We’re sitting here in the third incarnation of Schema for a School. How did this project begin?
Asad Raza: In 2015, Nicola Lees invited me to do something for the Ljubljana Biennial, and I had a thought of the school, especially experimental pedagogy, as an interesting thing. I asked Jeff and Graham to collaborate on this, as they probably know the subject much, much better than I do. But I was interested in making some formal conditions, let’s say, under which an experimental school could flourish inside an exhibition. I think of these as sketches for an institution that would be up to the 21st century somehow, a multivalent cultural institution that could do exhibitions, that would have education, but the education wouldn’t function in the way that education departments do right now, you know?
D. Graham Burnett: The timing of Asad’s invitation was great, because over the years Jeff and I had developed and taught several experimental courses at Princeton in a graduate programme called IHUM (Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities). We, too, had been thinking about the relationship between art spaces and teaching/learning spaces. In fact, Asad had even come down and done a session with us. So the idea of a collaboration came easily.
If you bring together two enigmas, do you get a bigger enigma, or do they cancel each other out, like multiplied negative numbers, to produce clarity? The latter, I hope, as I take on Wittgenstein and mysticism.
I’ve been puzzling over these topics since my philosophy salon met to discuss “The Mysticism of the Tractatus,” written in 1966 by B.F. McGuinness. The salon consists of eight or so people, most with graduate degrees in philosophy, who gather in the salon-runner’s living room to jaw over a paper. Ludwig Wittgenstein, whom Bertrand Russell described as “the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived,” published only one book during his lifetime, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. First issued in German in 1921, Tractatus is a cryptic meditation on what is knowable and unknowable.
“Mysticism” is often used as a derogatory term to describe obscure, fuzzy thinking, or woo. But in “The Mysticism of the Tractatus,” McGuiness uses the term to refer to an extraordinary form of perception described by sages east and west. In Varieties of Religious Experience, still the best scholarly treatment of mysticism, William James notes that during a mystical experience you feel as though you are encountering absolute truth, the ground of being, God. These revelations are laden with spiritual significance and accompanied by intense emotions. You often feel a sense of blissful timelessness and oneness with everything (although the experience can also be hellish).
As misinformation weapons go, fake news is sort of like a cannon: noisy and provocative. Innuendo is like a dirty bomb — invisible, toxic and lingering. I became more aware of the misleading uses of innuendo after I spoke with linguistics professor Andrew Kehler during the run-up to the 2016 election.
Kehler studies something called pragmatic enrichment of language — the way we leave gaps in our utterances which listeners will fill in, allowing us to converse without being impossibly wordy. But by the same token, speakers who want to mislead without literally lying can nudge people to fill is such gaps with their own faulty assumptions.
This happened in the presidential debates, and it happens in advertising and other forms of persuasion. For example, a television commercial might promote Brand X vitamins as having twice the iron as a competitor’s, he said. That may be true. But it implies that more iron will make you healthier, which is likely to be false. (Recent datashow more Americans get too much iron than too little). “We’re always taking more information away from utterances than what is said, and we don’t realize how we are manipulated this way,” he told me.
After graduation, Thurman settled in Harlem in the 1920s and became a leading (and legendary) figure in the Harlem Renaissance—part of the “niggerati,” as Zora Neale Hurston famously called this influential group of intellectuals and artists. Working with A. Philip Randolph, Thurman became an editor at The Messenger, a political and literary journal, and in 1926 he co-founded, with Hurston, Hughes, Aaron Douglas, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Bruce Nugent, a bold and innovative publication called Fire!!, which featured the work of younger artists but was disliked by the black middle class because of its candid presentation of black life. In 1929, Thurman collaborated with the white playwright William Jourdan Rapp to write and produce Harlem, which ran for 93 performances and became “the first successful play written entirely or in part by a Negro to appear on Broadway.” Thurman believed that African Americans could overcome racial barriers, but he experienced countless incidents of racism during his short life.
What would Shakespeare have made of Trump? It’s one of the impish and fascinating questions at the heart of this nimble and intriguing study of the Bard’s lurid gallery of vicious despots. Greenblatt is the Harvard Shakespeare expert who co-founded new historicism, the lit-crit practice that seeks to place works in their historical context. The 45th president is not mentioned anywhere by name in Tyrant, but the analogies are clear.
Shakespeare, Greenblatt explains, had to speak of authoritarianism in code, lest he lose his head on charges of treason. The Elizabethan period was a “fragile” era politically, haunted by the shadow of Roman Catholic terrorism. Greenblatt’s strategies, though, are transparently forthright, perhaps to the point of being a little forced, but they are never less than illuminating. Tyrant was borne out of a New York Times article Greenblatt wrote just before the 2016 US election; he confesses to having been moved to extend it into a book after the election result confirmed his “worst fears”. The ogres Greenblatt focuses on – Macbeth, Richard III, Lear, Coriolanus and Leontes from A Winter’s Tale – unsurprisingly exhibit a checklist of the obvious Trumpian traits: narcissism, impulsiveness, indecency, incompetence. They peddle in lies and, in the case of Coriolanus, collusion with foreign powers.
These parallels, though, while playfully toothsome, are less striking than Greenblatt’s other preoccupations. These include the role of the masses in the tyrant’s rise, the opportunistic and self-deceiving “enablers” in his court (who are invariably swiftly dispensed with), and how for the despot there is “remarkably little satisfaction”, or serenity, once the throne is taken. In a passage that could equally be applied to the Brexit vote, Greenblatt hones in on the complicity of the masses, those who “take vicarious pleasure in the release of pent-up aggression, in the black humour of it all, in the open speaking of the unspeakable”. The masses for a period share the tyrant’s “gleeful contempt” for the common good. “Something in us enjoys every minute of his horrible ascent to power,” Greenblatt argues.
Refashioning history to include its countless heroines is essential work, long overdue. But what of the future? Will these books, as the introduction to Herstory implores, truly encourage young girls to “take inspiration from these . . . amazing women and girls and shake things up!”? Perhaps. Last year, Science magazine published research investigating the age at which girls begin to think that they are less intellectually brilliant than boys. The study involved reading two stories to children between the ages of five and seven. One, they explained, was about a “really, really smart” person; the other, a “really, really nice” one. Afterwards, the children were asked which was about a girl, and which about a boy. At five, the boys were sure the “really, really smart” character was a boy, the girls equally adamant it was a girl. By six, however, something had changed. In the space of twelve months, the girls had become 20 per cent less likely to think that a clever character could share their gender. According to Dario Cvencek, a research scientist at the University of Washington, the results would be more depressing still had the hero of the book been a mathematician. Children absorb the gender prejudices on display in their environments and reading matter from the age of around five, he says – especially the idea that girls don’t do numbers. The stereotypes portrayed in their reading material become their own stereotypes and, worse still, the limits of their ambitions. The most powerful way to combat this, as the psychologist Nilanjana Dasgupta has found, is through providing successful female role models to small girls before the disease sets in, as a form of “stereotype inoculation”.
Cornel West is right or I am on his side, another old head who believes that history is human-made. Afro-pessimism and its treatment of withdrawal as transcendence is no less pleasing to white supremacy than Booker T. Washington’s strategic retreat into self-help. Afro-pessimism threatens no one, and white audiences confuse having been chastised with learning. Unfortunately, black people who dismiss the idea of progress as a fantasy are incorrect in thinking they are the same as most white people who perhaps believe still that they will be fine no matter who wins our elections. Afro-pessimism is not found in the black church. One of the most eloquent rebuttals to Afro-pessimism came from the white teenage anti-gun lobbyists who opened up their story in the March for Our Lives demonstrations to include all youth trapped in violent cultures.
It is not uncommon that I lie about what I do for a living. When meeting strangers, basic introductions quickly turn into conversational quicksand for me. Whether posed for identification, categorization, assessment of social status, or to fill an empty conversation, inquiries about work are difficult to avoid. I know that such questions are innocent attempts to situate me somewhere in the atmosphere; we use the occupational compass to direct us toward an identifiable point in each other’s lives. I know this, and yet the job question, when it comes, often has me squirming for answers. My eyes dart away from the pair in front of me expecting a straightforward reply.
The question triggers a peculiar type of “flight or fight response,” as if the topic of what I do for a living poses a personal threat. Most of the time I dodge the issue or flee entirely. At other times, I will stay and face the question in the easiest way possible, avoiding the pitfall of pretending to be an accountant in front of the local manager of H&R Block. First, I say I’m a doctor. In response to the inevitable question, “What kind …?” I’ll sometimes blankly respond, “Oh, a general practitioner—a family doctor …” After all, I was one of those once, so it’s not really a bold-faced lie. I know about triaging colds and flu, about vaccinating kids and monitoring benign conditions. I know about diagnostic skills at risk of becoming blunted by seeing so many “walking well” and about desperately hoping not to miss a serious illness cloaked in a veneer of nonspecific anxieties and nondescript sensations and pains. But, in truth, I am no longer one of those.
When I don’t escape or lie—there is no way to predetermine when the urge for honesty will suddenly strike—I answer, “I’m a cancer specialist,” and then feel the immediate lurch to the edge of a conversational cliff. This answer can be as shocking to my conversation partner as when I passingly ask someone, “How’s it going,” expecting a bland “not bad,” but instead have to respond to, “Oh just horrible—this has been one of the worst weeks of my life.” A momentarily stunned, uncomfortable silence follows. Responses to my profession confession vary and often include vignettes of how the person has been touched by cancer in the present or past, whether through the closest of loved ones or the most distant of acquaintances. When no such vignette is forthcoming, the conversation often turns to “how close ‘they’ are to a cure” or to imaginative hypotheses surrounding etiologies and best preventive methods. The possible collusion of industry and government in preventing the dissemination of a simple, natural cure also comes up commonly. Inevitably, there is a tinge of disbelief: Most people know someone who has been impacted by a malignancy, but have never met someone who deals with the onslaught of disease and despair day in and day out.
. …. I plucked off petal after petal, as if you were a rose in order to see your soul but I didn’t see it. ………. While all around —horizons of fields an seas— everything, all the way to infinity, was filled with an essence, immense and alive
by Juan Ramón Jiménez from The Poet and the Sea White Pine Press, 2009
…. Te deshojé, como una rosa, para verte tu alma, y no la vi. ……….. Mas todo en torno —horizontes de tierras y de la mares— todo, hasta el infinito, se colmó de una esencia inmensa y viva.
A few months into a cushy postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton, where the walls were a soothing yellow and poached salmon was a staple, it dawned on me that I could reasonably be considered an arsehole. This wasn’t the first time the thought had occurred to me: after all, I am the kind of Brit who insists on the difference between a donkey, otherwise known as an ass, and a backside, otherwise known as an arse. But on this occasion my reflection was prompted not by looking in the mirror or by hearing a recording of my voice but by the experience of being a philosopher in a non-philosophical setting. Calling yourself a philosopher already makes you sound a bit of an arse, but the fact remains that I have spent most of my professional life studying, discussing, writing and teaching philosophy—and it is this, I submit, that has made me liable to appear a right royal arsehole.
Few subjects have afforded more room for doubt, or caused more harm through false certainty, than heredity. In She Has Her Mother’s Laugh, an illuminating survey of the concept through history, science writer Carl Zimmer shows that scientists have often clung to travesties of the truth — and that we are still in danger of doing so.
The book is a beguiling narrative of more than 600 pages. It blends popular science and history with a personal journey, culminating in a plea for a nuanced view of heredity. Zimmer ably navigates some of the most fraught developments in research, politics, religion and race: from eugenics, slavery and genocide to IQ and genetic engineering in humans. He combines a deep personal empathy with clear scientific understanding. For instance, in presenting controversial figures such as Henry Goddard — who coined the term ‘moron’ and helped to foster the US eugenics movement in the early twentieth century — he examines their hopes, fears and delusions, before dispassionately gutting their scientific errors and the disastrous consequences.
Compellingly, Zimmer delves into his own genome. After having it sequenced at 90% coverage by Illumina in San Diego, California, he got his hands on the raw data, and approached experts such as Dina Zielinski of the New York Genome Center to help him unravel his genes’ secrets. Zimmer uses this backstory to illustrate how genomes break up into millions of short stretches of DNA, each with its own history from around the world.
If you wanted to feel the full force of the intellectual whirlpool that is American politics in 2018, the place to go on April 2 was the Village Underground, a nightclub beneath West 3rdStreet, where Alan Dershowitz, the longtime Harvard Law professor and civil liberties lion, was debating the future of American democracy on the side of President Donald Trump.
Opposing him were a National Review writer and a former FBI agent, arguing that the special investigation into ties between Russia and Trump’s presidential campaign is well within the bounds of American law. Dershowitz, along with a conservative columnist for the Washington Examiner, was making the case that the Mueller investigation is dangerous to our entire system. In the room, which is normally a comedy club, it was impossible to shake the feeling that something was off. Two years ago, it would’ve seemed far more natural for the quartet to swap partners and switch sides.
On our way out, my wife and I were handed free copies of Dershowitz’s newest book, “Trumped Up: How Criminalization of Political Differences Endangers Democracy,” in which Dershowitz writes that special prosecutor Robert Mueller is subjecting Trump to “the legal equivalent of a colonoscopy.”
The woman behind us in line took her free book, turned to her husband and asked, “What happened to Alan Dershowitz?”
Of course, I am happy for those I have never met. Prince Henry (Harry), who lost his mother at twelve—lost her to monarchy, and the occasionally murderous intrusions that now define it—found a woman to hold him and, I think, he laid his heart before her. She was touched by him—Harry is a lonely prince, a semi-mythical being—and she picked it up. It looked real. I hope it is real, even as I resent having an opinion on a stranger’s love. That this was televised in an event as emotionally grasping as the funeral that incited the very need we thought we saw sated on Saturday should be obvious, but it was not mentioned. It should be the final, impolite word on the royal wedding.
But the people want more, and so does the monarchy. They feast, unhappily, on each other. Britain is a co-dependent state that is not in recovery from its past.
Read a few lines of a talented poet charged with God—from the otherworldly lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins on forward to Akbar himself—and you see what faith can do to language. There’s a lift. A particular lean. A curious mixture of confidence and humility. A strangeness borne of awe. Peter O’Leary’s book of criticism, Thick and Dazzling Darkness: Religious Poetry in a Secular Age, considers what it means when religious poets continue to write such charged verse when the broader world reacts with skepticism, and perhaps derision, in response to such devotion.
The subject matter is in capable hands. O’Leary’s a poet himself, but he also knows how to curate rather than perform—he offers a healthy amount of sample lines to let the poets shine. He’s also comfortable with God talk. Few things sour many contemporary critics of poetry more than authentic and earnest religious devotion. The problem isn’t always illiteracy of religious texts—and a working knowledge of theology might be a bit much to ask.