Biographies frequently provide us with insights into individual characters in a way that autobiographies might not: the third person narrator offers the prospect of greater ‘objectivity’ when evaluating and narrating information and events and circumstances. And so it is with Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich’s Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman,and Katie Kirkpatrick’s Becoming Beauvoir: A Life.These two books provide a wealth of knowledge on the political and philosophical thinking that engaged the brilliant minds of two significant women of the twentieth century: Emma Goldman and Simone Beauvoir.
The life trajectories of the two women could not have been more different: Goldman was a Jewish Russian émigré to the United States; she learned her politics through experience and in that process clarified her political thinking on anarchism, and her life was lived humbly. Beauvoir on the other hand, was from a bourgeois Catholic family and benefited from a formal education and she lived life relatively comfortably. However, despite their divergent lifestyles and politics, similarities can be drawn between their thinking on women, love and freedom.
There is literature available on these issues, but Goldman and Beauvoir were prepared to live the principles they espoused in the early twentieth century. For both women, freedom was central to their thinking and shaped the way they lived their lives. Consequently, their personal relationships were unconventional: they had many lovers and loves, including, in the case of Beauvoir, female lovers. Nevertheless, they were able to sustain a relationship with one man in particular throughout their lifetimes: Alexander Berkman in the case of Emma Goldman, and Jean Paul Sartre in the case of Simone de Beauvoir. Commenting on her first encounter with Berkman, Goldman says, ‘a deep love for him welled up in my heart… a feeling of certainty that our lives were linked for all time’. Beauvoir also identified something special in her meeting of Sartre: she was prepared to enter into a ‘pact’ with Sartre that was premised on a love for each other. The ‘pact’ would separate their relationship from ‘lesser’ lovers: their love would be what Sartre termed an ‘essential love’, and they were then free to pursue their open relationship unburdened of the constraints of monogamy and marriage.
However, as we learn from Avrich and Avrich and Kirkpatrick the sexual relationship between these enduring couples eventually came to an end. Read more »
Suppose you had some undeniable proof of the Everettian or Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) of quantum mechanics. You would know, then, that there are very many, uncountably many, parallel worlds and that in very many of these there are many, many nearly identical versions of you – as well as many less-closely related “you’s” in still other worlds. Would this change the way you think about yourself and your life? How? Would you take the decisions that you make more or less seriously?
Consider Larry Niven’s 1971 take on that question. In a fitting contrast to the infinite multiplication of actions implied by the existence of a quantum multiverse, his story, “All the Myriad Ways”, consists entirely of a solitary police detective sitting alone and trying to puzzle out why a rash of unexplained suicides has accompanied the discovery of multiple, parallel universes. He begins to think that people see the existence of a world corresponding to every possible choice they might make as undermining the idea that they have any choice at all. In the end, he puts his own gun to his head – and all of the possible outcomes of that occur at once. I think there is more than one way of understanding this story. It’s not necessarily that people are inspired to take a fatalistic attitude by the knowledge of other worlds, it’s that just by recognizing that suicide is one of the possible outcomes, it becomes one of the things that will happen in some world or another.
But there may be a basic misunderstanding about quantum parallel universes lurking there. The splitting of universes has nothing to do with you and your decisions. Subatomic quantum events cause the universe to split, not you. You can, however, cause the universe to split whenever you make a decision by tying that decision to a quantum event. There’s an app for that. (Warning! This app only works if the MWI of Quantum Mechanics is correct.) Anyway, in the end, it’s not clear that it matters what causes the universe to split since it is splitting so often and so fast that it should create plenty enough parallel universes to cover all the decisions you could possibly make.
Stuck is a weekly serial appearing at 3QD every Monday through early April. A Prologue can be found here. A table of contents with links to previous chapters can be found here.
by Akim Reinhardt
He released 33 albums and recorded over 400 of songs, earning two Grammys among seven nominations. Yet you probably don’t know who Leon Russell was. For some people he’s a vaguely familiar name they have trouble putting a face or a tune to. Many more have never even heard of him. Because despite his prodigious output, Russell also had a way of being there without letting you know. He was the front man whose real impact came behind the scenes. He was very present, but just out of sight.
In addition to recording his own music, Leon Russell was a prolific session musician who worked with hundreds of artists over six decades. His main instrument was piano, but he played everything from guitar to xylophone. Russell was also was a songwriter who contributed to other musicians’ oeuvres. His song “This Masquerade” has been recorded by over 75 artists. “A Song For You” has been recorded by over 200. Finally, he was a record producer, a mastermind behind the glass and in front of the mixing board who oversaw and orchestrated, literally and metaphorically, the artistry of others. Read more »
Justin Smith’s Irrationality is one of many books provoked by the political eruptions of 2016. Trump is a recurring preoccupation, but so is the internet and the carnival of quickfire nonsense it hosts. Taking these two themes together – the absurd liar in the White House, and the sarcastic meme culture that helped put him there – suggests that something distinctly new and dangerous has arisen. Trump, it seems, outstrips any previous conspiracy theorist or demagogue. His election means ‘the near-total disappearance of a shared space of common presuppositions from which we might argue through our differences’. In 2016, we saw ‘the definitive transformation of the internet, from vehicle of light to vehicle of darkness’. Trump’s pre-eminence forces us to defend principles and institutions we shouldn’t have to defend. We find ourselves having to assert that good reasons are better than bad reasons, that rational government policies are better than irrational ones. Distinctions between scientific fact and conspiracy theory now have to be explained and justified. These are tasks that many rationalists, in the ‘new atheist’ tradition of Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins, have been happy to pursue. Arguing as much with (what they perceive as) the relativism of the left as with the dogmatism of the right, these bombastic defenders of Western reason exhibit a spirit of hostility towards anyone daring to question the benefits and rectitude of the natural sciences. Dawkins in particular has converted a defence of scientific method into a defence of cultural hierarchy, with ‘the West’ at the top. Pinker clings to a form of Benthamism, in which statistical data prove that modernity is still on the right track, regardless of what political or cultural anguish might be at large.
Faced with a choice between a world governed by brute Pinker-esque reason and the Dadaist nightmare of fantasy and propaganda emanating from the White House, Smith seems in no doubt where he stands. Yet Irrationality is unique among recent paeans to Enlightenment and liberalism in marrying a resolute defence of reason with a recognition of how futile such defences tend to be. What troubles Smith is that ‘rationality’ means nothing without some ‘irrationality’ from which to distinguish itself, yet the precise nature of this distinction is impossible to establish.
On the evening of Jan. 10, 1957, Harold Edgerton set a 4,000-volt electronic flash of his own design to the right of a small, shallow pool of milk in his “Strobe Lab” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Edgerton, an electrical engineering professor, then released a drop of milk from a funnel 8 inches above the pool, reflecting a bright red background. A motion trigger was delayed a fraction of a second in order for the powerful flash to record the thumbnail-sized crown of the drop’s splash a few milliseconds after it hit the pool’s surface.
Like any good scientist, Edgerton recorded his data in his notebook. He had first done a successful milk drop photo two decades before in black and white, but kept trying to perfect the shot. His goal was to record equally spaced droplets around the ring. Working with color film that was less sensitive to light made matters more difficult, and when he first saw the color film version of the milk crown, he said it was merely “acceptable” because the droplets were not perfectly spaced. However, to viewers around the world the photo was stunning. In 2016, Time magazine selected “Milk Drop Coronet, 1957” as one of the 100 most influential images of all time, claiming that “the picture proved that photography could advance human understanding of the physical world, and the technology Edgerton used to take it laid the foundation for the modern electronic flash.”
It has been nearly three decades since the death of Edgerton, often called the father of high-speed flash photography. A fresh look at his pioneering work, “Harold Edgerton: Seeing the Unseen,” includes more than 100 photographs and newly released selections from his notebooks, accompanied by essays by former colleagues and curators of the Edgerton photo and strobe archive at the MIT Museum.
There is a certain kind of liberally inclined writer who sees Donald Trump’s America as a nation in crisis. At every turn, in every tweet, she is confronted by the signs of an ongoing catastrophe, from which it may be too late to escape. An ugly, vicious intolerance spread on social media; the collapse of norms once considered sacred; a crass narrow-mindedness surreally celebrated by some of this country’s most powerful institutions—these are all elements in the gathering storm of a new, distinctly American fascism. The twist is that this crisis has its source, she contends, not in the person of Trump, but in his frothing-mouthed opposition: the left.
That, roughly speaking, is the thesis of a group of writers who, since Trump’s election in 2016, have chastised the left for its supposedly histrionic excesses. Their enemies extend well beyond the hashtag resistance, and their fire is aimed, like a Catherine wheel, in all directions, hitting social justice warriors, elite universities, millennials, #MeToo, pussy hat–wearing women, and columnists at Teen Vogue. Everyone from Ta-Nehisi Coates down to random Facebook commenters is taken to task, which makes for a sprawling, hard-to-define target. These writers might call their bugbear “woke culture”: a kind of vigilance against misogyny, racism, and other forms of inequality expressed in art, entertainment, and everyday life.
In the appendix to an article recently published on The Philosophical Salon website, Slavoj Žižek offers a response to the accusations of racism, repetition, reactionaryism and charlatanism that I made against him in an article published last month in the journal Current Affairs.
Arguably, what is most noteworthy about Žižek’s response is not what it says, but what it omits. In particular, Žižek offers no defense of – or apology for – his racist suggestion that pedophilia is “a key constituent of the very identity” of “Pakistani Muslim youth”; he offers no defense of his preposterous preference for “the worst of Stalinism [over] the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state”; he provides no rationalization of his ridiculous claim that all forms of political Islam ultimately reduce to fascism or Wahhabi-Salafism; he offers no justification for his outrageous suggestion of the acceptability of Western state terrorism and the permissibility of “violat[ing] elementary moral norms”; he supplies no further buttressing of his flimsily-defended assertion of why he believes “right-wing chaos” is a necessary precursor to progressive political change; he offers no attempt to render consistent his belief that US President Donald Trump will provide such “right-wing chaos” with his view that Trump is also a “pretty ordinary centrist liberal”[i]; he provides no explanation for why he advocated abstention in the Macron vs Le Pen 2017 French Presidential election, given his (Žižek’s) professed belief that Le Pen is an “anti-immigrant populist” who represents “the principal threat to Europe”; he makes no admission of, or apology for, the fact that his 2018 book Like a Thief in Broad Daylight was deceptively marketed as a book about technology’s impact on human affairs, when in fact the book was largely about sex; he makes no attempt to clarify what he means by “dialectical materialism”, or to render the dozen or so (often amusingly) distinct definitions he has previously offered of the term consistent; he offers no defense or retraction of his ridiculous assertion that the world (according to quantum mechanics) is a “positively charged void, and that particular things appear when the balance of the void is disturbed”; and, finally – and perhaps somewhat forgivably – he offers no attempt to explain what on earth (e.g.) animal sex has to do with Hegelian interpretations of quantum mechanics.
It’s the year of John Ruskin. 2019 is the bicentennial of his birth and there continues to be events to mark it. Perhaps the celebrations will prove to be a turning point for him. For though during his lifetime, and for a generation or so afterwards, Ruskin was hugely influential, his achievements have now been neglected for decades. His collected works run to 39 volumes; he wrote around 250 books during his long life. As an author he commanded international respect, attracting praise from figures as varied as Tolstoy, George Eliot, Proust and Ghandi. He was cited as an influence by Clement Atlee and the founders of the National Trust. His ideas helped found the Labour Party and the welfare state. Gladstone wanted to make him poet laureate. Yet most of his books are now out of print. While you might see books about him, you would be lucky to find his work even in secondhand bookshops. Few artists have experienced such a decline in reputation. There are many factors in this steep descent, both personal and professional, and they began mid-way through Ruskin’s career. Chief among the personal is Ruskin’s failed marriage to Effie Gray, which was annulled on the grounds of impotency. Effie subsequently married Ruskin’s friend, the Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, and the scandal at the time was injurious to both parties. The affair is dramatised in Emma Thompson’s 2014 film Effie Gray.
Four years after the annulment, at the age of 39, Ruskin became infatuated with one of his drawing pupils, 10-year-old Rose La Touche. When she was 18 and he 47, he proposed marriage and Rose refused. The situation was complicated because Rose’s mother had designs on Ruskin. Three years later, Rose died – possibly of anorexia – which broke Ruskin’s own vulnerable mental health. There was no suggestion of any impropriety and this second romantic disaster was not as public at the time as his annulled marriage, but both episodes have subsequently got in the way of his work to the degree that he is too neglected by some and completely dismissed by others. His work fell foul of censorious opprobrium 150 years ago, and is doing so again in an age when artists are rarely judged for their work alone.
I have a clear memory of presenting my initial results about a “failed” protein at a lab meeting with my postdoctoral advisor Angus Lamond at the University of Dundee in Scotland and the rest of his group. It was the summer of 2000, and for the first few months of my postdoc I had been fusing green fluorescent protein with novel proteins that had recently been identified by mass spectrometry as residing in the nucleolus. I engineered HeLa cells to produce copious amounts of these fusion proteins, and watched where they went. Most migrated to the nucleolus, as expected, but one protein steadfastly refused. Instead, it formed nuclear dots that were much smaller than the large and obvious nucleoli. I was really worried about the messiness of this result, but also intrigued. To my relief, instead of being disappointed that the protein was not doing what we had expected, Angus and my lab mates encouraged me to explore it further. The group had access to antibodies against many cellular structures, so I quickly established that these nuclear dots were different from any known nuclear bodies. But having generated much of my data with overexpressed protein, it was critical to make sure that the endogenous form of the protein also localized to the same nuclear dots, and that what I had seen were not simply artifacts of my approach.
We created an antibody against the protein and incubated it with HeLa cells. It was an incredibly nerve-wracking moment looking down the microscope to see what the antibody had stained. Thankfully, it worked. I was ecstatic when I saw that it had picked out the same small nuclear dots that I had identified with GFP. In 2002, I published a manuscript introducing the scientific community to paraspeckles— orbs of protein and nucleic acid 360 nanometers in diameter, squeezed next to the more famous and larger structures called nuclear speckles. Since then, paraspeckles have become an established part of cell biology; there are more than 250 articles on them, and they have already found their way into some textbooks. We now know they are membraneless organelles seeded by a long noncoding RNA (lncRNA), formed through a well-characterized physical phenomenon known as liquid-liquid phase separation, and composed of numerous proteins and RNA molecules. We also know that they can alter gene regulation when cells get stressed, an important mechanism for maintaining cell homeostasis and one that appears to be disrupted in many diseases.
When I had yet to to learn the nature of words, I had no sense the trees and animals I walked among were something I was not.
Only when I saw the swallow fly into the glass of the window I was watching through, and picked it up, and felt its life struggle to get back inside, as its eyes closed and its head shook and my hand felt its body cool and become a thing somewhere beyond a glass that wouldn’t let me through.
In August 1989, just a few weeks before the Berlin Wall came down, the East German writer Christa Wolf offered her view on the possibility of German reunification. Wolf had remained a communist party member until June that year, and even thereafter she espoused her Leftist convictions to the shrinking number of people who openly shared them. She firmly stated her opposition to the merger of the two Germanys. ‘[R]eunification – as the annexation of the smaller, poorer part of Germany to the larger, wealthier one – would render the self-critical treatment of our past much more difficult,’ she argued. The people of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) should instead try on their own terms to realise the dream of a truly ‘democratic socialism’ in a state where ‘contradiction’ can be not only ‘tolerated’ but even ‘made productive’. If the GDR were to simply disappear, the necessary opposite – Germany’s own ‘double meaning’ (a recurring theme in her literary work) – would disappear along with it, to catastrophic effect. Collapsing the two Germanys into one, in other words, would destroy it.
Just as Wolf decried the merger of the two Germanys, several decades earlier Herbert Marcuse mourned the merger of two dimensions in his book One-Dimensional Man (1964). Marcuse, a German philosopher of the Frankfurt School whose members devised a form of Western Marxist philosophy known as critical theory, offered an analysis of the homogenising effects of consumerism.
People who embrace anti-racist politics now regularly denounce the New Deal as a model for universalist social and economic reform on the grounds that many of its signature programs discriminated against African Americans. Some of these detractors simply dismiss the New Deal as racist and have gone further to argue that all universal programs—i.e., initiatives that are officially designed to benefit everyone—are racist and will not help black Americans. They argue instead that only government and market interventions targeted solely to African Americans should count as benefits for black people.
It is certainly true that black Americans received less than whiteson the average from many New Deal programs, but it’s not true that they didn’t receive benefits. Often, critics who dismiss the New Deal as racist focus on racial disparity—the fact that in many programs, smaller overall percentages of African Americans benefited than the percentages of whites, or that African Americans received lower benefits on average—and ignore the degree to which African Americans actually did benefit.
The most telling chant of the 2019 Hong Kong protests is “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” (光復香港 時代革命), not because it offers a vision for “revolution,” but because it reveals the protesters’ accurate assessment of “our times.”
Very few protesters expect that Hong Kong will be “liberated” from its status as a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. Although the protest movement borrows the language of Cold War decolonization movements, the demand for Hong Kong’s “liberation” is not quite a demand for national sovereignty. It is, more accurately, a plea to let Hong Kong remain liberal: to let Hong Kong remain the island of unregulated global capitalism that it has been since the 19th century. This is why “revolution” seems, at first glance, an ill-fitting term: this is not a revolutionary politics in the traditionally optimistic or utopian sense.
But that is not to say that the protesters are conservative, naive, or uninformed. Indeed, to claim that the pro–Hong Kong protesters have no overarching political vision or historical perspective is to grossly underestimate their intelligence. The protesters offer a clear-eyed assessment of the global present—“our times”—and their demands are designed for the compromised world that we have made. Liberation and revolution can no longer promise us that we “have nothing to lose” or a “world to win,” in Marx and Engels’s formulation. “Our times” require a revised revolutionary vision that is merely necessary, dismally insufficient, and ultimately impossible: liberation for a future in which there’s nothing left to win or lose, for anyone.
Anna Deavere Smith in the New York Review of Books:
Elwood Curtis is a junior at Lincoln High School in Tallahassee, Florida, when we meet him in Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys. It’s 1962, and Elwood’s prized possession is a Martin Luther King at Zion Hill record that his grandmother, Harriet, bought him for a dime outside the Richmond Hotel, the fancy establishment where she works. He listens to King’s speeches and thinks about them often: “Throw us in jail and we will still love you,” King says, his voice reverberating in Elwood’s head:
But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.
Elwood lives with his grandmother in the predominantly black neighborhood of Frenchtown. His parents left him with her when he was six and moved to California without saying goodbye; he hasn’t heard from them since. Now a teenager, he likes to hang out at Marconi’s tobacco store. He has “a curious habit where he read every comic front to back before he bought it, and he bought every one he touched.” When Mr. Marconi asks why he goes through all that if he’s going to buy them whether they are good or not, Elwood says, “Just making sure.” But a more telling sign of his personality is that he buys what he touches because that’s the right thing to do.
“Am I a real addict now? I ask. Yes, he says, with his shy, tentative smile, now you are a real addict.” The Copenhagen trilogy, Tove Ditlevsen’s majestic memoir of art and addiction, was originally published in Danish in the late 1960s and early 70s, and now appears in English for the first time, translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favela Goldman. The three novella-length books are called Childhood, Youth and Dependency and trace the arc of Ditlevsen’s story from birth to literary stardom to the seamy, grasping years of addiction that ended with her suicide in 1976. The trilogy is stridently honest, entirely revealing – she makes no effort to hide the many shameful episodes of a shambolic, drug-addled existence – and, in the end, devastating.
Ditlevsen was born in Vesterbro, Copenhagen, in 1917, the daughter of a fretful, socially ambitious mother and a socialist father who was fired from one job after another for his politics. Their down-at-heel neighbourhood is full of drunks, and the future for Ditlevsen is – at best – one of marriage to a “stable skilled worker”.
You can take the writer out of California but you can’t take California out of the writer — or at least so I prefer to imagine, in my romantic fashion, during these dark days in which everything beautiful about the Golden State seems to be burning.
Jean Stafford was born and raised in California (on a West Covina walnut farm). While she spent her life continually moving east (to Colorado, Missouri, New York), Stafford often looked back fondly at the West’s wide amenable spaces.
In many further ways, she swung restlessly across extremes. She studied, worked and partied with both members of the Southern-based “Fugitives” (poets and critics like Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren), who argued that artful writing was more about form than experience, as well as the more East Coast-leaning Partisan Review crowd (Edmund Wilson and Mary McCarthy), who argued, well, the opposite.