Became, Become, Becoming

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David Adger on Arrival in Inference:

IN THE ORIGINAL short story, ideas from physics and mathematics are crucial to the plot. Among them is Fermat’s principle of least time. This states that light traveling between two points traverses the shortest possible path. The refraction of light can be understood in terms of this principle. Upon coming into contact with water, a beam of light changes direction because the index of refraction of water is different from that of air. Because light travels more slowly through water than air, the amount of time light spends travelling through water is minimized. The overall length of the path is also minimized. Understanding the behavior of a beam of light at the interface between air and water seems to require knowledge of both its starting and end points—a notion that is counterintuitive.

Fermat’s principle describes behavior in the physical world in terms of how the system works globally. The difference between the immediate agent of change and some final result that the system aims to achieve has been the subject of study for centuries, going back as far as the time of Aristotle and the distinction he made between effective (efficient) cause and final cause. In 1744, Leonhard Euler wrote that “there is absolutely no doubt that every effect in the universe can be explained as satisfactorily from final causes … as it can from the effective causes.”

In the original short story, not just light, but the whole universe is depicted as being susceptible to explanation from two distinct standpoints. Human language and physics are shaped by an inclination to see the world in terms of cause and effect. It is for this reason that Fermat’s principle seems unintuitive. The aliens in Arrival understand the universe as involving final, not efficient, causes. Humans think of refraction as being caused by the differing densities of air and water—in effect, a succession of causal chains. The aliens would see it as a point of equilibrium of the system, and the system as an atemporal whole.

Chiang’s short story interweaves ideas from both linguistics and physics, but the latter are largely absent from the film. Fermat’s principle featured in early versions of the script, but did not make the final cut. This is a shame because the notion that the world can be perceived and understood from two distinct perspectives, local and causal versus global and atemporal, helps to explain the effects that learning the alien language has on Banks. In the original story, the physics and linguistics reinforce one another. In the film, more has to be taken on trust.

More here.

The Galilean Challenge


Noam Chomsky in Inference:

In the Discourse on Method, Part V, Descartes argued that the creative use of language marked the distinction between human beings and other animals, and between human beings and machines. A machine may be impelled to act in a certain way, but it cannot be inclined; with human beings, it is often the reverse.5 Explaining why this is so, is the Galilean challenge.

In the modern era, the challenge, although occasionally expressed, was also widely ignored. Wilhelm von Humboldt is an especially suggestive case to the contrary:

The processes of language must provide for the possibility of producing an undefinable set of phenomena, defined by the conditions imposed upon it by thought. … It must, therefore, make infinite use of finite means… [emphasis added]

The capacity for language is species specific, something shared by humans and unique to them. It is the most striking feature of this curious organism, and a foundation for its remarkable achievements. This is in its full generality the Galilean challenge. The challenge is very real, and should, I think, be recognized as one of the deepest questions in the rich two-thousand-five-hundred-year history of linguistic thought.

Until the twentieth century, there was never much to say about the Galilean challenge beyond a few phrases. There is a good reason why inquiry languished. Intellectual tools were not available for formulating the problem in a way clear enough to be seriously addressed. That changed thanks to the work of Alonzo Church, Kurt Gödel, Emil Post, and Alan Turing, who established the general theory of computability. Their work demonstrated how a finite object like the brain could generate an infinite variety of expressions. It became possible, for the first time, to address part of the Galilean challenge directly, even though the earlier history remained unknown.

With these intellectual tools available, it becomes possible to formulate what we may call the Basic Property of human language. The language faculty of the human brain provides the means to construct a digitally infinite array of structured expressions; each is semantically interpreted as expressing a thought, and each can be externalized by some sensory modality, such as speech.

More here.

Trump won on “white fright”: Why identity politics win elections


David Masciotra in Salon:

Christopher Parker, a political scientist at the University of Washington, not only predicted the nomination and presidential victory of Donald Trump. He also accurately forecasted the flatulent rise of the white reactionary constituency when the Tea Party was in its embryonic stage.

Parker and his research partner Matt Barreto wrote “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America,” which won the American Political Science Association’s award for the best book in race, ethnicity and politics, and are currently working on a book examining how “white fright” led to the Trump victory. Racial resentment and terror at the prospect of social change is what animated the Tea Party and now energizes Trump supporters, according to their research, not perceptions of economic interest.

The meticulous research and masterful argumentation of Parker and Barreto is difficult to dispute, especially considering that they have correctly predicted the outcome of American politics for several years. Yet, they are largely invisible, far from mainstays on television and radio and anything but viral. The mediocre punditry, while scrambling to dissect and decipher Trump’s ascension, has ignored the two men who consistently called it.

Parker suspects that the reason for his own obscurity bears hideous resemblance to the impetus for the rightward shift in American politics. It is the purloined letter left out in the open that no one wants to see, much less read. It is racism.

More here. The intro to Parker and Barreto's book can be found here.

Apocalypse: The Original Rapture Novels

800px-Apocalypse_vasnetsovSusan Gray Blue at The Millions:

Kirban set the trend of framing the rapture in fiction, and his sensationalist bent got more Christians to hear the apocalyptic clock ticking. In the mid-’90s, this view of the apocalypse would be further popularized by the Left Behind novels. When many of the evangelicals who now follow Donald Trump look to the end of the world, what they’re picturing isn’t far from Kirban’s version. (Well, except maybe for the guillotines on church lawns.)

Salem Kirban himself remains something of a mysterious figure. In one photo of him from the ’70s, he’s posed at the front of a church he visited, wearing a red bow tie and a dark-blue suit, one hand resting on a Bible. He was born in 1925 and lived most of his life in Pennsylvania, graduating from Temple University. During WWII, he served in the Navy. Somewhere along the way, he developed an interest in two topics that he would eventually write dozens of books about: the apocalypse (How the World Will End: Guide to Survival; What in the World Will Happen Next?) and fresh juice (How Juices Restore Health Naturally; Fat Is Not Forever). In that photo of him at the church, he has bushy eyebrows and thick dark hair that’s brushed away from his face. For a man who wrote about sinister conspiracies, he looks surprisingly friendly. Kind of like a guy you might want to grab a juice with.

more here.


Article-2070026-0F0DC67B00000578-919_233x496Lucy Lethbridge at Literary Review:

Of all the books published on Austen this year, the most satisfying – perhaps because it has a succinctness and a refreshing absence of great claims that Austen herself would have appreciated – is Fiona Stafford’s Jane Austen: A Brief Life (Yale University Press 184pp £8.99). It is beautifully written and covers the familiar biographical territory, but it is Stafford’s intelligent discussion of the novels that makes this book stand out. She doesn’t say anything particularly new but she writes with such clarity and perceptiveness that the familiar seems fresh. She is particularly good on the delights and the pitfalls of eloquence. Austen’s default position is humour, capturing the seriousness of the world through the human comedy of its participants. Like Byrne, Stafford draws our attention to the fact that Austen’s novels reveal a deeper truth: that the workings of the heart cannot be more than partially revealed through words. For this most witty of novelists, it might be called the problem of eloquence: how powerful emotion is most powerfully expressed through inarticulacy. When Darcy is berated for not expressing feelings, he can only say, ‘A man who had felt less might’; Mr Knightley tells Emma, ‘If I loved you less I might be able to talk about it more.’ In Persuasion, there is a scene in the White Hart Inn in which every character is engaged in a conversation that carries resonances for Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, though neither of them exchanges a word. It is, writes Stafford, ‘perhaps the most powerful emotional moment in the whole oeuvre’.

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A tale of unlikeable women

Sarah Tinsley in The F Word:

Flesh-of-the-peach-e1500485033954This book starts with a lovely little note: “To all the unlikeable women in fiction and outwith it.” Despite having to look up “outwith”, which I discovered is a Scottish word meaning “outside” or “beyond”, I liked this sentence immediately. The lack of women in literature of any kind is woeful, but it’s just as important to have the ones we despise as those we admire. Too often, prominent women are held up as some sort of beacon for the whole of womankind (often because they’re one of the few out there), or characters are expected to be inspiring role models. The fact is, more women are needed, full stop. And why not the ‘difficult’ ones? Human experience encompasses everything from the divine to the terrible, and we’ve certainly had enough despicable men. From Gatsby to Holden Caulfield, they leer over the literary landscape with their entitled breaths falling on the reader and charming them into believing them somehow flawed or fallible, rather than the downright misogynist bastards they actually are. So it’s about time someone redressed the balance. In Flesh of the Peach, Helen McClory gives us plenty of opportunity to find fault with women. From an alcoholic and abusive aunt, to a distant and indifferent mother, never mind the vain, narcissistic fuck-up that is the main character, we are presented with unapologetically awful people, who just happen to be women. Hurrah.

Sarah is living in New York, having just been dumped by her married lover, Kennedy. If that wasn’t enough emotional trauma for one week, she’s also just found out her mother has died. She’s faced with a choice – to return to the family home in Cornwall to attend the funeral and sort out her mother’s affairs, or to flee across the wilds of the US to the isolated cabin her mother used to escape to in New Mexico. She chooses the latter. She meanders for miles on a Greyhound bus, the knowledge of her newly gained riches from her mother and the pit of unacknowledged grief sitting underneath her. This sense of limbo, where she is waiting for money (the ways she imagines spending it are a highlight of the book) and deciding what to do next, makes the novel fluid and drifting. Once she’s arrived, her journey to some sort of acceptance is far from straightforward, with the locals subjected to her increasingly erratic behaviour as her inner turmoil grows.

An interesting feature of this book is the depiction of Sarah’s sexual relationships. It appears that she genuinely cared for the woman who dumped her when her husband found out about their affair, and there is much emotional softness in relation to her memories of this relationship.

More here.


Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair:

Department-of-energy-0917-01On the morning after the election, November 9, 2016, the people who ran the U.S. Department of Energy turned up in their offices and waited. They had cleared 30 desks and freed up 30 parking spaces. They didn’t know exactly how many people they’d host that day, but whoever won the election would surely be sending a small army into the Department of Energy, and every other federal agency. The morning after he was elected president, eight years earlier, Obama had sent between 30 and 40 people into the Department of Energy. The Department of Energy staff planned to deliver the same talks from the same five-inch-thick three-ring binders, with the Department of Energy seal on them, to the Trump people as they would have given to the Clinton people. “Nothing had to be changed,” said one former Department of Energy staffer. “They’d be done always with the intention that, either party wins, nothing changes.”

By afternoon the silence was deafening. “Day 1, we’re ready to go,” says a former senior White House official. “Day 2 it was ‘Maybe they’ll call us?’ ”

Teams were going around, ‘Have you heard from them?’ ” recalls another staffer who had prepared for the transition. “ ‘Have you gotten anything? I haven’t got anything.’ ”

“The election happened,” remembers Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, then deputy secretary of the D.O.E. “And he won. And then there was radio silence. We were prepared for the next day. And nothing happened.” Across the federal government the Trump people weren’t anywhere to be found. Allegedly, between the election and the inauguration not a single Trump representative set foot inside the Department of Agriculture, for example.

More here. [Thanks to Gerald Dworkin.]

Trump and the Trumpists


Wolfgang Streeck in Inference:

STRANGE PERSONALITIES arise in the cracks of disintegrating institutions. They are often marked by extravagant dress, inflated rhetoric, and a show of sexual power. The first Trumper of the postwar era was the Danish tax rebel, Mogens Glistrup, the founder of the nationalist Progress Party, who, having put his principles into practice, went to prison for tax evasion. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Boris Johnson in England are hairstyle Trumpers. Pim Fortuyn and Jörg Haider were both dandies. They died in their finery. Beppe Grillo, Nigel Farage, and Jean-Marie Le Pen, are each one third of a full Trump.

Trumpers generate their populist charisma among Trumpists by defying convention; they appear extraordinary to those who are intimidated but not impressed by society’s machinery of social control.1 With hindsight, it seems as though the capitalist democracies have been waiting for their Trumpers, men and women eager to liberate public speech from its commitment to the unbelievable. Donald Trump’s promise to make America great again is an acknowledgement that the United States is a power in decline, embarrassingly unable since Vietnam to win, or even to finish, any of the wars that it started. When Trumpers ask about NATO, they are asking why NATO should continue to exist a quarter century after the end of the Soviet Union. Calls for economic protectionism raise the question, long taboo among liberal internationalists, of whether new free trade agreements are really to everyone’s benefit, and why, in particular, the government of the United States should have let its country deindustrialize. The United States has an elaborate immigration policy, and yet there are eleven million illegal immigrants in its territory. Trumpers say this is odd, and Trumpists agree with them.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx recounted the coup d’état of 1851 by which the nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Bonaparte, seized power, ruling France first as its president, and a year later as its emperor. He governed as Napoleon III until 1871, when the Prussian army under Helmuth von Moltke put an end to his administration, along with his amour-propre. Marx described Bonapartism as a popular form of government by personal rule. It arose, he argued, in stalemated European societies, with the capitalist class too divided, and the working class too disorganized, to instruct or inform the government. The result was a degree of relative state autonomy, one expressing, even as it masked, a deadlock between social classes.

Bonapartist politics is driven by the idiosyncrasies of its Bonaparte. This is not a recipe for effective rule. Since a capitalist society under Bonapartism lacks the power to control, or contain, market forces, capitalists can afford to let their Bonaparte stage spectacles of political bravado; behind the scenes, markets do what markets do. In reflecting on the two Napoleons, Marx remarked that the first was a tragedy, but the second, a farce.

More here.

Why pray?


Benjamin Dueholm in Aeon:

'Gods change up in heaven, gods get replaced, prayers are here to stay.’ So wrote the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. Anyone not sharing his conviction might consider a visit to the Blue Lotus Buddhist temple in Woodstock, Illinois. There, in a converted church, worshippers take their places between a massive new statue of the Buddha and the original stained-glass Christ, solicitous of his sheep. A series of actions takes place that could be focused on either image: a bell rings, the people stand, the clergy enter, and everyone bows in reverence. Then the work of prayer and meditation begins. The people chant their desire to take refuge in the Buddha and set themselves to focus on loving kindness.

Prayer is a concept that baffles and beguiles. It eludes definition, comprehending wildly disparate and even contradictory practices. It includes humane self-fashioning and bitter imprecation, strict formality and total improvisation, wordless meditation and lengthy monologue, the intention prolonged in a spun wheel or a lit candle. And to the extent that prayer is not now, and perhaps never has been, understood as a way to cajole and influence the power that governs the world, it is not always obvious what prayer is supposed to accomplish.

As anyone who has successfully abandoned a regular prayer practice can say, it isn’t hard to get by without. Yet this particular gathering and focusing of consciousness must be doing something. Prayer is religion’s hermit crab; it scuttles recognisably from age to age and purpose to purpose, while attempts to refute or confirm are left to grasp its shells. It endures, shaping the mind, altering the body, or reflecting and resisting the forces of modern life. In its irreducible variety and seeming gratuitousness, it remains a puzzle. But if prayer itself resists explanation, it can still be illuminating to map its dimensions.

More here.

Across the globe, governments are cracking down on civic organizations. This is why.

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Kendra Dupuy, James Ron and Aseem Prakash in The Monkey Cage:

Scholarly understanding of the factors systematically driving public support — or lack thereof — for local NGOs is still nascent.

It may be that when governments label foreign-funded NGOs as “foreign agents,” the charge resonates because of painful colonial legacies. Yet nationalism is a potent force everywhere, and a recent history of Western imperialism is not always necessary.

In 2014, for instance, U.S. critics made much of Norwegian government support for policy research by established U.S. think tanks. The politically explosive issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is another example.

Indeed, a representative for the Hungarian government notes that their NGO law was similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, “which requires those engaging in political activities on behalf of foreign principals to register and disclose their activities.” You don’t have to be a Hungarian, Russian or Egyptian to resent foreign involvement in your country’s domestic politics.

The real problem here is the financial disconnect between NGOs and the communities they say they serve. When NGOs raise funds from co-citizens, they build the local ties that will translate into political support. Here’s an example: If President Trump were to try and crack down on the American Civil Liberties Union, the group’s many thousands of individual donors would almost certainly mobilize.

When NGOs depend on outsiders for their existence, they are drawn into an “NGO scramble” for international aid that leaves them locally disconnected and politically vulnerable. To continue the ACLU example, if the organization depended on Norway for its money, it would find far fewer domestic supporters willing to spend the time and energy to come to the NGO’s defense.

More here.

Could it be that there is a double Michael Fried?

263193Marnin Young at nonsite:

In a contribution to a 1987 panel at the Dia Art Foundation, Fried himself had stated that “the antitheatrical arguments of ‘Art and Objecthood’ belong to a larger historical field than that of abstraction versus minimalist art in 1967. […] Indeed, part of the interest ‘Art and Objecthood’ still has for me is that more than any of my early essays it represents a link between the art criticism I had been writing since the early 1960s and the art history I would soon go on to write.”6 Less than a decade later, however, he had substantially changed his tune. He stated his new position in the introduction to his collected art criticism, Art and Objecthood: Essays and Reviews: “between myself as historian of the French antitheatrical tradition and the critic who wrote ‘Art and Objecthood’ there looms an unbridgeable gap.”7

Certain elements of art criticism and art history, Fried insisted, had to be understood as separate. One is the notionally distinct roles inhabited by the critic and the historian. Whether this amounts to the “resolutely nonjudgmental” position of the art historian could be debated, but Fried insisted that an interpretation of the art of the past requires a certain historicizing of aesthetic judgment as such (“Introduction,” 51). (The flipside is the impossibility of historicizing one’s own critical judgments.) Fried also emphasized the distinction between the antitheatrical tradition of French art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the attempts to defeat theater in the modernist painting and sculpture of the postwar period. The two situations are perhaps, as Anthony Grudin has argued, parallel responses to capitalism, but for Fried they remain non-continuous and quasi-autonomous.8 In these respects, the art historical and critical approaches to art are non-identical twins. Is there a “double Michael Fried?” he asked, quoting Robert Smithson. “Whatever the right answer was in 1967, the answer now is yes” (“Introduction,” 52).

more here.

The Strange Tale of an Extra Special Talking Mongoose

Download (2)Bee Wilson at the LRB:

‘He does not feed like a mongoose,’ James Irving said of the talking mongoose that had taken up residence – or so it was said – in his remote Isle of Man farmhouse in the early 1930s. Irving told psychic investigators that his family had tried the mongoose – who went by the name of ‘Gef’ – on bread and milk, only to have their food rejected. Slowly and patiently, the Irvings found a repertoire of things that Gef would consent to eat. Before they went to bed at night, they would set out tidbits of bananas and oranges, chocolate and biscuits, sausage and bacon – ‘he always leaves the fat part.’ In the morning, the mongoose chatted to them through the wainscotting in his clear high-pitched voice about which of the items he had eaten.

For several years in the 1930s the case of this Manx mongoose – who was said to speak in a range of foreign languages including ‘Hindustani’, as well as singing, whistling, coughing ‘in a human manner’, swearing, dancing and attending political meetings – was discussed across Britain. As a fantastical beast, he was a contemporary of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, who was first supposedly photographed in 1933, although his fame was shorter-lived. Sometimes he called himself an ‘earthbound spirit’ and sometimes a ‘marsh mongoose’. When he first arrived at the Irving house in 1931, he was said to be a malevolent presence, a kind of ‘man-weasel’ who frightened the family with satanic laughter. Over the months, however, the Irvings warmed to some of Gef’s ways, and he became a pet of sorts, who amused the family with his gossip and jokes. He was less eager to share these witticisms with outsiders who came to the house to check him out. He didn’t like to speak to people who doubted him and punished them with silence and insults or threatened to blast them away with a shotgun.

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The Tarot of Alejandro Jodorowsky

16jodorowsky5-master675Michelle García at The Baffler:

IN THE LAST FEW DAYS, a carnival of tarot, music, and psychomagic made its way through New York City in the guise of shamanistic filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky and his family. The elder Jodorowsky and his son, Adan, made appearances at museums, theaters, and a downtown lounge to promote Endless Poetry (Poesía sin Fin), their new film (which was directed by the father and stars the son). With this project, perhaps the world’s biggest cult filmmaker returns his audience to his native Chile, where he picks up the thread of his previous work, The Dance of Reality, albeit with slightly less Oedipus complex (and self-indulgence). For its part, the poetic film’s color-saturated cosmology was shot by famed cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love), and it features an ecstatic Jodo-esque parade of dancing skeletons, puppetry, tender sensuality—and an enormous plummeting penis.

In the film, Jodorowsky chronicles his youthful rebellion against a bullying, money-obsessed father, which ultimately leads to him deserting his parents’ home for the bohemian world of muses, artists, and poetry. “Poetry, you shall illuminate my path like a blazing butterfly,” says a young Jodorowsky. With time, the poet and the butterfly coalesce. A wizened Jodorowsky later tells us that at the end of life “you become a butterfly, a being of pure light.”

The New York art world, it turns out, is not accommodating to butterflies of pure light.

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