John Ganz on the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, in The Brooklyn Rail:
Sloterdijk’s concern in Spheres is the same as every German philosopher since Kant: What is humanity in the condition of modernity? That is to say: What is humanity without the all-encompassing presence of religion, whose persistence in the modern world is either ineffectually subcultural or violently retrograde, and, in any case, is clearly incapable of offering a satisfying universal? What is humanity without the predictable cycles of the quasi-natural, communal lifeworld, and without the unquestioned legitimacy of the social, spiritual, and aesthetic hierarchies that once regulated that lifeworld? And how should we best offer solace to the lonely, confused, and rootless subject that emerges with the triumph of mass society, capitalism, scientism, technology, the destruction of traditional life, and the disenchantment of the world? (Just to make it sunnier, we can now also add to the list impending ecological crisis.) Sloterdijk describes humanity at the end of this process: “[d]isappointed, cold, and abandoned, they wrap themselves in surrogates of older conceptions of the world, as long as these still hold a trace of the warmth of old human illusions of encompassedness.”
For Sloterdijk, this crisis of modernity and post-enlightenment sketched above is a spherological crisis: it concerns the gradual destruction of those protective—or immunlogical, to use Sloterdijk’s terminology—membranes that mankind dwelled in for millenia, the bursting of the shared spaces that human beings had cultivated to provide meaning, metaphysical comfort, and shelter from the inhuman exterior. This metaphor of the sphere—the preservation, growth, and development of which can be thought of as the sole preoccupation of what we call culture—shares with Sloterdijk’s style in general the quality of being astonishing, strange, and novel, as well as being, at the same time, familiar, intuitive, and even self-evident.
Born to an unwed teenage mother, Oprah Winfrey spent her first years on her grandmother's farm in Kosciusko, Mississippi, while her mother looked for work in the North. Life on the farm was primitive, but her grandmother taught her to read at an early age, and at age three Oprah was reciting poems and Bible verses in local churches. Despite the hardships of her physical environment, she enjoyed the loving support of her grandmother and the church community, who cherished her as a gifted child.
Her world changed for the worse at age six, when she was sent to Milwaukee to live with her mother, who had found work as a housemaid. In the long days when her mother was absent from their inner city apartment, young Oprah was repeatedly molested by male relatives and another visitor. The abuse, which lasted from the ages of nine to 13, was emotionally devastating. When she tried to run away, she was sent to a juvenile detention home, only to be denied admission because all the beds were filled. At 14, she was out of the house and on her own. By her own account, she was sexually promiscuous as a teenager. After giving birth to a baby boy who died in infancy, she went to Nashville, Tennessee to live with her father. Vernon Winfrey was a strict disciplinarian, but he gave his daughter the secure home life she needed. He saw to it that she met a curfew, and he required her to read a book and write a book report each week. “As strict as he was,” says Oprah, “he had some concerns about me making the best of my life, and would not accept anything less than what he thought was my best.” In this structured environment, Oprah flourished, and became an honor student, winning prizes for oratory and dramatic recitation. At age 17, Oprah Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant and was offered an on-air job at WVOL, a radio station serving the African American community in Nashville. She also won a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she majored in Speech Communications and Performing Arts. Oprah continued to work at WVOL in her first years of college, but her broadcasting career was already taking off. She left school and signed on with a local television station as a reporter and anchor.
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
One of the most impressive and eclectic intellectual groups in America gathers in a sprawling former mansion nestled in the foothills above Santa Fe. Once the private residence of a former U.S. Secretary of War, the space now houses the Santa Fe Institute. Lunchtime conversations range from game theory to historical linguistics to Sophocles. Pulitzer Prize–winning authors, Nobel Laureates and MacArthur geniuses wander the halls, scrawling equations on the window panes with erasable markers. The novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein calls it “everything I hoped academia would be as a graduate student.” She adds, “It was pure bliss.”
The Santa Fe Institute was founded in 1984 by a group of scientists frustrated with the narrow disciplinary confines of academia. They wanted to tackle big questions that spanned different fields, and they felt the only way these questions could be posed and solved was through the intermingling of scientists of all kinds: physicists, biologists, economists, anthropologists, and many others. Almost three decades after its founding, the institute now has 12 resident faculty members whose interests range from the archaeology of the American Southwest to the physics of cities. Various educational programs and conferences supply fresh infusions of graduate students, post-docs, and professors from around the country. Over the last few years SFI has even extended the logic of collaboration further by establishing a regular fellowship to bring a novelist, playwright, philosopher, or other humanist to the institute. Though he’s technically a member of the board of trustees, Cormac McCarthy has also become a vital part of the intellectual atmosphere.
A lone lean figure strides purposefully through a dark tunnel, maybe a highway underpass. There’s no fear. A familiar husky voice whispers that “it’s half time—both teams are in their locker rooms, discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.” One needn’t be a genius like Karl Rove to catch the drift of the two-minute Clint Eastwood-narrated Chrysler spot shown mid-Super Bowl last Sunday and everywhere else ever since. But get it Rove did.
First thing Monday morning, America’s preeminent propagandist was on Fox & Friends to whine that “the president of the United States and his political minions are, in essence, using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.” What he meant was that a grateful automobile industry was engaging in some sneaky subliminal payback, hiring no less than Clint Eastwood as the mouthpiece for Barack Obama’s reelection bid. Well before the Giants edged out the Patriots, Obama adviser David Axelrod had wiped his boss’s fingerprints off the spot. “Powerful spot,” he slyly tweeted to his followers. “Did Clint shoot that, or just narrate it?”
By Monday evening, Eastwood—a life-long Republican—had given a statement to Fox’s O’Reilly Factor, “I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama.” (Note the use of “mister”—Eastwood may be a secret Ron Paul supporter but, as a good American, he’s bound to give the president props.) Eastwood was actually a critic of the automobile bailout, having told the Los Angeles Times last November that “we shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies.” By Wednesday, Chrysler executives were uniformly declaring that the ad had no political agenda: “It was designed to deliver emotions,” the company’s chief marketing officer was quoted in the Wall Street Journal, “and I don’t think emotions have a party.” (He did not, however, complain about extra publicity generated by the controversy.)
By 1970, U.S. share of world wealth had dropped to about 25 percent, roughly where it remains, still colossal but far below the end of World War II. By then, the industrial world was “tripolar”: US-based North America, German-based Europe, and East Asia, already the most dynamic industrial region, at the time Japan-based, but by now including the former Japanese colonies Taiwan and South Korea, and more recently China.
At about that time, American decline entered a new phase: conscious self-inflicted decline. From the 1970s, there has been a significant change in the U.S. economy, as planners, private and state, shifted it toward financialization and the offshoring of production, driven in part by the declining rate of profit in domestic manufacturing. These decisions initiated a vicious cycle in which wealth became highly concentrated (dramatically so in the top 0.1 percent of the population), yielding concentration of political power, hence legislation to carry the cycle further: taxation and other fiscal policies, deregulation, changes in the rules of corporate governance allowing huge gains for executives, and so on.
Meanwhile, for the majority, real wages largely stagnated, and people were able to get by only by sharply increased workloads (far beyond Europe), unsustainable debt, and repeated bubbles since the Reagan years, creating paper wealth that inevitably disappeared when they burst (and the perpetrators were bailed out by the taxpayer). In parallel, the political system has been increasingly shredded as both parties are driven deeper into corporate pockets with the escalating cost of elections, the Republicans to the level of farce, the Democrats (now largely the former “moderate Republicans”) not far behind.
Porn books and librarians have always had a passionate, mutually defining relationship—it was, in fact, a prudish French librarian in the early nineteenth century who coined the word pornography. So it comes as no surprise that the sexy librarian, a fixture of the pornographic imagination, is most at home in books. Each year, new titles are added to the librarian-porn bookshelf. This past season’s crop included additions like Hot for Librarian by Anastasia Carrera; Lucy the Librarian—Dewey and His Decimal by John and Shauna Michaels; The Nympho Librarian and Other Stories by Chrissie Bentley and Jenny Swallows; A Librarian’s Desire by Ava Delaney, author of the Kinky Club series; and soft-core selections like Sweet Magik by Penny Watson. The conventions of the form—the dimly lit stacks, the librarian’s mask of thick glasses and hair tied into a bun, et cetera—are, of course, well known. Unlike video porn, where these conventions are typically used as a wholesale substitute for narrative, porn books still feel the compulsion to tell a story, to make the glasses and bun mean something. I was curious just what story these new books were telling. What does our most current version of the librarian fantasy say about us? To answer this question, I visited the library.
Where Art Belongs, the title of Chris Kraus’s latest collection of essays, sounds corrective. As if, instead of in its proper place, art is elsewhere. It has been mislaid, like a cell phone. Or perhaps, like a vase, not so much lost as thoughtlessly positioned. Where is art, and who put it there? Anyone who has read Kraus’s earlier work can guess who she’ll bring in for questioning. “Until recently,” Kraus wrote in her previous essay collection, 2004’s Video Green: Los Angeles Art and the Triumph of Nothingness, “there was absolutely no chance of developing an art career in Los Angeles without attending one of several high-profile MFA studio programs,” including ones at institutions where Kraus herself has taught. (Since the late 1990s, she has held teaching positions at a number of schools in California, including UC San Diego, UC Irvine, and Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.) The MFA is a “two-year hazing process” “essential to the development of value in the by-nature elusive parameters of neoconceptual art. Without it, who would know which cibachrome photos of urban signage, which videotapes of socks tossing around a dryer, which neominimalist monochrome paintings are negligible, and which are destined to be art?”
The recent development of the branch of philosophy called ‘environmental philosophy’, or as it is sometimes referred to, ‘environmental ethics’, has been characterized by a variety of theoretical disputes about the best way to provide a philosophical basis for engagement with the environmental problems facing us, now and in the future. Many of the early writers hoped that a new environmental ethics would emerge, embodying a set of principles that could help us deal with our relation to animals and the natural world in a way that traditional ethical theories seemed to have overlooked. One of the early contributors to this project was Aldo Leopold, who was not a philosopher but a professor of forestry and land management. His famous essay ‘The Land Ethic’, found in his 1949 book The Sand County Almanac, has stimulated a great deal of discussion about the kind of principles we need to guide us on environmental issues. Leopold argued for the extension of what we see as worthy of our respect from the human community to include animals and the natural world, or what he referred to as ‘the biotic community’. His famous principle, briefly expressed, was, ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise’.
Ubiquitous information and communication technology is a major player in the memory enhancement game. I’m not alluding to products that target impairments, like the iPhone app for combating dementia. Rather, I mean commonplace software that people use to make recall less taxing, more extensive, or easier to visualize.
For instance, Wikipedia’s anti-SOPA protest made 162 million users, accustomed to turning to the site for those idle questions that crop up every day, feel absent-minded. Nobody messed with my hippocampus or your prefrontal cortex. Rather, Wikipedia’s actions were jarring because Internet use affects transactive memory, which is “the capacity to remember who knows what.” If we know information is available online, we’re inclined to remember where it can be found, rather than struggle to retain the facts. This evolutionary tendency to off-load taxing aspects of cognition into the environment—natural or built—extends beyond using devices to recall information we’re already familiar with.
This is called “extended cognition,” and it plays a crucial role in a controversial view called the “extended mind” thesis. Advocates argue that data-management technologies, from low-tech pads to high-tech computers, don’t always function as mere memory-prompting tools. Sometimes, they deserve to be understood as parts of our mind.
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what's all this here talking about? That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman? Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full? Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him. If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them. Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.
More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).
Groundhog Day Celebrate this unlikely oracle, this ball of fat and fur, whom we so mysteriously endow with the power to predict spring. Let's hear it for the improbable heroes who, frightened at their own shadows, nonetheless unwittingly work miracles. Why shouldn't we believe this peculiar rodent holds power over sun and seasons in his stubby paw? Who says that God is all grandeur and glory?
Unnoticed in the earth, worms are busily, brainlessly, tilling the soil. Field mice, all unthinking, have scattered seeds that will take root and grow. Grape hyacinths, against all reason, have been holding up green shoots beneath the snow. How do you think spring arrives? There is nothing quieter, nothing more secret, miraculous, mundane. Do you want to play your part in bringing it to birth? Nothing simpler. Find a spot not too far from the ground and wait.
YOU KNOW THE ONE: that tree you first climbed and got stuck in as a kid, the one that you see every morning as you drink your coffee, the one whose leaves always fill your gutters, or even the favorite sought out by your dog on evening walks. Not just any tree. For this project, I ask people to tell me about a tree that holds some importance to them. These really end up being stories about the people, stories of loss and love and a lot in between. After I hear someone’s story, we work out a time to visit the tree together, and I give them a little pad of paper and ask them to draw the tree. Everyone says they can’t draw, but they do. While they are drawing, they share more of their tree story, and I tell them about their tree’s natural history. When they’re finished, I set up the camera and shoot a double exposure, one with their hands holding their drawing kind of lined up with the outline of the tree, and then a second exposure without the drawing. The whole thing usually takes about twenty-five minutes. I started the project with two dozen tree stories from residents of Los Angeles and plan to expand it to other cities across America.
In a recent article for the New York Times, Evgeny Morozov delivered a speculative eulogy for the “cyberflâneur” — who died, or perhaps failed to materialize, in the face of Facebook and Groupon and the totalizing influence of the “app paradigm.” Morozov even waxes lyrical about the golden days of the dial-up connection, as though remembering the swathe of the plough in the field. Where this all once was grass, he laments, the information superhighway now runs through the middle; pity the snotty Tumblr thug who will never know the wholesome pleasure of strolling endless dreaming fields of Euclidean space with his own handmade code as map and compass. There will be no strolling or loitering — either with or without intent — on Morozov’s Web. It’s a bleak place with no boardwalk, where wall-to-wall ads, targeted to our needs and desires, map the perimeter of task-based playbor zones, homogenous and incontravenable. Worst of all, “the tyranny of the social” will prevent us from enjoying seven-hour Bela Tarr flicks with our friends. The good times are gone.
This discourse of virtual antiquity is notable, since so much internet theory has been defined in part by a sense of newness and speculation. Old-school source texts even include several works of fiction (Gibson, Stephenson et al.). “Much of the excitement about the internet and virtual reality is generated by a sense of what it will become,” Nicholas Mirzoeff wrote in 2008, going on to describe Gibson’s hyperurban hyperrealities as “quintessentially modernist.” But 2008 was, like, years ago.
Like Gibson’s dystopias, Morozov’s lament — ironically enough — echoes the malaise of the very moderns to whom he refers, fretting as they did that the new urbanopolis would signal an end to slow pleasures and community spirit.Despite all that Cartesian stuff, the Moderns’ understanding of the self was essentially corporeal, and the spatial anxiety of modern urbanism appears as a crisis of embodiment, or personhood, in the flux of big-city time-space.
One of our era’s foundational myths is that globalization has condemned the nation-state to irrelevance. The revolution in transport and communications, we hear, has vaporized borders and shrunk the world. New modes of governance, ranging from transnational networks of regulators to international civil-society organizations to multilateral institutions, are transcending and supplanting national lawmakers. Domestic policymakers, it is said, are largely powerless in the face of global markets.
The global financial crisis has shattered this myth. Who bailed out the banks, pumped in the liquidity, engaged in fiscal stimulus, and provided the safety nets for the unemployed to thwart an escalating catastrophe? Who is re-writing the rules on financial-market supervision and regulation to prevent another occurrence? Who gets the lion’s share of the blame for everything that goes wrong? The answer is always the same: national governments. The G-20, the International Monetary Fund, and the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision have been largely sideshows.
Even in Europe, where regional institutions are comparatively strong, it is national interest and national policymakers, largely in the person of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who have dominated policymaking. Had Merkel been less enamored of austerity for Europe’s debt-distressed countries, and had she managed to convince her domestic electorate of the need for a different approach, the eurozone crisis would have played out quite differently.
I’ve visited Singapore a few times in recent years and been impressed with its wealth and modernity. I was also quite aware of its world-leading programs in mathematics education and naturally noted that one of the candidates for president was Tony Tan, who has a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Tan won the very close election and joined the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who also has a degree in mathematics.
China has even more scientists in key positions in the government. President Hu Jintao was trained as a hydraulic engineer and Premier Wen Jiabao as a geomechanical engineer. In fact, eight out of the nine top government officials in China have scientific backgrounds. There is a scattering of scientist-politicians in high government positions in other countries as well. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in physical chemistry, and, going back a bit, Margaret Thatcher earned a degree in chemistry.
One needn’t endorse the politics of these people or countries to feel that given the complexities of an ever more technologically sophisticated world, the United States could benefit from the participation and example of more scientists in government. This is obviously no panacea — Herbert Hoover was an engineer, after all — but more people with scientific backgrounds would be a welcome counterweight to the vast majority of legislators and other officials in this country who are lawyers.
Among the many things forgotten about the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini on Valentine’s Day 1989 is that it did not stop at naming Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses. The author was condemned to death “along with all the editors and publishers aware of its contents”.
In retrospect, this was a fascinating inclusion. There was the minor matter that by including Rushdie’s editors and publishers, the Ayatollah had effectively declared war against the publishing industry in general — the typesetters who laid the book out, the printers and proofreaders, all the innocent foot soldiers caught in a battle that they had not chosen. He had also declared war against those not of the faith — if mere awareness of the contents of the Verses was a crime, then arguing that one was not of the same religion and blasphemy or apostasy did not apply was no longer a defence.
More crucially, the Ayatollah’s argument was both a curiously modern and a vengefully medieval one. His recognition that awareness itself of the contents of a controversial work was a crime was both an acknowledgement that knowledge is dangerous, and stands as an indictment of readers along with writers.
The government of Malaysia is now in the process of deciding whether or not to extradite Kashgari back to Saudi-Arabia.
It is appalling that Saudi clerics and the Saudi government would resort to such measures in response to a few tweets by a 23-year old writer, who was merely expressing his personal views on his faith and Prophet Muhammad.