It was once spelt with a capital letter, defined by Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been thought and said,” and generally agreed to be a good thing. Now, many in the academy were not so sure, partly because selecting the “best” invariably means leaving out the “least,” and partly because culture itself often seems to be a suspect operation. Rather than “sweetness and light” (the title of the Arnold essay in which his famous definition appeared), “culture”— yet another term destined to be surrounded by inverted commas—stands for everything that first bullies and then silences minority voices.

No one would seriously argue with the proposition that black intellectuals have played a major role in the culture wars that define our time. Indeed, some would insist that they are what the New York intellectuals once were— namely, activist scholars who bring fresh blood and new perspectives to our understanding of American culture. At the same time, however, there are important differences. Regardless of how much the New York intellectuals were divided by temperament and later, by politics, they shared a fund of common experience that, for want of a better term, might be called “immigrant gratitude.” America, and perhaps more to the point, American culture, offered an escape from the hardships and parochial limitations that had narrowly defined the lives of their immigrant parents. Granted, the giddy possibility of self-transformation did not come without cost, and it would take a long arc indeed before many would rediscover the Jewishness from which they had fled. Not surprisingly, the conflict was the very stuff of which intellectuals, rather than scholars, are made, for as Daniel Bell once shrewdly observed, the scholar finds his place within an established tradition and adds his tiny piece to the mosaic. By contrast, the intellectual begins with “HIS experience, HIS individual perceptions of the world, HIS privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities.”

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

CONTEMPLATING HUMAN EXTINCTION, DEEP IN THE BADLANDS

BadlandsEdward McPherson at Literary Hub:

‘‘Ready to go back in time?’’ the guy sitting beside me says, rather dramatically. He’s from Long Island and is also an amateur. We’re in a dusty Suburban pitching itself headfirst down a sharp slope into the Badlands. Through the cracked wind- shield, I see a moonscape eroded out of the prairie: a mottled topography of red, brown, black, yellow, green, and gray studded with naked buttes—the sediments of the sea, silt and clay deposited and then worn down, epochs later, by water and wind. In places, the buttes are scorched and collapsed by burning coal turned into ash. Nonnative sweet yellow clover has choked out the prairie grass that usually grows between the desolate washouts and draws; in parts, the clover stands waist-high. Above, sparse thickets of cottonwoods, maybe a green ash, a few ponderosa pines. Below, baked beaches where alien outcrops of rocks bloom in strangled, man-sized shapes. A landscape of hard eternity, home to rattlers, bull snakes, prairie dogs, pheasants, foxes, coyotes, pronghorns, bobcats, mule deer, minks, and ever-thirsty toads. My companions and I are dressed in paleontologist chic: tan pants, wide-brim hat, long-sleeve button-down, boots, bandanna. As our vehicle lumbers down the hill to the desolate floor, we pass a rock layer known as the Cretaceous/Tertiary (K/T) boundary, a thin line of tan clay beneath a band of coal that pinpoints the ‘‘sudden’’ geological moment when the dinosaurs disappeared.

These aren’t the Badlands of South Dakota, which are thirty million years younger and far more popular. These are the Badlands that in 1864 Brigadier General Alfred Sully of the US Cavalry, busy marauding against the Sioux, described as ‘‘hell with the fires out.’’

more here.

WILL KEITH ELLISON MOVE THE DEMOCRATS LEFT?

170227_r29464-320x439-1487272521Vinson Cunningham at The New Yorker:

Ellison is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the putative left-wing answer to the brinksmen of the Freedom Caucus on the right, and he was an early and fervent supporter of Sanders’s Presidential campaign. Like Sanders, he consistently opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal sought by the Obama White House in its final two years which was attacked by populists in both parties. (President Donald Trump recently withdrew the U.S. from the T.P.P.) Ellison announced his candidacy for the D.N.C. chairmanship six days after the Presidential election. Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, predictably endorsed him—but so did establishment figures, such as Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer, and his predecessor, Harry Reid. One of the early objectives of Schumer’s leadership has been to placate the increasingly powerful Sanders, whom he made a member of his leadership team, and Schumer has said that he endorsed Ellison because Sanders recommended him. This may have been a canny bit of political maneuvering, but it also indicated to Sanders’s supporters that the populist wing of the Democratic Party was poised to lead the opposition against Trump.

The race for the chair has often echoed the acrimony and confusion of the Presidential primaries. Ten candidates are competing for the job, though few have a national profile. Ellison’s chief rival, Thomas E. Perez, was formerly Barack Obama’s Labor Secretary. Perez has consolidated support from much of the Democratic establishment, and increasingly appears to have seized the role of front-runner. Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has positioned himself as a compromise candidate, saying, of the 2016 Democratic primary race, “I don’t know why we’d want to live through it a second time.”

more here.

How Pieter’s sons kept Brand Bruegel going

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_ProjectMichael Prodger at The New Statesman:

One of the many complications that make the Bruegels the most confusing clan in art is the letter H. Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the founder of the dynasty and its greatest artist, was the painter of such celebrated works as The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Tower of Babel (1563). Contrary to the elegance and elevating tenets of the Italian Renaissance, he made the peasant life of the Low Countries his subject, in all its scatological, rambunctious and therefore human detail. In 1559 he dropped the H in his surname and started signing in Roman capital letters – Brueghel becoming the rather more stately Bruegel.

Bruegel had two sons, Pieter and Jan, aged four and one at the time of his death in 1569. Both became painters, too, and as their careers took off Pieter the Younger reinstated the H his father had discarded (though in later life, to add to the disorder, he reversed the order of the U and E) and it remained the moniker of the innumerable painting Brueghels who followed. Rather more confusing than this alphabet jiggery-pokery, though, is the sheer number of painters in the dynasty – some 15 blood relations over the course of 150 years, before a plethora of apprentices, collaborators and intermarriages is factored in.

more here.

Wednesday Poem

“Nobody asked (the candidate) what makes America great?
What are the metrics?” —Jon Stewart
__________________________________________

Photograph, Maryland Agricultural
College Livestock Show, 1924

Blond, wholesome, serene,
thier white shirtsleeves rolled,
these boys in white ducks
keep sleek black hogs at their feet,
hogs cleaner than licorice sticks in the sun.
Five haltered calves are also held
in tandem while their names
and pedigrees are said aloud.

Mostly I think about
the unseen mud and manure, flies
and screwworms, that connect these boys
and their wildest hopes
poised radiant between two wars
while just out of reach of the lens
in their stained bib overalls
stand the farm laborers

greasy with sweat
and undoubtedly black.

by Maxine Kumin
from Nurture
Viking Penguin Books, 1989

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Ten Restaurants that Changed America

Paul Freedman in DelanceyPlace:

WomenIn the mid-1800s, unaccompanied women in America were generally not allowed to dine at restaurants: "Midday dining presented a challenge for women too busy or too far from home to return there for lunch. They might be in the company of other women or alone, but at any rate not escorted by men who were occupied with work and work-related socializing; men had their own luncheon habits. In the nineteenth-century United States, men made the rules about public dining and admitted women to restaurants on sufferance, according to a complex series of arrangements. Different practices governed the two main meals of the day. "Restaurants depended economically on women accompanying men at the evening meal. Lunch, however, was segregated by gender and involved a series of problems, according to the social customs of the nineteenth century. In the grand and even not-so-grand metropolis, men were increasingly likely to work at some distance from home and to stay near their workplace for the midday meal. The point at which women too absented themselves from the house created a demand for their sustenance. The growth of cities and the creation of specialized shopping districts meant that it was often incon­venient for women as well as men to return home for lunch.

"The public rooms at fancy restaurants were usually reserved at lunch for men only, but some of them allowed women to have lunch in private dining spaces. In the era before Prohibition, bars offered free food, which, along with a crowded and boisterous atmosphere, encouraged demand for drink. Free-lunch bars were hopelessly inappropriate spaces for respectable women, as alcohol-driven conviviality was inevitably coarse — the antith­esis of what was considered ladylike.

More here.

The white man who pretended to be black

Tim Stanley in The Telegraph:

Blacklikemebook-xlargeCan a white person ever really understand how a black person sees the world? Back in 1959, six years before Martin Luther King marched for civil rights in Selma, one man tried. A white Texan writer called John Howard Griffin walked into a doctor’s office in New Orleans and asked him to turn his skin colour black. Griffin took oral medication and was bombarded with ultraviolet rays; he cut off his hair to hide an absence of curls and shaved the back of his hands. Then he went on a tour of the Deep South. The result was a bestselling book called Black Like Me, which is still regarded as an American classic. Griffin wanted to test the claim that although the southern United States was segregated it was essentially peaceful and just – that the two races were separate but equal.

What he discovered tells us a lot about the subtleties of racism. In 1959, unlike today, it was legally instituted. But, like today, it also flourished at the personal level – in hostility, suspicion, fear and even self-loathing. Griffin was an extraordinary man. Born in Dallas in 1920, he went to school in France and joined the French Resistance after Hitler invaded. Griffin helped Jewish children escape to England before fleeing to America. While serving in the US army, he was blinded by shrapnel. Griffin took it all in his stride – he married, had children and converted to Catholicism. Griffin’s strong personal faith reminds us that much of the civil rights movement was in fact a Christian mission – made possible, in this instance, by what seemed like a miracle. Walking around his yard one afternoon, Griffin suddenly saw red swirls where hitherto there was only darkness. Within months his sight had returned. And it was a man determined to make the most of his second chance who hit upon the novel idea of crossing the colour line. Those reading the book today might regard Griffin’s attempt to change his colour as akin to blacking up. Certainly, the transformation was awkward. Griffin may well have had dark skin but he retained his classically Caucasian features, and one suspects that the awkwardness of his encounters with some black people was down to them wondering if he was one of them or just horribly sunburnt.

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

He’s My Death, Too: Emmett Till and America

Shehryar Fazli in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

BloodofemmetttillTimothy B. Tyson has written a concise and urgent book about Emmett Till’s 1955 murder in a small Mississippi town, a crime that ignited civil rights defenders into a long, hard struggle against the Jim Crow regime in the South, and inspired an outraged Rosa Parks to defy segregation laws on a Montgomery city bus. It’s a macabre story of inhumanity and injustice, but also of resistance and unity across a divided nation.

The facts may be known, but bear repeating. Fourteen-year-old Emmett, during a visit from Chicago to his family’s hometown of Money, Mississippi, allegedly whistled at a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in a grocery store. After Bryant claimed, untruthfully, that the black boy had also grabbed her, her husband Roy Bryant and his half-brother J. W. Milam abducted Emmett from his grand uncle’s house, beat, mutilated and shot him, then dumped his body into the Tallahatchie River, from where it was recovered three days later. Just another lynching in the Jim Crow South … until it wasn’t. If it weren’t for the specific time and place, it’s unlikely to have become arguably the United States’s most consequential hate crime, the first act in a drama of reckoning that tested a nation’s moral fiber.

Expertly, Tyson demarcates and mines the territory of Till’s murder, including why the killers assumed it would go ignored; of the trial, which indeed concluded with a not-guilty verdict; and of the countrywide reaction to both. Yet his analysis of the big national moment does not upstage his attention to the Till family’s unimaginable personal loss.

More here.

Weird Life Found Trapped in Giant Underground Crystals

Victoria Jaggard in National Geographic:

Crystal_cave.ngsversion.1487303170340.adapt.590.1Creatures that thrive on iron, sulfur, and other chemicals have been found trapped inside giant crystals deep in a Mexican cave. The microbial life-forms are most likely new to science, and if the researchers who found them are correct, the organisms are still active even though they have been slumbering for tens of thousands of years.

If verified, the discovery adds to evidence that microbial life on Earth can endure harsher conditions in isolated places than scientists previously thought possible. (See “Life Found Deep Under Antarctic Ice for First Time?”)

“These organisms have been dormant but viable for geologically significant periods of time, and they can be released due to other geological processes,” says NASA Astrobiology Institute director Penelope Boston, who announced the find today at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “This has profound effects on how we try to understand the evolutionary history of microbial life on this planet.”

More here.

The Cognitive Bias President Trump Understands Better Than You

Emily Dreyfuss in Wired:

ScreenHunter_2604 Feb. 21 08.58In the past, the president has also promised to publish a weekly list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. What he hasn’t promised to publish is a list of crimes committed by Americans. That’s not news. But his list is likely to create the false impression that undocumented immigrants are especially prone to commit violent crimes—an impression in which the human brain is complicit.

Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley linguist and well-known Democratic activist, cites Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” as the signature “salient exemplar.” Reagan’s straw woman—a minority mother who uses her government money on fancy bling rather than on food for her family—became an effective rhetorical bludgeon to curb public assistance programs even though the vast majority of recipients didn’t abuse the system in that way. The image became iconic, even though it was the exception rather than the rule.

Psychologists call this bias the “availability heuristic,” an effect Trump has sought to exploit since the launch of his presidential campaign, when he referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists.

“It basically works the way memory works: you judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind,” says Northeastern University psychologist John Coley. “Creating a vivid, salient image like that is a great way to make it memorable.”

More here.

Stateless, on Stage

by Katrin Trüstedt

Still 1 (2)Fundamental questions of migration and asylum that determine contemporary political debates also take center stage in some contemporary theaters. On the German speaking stage, Asylum seekers have made a lasting impact that gave rise to recent controversial discussions. Announcing his latest book, professor at the Hochschule für Schauspielkunst Ernst Busch Bernd Stegemann claimed that the impact of the "refugees on stage" marks a problematic turn towards authenticity. It implies, according to him, a form of banishing mimetic art from the stage on which no fictive world is emerging anymore. In line with several "new realisms" and a dominance of documentary forms, refugees are put on the stage as "real human beings" that are supposedly just "being themselves." Stegemann understands this as a takeover by a performative art form that not only expels mimetic art from the theater, but in his view also furthers a new populism with its claim for authenticity.

This diagnosis underestimates the complex conditions and reflective potential of the contemporary stage. A play like Elfriede Jelinek's The Charges (the Supplicants) does not take the appearance of "real people" for granted. Rather, it explores the question what it means to enter a stage, to make an appearance, and to take on or receive a role, even "as oneself." And it highlights especially what it means to appear as a "stateless," in the double sense of being without state and being without status. Not only any claim for authenticity is very much up for debate here, but the very foundations of mimetic as well as of performative art is being explored. In Jelinek's text, the question of asylum on the one hand, and the very nature of the theater on the other are fundamentally linked.

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Monday Poem

Things We Learn

Things come to us
out of nowhere

they come

Surfers riding waves Shooting barrel
we learn the nuances of gravity
its center-of, its bonding property,
its Gs, its fatal promise, we learn
how to stand erect and,
for the most part, stay that way
learn how to take a fall
how to shuck and jive
through sticky moments
through disequilibrium to stoop
or, chest out, stand tall
falling even into the troughs of its waves
we ride, we glide skulls full of juice
snapping, crackling through calculations
needed to adjust, adjust
we learn to know the force of the wave
behind, its feel, learn to fear and not to,
to not let its immensity in terror lock us,
to knock us off our board, we learn
immediately where our feet should be,
the optimal pose, how to shift without thought,
to enter the exhilaration of a barrel
and ride despite threat of a lethal dive
to surface sane, with soul intact, alive

Jim Culleny
2/18/17

Evolution is not progress

by Paul Braterman

Evolution has nothing to do with progress. Most evolution doesn't even have anything to do with adaptation, and it is perfectly possible for a change that is worse than useless to spread through a population. Paradoxically, however, such non-adaptive change may be a necessary prelude for major adaptations.

This post was inspired by a recent opinion piece (open access here1) in BMC Biology, entitled "Splendor and misery of adaptation, or the importance of neutral null for understanding evolution" (I will explain what "neutral null" means later). The paper itself is in parts highly technical, with 86 references to the original scientific literature, but I will try here to give a general overview of some of the main conclusions, and to place them in context.

Darwin and Wallace both thought that evolution was driven by selection. If so, then whenever we find a feature in an organism, it makes sense to ask what function it serves. The function may for example be help in survival (natural selection, in the narrowest sense of the term), or help in obtaining mating opportunities (sexual selection).

Recurrent_laryngeal_nerve.svgL: The recurrent laryngeal nerve passing under the aortic arch. Illustration by Jkwchui after Truthseeker-2004, via Wikipedia

Because the evolution of a species is constrained by its history, there will be features that are themselves non-adaptive, but come about as side-effects of more important adaptive changes. Such incidental maladaptions include the tortuous paths of major nerves and arteries, which have arisen as the unwanted by-product of changes in body plan since our fish-like ancestors. One well-known example is the recurrent laryngeal nerve, which loops under the aorta near the heart and back up again on its way from the cranium to the larynx and oesophagus. In a fish, its path is more or less a straight line, but as the heart has moved down in the body, and the aorta with it, the nerve has been forced into this contorted pathway.

Likewise, we can expect to find vestigial organs, which once had a function, and are now redundant, but have not yet completely disappeared. An example is the pelvis of the whale, inherited from its four-legged ancestors. Such vestigial organs often acquire secondary functions, in the phenomenon known as exaptation. The bones in the mammalian ear, related to bones in a reptile's flexible jaw, illustrate this. [Insert diagrams: whale pelvis; jaw-to-ear] And indeed whales use their pelvis and femur relics in sexual embraces.

Sperm_whale_drawing_with_skeletonR: Sperm whale with drawing of skeleton, NOAA via Wikipedia

Adaptationism is the view that all aspects of an organism are, directly or indirectly, the result of selection. So every feature needs to be explained, either in terms of its own function, or as an incidental relic or side-effect of more directly functional features. This is a natural enough assumption, but like all assumptions it requires justification. Otherwise it is merely a "Just So" story.

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