Lives of the Cannibals: Rage

It is 10 pm on Wednesday night and a man is screaming on the 1/2/3 platform at Times Square station. His voice gives no clue as to age or race. It’s impossible even to determine the man’s trouble: his tone is shrill and his words are stretched and twisted to accommodate rage. Walk down the platform twenty feet and discover that the man is Chinese, bald, in his mid-fifties. He is 5’6 or so and portly. In different circumstances, you would not think him capable of producing this noise. The subway arrives and the man boards, amply preceding himself. His voice is undiminished inside the metal walls, and his fellow riders immediately flee to other cars. He doesn’t care. Over the train’s clamor you can hear him screaming all the way to Brooklyn.

It’s an important irony that here in New York, in this city that is the finest achievement of modern American urban life, a city that fairly reeks of cool and sophistication, we are reduced (or refined) to our basest fundamental selves. Stringent isolation and the madness of the crowd coexist here, giving rise to New York’s exquisite hybrids–the stone-faced mothers and muttering businessmen and sly derelicts. Had Darwin lived today, he would not have had to visit the Galápagos to induce his theory. Two weeks in the city–at the Pennsylvania Hotel across from Penn Station, perhaps–would serve him well enough to discern natural selection and test its mettle on the street. Indeed, New York is the result of 7,000 years of urban technology, the fantastic product of art, science and political method, and yet nowhere on Earth offers a comparable opportunity to observe human behavior in its purest instinctual form.

We pine in love and we decay in sadness. In shame we cower and from revulsion we withdraw. Fear chases us away. These are retiring emotions. Expressed or simply felt, they are private things, shared and managed among friends, or at least those we know. They emanate modestly, rarely achieving anything like powerful broadcast. Anger is different. Anger is the orangutan’s effulgent orange ass. It exists for its expression, and even in its chastened state we describe it in a way that indicates its volatility: it seethes and smolders, and we step lightly nearby, reasonably fearing its explosion. Internalized, anger is nevertheless evident. The hissed obscenity and the compact jab of an arm (silence! it says, get away!), these are inflections of rage suppressed, and they are obvious to see. They are warnings we heed.

If New York lost Broadway, if thieves looted the Museum Mile and if the observation deck of the Empire State Building were closed permanently for renovation, the city fathers would still have anger to trot out for the entertainment of cash-carrying visitors from the heartland, a sort of ecotourism tweaked for the Ur of contemporary urban landscapes. After all, New York is nothing if not a whore–why not capitalize on its wealth? Colorful pamphlets could be distributed, primers that elucidate the finer points of rage-watching and direct curious visitors to the best blinds in the city. Zagat could compile a survey. Twenty-eight points out of 30 for the corner of 44th and Lexington, where Grand Central Terminal disgorges its fretful loads. Bright red double-deckers could tour the worst traffic snarls and at the same time exacerbate the gridlock, thereby affording their wide-eyed charges the opportunity to be targets of the city’s sporting take on road rage. The Germans and Japanese, the Kansans on holiday, valued, credit-wielding consumers in sherbet bermudas and baseball caps, they would feel a sudden sense of brotherhood twenty feet up as they listened to the narration of their tour-guide (“notice the dents in the hoods of the cabs–bonnets to you Brits–made by the fists of pedestrians”) and pointed out to one another the most fearsome verbal and gesticular threats from these fascinating New Yorkers, ranging free in their preserve.

None is above rage. The extravagantly degreed publisher on his way to work is likely to test his manhood, his courage, by way of the pitch of his shoulders on a construction-narrowed sidewalk. Beneath these skyscrapers and amidst this rush of transit, by God he will not give ground to the slouching thug or the high-heeled secretary as they make their opposite way in the shuffling line beside him. And how many times has he struck another, absorbing the blow of a body as steadfastly as possible, giving nothing away, not even a flinch? Why, every day. Multiple times a day. This is a dynamic city. There’s construction on every block.

Certainly, New York City is a brightly painted streetwalker, vulgar, sexually overt, but it is a debutante and a housekeeper too, and all three ladies are masters of the subtle sneer and the public snub. Rage finds many forms, not least of which are disdain and its underprivileged cousin resentment. The brutality of these expressions takes its cumulative effect, transforming the city into a breeding ground for creeping insanity, making it the de facto capital of lonely mumblers, who quietly suffer the violent discourtesy of thousands in the course of their plodding daily lives. There you go, Chief. No, really, it’s my fucking pleasure. In these poor sensitive souls, whose nerves would be grated by the comparatively mild depredations of a Midwestern city like Pittsburgh or St. Louis, New York effects a paranoia of the chronic, distracted variety. These obscure ghosts, whose eyes remain fixed on the distance or the concrete before them, and whose tolerance for the physical intimacy of subway cars tends to endure for a stop or two at most, these victims are spotted easily for their twitchy gaits and pained faces, and for their hair-trigger shoulders, which tense at the first peal of laughter in the street.

Fifteen years ago, New York received a great deal of credit for its sustained calm in the wake of acquittals for the LA cops who beat down Rodney King. There was wonder in the voices of politicians and pundits, who saw unrest in Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia and Newark, and assumed that America’s shameless skyscraping capital would fall in line with the others. It didn’t. Remarkable, they said, an unlikely development. In fact, if not for the pustulating seam of rage running right down the center of this city, we would have been at each other’s throats. We were physically exhausted from the angry contest of our day, and we had no energy left to avail ourselves of the cool relief of riot. Anyway, we have our own infected wounds from which we draw murderous inspiration. It would hardly do to adopt the rage of another, lesser city. Los Angeles can keep its Kings and Furmans, thank you very much. We’ve got Howard Beach and Crown Heights, Yankel Rosenbaum and Al Sharpton, and apocryphal packs of black teenagers, who wild away a lovely evening under the electric lamps of Central Park.

Jed Palmer

[This is posted by Abbas because Jed had some trouble with his own account.]

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Lenin Shot at Finland Station

Slavoj Zizek in the London Review of Books:

Why is the flourishing genre of ‘what if?’ histories the preserve of conservative historians? The introduction to such volumes typically begins with an attack on Marxists, who allegedly believe in historical determinism. Take this latest instalment, edited by Andrew Roberts, who has himself contributed an essay on the bright prospects that would have faced Russia in the 20th century had Lenin been shot on arriving at the Finland Station. One of Roberts’s arguments in favour of this kind of history is that ‘anything that has been condemned by Carr, Thompson and Hobsbawm must have something to recommend it.’ He believes that the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité ‘have time and again been shown to be completely mutually exclusive’. ‘If,’ he continues, ‘we accept that there is no such thing as historical inevitability and that nothing is preordained, political lethargy – one of the scourges of our day – should be banished, since it means that in human affairs anything is possible.’

This is empirically not the case. Roberts ignores the central ideological paradox of modern history, as formulated by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In contrast to Catholicism, which conceived of human redemption as being dependent on good deeds, Protestantism insisted on predestination: why then did Protestantism function as the ideology of early capitalism? Why did people’s belief that their redemption had been decided in advance not only not lead to lethargy, but sustain the most powerful mobilisation of human resources ever experienced?

More here.

How India Reconciles Hindu Values and Biotech

From The New York Times:Mishra184

In 2001, President Bush restricted federal financing for stem cell research. The decision, which was shaped at least partly by the Republican Party’s evangelical Christian base, and which disappointed many American scientists and businessmen, provoked joy in India. The weekly newsmagazine India Today, read mostly by the country’s ambitious middle class, spoke of a “new pot of gold” for Indian science and businesses. “If Indians are smart,” the magazine said, American qualms about stem cell research “can open an opportunity to march ahead.” Just four years later, this seems to have occurred. According to Ernst & Young’s Global Biotechnology Report in 2004, Indian biotechnology companies are expected to grow tenfold in the next five years, creating more than a million jobs.

In the meantime, the poor may be asked to offer themselves as guinea pigs. In an article on biotechnology last year, India Today asserted: “India has another gold mine – the world’s largest population of ‘naïve’ sick patients, on whom no medicine has ever been tried. India’s distinct communities and large families are ideal subjects for genetic and clinical research.”

More here.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Gets a Second Act After All

From The New York Times:

Gatsby_1 IT’S one of those fantasies, I think, that Fitzgerald is a glamorous and romantic figure,” said the author and film historian David Thomson, speaking of the Jazz Age legend F. Scott Fitzgerald. “Not that I think in real life he was, but his life has come down to us that way. And Hollywood therefore feels that he ought to be graspable.” Like an unrequited love, the surprisingly ungraspable dream of translating Fitzgerald’s doomed romanticism to the big screen has gotten under moviedom’s skin yet again.

More here.

Original manuscript of Einstein paper found

From USA Today:

Einstein_4The original manuscript of a paper Albert Einstein published in 1925 has been found in the archives of Leiden University’s Lorentz Institute for Theoretical Physics, scholars said Saturday.

The handwritten manuscript titled “Quantum theory of the monatomic ideal gas” was dated December 1924. Considered one of Einstein’s last great breakthroughs, it was published in the proceedings of the Prussian Academy of Sciences in Berlin in January 1925.

High-resolution photographs of the 16-page, German-language manuscript and an account of its discovery were posted on the institute’s Web site.

“It was quite exciting” when a student working on his master’s thesis uncovered the delicate manuscript written in Einstein’s distinctive scrawl, said professor Carlo Beenakker. “You can even see Einstein’s fingerprints in some places, and it’s full of notes and markups from his editor.”

More here.  [Thanks to Winfield J. Abbe.]

Saturday, August 20, 2005

The incredible lightness of Salman

Salman_3 From The London Times:

Salman Rushdie has emerged from the dark Satanic years, happier and more buoyant than he has been in decades. Here, he talks to Ginny Dougary about the war on terror, wonderful women – and why he thinks Joanna Trollope is cool. From beginning to end, the whole encounter was both magical and undeniably real. It was slightly startling to find that none of the receptionists or bar staff in the fashionable New York club where we meet had heard of one of their more famous members, but it was also the first welcome sign that his name is no longer an automatic  byword  for “terrorist death sentence”. To see him, leaning over the rooftop swimming pool embracing his eight-year-old son, Milan, a beautiful dark-haired boy, slippery as a seal – with no security, no bodyguards, not even a flicker of interest from the other Manhattanite parents – is evidence that there is, indeed, the possibility of normal life after the fatwa.

But beyond this, quite contrary to expectation, there is an ineffable lightness about Salman Rushdie. He has the gift of making you feel happy. As a master storyteller, it is no surprise that his conversation is pricked with telling and entertaining anecdotes. He is also so relaxed, funny and beguiling that it is easy to understand why gorgeous women, among them Marie Helvin, Kylie Minogue, Nigella Lawson, not to mention his model-actress-filmmaker wife number four, Padma Lakshmi, flock to his side. Is it because I have just been reading his fantastical novels that I imagine the ghost of his old, hunted self banished by the force of this resolutely sanguine, free man?

More here.

Researchers creating life from scratch

From MSNBC News:Life

They’re called “synthetic biologists” and they boldly claim the ability to make never-before-seen living things, one genetic molecule at a time. They’re mixing, matching and stacking DNA’s chemical components like microscopic Lego blocks in an effort to make biologically based computers, medicines and alternative energy sources.  The rapidly expanding field is confounding the taxonomists’ centuries-old system of classifying species and raising concerns about the new technology’s potential for misuse. Though scientists have been combining the genetic material of two species for 30 years now, their work has remained relatively simplistic. So a new breed of biologists is attempting to bring order to the hit-and-miss chaos of genetic engineering by bringing to biotechnology the same engineering strategies used to build computers, bridges and buildings.

More here.

Badminton moves out of the backyard

Daniel B. Wood in the Christian Science Monitor:

P3aThrough Aug. 21, some of the best athletes from 52 countries are competing in the first World International Badminton Federation Championships to be held in the United States.

As they do, two stories unfold.

One: This is not your father’s backyard-barbecue badminton – played with racquet in one hand, lemonade or hotdog in the other. Top Olympic-quality athletes who have trained five to six hours daily, six to seven days a week for decades, are exhibiting peak form and concentration.

For those in the know, it turns out, this is not exactly fresh news. But, officials say, the vast majority of Americans, locked into the cultural-norm sports of baseball, basketball, and football – are not in the know.

Two: The very fact that the US is hosting its first world championship is – as several officials, participants, and audience members repeat ad infinitum – a very big deal.

More here.

Friday, August 19, 2005

If you do it too much, you’ll go blind

It seems that pornography can make you go blind, sort of. From The Economist:

“IT’S true. Pornography can make you blind. Look at a smutty picture and, according to research by Steven Most, of Yale University, and his colleagues, you will suffer from a temporary condition known as emotion-induced blindness.

Dr Most made this discovery while studying the rubbernecking effect (when people slow down to stare at a car accident). Rubbernecking represents a serious lapse of attention to the road, but he wondered if the initial reaction to such gory scenes could cause smaller lapses. The answer is, it does. What he found was that when people look at gory images—and also erotic ones—they fail to process what they see immediately afterwards. This period of blindness lasts between two-tenths and eight-tenths of a second. That is long enough for a driver transfixed by an erotic advert on a billboard to cause an accident.”

A new biography of Anna Akhmatova

In The Economist, a review of Elaine Feinstein’s biography of Anna Akhmatova.

“THE extraordinary misery of her life and the extraordinary merits of her poems make AnnaAkhmatova_pic  Akhmatova one of the great literary figures of modern times. Elaine Feinstein’s comprehensive and accessible biography evokes contradictory pity and gratitude in the reader. The pity makes one wish that Akhmatova’s life had been easier. If only she had had one nice man in her life (her friendship with Isaiah Berlin aside), instead of many horrible ones. If only she had emigrated before the revolution. If only she had enjoyed better health. If only Soviet Russia had not been run by monsters who persecuted genius.

But then gratitude kicks in. It is through Akhmatova’s eyes, queuing at the prison gate in the hope of handing in a food parcel to her imprisoned son, that we read the finest poetic depiction of the horrors of Stalinism.”

New York City, as overheard by New Yorkers

Among other things, New York is a city of eavesdroppers; trust me, becoming one is unavoidable.  Sam Anderson in Slate considers the issue.

“If we could somehow pool the combined eavesdropping of the entire city, we’d probably hear things never before spoken in human history.

This seems to be the ambition of the Web site Overheard in New York, which enlists a large volunteer army of informants (around 350, by my count) to report the conversations they hear on the street. As the site has become increasingly popular—media attention, a book in the works, an official spinoff, and many unofficial imitations—the virtual chatter has thickened into a steady roar. Two years ago, the site posted just one quote per day; now it posts 12 or more. Its archive has grown well into the thousands.

The site takes its motto from a comment overheard in Greenwich Village: ‘Anytime you overhear people, if you only hear a second of what they say, it’s always completely stupid.’ (Take a moment to bodysurf on that tidal wave of meta-irony.) But the motto is misleading: The site isn’t just a gallery of stupidity. Most of the comments achieve something more remarkable—they manage to be both massively stupid and infinitely meaningful . . .”

(Hat tip: Maeve Adams)

Reading Literature through the Prism of Evo-Psych

David Barash in Evolutionary Pyschology:

“Just as nature is said to abhor a vacuum, it abhors true altruism. Society, on the other hand, adores it. A dose of evolutionary biology not only helps clarify the origins of this ancient conflict between individual and group, it also points out how often the two are ultimately the same, since groups are frequently made up of relatives. . .

Part of the difficulty of being human is the often agonizing need to decide where to draw the line between self and society. And part of the delight of our best stories is the opportunity to watch others struggling to do just that. There, by the grace of evolution, go a large part of “ourselves,” part hungry octopus, part Tyrone Slothrop, part selfish sinner and part altruistic saint, by turns big-hearted and narrow minded, self-actualizing and groveling groupie. In his “Essay on Man,” Alexander Pope concluded, with some satisfaction,

Reason and Passion answer one great aim

That here Self-love and Social are the same …”

The Philosophy of Art

In The Nation, an interview with Arthur Danto:

The art world today is highly globalized. More and more, the same artistic values are globally shared, which must mean that ultimately other values will be shared. In this respect, things have changed drastically in art since I began writing. Recently, I got a letter from Khalad al-Hamzah, an artist in Jordan, who received funding to execute a conceptual work based on some of my philosophical ideas. I was quite overwhelmed that in a country where we mostly are aware of political matters, the avant-garde works with concepts that would be grasped by the avant-garde anywhere and everywhere. Islam prohibits images, but is open to conceptual art–and today most art is conceptual. The landscape is made to order for philosophers!

Andrew Mwenda

Uganda1

Being the most prominent journalist in Uganda is a little like having the best arm in the New York Mets’ bullpen–the honor is a poisoned chalice if ever there was one. But in a country where reporters are customarily bought off, threatened, or shunned by public officials, Andrew Mwenda is someone unique: a figure larger than most of the people he covers. Mornings, Mwenda’s byline appears in Uganda’s main independent newspaper, where he routinely exposes stories of government skullduggery and scandal. Evenings, he conducts a rollicking political talk show on a popular radio station, hosting everyone from shady generals to exiled presidents to Western visitors like foreign aid activist Jeffrey Sachs. In the hours in between, Mwenda can be seen holding court beneath a shady tree at an outdoor Indian restaurant in downtown Kampala, attired in a tailored suit, trading gossip and spouting opinions. Imagine Bob Woodward and Chris Matthews wrapped into one diminutive, thirtysomething, hyperactive, pipsqueak-voiced package, and you start to get the idea. When the Ugandan police came to arrest Mwenda last week, on charges of sedition, a lot of his friends wondered, “What took them so long?”…

more from TNR here (registration required).

thak

Viking11

From a piece at McSweeney’s entitled: THAK, THE MOST ORGANIZED MEMBER OF THE PARTY OF ROUGHLY 70 PEOPLE WHO ORIGINALLY SETTLED NORTH AMERICA.

OK, I know it’s difficult to plan for a trip like this. Everyone’s running around like a reindeer with its head cut off.

But we had a whole lunar cycle to coordinate. I know nobody wants to stand around outside on the tundra making small talk only to find your lips and eyeballs have frozen solid, but … “What are you bringing to eat on the way there? Oh, really? I was going to bring a small handful of rabbit organs, too! Maybe one of us should bring something different!” You know, a little gossip never killed anybody. I suppose it killed Gorf. More accurately, a sharp rock thrown by Ooni’s husband killed Gorf. But I digress.

Star Trek, pedophilia

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The New Scholarship on Star Trek and Pedophilia: ‘Don’t Let Her Touch Your Wand, Jim!’ In May, Yale cyberlaw expert Ernest Miller noticed an astonishing tidbit in a Los Angeles Times story on the Toronto police Sex Crimes Unit’s pursuit of pedophiles:

All but one of the [over 100] offenders they have arrested in the last four years was a hard-core Trekkie.

Miller was skeptical but the cops basically stood by their story–at the least, a “majority of those arrested show ‘at least a passing interest in Star Trek, if not a strong interest.'” Not just an interest in science fiction generally, mind you. But Star Trek.

more from Slate here.

Climate Flux Could Have Fostered Early Human Speciation, Diatom Study Suggests

From Scientific American: Climate

Shifts in climate that occurred in Africa between three million and one million years ago may have played a pivotal role in the speciation and dispersal of early humans, scientists say. Conventional wisdom holds that our hominid forebears evolved under increasingly arid conditions in East Africa. But the results of a new study suggest that this drying trend may have been interspersed with episodes of humidity, forcing humans and other mammals to adapt to their fast-changing environs.

More here.

The Interpreter

From The Village Voice:Fareed

Fareed Zakaria’s career reads like some crazy America fantasy: Neoconservative policy wonk becomes darling of the ultra-liberal Daily Show. Political columnist and editor of Newsweek International is dubbed an “intellectual heartthrob” by Jon Stewart. Upper-class Indian academic raised in mostly secular household becomes America’s favorite explainer of the Muslim world, regularly appearing on Charlie Rose, This Week With George Stephanopoulos, and now on his own weekly PBS news series, Foreign Exchange With Fareed Zakaria (airing Saturdays at 10 a.m. on WNET).

Zakaria stands out from the crowd of lily-white talking heads that populate American news shows thanks to his tan skin, clipped Bombay lilt, and his insistence that we pay attention to the rest of the globe. Sitting in his airy corner office at Newsweek, Zakaria is the definition of dapper, clad in a pale yellow checked shirt and crisp khakis. He ignores the constant ambient ping of incoming e-mails and phone calls as he talks about his PBS show. Zakaria may be the pundit world’s answer to the Backstreet Boys, but there’s nothing sexy about Foreign Exchange. It has the standard muted tones of a serious news program, complete with generic set and antiquated electronic theme music. “People ask how we’ll distinguish ourselves from the competition,” Zakaria says animatedly. “What competition? There’s literally not another show on American television that deals only with foreign affairs—you know, the other 95 percent of humanity.”

More here.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Camille Paglia

From Morning News:Paglia2

Author, social critic, avowed feminist, and teacher Camille Anna Paglia was born in Endicott, N.Y., to Pasquale and Lydia Paglia, who had immigrated to the United States from Italy. She has published Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson; Sex, Art, and American Culture; Vamps & Tramps: New Essays; The Birds, a study of Alfred Hitchcock; and most recently Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems. She is a contributing editor at Interview magazine and has written articles on art, literature, popular culture, feminism, and politics for newspapers and magazines around the world. Paglia is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She is currently at work on a new collection of essays, among other things. As Paglia asserts below, she spent five years away from the fray compiling this book of what she believes are great poems including work by Shakespeare, Donne, Shelley, Dickinson, Lowell, and Plath.

More here.