Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) is one of those fortunate composers who has created his own world in music—and is beloved for it in his lifetime. The Estonian, who for the last decade has been the world’s most performed living composer, started his career writing neoclassical pieces influenced by the Russian greats, chiefly Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Then he discovered Schoenberg’s twelve-tone scale, serialism, and other twentieth-century experimental techniques and soon became a prominent member of the avant-garde. But Soviet censors disapproved, and in the late 1960s their unofficial censorship removed Pärt’s music from concert programs and sent him into what he called a “period of contemplative silence.”
For years he composed nothing, instead studying medieval choral music intensely in an attempt to find the roots of Western music. These transformative periods of creativity and reflection have marked the rhythm of Pärt’s career, and in 1976 emerged from his longest silence yet with a focus on sacred music and an entirely new mode of composition: tintinnabuli.
But it wasn’t as if, by leaving church, I could escape. In the Midwest, everything is haunted by Jesus: the Rust Belt towns, the long gray freeways; county fairs in the summer with headlining Christian bands; breweries full of wholesome Christian hipsters in warm sweaters, Iron and Wine or Sufjan Stevens on the sound system. After belief, I didn’t want to drive through the suburbs and come upon some postwar church with hymnals full of David Haasand Marty Haugen songs. Even living near Lake Michigan became impossible. I’d drive to the lake after work and walk along the beach as the sun set, moodily brooding. The lake had its own extra-diegetic soundtrack, from the “Pure Michigan” campaign, which O’Gieblyn describes as evoking the kind of “autumnal sentimentalism” that “animates Starbucks ads and late-career Diane Keaton films.” She notes that you can easily imagine the voice over the ads—Middle America’s dad, Tim Allen—as belonging “to God himself.”
Each critic sees him- or herself in Oscar Wilde. Saint Oscar; Wilde the Irishman; Wilde the wit. The classicist; the socialist; the martyr for gay rights. “To be premature is to be perfect”, Wilde wrote; “History lives through its anachronisms.” It is in large part on this quality that the Wilde industry has been built. For an industry it certainly is. Books on Wilde are glamorous in a way that academic monographs seldom are. They come with beautiful artwork and endorsements by Stephen Fry. They lend themselves to the crossover market, eminently desirable to publishers as monograph sales dwindle. At their zenith, they beget publicity tours and a spot on a Waterstones table. In a world where most of us academics regularly spend weeks preparing a conference paper to deliver before an audience of a dozen, this is stardom.
IBM’s Jeopardy winning computer Watson is a serious threat, not just to the livelihood of medical diagnosticians, but to other professionals who may find themselves going the way of welders. Besides its economic threat, the advance of AI seems to pose a cultural threat: if physical systems can do what we do without thought to give meaning to their achievements, the conscious human mind will be displaced from its unique role in the universe as a creative, responsible, rational agent.
But this worry has a more powerful basis in the Nobel Prize winning discoveries of a quartet of neuroscientists—Eric Kandel, John O’Keefe, Edvard, and May-Britt Moser. For between them they have shown that the human brain doesn’t work the way conscious experience suggests at all. Instead it operates to deliver human achievements in the way IBM’s Watson does. Thoughts with meaning have no more role in the human brain than in artificial intelligence.
Consciousness tells us that we employ a theory of mind, both to decide on our own actions and to predict and explain the behavior of others. According to this theory there have to be particular belief/desire pairings somewhere in our brains working together to bring about movements of the body, including speech and writing. Which beliefs and desires in particular? Roughly speaking it’s the contents of beliefs and desires—what they are about—that pair them up to drive our actions. The desires represent the ends, the beliefs record the available means to attain them. It is thus that we give meaning to our actions, and make sense of what others do.
Perhaps no other area of physics has enjoyed as much attention from scientists and non-scientists as quantum mechanics. The fame of quantum mechanics theories stands in juxtaposition to the physical “weirdness” they manifest – even some of the scientists who discovered these theories were set aback by the startling consequences. It’s no wonder Einstein remarked, “The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks.” But as “silly” as it may seem, the physical implications of quantum mechanics are real, and not nearly as complicated nor inaccessible as they might seem.
Energy Comes in Chunks
We are all familiar with the way the burner of an electric stove goes from being faint red to flaming bright red as the temperature rises. If we could increase the temperature even higher, we would eventually see the burner shifting from its reddish glow to more of a bluish hue. In essence, what we are observing is a very specific relationship between the temperature of a hot object (e.g., stove burner) and the light (thermal radiation) it gives off: as the temperature increases, the light emitted from the burner shifts to a higher frequency. And although our eyes only see a particular color, it’s actually a range of colors, or a frequency spectrum, that’s emitted. This seemingly mundane physical phenomenon left twentieth-century physicists paralyzed for answers, and it would ultimately provide the very first peak into the bizarre world of quantum mechanics.
From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, the Mughal Empire did much to create modern-day India. It consolidated the country into a sovereign political unit, established a secular tradition in law and administration, and built monuments such as the Taj Mahal. The Mughals were originally from Uzbekistan, but over time they became a symbol of the contribution of Muslims to Indian national history. Their lasting influence is evident in some of India’s most famous dishes, such as biryani, and the settings of several of the most beloved Bollywood movies, including Mughal-e-Azam (1960), by some estimates the highest-grossing film in Indian history.
So it was odd, on a visit this spring to a school in the Indian state of Rajasthan, to hear a Muslim teacher, Sana Khan, ask her entirely Muslim eighth-grade social science class, “Was there anything positive about Mughals?” Khan was teaching at the English-medium Saifee Senior Secondary School, whose students are Dawoodi Bohras, a small Islamic sect that has been based in India since the Mughal era, when its leaders faced persecution in the Middle East. Like Jews, Parsis, and Baha’is, the Bohras are a religious minority that found shelter in India’s unusually tolerant culture.
Yet some of Khan’s students saw only barbarism in the time of their own community’s emergence in India.
Jan-Werner Müller in the New York Review of Books:
Liberalism is in crisis, we’re told, assailed on left and right by rising populists and authoritarians. The center cannot hold, they say. But if liberal democracy itself is under threat of collapse because of this weakened center, why are the great defenders of the “open society” such as Isaiah Berlin, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Karl Popper, and Raymond Aron so little invoked? One would think that liberals today would be pressing back into service these robust thinkers of cold-war liberalism. But while not forgotten, their names are barely cited in contemporary political debates. One curious exception—that almost proves the rule, given its eccentric grounds—was when, last year, an Irish finance minister lauded Berlin for helping him deal with “the demands of corporation tax policy.” That is hardly using Berlin as a buttress against populism.
There remains much to be recovered from cold war liberalism for our historical moment. These thinkers had already learned the hard way that progress in the direction of a more liberal world is not inevitable. In a self-critical vein, they took seriously some of the charges that had been leveled against capitalist democracies in the 1920s and 1930s. But what Schlesinger outlined in an influential 1949 book called The Vital Center was not a matter of mere pragmatism, let alone triangulation between extreme left and right.
Meena Alexander, a poet and scholar whose writings reflected the search for identity that came with a peripatetic life, including time in India, Africa, Europe and the United States, died on Wednesday in Manhattan. She was 67.
Her husband, David Lelyveld, said the cause was endometrial serous cancer.
In both prose and poetry Ms. Alexander, a longtime professor at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, explored themes of feminism, post-colonialism, dislocation, memory and more. She published numerous volumes of poetry, two novels and a memoir, “Fault Lines” (1993). Her writings were themselves the subject of a book, “Passage to Manhattan: Critical Essays on Meena Alexander” (2005).
In their introduction, the editors of that volume, Lopamudra Basu and Cynthia Leenerts, credit Ms. Alexander with creating “a new hybrid poetic form, which fuses the Western Romantic lyric tradition with non-Western ones of Bhakti and Sufi poetry,” which came out of India. In one essay in the book, Jacqueline Wigfall describes “Fault Lines” as “a production of sound, color and texture that exceeds the function of autobiography, social history and political memoir.”
Blurbs, the quoted testimonials of a book’s virtues by other authors, are now so ubiquitous, readers expect them, first-time authors stress about getting them, booksellers base orders on them. A blank back cover today would probably look like a production mistake. But while readers heft books in their hands and scrutinize the praise, it should be noted that blurbs are not ad copy written by some copywriter; they are ad copy written by a fellow author. “Ad copy” might be a bit harsh, but maybe not. The “flap copy,” the wordage on the inside flap of the cover of a hard cover, is written by the publishers, to tell potential readers what the book is about but also, of course, to spur a purchase. Blurbs are also there for promotional purposes only, their bias similarly implicit. “Why is this even a book?” I saw in a book review for a tepid memoir that I read in galleys and enthusiastically thought the same thing about. But such an honest negative assessment is not going to make it as a blurb, nor does an author’s effusive praise guarantee that the book has been read. Random people I interviewed for this piece didn’t know what blurbs were—when I asked about their persuasiveness/necessity, most said they thought they were necessary, but then I realized they were referring to the “flap copy” on the inside cover. Most readers I spoke to casually, including my niece, a college student who can’t leave a bookstore without at least 50 pounds of books, seemed pretty agnostic-to-meh about blurbs and mostly ignored them while browsing.
Consistent with Mouffe’s other writings, For a Left Populism draws on the work of two interwar intellectuals: Carl Schmitt and Antonio Gramsci. It might seem strange to place the thought of “the crown jurist of the Third Reich” alongside that of a leader of the Italian Communist Party who was imprisoned by Mussolini’s government, but Mouffe finds in both figures conceptual resources for what she calls an anti-essentialist leftism. From Gramsci, Mouffe takes the concept of hegemony; from Schmitt, the concept of the political. Hegemony names the form of power that cannot be reduced to brute repression alone. Rather, a dominant social group attains hegemony when subaltern groups voluntarily submit to its rule, not under the barrel of a gun but through the force of “common sense” and affective attachments to the existing order. As a corollary, any counter-hegemonic movement from below must contest the prevailing order and the class interests it serves by engaging not only the state but also civil society. Churches, schools, trade unions, sports teams, and all manner of voluntary associations are the battlegrounds of hegemonic struggle.
In her 2002 novel The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante deftly dissects just the kind of seemingly vestigial social and historical baggage that remains central to contemporary gender identity. It’s an audacious, unflinching look at the things that are still important to women and why. Reeling in the wake of her husband’s unexpected abandonment of her for another woman, thirty-eight-year-old Olga is vexed by the realization that her sense of self is tethered so tightly to her social roles as mother and wife. The novel’s title is fitting not only for its reference to the sudden dissolution of a marriage, but for Olga’s dereliction of the duties that have come to define her. Bills still pile up, the dog her husband left behind still requires care, and ants threaten to overtake the house when Olga neglects her once undeviating house-cleaning routine.
…I’m skeptical that a total understanding of another’s experience is ever the necessary threshold for thoughtful coexistence, but great literature provides insight into the experiences of others that might be otherwise inaccessible, and can be a vehicle for the kind of empathy that foments social progress. TheDays of Abandonment is richer and more nuanced than a merely schematic handbook for post-sexist masculinity, but Ferrante does detail the perils that attend treating relationships as a zero-sum game in which a man willfully waxes at a woman’s wane.
There’s an unexpectedly amusing passage in the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Kant is deliberating upon lofty issues like how and why we consider something beautiful. In the course of his complicated philosophical maneuverings he pauses to mention, by way of example, a number of pleasing designs to be found in nature. And then, in a twist, he muses briefly on how the eye and mind delight in the incredible shapes and forms of… wallpaper. Yes, wallpaper.
Kant likes wallpaper, and thinks the rest of us like it too, because the shapes to be found on a well-designed piece “mean nothing on their own, they represent nothing … and are free beauties.” That’s to say, we delight in the beautiful forms and shapes of wallpaper precisely because we don’t relate them to anything else. The very fact that the mind doesn’t really know what to do with the shapes or how to categorize them means that we can appreciate them on their own terms.
To me, this is one of the crucial moments in the history of modern art.
I remember vividly hosting a colloquium speaker, about fifteen years ago, who talked about the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory, which had just started taking data. Comparing where they were to where they needed to get to in terms of sensitivity, the mumblings in the audience after the talk were clear: “They’ll never make it.” Of course we now know that they did, and the 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves led to a 2017 Nobel Prize for Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish. So it’s a great pleasure to have Kip Thorne himself as a guest on the podcast. Kip tells us a bit about he LIGO story, and offers some strong opinions about the Nobel Prize. But he’s had a long and colorful career, so we also talk about whether it’s possible to travel backward in time through a wormhole, and what his future movie plans are in the wake of the success of Interstellar.
At present there is no Journal of Controversial Ideas. There are only our plans and intentions, and a group of about 40 academics who have agreed to be on our editorial board. These are the only facts there are about the journal. Malik could have learned about them had she contacted one of us. Instead she attributed to us a set of aims of her own invention, principal among which is to create a “safe space” in which, by “deliberately branding ideas as controversial”, our authors can “provoke, recoil at the response, abhor it as overreaction”. Because our “thin-skinned, elitist, coddled” authors “will be anonymous”, they can publish “without responsibility” and with complete “freedom from consequence”. Malik even endows us with an unidentified source of funding who will ensure the journal will be governed by “market forces”.
Our aim in establishing the journal is only to enable academics – particularly younger, untenured, or otherwise vulnerable academics – to have the option of publishing under a pseudonym when they might otherwise be deterred from publishing by fear of death threats (which two of us have received in response to our writings), threats to their families, or threats to their careers. Pseudonymity is optional, not required. Our intention is to publish only articles that give carefully developed reasons, arguments and evidence in support of conclusions that some may find offensive or pernicious. We will not publish work that is polemical, intentionally inflammatory or ad hominem. These aims and constraints have consistently guided our own writing.