by Samia Altaf
In May 2014, a young man beat his twenty-year-old sister, Farzana, to death by hitting her head with a brick. He did this in broad daylight just outside the High Court building in Lahore, the cultural, artistic and academic capital of Pakistan. He did it as local policemen and passersby looked on, lawyers in their black flowing robes went in and out of their offices and barely fifty yards away, inside the building, the bewigged and begowned Chief Justice sat with his hand on the polished gavel.
Farzana, a young woman from a lower-middle-class family, had married a man against her family’s wishes. She had come to the High Court that day to provide proof that she had married voluntarily and had not been abducted by her husband as her family claimed when they filed the case to “get her back.” Farzana was dead, the bridal henna still bright red on her hands and feet, before her case was called for hearing by the court.
Though this was one in a string of incidents of violence against women, and though many similar incidents have happened in Pakistan since, the shock and horror of the murder consumed us for a few days and became international news. On May 29, 2014, the BBC asked, “How can families do this?”
One answer to the question is that families can perpetrate violence against their daughters because they have years of practice doing so every day. Women in Pakistan live in a culture of ambient violence, and incidents of exaggerated violence labeled “honor killings” are just lamentable spikes in the ambient violence of their everyday lives. Read more »
Peter Godfrey-Smith in Aeon:
Australia has had an outsized influence on philosophy, especially in the middle and late-20th century. The field still shows a broad Australian footprint. For many years, Princeton University in New Jersey, perennially one of the highest-ranked philosophy departments, has had three or four Australians on its faculty (depending on when you look and on how you count Australians). Princeton has always been an especially clear case, but the influence is all over, an ongoing export of both people and ideas. Given the modest size of Australia (with a population of about 25 million now, but under 17 million until the end of the 1980s), and the popular image of the country’s intellectual life, this is a bit surprising. What is going on? How did this happen?
Cynthia Haven in Music & Literature:
Cynthia Haven: Violence has been a theme of this conference: Juan Gabriel Vásquez on the Colombian drug wars, three sessions for the Nigerian journalist and author Helon Habila, who spoke about the kidnapped Boko Haram girls and the ongoing terrorism in Nigeria—even the French writer and critic Raphaëlle Leyris from Le Monde noted that several books a month are still coming out on the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. And today’s session on literature and evil. You, too, have written about unspeakable violence going on in the middle of Europe, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Several have commented in Bergen on how the cataclysms of mid-century Europe seem to be revisiting us today, and they wish they could shake that feeling.
Dubravka Ugrešić: The world certainly didn’t become better with the fall of the Wall, with the fall of Yugoslavia, with the independence of former Yugoslav republics, and with the switch of former communist regimes into democratic ones. What people in Eastern and Central Europe got instead of democracy are mafia structured “constellations”—economic, political, ideological. Democratura: this is the term coined by one of Yugoslav’s public thinkers. The expression plays with the words dictatorship, democracy, and caricature. Instead of the democracy most people in former communist countries dreamt of, a grotesque, state-like mixture made of revisionist elements suddenly emerged. The most dangerous of such elements was neo-fascism.
Matthew Hutson in Scientific American:
Psychologists have lots of evidence that implicit social biases—our unconscious, knee-jerk attitudes associated with specific races, sexes and other categories—are widespread, and many assumed they do not evolve. The feelings are just too deep. But a new study finds that over roughly the past decade, both implicit and explicit, or conscious, attitudes toward several social groups have grown warmer.
The study used data from a standard test of implicit attitudes collected via a Web site called Project Implicit. Participants were asked to quickly press a certain computer key in response to positive words, such as “happy,” and a different key in response to negative words, such as “tragic,” that appeared on a screen. These words were interspersed with images or words that represented two categories of people, such as blacks and whites, and participants were asked to flag these using the same keys. Faster reactions when, for example, black rather than white faces shared a key with negative words suggested a racial bias.
Tessa Charlesworth and Mahzarin Banaji, psychologists at Harvard University, analyzed more than four million results collected over a 10-year period from U.S. adults who had taken implicit association tests for sexuality, race, skin tone (in which faces differ in color but not shape), age, disability and body weight.
Joshua S. Goldstein, Staffan A. Qvist and Steven Pinker in the New York Times:
As young people rightly demand real solutions to climate change, the question is not what to do — eliminate fossil fuels by 2050 — but how. Beyond decarbonizing today’s electric grid, we must use clean electricity to replace fossil fuels in transportation, industry and heating. We must provide for the fast-growing energy needs of poorer countries and extend the grid to a billion people who now lack electricity. And still more electricity will be needed to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by midcentury.
Where will this gargantuan amount of carbon-free energy come from? The popular answer is renewables alone, but this is a fantasy. Wind and solar power are becoming cheaper, but they are not available around the clock, rain or shine, and batteries that could power entire cities for days or weeks show no sign of materializing any time soon. Today, renewables work only with fossil-fuel backup.
Germany, which went all-in for renewables, has seen little reduction in carbon emissions, and, according to our calculations, at Germany’s rate of adding clean energy relative to gross domestic product, it would take the world more than a century to decarbonize, even if the country wasn’t also retiring nuclear plants early.
Leon Craig in The White Review:
The light is dim, the air richly scented. Little purple tea lights flicker in the votive candle rack and the walls are decorated with twining sunflowers, exuberant passionflowers and several canvases of blousy green carnations monogrammed with Oscar Wilde’s prisoner ID number C.3.3. The Temple is a deconsecrated church with an attractive dark wood ceiling and matching antique chairs. A half-size marble statue of Wilde presides. The artists, McDermott and McGough, have painted various icons spelling out pejoratives such as ‘pansy’, ‘faggot’ and ‘cocksucker’, adorned with gold leaf and richly-coloured paint. Towards the back are intricate woodcut-style depictions of massacres with titles like ‘Nun Cutting Rope of Dead Homeric’, black canvases with cut-out fatality statistics, and monochrome portraits of individuals more recently killed by homophobia and transphobia, such as Justin Fashanu, Brandon Teena and Marsha P. Johnson. A placard in the hallway spells out all of the bigotries the temple stands against, ending with the instruction ‘only love here’. Opposite is a purpose-built offertory box ‘For the Sons and Daughters of Oscar Wilde’.
The Temple’s hosts, Studio Voltaire, emphasise its role as a community venue for LGBTQ+ people and their allies. The Temple is open to any members of the public who wish to visit. It is also a venue for LGBTQ+ wedding ceremonies and discussion groups, as well as a mentoring scheme for young people in partnership with the homelessness charity The Albert Kennedy Trust. Wilde’s fame and the high drama of his story – the libel suit he brought against his lover Lord Alfred Douglas’s father for calling him a sodomite, his subsequent prosecution for gross indecency, his miserable years in prison and premature death in exile in France – are instrumentalised by McDermott and McGough as something for everyone to rally around. The Temple was first installed in New York, in the Russell Chapel of the Church of the Village. The idea for it to travel to London developed in tandem with a campaign to erect a nearby rainbow plaque commemorating Wilde’s traumatic humiliation at Clapham station as he was transferred from Wandsworth Prison to Reading Gaol. Freshly out of hospital, Wilde was exposed to the homophobic jeers of his once-adoring public, while handcuffed and in convict dress.
Robin Douglass in iai:
In 1651, Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that life in the state of nature – that is, our natural condition outside the authority of a political state – is ‘solitary, poore, nasty brutish, and short.’ Just over a century later, Jean-Jacques Rousseau countered that human nature is essentially good, and that we could have lived peaceful and happy lives well before the development of anything like the modern state. At first glance, then, Hobbes and Rousseau represent opposing poles in answer to one of the age-old questions of human nature: are we naturally good or evil? In fact, their actual positions are both more complicated and interesting than this stark dichotomy suggests. But why, if at all, should we even think about human nature in these terms, and what can returning to this philosophical debate tell us about how to evaluate the political world we inhabit today?
The question of whether humans are inherently good or evil might seem like a throwback to theological controversies about Original Sin, perhaps one that serious philosophers should leave aside. After all, humans are complex creatures capable of both good and evil. To come down unequivocally on one side of this debate might seem rather naïve, the mark of someone who has failed to grasp the messy reality of the human condition. Maybe so. But what Hobbes and Rousseau saw very clearly is that our judgements about the societies in which we live are greatly shaped by underlying visions of human nature and the political possibilities that these visions entail.
As it happens, Hobbes didn’t really think that we’re naturally evil. His point, rather, is that we’re not hardwired to live together in large scale political societies. We’re not naturally political animals like bees or ants, who instinctively cooperate and work together for the common good. Instead, we’re naturally self-interested and look out for ourselves first and foremost. We care about our reputation, as well as our material wellbeing, and our desire for social standing drives us into conflict as much as competition over scarce resources.
Sarah Weinman in Crime Reads:
Sandy Fawkes landed in Atlanta on the night of November 7, 1974. She’d spent the day in Washington on a fruitless quest to interview former Vice President Spiro Agnew, part of a one-month tryout with an American weekly newspaper that paid her extraordinarily well, including travel and hotel—far more than her usual employer, the Daily Express, could afford thanks to the country’s current economic crisis.
Sandy had no plans for the evening. As was her habit when landing in a new city, she checked in with the local paper—here, the Atlanta Constitution—to see if one of their reporters might show her around. No one was available. The next option: the hotel bar. Sandy was nervous at the prospect of drinking alone in the South. Atlanta wasn’t London, where the pubs in Soho were so familiar to her they functioned as a second home.
As she wrote a few years later, “years of pulling in pubs and clubs had taught her that, despite being a bit broad in the beam and not exactly a raving beauty, she had a magnetism that drew men as if to a pile of iron filings.” Sandy was single, in her mid-forties. She could travel, pursue flings with younger men—early to mid-twenties was the ideal range—drink heavily without hangover, and keep primary focus on her work.
The year before she had published her most personal piece yet, a stirring account of the heartless murder of seven-year-old Maria Colwell by her abusive stepfather.
Bo Winegard and Ben Winegard in Quillette:
In science, the jury is always out. This is because science is a methodological approach to the world, not a set of inflexible principles or a catalog of indisputable facts. Truth is always provisional. Science does not hold something to be incontrovertibly true. It says, “This appears to be true according to the best available theory and evidence.” On science, the jury long ago returned a verdict: it is awesome. It has conquered deadly diseases and eradicated oppressive superstitions. It has increased human flourishing and extended life expectancies. It has put humans on the moon and many fathoms under the ocean’s surface. It has uncovered the forces that guide the crudest motions of matter and those that govern the most exquisite processes of life. In short, it has vastly improved human existence while dramatically increasing our knowledge of the universe.
Despite all this, skeptical philosophers and pundits continue to forward arguments against scientific “arrogance”—or against what they see as science’s hubristic attempt to crowd out other forms of understanding and discourse. In recent years, these arguments have focused on what is called “scientism,” a malleable term that is vaguely pejorative. (It’s worth noting that this term can be used clearly and effectively, as in Susan Haack’s excellent article, for instance.)
Nicholas Wright in Foreign Affairs:
The debate over the effects of artificial intelligence has been dominated by two themes. One is the fear of a singularity, an event in which an AI exceeds human intelligence and escapes human control, with possibly disastrous consequences. The other is the worry that a new industrial revolution will allow machines to disrupt and replace humans in every—or almost every—area of society, from transport to the military to healthcare.
There is also a third way in which AI promises to reshape the world. By allowing governments to monitor, understand, and control their citizens far more closely than ever before, AI will offer authoritarian countries a plausible alternative to liberal democracy, the first since the end of the Cold War. That will spark renewed international competition between social systems.
For decades, most political theorists have believed that liberal democracy offers the only path to sustained economic success. Either governments could repress their people and remain poor or liberate them and reap the economic benefits. Some repressive countries managed to grow their economies for a time, but in the long run authoritarianism always meant stagnation. AI promises to upend that dichotomy.
Stephanie Merritt at The Guardian:
At 13, Sinéad Gleeson began to experience pain in her hip joints: “The bones ground together, literally turning to dust.” Hospital stays became frequent, then rounds of traction, surgery, biopsies, before an eventual diagnosis of monoarticular arthritis, leading to a major operation to fuse the hip joint together with metal plates. Her teenage years were shaped by suffering, by clinical intervention, by the betrayals of her body. At 28, six months to the day after her wedding, she was diagnosed with leukaemia.
But Constellations, Gleeson’s first essay collection, is not a book about illness, though it deserves to take its place among recent literary accounts of physical pain by writers such as Hilary Mantel and Sarah Perry. Rather, it’s a collection of personal, cultural and political reflections from which the fact of living in a body – especially one that requires frequent medical intervention – cannot be separated.
Sam Carter at The Quarterly Conversation:
María Sonia Cristoff has often recounted one of her formative reading experiences. Hired to translate the diaries of Thomas Bridges—a nineteenth-century Anglican missionary in Argentina—she traveled from Buenos Aires to his family’s farm outside of Ushaia, which sits at the southern edge of Patagonia in the Tierra del Fuego province. There she was given a room with a window overlooking the Beagle Channel and a stack of papers with a pencil mark indicating where she should begin. She lacked any access to the rest of the diary since Bridges’ heirs, insisting on a neutral voice for the new rendering of his work, replaced translators every two months, assigning each one a single section of the work.
After working on the translation during the day, Cristoff occupied herself on this far-flung farm by reading through the collection of travel writings its small library contained. As she consumed the accounts of Francis Drake, Charles Darwin, Ernest Shackleton, and others who had passed through those lands and the nearby waters, Cristoff was struck by the similarities between traveler and translator. “In the tale of a traveler in a foreign land,” she recalled, “I found the resources, the torments, and the joys of a translator in her travels through a foreign language.”
Cynthia Haven and Dubravka Ugrešić at Music and Literature:
I’ve chosen the fox as a symbolic representation of a writer. The fox is rich with meaning. In the Western cultural tradition, the fox is mainly a male creature. In Eastern cultures, the fox is mostly a female creature. In Slavic folk culture, the fox is also predominantly female. The fox is not a superior creature: she is a loser and a loner, wild and vulnerable. The fox is one of the most popular hunting targets: her skin, her fur, has a commercial value, a detail which makes the fox a deeply tragic figure. The fox is betrayed more often then it betrays. Representations of the fox differ from culture to culture. I was raised on the fox’s representation in Aesop’s fables and Western European medieval novels. In Chinese, Korean, and Japanese mythology, the fox is a semi-divine creature, a god’s messenger, a demonic shape-shifter that passes the borders between realms—human, animal, demonic. The fox is also seen as a cheap entertainer, a liar, a cheater, a little thief with a risky appetite for the “metaphysical bite,” a thief with a constant desire to grab a “heavenly chicken.”
Arman D’Angour in Aeon:
Sources from late antiquity, such as the 5th-century CE Christian writers Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Cyril of Alexandria, state that Socrates was, at least as a younger man, a lover of both sexes. They corroborate occasional glimpses of an earthy Socrates in Plato’s own writings, such as in the dialogue Charmides where Socrates claims to be intensely aroused by the sight of a young man’s bare chest. However, the only partner of Socrates’ whom Plato names is Xanthippe; but since she was carrying a baby in her arms when Socrates was aged 70, it is unlikely they met more than a decade or so earlier, when Socrates was already in his 50s. Plato’s failure to mention the earlier aristocratic wife Myrto might be an attempt to minimise any perception that Socrates came from a relatively wealthy background with connections to high-ranking members of his community; it was largely because Socrates was believed to be associated with the antidemocratic aristocrats who took power in Athens that he was put on trial and executed in 399 BCE.
Aristotle’s testimony, therefore, is a valuable reminder that the picture of Socrates bequeathed by Plato should not be accepted uncritically. Above all, if Socrates at some point in his early manhood became the companion of Aspasia – a woman famous as an instructor of eloquence and relationship counsellor – it potentially changes our understanding not only of Socrates’ early life, but of the formation of his philosophical ideas. He is famous for saying: ‘All I know is that I know nothing.’ But the one thing he claims, in Plato’s Symposium, that he does know about, is love, which he learned about from a clever woman. Might that woman have been Aspasia, once his beloved companion? The real Socrates must remain elusive but, in the statements of Aristotle, Aristoxenus and Clearchus of Soli, we get intriguing glimpses of a different Socrates from the one portrayed so eloquently in Plato’s writings.
Louisa Hall in The New York Times:
“Lost and Wanted” is a novel of female friendship without the furious intimacy of, say, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. It’s a novel about female friendship begun in America in the 1990s, when women didn’t talk about sexual harassment and friends didn’t talk about race. When women (and especially women of color) were trying to build careers for themselves and no one was acknowledging how much harder it would be for them than it would be for white men in their position, and trying to do so while having children, either with partners or on their own, and trying to balance all of that striving without ever giving anyone reason to believe that they were more emotional or less stable than any of their peers.
If this, then, is a somewhat remote female friendship, no wonder: Under such strain, the book seems to say, it’s incredible that women sustain any friendships at all. And yet, in this startling novel, even that distance between Charlie and Helen is moving. The space that opens between them reverberates with what might have been, if Charlie’s thesis adviser hadn’t been such a measly and repugnant predator, if Charlie hadn’t moved to Los Angeles, if Helen weren’t raising a child alone, if they’d both had more time, if Helen had understood Charlie’s illness, if she’d asked her all the questions she didn’t.
In this novel, which teems with lives, the versions of their friendship in which those errors didn’t occur seem to exist alongside the versions that did, and these alongside relationships with various partners, children, siblings, parents and colleagues. Reading it, I was moved by intimacies near and far, real and imagined, lost and found in all the echoing corners of the expanding universe.
Post Impressions (VI)
into the strenuous briefness
handorgans and April
i charge laughing.
Into the hair-thin tints
of yellow dawn,
into the women-coloured twilight
into the big vermilion departure
(Do you think?)the
is probably made
of roses & hello:
(of solongs and,ashes)
by e.e. cummings