On Fidelity: A Review of “Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time” By Joseph Frank

Claudia Verhoeven in Taxis:

The testament Dostoevsky left his children was the parable of the Prodigal Son. He asked that it be read to them the night of the day he knew would be his last, and the late, great Joseph Frank judged that Dostoevsky had probably understood the whole of his life and all of his literature as having existed under the sign of this tale of “transgression, forgiveness, and redemption.”

Anyone who loves Dostoevsky but not the effects of Dostoevshchina — the anger, annoyance, and nausea that come from overexposure to Dostoevsky’s God-peddling, Russo-mania, and digging in the dirt — that sentence will stab straight through the heart. Nine hundred pages into Frank’s Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (Princeton University Press, 2009), Dostoevsky suddenly stands there transformed, not absolved of his sins exactly, but somehow free from Dostoevshchina. He stands there as a man, as a father, as a false prophet but a true believer, and above all as an author — and at that moment, you may freely renew your oath of allegiance to his artistic vision of unconditional love, however short of its fulfillment he himself so often fell.

It works in just the same way, in fact, as those moments in Dostoevsky’s texts that can lift even his most hostile readers into believing things forever foresworn. Take Dmitry Pisarev. Of all the literary critics belonging to the so-called “nihilist” camp in Alexander II’s reform-era Russia, this twenty-something was the most caustic and consequential. It was primarily Pisarev’s utilitarian logic that Dostoevsky had stuffed into Raskolnikov’s monomaniacal brain in order to prove that the “rational egoism” of the young generation could only end in cold-blooded murder. And apparently, when this very Pisarev got his hands on Crime and Punishment, he cried.

More here.

The real crisis is that Trump has no idea what he’s doing

Matthew Yglesias in Vox:

Donald Trump campaigned on the absurd lie that the United States could construct a large concrete wall across the entire US-Mexico border and coerce the Mexican government into paying for its construction. The government is currently shut down because Trump refuses to admit that his absurd lie was, in fact, an absurd lie.

Since he won’t own up to it, lie has begun to pile upon lie like a sitcom farce, to the point where Trump on Tuesday night delivered an address on the subject of an entirely fake “crisis” at the southern border. The crisis, supposedly, is the reason that we not only need a wall but need it so badly that it’s worth shutting down the government to get one.

It’s an absurd situation only heightened by the larger absurdity that the fundamentals of Trump-era America are good. Unemployment is low and the economy is growing. Unauthorized immigration is low. Funds are flowing to further enhance border security, and a halfway competent president would be able to secure more without much muss or fuss. But Donald Trump doesn’t do anything without muss or fuss.

More here.

Piketty’s World Inequality Review: A Critical Analysis

James K. Galbraith at the Institute for New Economic Thinking:

Thomas Piketty and his colleagues[1] have produced a new exposition of their empirical work, entitled the World Inequality Report 2018 (hereafter: WIR). Their purpose is to showcase the exploration of income and wealth inequalities begun with the World Top Incomes Database (Atkinson and Piketty 2010) and theorized in Piketty’s epic Capital in the XXI Century (2014). In particular the WIR concentrates on the presentation of measures and evidence; the stated goal is to inform a “deliberative process” with “more rigorous and transparent information on income and wealth” than has been available to date. In a review article published on-line and open access in Development and Change on December 24, 2018, I initiate this “deliberative process” by examining the WIR data and the claims made for it.

The ground-breaking, systematic and transparent methodology on which the WIR rests is largely the use of tax records–specifically income tax records–mined to show the income shares of tranches of the income-earning population: top one percent, top ten percent, next forty percent, and bottom fifty percent are the usual divisions. These Piketty and his colleagues argue are more complete, comprehensive, and comparable across countries and through time than the generally-used alternative, which is household or person-based surveys.

More here.

What is Neoliberalism and What Comes After It?

Max Harris:

Neoliberalism is a word that can be used a little sloppily, and sometimes as a general cuss-word for policies or practices that are disliked, especially by those on the Left. But just because it is not always used rigorously does not mean it doesn’t exist.

Milton Friedman himself used the word neoliberalism, in a 1951 essay called ‘Neoliberalism and Its Prospects’. In that essay, Friedman argued that it takes twenty years for there to be “a change in the underlying current of opinion and the resultant alteration in public policy.” Friedman claimed that while elections could create a “difference of degree” and an “opportunity to begin a drift in a new direction”, “the direction this drift takes will be determined not by the day-to-day shifts in political power or the slogans of the parties or even their platforms but by the underlying current of opinion which may be already … determining a new direction for the future.” Friedman noted that he sensed the start of a move away from collectivism in 1951. “The stage is set for the growth of a new current of opinion to replace the old,” wrote Friedman, “to provide the philosophy that will guide the legislators of the next generation even though it can hardly affect those of this one.” Friedman said the problem with collectivism was its means, not its ends; in particular, its belief “in the ability of direct action by the state to remedy all evils”. He talked of the need for “a new faith”, which would put “a severe limitation on the power of the state to interfere” with individuals (while recognizing that the State can do some things well).

More here.

Lose yourself in this highly addictive “murder map” of medieval London

Jennifer Ouellette in Ars Technica:

In July of 1316, a priest with a hankering for fresh apples sneaked into a walled garden in the Cripplegate area of London to help himself to the fruits therein. The gardener caught him in the act, and the priest brutally stabbed him to death with a knife—hardly godly behavior, but this was the Middle Ages. A religious occupation was no guarantee of moral standing.

That’s just one of the true-crime gems to be found in a new interactive digital “murder map” of London compiled by University of Cambridge criminologist Manuel Eisner. Drawing on data catalogued in the city Coroners’ Rolls, the map shows the approximate location of 142 homicide cases in late medieval London. The map launched to the public in late November on the website for the university’s Violence Research Center, and be forewarned—it’s extremely addictive. You could easily lose yourself down the rabbit hole of medieval murder for hours, filtering the killings by year, choice of weapon, and location. (It works best with Google Chrome.)

“The events described in the Coroners’ Rolls show weapons were never very far away, male honor had to be protected, and conflicts easily got out of hand,” said Eisner, who embarked on the project to create an accessible resource for the public to explore the historical records. “They give us a detailed picture of how homicide was embedded in the rhythms of urban medieval life.”

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Poem That Walks From Fact to Wish

I was a skinhead

in look and seem, a balding guy trying out the future
with a shaved head while wearing blue jeans and a white T
and grinding up one of Seattle’s more Everesty hills,
when I was met by the real deal cruising the other way,

five shit-kickered dudes inked in swastikas
and Nazi daggers dripping blood, who nodded deep,
like dipping a bucket in a well, marking me as a brother
in hate, and passed before I could confess my lack of tats
and love of a Mexican Jew, I mean a kikey spic, I mean
there’s never time to get scientific and mushy
on guys trying to act the part of death,
to do what all good parents teach their tots to do
when meeting lives this unmoored, this lost at sea—
you whip out the statistical work of Joseph Chang:

“Our findings suggest a remarkable proposition:
no matter the languages we speak or the color
of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice
on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses
on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths
in the forests of North and South America,
and who labored to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.”

I promised myself that next time I’d be Johnny-on-the-spot
with the intellectual nunchucks, that I’d ease their longing
for a homeland by telling them we’ve all got a home
in Africa, where every soul currently huffing and puffing
got its ancient start, and that white isn’t a race,
a cutting apart, so much as an adaptation,
the process of learning to get along
with snow, I would I would I would I would I would I would

I brainchanted to myself while powering up the hill
and channeling the French, who so hiply invented éclairs,
and Paris, and l’esprit de l’escalier, or staircase wit,
when the right thing to say zooms to mind
as you’re walking away and have time to edit the past
to redress your failure to be brilliant, or in this case,
as in most cases, kind.

by Bob Hicock
Copper Canyon Press, 2018


How to Stop Feeling Overly Responsible

Ellen Hendriksen in Scientific American:

Forward-thinking companies strive to be socially responsible. Beer commercials exhort us to drink responsibly. And every parent wants their kid to be more responsible. All in all, responsibility is a good thing, right? It is, until it’s not. What to do when you have too much of a good thing? This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers four signs of over-responsibility, plus three ways to overcome it. Being a responsible person is usually a good thing—it means you’re committed, dependable, accountable, and care about others. It’s the opposite of shirking responsibility by pointing fingers or making excuses. But it’s easy to go too far. Do you take on everyone’s tasks? If someone you love is grumpy, do you assume it’s something you did? Do you apologize when someone bumps into you? Owning what’s yours—mistakes and blunders included—is a sign of maturity, but owning everybody else’s mistakes and blunders, not to mention tasks, duties, and emotions, is a sign of over-responsibility.

But here’s the twist: being overly responsible isn’t just the realm of control freaks or earnest Eagle Scouts. Over-responsibility can work for you, building trust and even currying favor.

For example, a fascinating joint study out of Harvard Business School and Wharton examined what happens when we apologize in the absence of culpability—that is, when we take responsibility for something that’s clearly not our fault. Specifically, on a rainy day, the researchers hired an actor to approach travelers in a busy train station and ask to use their cell phones. Half the time, the actor led by taking responsibility for the weather: “I’m so sorry about the rain! Can I borrow your cell phone?” The other half of the time, he simply asked “Can I borrow your cell phone?” When he took responsibility for the weather, 47% of the travelers offered their phone. But when he simply asked, only 9% of the travelers acquiesced. The findings lined up with previous research showing that people who express guilt or regret are better liked than those who don’t. Why? Taking responsibility is a show of empathy. The apology isn’t necessarily remorseful; instead, it’s recognition of and concern for someone else’s experience.

More here.

Monogamy may have a telltale signature of gene activity

Kelly Servick in Science:

In the animal world, monogamy has some clear perks. Living in pairs can give animals some stability and certainty in the constant struggle to reproduce and protect their young—which may be why it has evolved independently in various species. Now, an analysis of gene activity within the brains of frogs, rodents, fish, and birds suggests there may be a pattern common to monogamous creatures. Despite very different brain structures and evolutionary histories, these animals all seem to have developed monogamy by turning on and off some of the same sets of genes. “It is quite surprising,” says Harvard University evolutionary biologist Hopi Hoekstra, who was not involved in the new work. “It suggests that there’s a sort of genomic strategy to becoming monogamous that evolution has repeatedly tapped into.” Evolutionary biologists have proposed various benefits to so-called social monogamy, where mates pair up for at least a breeding season to care for their young and defend their territory. When potential mates are scarce or widely dispersed, for example, forming a single-pair bond can ensure they get to keep reproducing.

Neuroscientist Hans Hofmann and evolutionary biologist Rebecca Young at the University of Texas in Austin wanted to explore how the regulation of genes in the brain might have changed when a nonmonogamous species evolved to become monogamous. For example, the complex set of genes that underlie the ability to tolerate the presence of another member of one’s species presumably exists in nonmonogamous animals, but might be activated in different patterns to allow prolonged partnerships in monogamous ones.

More here.

The Beautiful Mind-Bending of Stanislaw Lem

Paul Grimstad in The New Yorker:

The science-fiction writer and futurist Stanisław Lem was well acquainted with the way that fictional worlds can sometimes encroach upon reality. In his autobiographical essay “Chance and Order,” which appeared in The New Yorker, in 1984, Lem recalls how as an only child growing up in Lvov, Poland, he amused himself by creating passports, certificates, permits, government memos, and identification papers. Equipped with these eccentric toys, he would then privately access fictional places “not to be found on any map.” Some years later, when his family was fleeing the Nazis, Lem notes that they escaped certain death with the help of false papers. It was as if the child’s innocent game had prophesied a horrific turn in history, and Lem wonders if he’d sensed some calamity looming on the horizon—if his game had sprung “perhaps from some unconscious feeling of danger.”

The idea of a private world spilling over unsettlingly into reality is also at the heart of his novel “Solaris,” from 1961, about a sentient ocean with the power of “seeing into the deepest recesses of human minds and then bringing their dreams to life,” as the Lem fan Salman Rushdie once described it.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Roger Penrose on Spacetime, Consciousness, and the Universe

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Sir Roger Penrose has had a remarkable life. He has contributed an enormous amount to our understanding of general relativity, perhaps more than anyone since Einstein himself — Penrose diagrams, singularity theorems, the Penrose process, cosmic censorship, and the list goes on. He has made important contributions to mathematics, including such fun ideas as the Penrose triangle and aperiodic tilings. He has also made bold conjectures in the notoriously contentious areas of quantum mechanics and the study of consciousness. In his spare time he’s managed to become an extremely successful author, writing such books as The Emperor’s New Mind and The Road to Reality. With far too much that we could have talked about, we decided to concentrate in this discussion on spacetime, black holes, and cosmology, but we made sure to reserve some time to dig into quantum mechanics and the brain by the end.

More here.

Forty-Five Things I Learned in the Gulag

Varlam Shalamov in the Paris Review:

For fifteen years the writer Varlam Shalamov was imprisoned in the Gulag for participating in “counter-revolutionary Trotskyist activities.” He endured six of those years enslaved in the gold mines of Kolyma, one of the coldest and most hostile places on earth. While he was awaiting sentencing, one of his short stories was published in a journal called Literary Contemporary. He was released in 1951, and from 1954 to 1973 he worked on Kolyma Stories, a masterpiece of Soviet dissident writing that has been newly translated into English and published by New York Review Books Classics this week. Shalamov claimed not to have learned anything in Kolyma, except how to wheel a loaded barrow. But one of his fragmentary writings, dated 1961, tells us more.

1. The extreme fragility of human culture, civilization. A man becomes a beast in three weeks, given heavy labor, cold, hunger, and beatings.

2. The main means for depraving the soul is the cold. Presumably in Central Asian camps people held out longer, for it was warmer there.

3. I realized that friendship, comradeship, would never arise in really difficult, life-threatening conditions. Friendship arises in difficult but bearable conditions (in the hospital, but not at the pit face).

4. I realized that the feeling a man preserves longest is anger. There is only enough flesh on a hungry man for anger: everything else leaves him indifferent.

More here.

Fredric R. Jameson on Robert Venturi

From Artforum:

My students and I were in the midst of studying Learning from Las Vegas when the news came of Robert Venturi’s death. We had just absorbed an extraordinary lecture tour of his mother’s house, in all its faux–New England simplicity, which harbored so many allusive surprises; now the book, published in 1972, was revealing itself to be a profoundly American source for the cultural-studies movement whose genealogy we had for so long attributed to the Birmingham School. It also turns out to have been one of the underground blasts that signaled the beginning of postmodernism.

The 2017 facsimile reprint of the original, with its fiery preface by his coauthor and collaborator Denise Scott Brown, reminded us that Venturi was not alone in this rediscovery of American culture in the desert, and that its vernacular was but one of two distinct languages he and Brown deployed to convey their revelations, the other being the scholarly subtlety and richly detailed historical argumentation of Venturi’s own Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture (1966): a book worthy of standing alongside so many volumes of rigorous New Critical literary analysis from the 1930s and ’40s, Venturi, here, drew on those volumes’ promotion of the irony and paradox of poetic language, prophetically modifying those terms in his title, a move that might tempt us to transform so many language games and figural antinomies back into more ominous Hegelian contradictions, while the term complexity, gradually replacing vitalism in the scientific languages to come, would grow into the buzzword of our present-day sciences (and computational practices).

More here.

End intellectual property

Samir Chopra in Aeon:

The grand term ‘intellectual property’ covers a lot of ground: the software that runs our lives, the movies we watch, the songs we listen to. But also the credit-scoring algorithms that determine the contours of our futures, the chemical structure and manufacturing processes for life-saving pharmaceutical drugs, even the golden arches of McDonald’s and terms such as ‘Google’. All are supposedly ‘intellectual property’. We are urged, whether by stern warnings on the packaging of our Blu-ray discs or by sonorous pronouncements from media company CEOs, to cease and desist from making unwanted, illegal or improper uses of such ‘property’, not to be ‘pirates’, to show the proper respect for the rights of those who own these things. But what kind of property is this? And why do we refer to such a menagerie with one inclusive term?

More here.

Talking About Power: An Interview with Ingar Solty

Jerko Bakotin in Jacobin:

For all its economic might, Germany’s main centrist parties are in crisis. If barely a decade ago the Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD) conquered over three-quarters of the vote, in polling today they represent under half of the electorate. But as the main parties lose their hold over Germans, the Left does not seem well-placed to take advantage. The Die Linke party formed by postcommunists and a split from the SPD in 2007 has secured a respectable vote nationally and at the regional level, becoming the country’s fourth-largest political force, and yet has consistently failed to rise above 10 percent of the vote. Indeed, the real upstarts in German politics today are the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, the first such party to reach parliament since 1952) and the liberal-ecologist Green Party.

Seeking to break out of this strategic impasse, some leading figures in Die Linke have created a new populist movement designed to reinsert the language of class and poverty into German politics and split the AfD’s own base. However, this remains controversial within Die Linke, with figures loyal to party co-chair Katja Kipping accusing Aufstehen’s frontwoman Sahra Wagenknecht of kowtowing to anti-immigration sentiment.

In this second part of an interview originally conducted for Novosti, Jerko Bakotin spoke with researcher Ingar Solty about the decline of social democracy, Die Linke’s strategic dilemma, and the possibility of building a counter-hegemonic force able to challenge for power.

More here.