Bruce Stone in Numéro Cinq:
Bleeding Edge, the new novel from Thomas Pynchon (yes, that Thomas Pynchon, our Thomas Pynchon), could prove to be his most saleable book to date. This is either an insult or a compliment, depending on your loyalties. The novel taps two deep and plasma-rich veins of contemporary culture: digital technologies and the “11 September” catastrophe. In the historical coincidence of the Internet’s accelerated rise and the Towers’ unthinkable fall, the book finds causality, elaborating a convoluted link between the two phenomena. Because this is Pynchon’s world, Bleeding Edge also encompasses Korean karaoke, progressive school curricula, classic video games, a recipe for Tongue Polonaise, Madoff ponzi schemes, designer Russian ice-cream, the continental drift of Manhattan’s urban landscape, the defunct playlist of WYNY, IKEA rage, time travel and much more. Conveniently, this compact encyclopedia of a book volunteers two apt phrases to describe its own agenda: it’s both a kiss-off “Valentine to New York” and, like the Deep Web interface that anchors the plot, a “dump, with structure.”
Aaron Schuster at Cabinet:
Aristotle famously defined man as the rational animal (zoon echon logon), and as the political animal (zoon politikon). But there are also passages in his work that indicate another less remarked upon, though no less profound, definition. In Parts of Animals, he writes: “When people are tickled, they quickly burst into laughter, and this is because the motion quickly penetrates to this part, and even though it is only gently warmed, still it produces a movement (independently of the will) in the intelligence which is recognizable. The fact that human beings only are susceptible to tickling is due (1) to the fineness of their skin and (2) to their being the only creatures that laugh.”1 Perhaps this notion of the “ticklish animal” was further elaborated in the second book of the Poetics, the lost treatise on comedy; indeed, the relationship between ticklish laughter and comic laughter remains an open question. Should tickling be investigated under the heading of comedy or of touch? Touch, Aristotle argues, is the most primary sense, and human beings are uniquely privileged in possessing the sharpest sense of touch thanks to the delicate nature of their skin. Though other animals have more advanced smell or hearing, “man’s sense of touch … excels that of all other animals in fineness.”2 We might view tickling as a side effect of the hyper-sensitivity of human touch. Our peculiar vulnerability to tickling is the price to be paid for more sophisticated and discriminating access to the world.
Meg Schoerke at The Hudson Review:
In “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads,” Walt Whitman, at age seventy, calledLeaves of Grass “a sortie—whether to prove triumphant, and conquer its field of aim and escape and construction, nothing less than a hundred years from now can fully answer.” More than a century after his death, Whitman is often portrayed, stereotypically, as opening vistas of possibility to young poets. But his example is just as vital to poets who have, like him, devoted long lives to the art. Whitman’s poetic legacy includes the elements he enumerated in the prefaces—his expansive self; his inclusive catalogues; his formal and linguistic variety; his optimism; his celebration of the body, of sexuality, and of love between men; and his ambition to be the poet of American democracy. That legacy encompasses not only Leaves of Grass, and his many invitations to future poets to follow him down that road, but also the canniness with which he looked back on his achievement from the perspective of old age. Like Whitman, the four poets under review cast backward glances over travelled roads. And, in following Whitman, Adrienne Rich, Daniel Hoffman, Gerald Stern, and Frank Bidart also accept his invitation, issued in “Song of Myself,” to honor his style even as they “kill the teacher.”
Helen Vendler at The New Republic:
And so, volume by volume, decade by decade, Heaney translated feelings in resonant word-clusters. For “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland: “neighborly murders.” For early marriage: “the lovely and painful / Covenants of flesh… / The respite in our dewy dreaming faces.” For expressing his chosen but unnatural distance from his native North when he moved to the Republic: “I am neither internee nor informer; / an inner émigré.” After his mother’s death: “A soul ramifying and forever / Silent, beyond silence listened for.” For the destruction of the Twin Towers: “Anything can happen.” And in the course of a long career, around the clusters there clustered more clusters, until a constellation, and then in time a galaxy, shone from the assembled poems, making up what we call a poet’s style. Heaney’s own style went through many changes while remaining recognizable across time. Brought up a Catholic, he was no longer a believer as an adult, but he also remarked that one cannot forget the culture in which one was raised. He attended no church, but by his own wish was buried at a Catholic Mass: there is no other way to bury someone from the Catholic tradition in Ireland.
A Secret Code
What is that coming through
the wrong end of time?
A secret code from the future.
But it is not from human beings
or from a non-existent God.
Under the abstract sky,
where the distant desert is gradually drying out,
the last butterfly
is sending it, clinging
to the single remaining grass blade on earth.
by Shinjiro Kurahara
publisher Dowaya, Tokyo, 2010
translation Mariko Kurihara, William I. Elliott, Katsumasa Nishihara
Margaret Plews-Ogan in Big Questions:
I imagine that if I polled all of you about what qualities you selected as wise, we could create a long list of answers. Researchers have actually confirmed this, and the list includes things like compassion, ability to see the big picture, to put things in perspective, to see things from many points of view, to be able to reflect on and rise above one’s own perspective. Wisdom is different from intelligence. Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity. Wisdom on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge. (Sternberg). Monika Ardelt is a modern wisdom researcher who has put all of these into a 3 dimensional model of wisdom: cognitive, reflective and affective. The cognitive dimension includes the desire to deeply know and understand things, including the limits of our knowing. The reflective dimension represents the capacity for self-reflection, and the capacity to see things from many perspectives. The affective dimension of wisdom is empathy and compassion. So, a wise person is one who desires to deeply understand things, who is humble and aware of the limitations of knowing, who can see things from many perspectives and avoids black and white thinking, and who radiates compassion.
…If no one can hand us wisdom on a silver platter, and we must discover this for ourselves through our own experiences, our own journey, what kind of experience might be the best teacher? I would argue that for all the downsides of adversity, just like necessity is the mother of invention, adversity is the seedbed for wisdom. What better teacher of compassion than one’s own experience of suffering? How better to learn humility than to make a mistake? And what better to discover the deeper meaning of one’s life than to face a circumstance that forces you to focus on that which is of most value to your life? An unexpected turn of events is likely to help us to understand the ambiguity and uncertainty in life, and the limitations of our own perspective. But what evidence do we have that adversity can lead to wisdom?
Wray Herbert in Scientific American:
One of the cornerstones of alcoholism recovery is a concept called emotional sobriety. The idea is that alcoholics and other addicts hoping to stay sober over the long haul must learn to regulate the negative feelings that can lead to discomfort, craving and—ultimately—relapse. Doing so is a lifelong project and requires cultivating a whole new way of thinking about life’s travails. But the recovery literature also says “first things first”—which simply means “don’t drink.” Especially in the early days of recovery, alcoholics are counseled not to analyze why they are addicted or how they might have avoided alcoholism: “Don’t think and don’t drink” is the maxim. Take it one day at a time and do whatever works—prayer, exercise, meetings—to distract the mind from the compulsion to pick up a glass.
These approaches represent two very different kinds of emotional regulation, when you consider it. Distraction is unthinking—it amounts to cognitive disengagement from thoughts of alcohol and the anxiety of craving by any means possible. It is a blunt instrument in the toolbox of recovery. In contrast, long-term emotional sobriety requires the slow, steady rethinking about all the people, places and things that once did—and could again—throw us off kilter. New research suggests that a healthy mind deftly flips between these techniques when facing unpleasant emotions. By studying these mechanisms, researchers are beginning to understand how people cope with painful feelings and what goes wrong when those skills are missing.
Avner Cohen in the NYT:
Mr. Azaryahu’s testimony, released now for the first time, sheds new light on a critical moment in the history of the Yom Kippur War and of the nuclear age. Although he was never a policy maker, Mr. Azaryahu was a senior political insider. As a trusted aide and confidant to Yisrael Galili, a minister without portfolio and Ms. Meir’s closest political ally, Mr. Azaryahu was privy to some of Israel’s most fateful decisions. In the early afternoon of Oct. 7, as a fierce battle with Syrian forces raged and the Israeli Army appeared to be losing its grasp on the Golan Heights, Mr. Azaryahu was waiting for his boss, Mr. Galili, outside the prime minister’s office in Tel Aviv, where a small group of ministers had hastily convened to discuss the desperate military situation. Shalheveth Freier, then the director general of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission, suddenly arrived and uneasily took a seat several benches away from Mr. Azaryahu outside of the office. The two had known each other for years, but Mr. Freier’s silence and body language suggested he was deeply uncomfortable.
Then, as the meeting adjourned, Mr. Dayan, casually leaning against the door and talking as if he were raising only a minor point, asked the prime minister to authorize Mr. Freier to initiate the necessary preparations for a “demonstration option” — that is, a demonstration of Israel’s nuclear weapons capability.
According to Mr. Azaryahu’s account, Mr. Dayan gave the impression that he’d already authorized such a demonstration and all that was needed was Ms. Meir’s approval. Mr. Dayan explained that an immediate authorization of preparatory steps for a nuclear blast would save precious time and allow the order to detonate a bomb to be executed rapidly should the need arise. At that point, Mr. Azaryahu told me, Mr. Galili and the deputy prime minister, Yigal Allon, spoke up to oppose Mr. Dayan’s plan, saying it was premature to consider the nuclear option and that Israel would prevail using conventional weapons.
Siding with her two senior ministers, the prime minister told Mr. Dayan to “forget it.” He responded by saying that he remained unconvinced but that he respected the prime minister’s decision. He then left the room.
Greg Downey in Neuroanthropology (Lena Pillars, photo by Maarten Takens (CC BY SA)):
As I write this, the website CO2 Now reports that the average atmospheric CO2 level for July 2013 at the Mauna Loa Observatory was 397.23 parts per million, slightly below the landmark 400+ ppm levels recorded in May. The vast majority of climate scientists now argue, not about whether we will witness anthropogenic atmospheric change, but how much and how quickly the climate will change. Will we cross potential ‘tipping points’, when feedback dynamics accelerate the pace of warming?
While climate science might be controversial with the public in the US (less so here in Australia and among scientists), the effects on human populations are more poorly understood and unpredictable, both by the public and scientists alike. Following on from Wendy Foden and colleagues’ piece in the PLOS special collection proposing a method to identify the species at greatest risk (Foden et al. 2013), I want to consider how we might identify which cultures are at greatest risk from climate change.
Will climate change threaten human cultural diversity, and if so, which groups will be pushed to the brink most quickly? Are groups like the Viliui Sakha at the greatest risk, especially as we know that climate change is already affecting the Arctic and warming may be exaggerated there? And what about island groups, threatened by sea level changes? Who will have to change most and adapt because of a shifting climate? Daniel Lende (2013: 496) has suggested that anthropologists need to put our special expertise to work in public commentary, and in the area of climate change, these human impacts seem to be one place where that expertise might be most useful.
Kevin Mulligan at the Times Literary Supplement:
Metaphysics is one of philosophy’s more abstract parts. Meta-metaphysics, the abstract reflection on the nature of metaphysics, might be thought to be one level of abstraction too many. But A. W. Moore’s examination of the meta-metaphysics of twenty philosophers (from Descartes to David Lewis and Gilles Deleuze) argues that metaphysics and meta-metaphysics need each other. For metaphysics, on Moore’s view, is the attempt to make sense of things which is more general than any other attempt; and this search for generality requires metaphysicians to try to make sense also of this sense-making activity. Moore’s concentration on the history and philosophy of meta-metaphysics allows him to impose a narrative order on the evolution of metaphysics over four centuries. Descartes, Lewis and Deleuze are given a chapter apiece, as are Spinoza, Leibniz, Hume, Kant, Fichte, Hegel, Frege, Carnap, Quine, Dummett, Nietzsche, Bergson, Husserl, Heidegger, Collingwood and Derrida. Wittgenstein gets two.
Moore asks three central meta-metaphysical questions. There is the Transcendence Question: can we make sense of “transcendent” things? Then there is the Novelty Question: can we make sense of things in radically new ways? Finally there is the Creativity Question: can we be creative in our sense-making, perhaps in a way that admits of no distinction between being right or wrong, or are we limited to looking for the sense that things already make?
Bertolt Brecht at nonsite:
Truth in Art. Artists have almost always discouraged those who wanted to see a criterion in the degree of similarity of their images of reality with reality itself. At least in our time, painting considered as the capacity to paint similarly was seen as mere craftsmanship; it had nothing to do with art. Even with jobs where it concerned copying—be it a garden, a pet or a family member—value was placed on perceptibility, one must be able to have the illusion that it was the beloved object. (Here the buyer was somewhat sensitive when artists were only delivering him their associations on the occasion of the object.) In general, artists probably arrived at the fact that the optical use that one could make of an object was as pleasurable as any clever use which one could make of an object that has been manipulated. (One can also discover the pleasure in the body part that lines up cleverly.) The enjoyment of the cherries of Cézanne is thoroughly understandable, though perhaps not those of Apollonius, which birds pecked at.
Francine Prose at the NYRB:
Perhaps something romantic about adolescence itself attracts young people to the exotic, to the magical, the supernatural and paranormal—the sort of fantasies that Magritte portrayed. Perhaps this attraction has to do with our growing awareness that we have outgrown a phase of life—childhood—when the lines between the real and the magical are blurred; by the time we reach adolescence, they have already started to sharpen.
As a child, I loved films in which there was an element of magic—Bell, Book, and Candle (1958), One Touch of Venus (1948), and René Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942)—films that provided something like what younger readers today find in the Harry Potter novels. My generation was fond of Carlos Castenada’s books about the Mexican shaman Don Juan, who took locally sourced psychedelics, spouted metaphysics, and performed daredevil stunts like a Central American version of a swordsman in a Chinese martial arts film. I’d stopped reading Castenada long before his fieldwork methods were called into question by his fellow anthropologists, who suggested that Don Juan may never have existed. For sentimental reasons, I’ve kept the Don Juan books in my attic. But I’m sure I will never reread them.
David Runciman in The Guardian:
Malcolm Gladwell's new book promises to turn your view of the world upside down. We all think we know what happened when David took on Goliath: the little guy won. Gladwell thinks we all have it wrong, and opens his new book with a retelling of that story. Our mistake is to assume it's a story about the weak beating the powerful with the help of pluck and guile and sheer blind faith. But as Gladwell points out, it was Goliath who was the vulnerable one. He was a giant, which made him slow, clumsy and probably half-blind (double vision is a common side-effect of an excess of human growth hormone). The only way he could have beaten David was by literally getting his hands on him – but David had no need to go anywhere near him. David had a sling. Ancient armies contained teams of slingers, who could be deadly from distances as great as 200 yards. The best, like David, were lethally accurate, and Goliath was not a small target. Once David had persuaded the Israelites that single combat didn't need to mean sword versus sword, but could be any weapon you like, there was only ever going to be one winner. As Gladwell says, Goliath had as much chance against David as a man with a sword would have had against someone armed with a .45 automatic handgun.
This gives Gladwell his theme. The strong are often surprisingly weak, if looked at from the right angle. People who seem weak can turn out to be surprisingly strong. Don't be a Goliath. Dare to be a David. Gladwell illustrates these lessons with a characteristically dizzying array of stories, the subjects of which range from high school girls' basketball to child murder and the Holocaust. Most of them are great stories. The trouble with the book is that they are not great illustrations of his chosen theme.
Joseph Stromberg in Smithsonian:
That hairless, wrinkly, fanged rodent in the photo above? It’s a naked mole rat, and deep inside its cells, its molecular machinery might hold the secret to living a very, very long time. “They are an incredibly striking example of longevity and resistance to cancer,” says Vera Gorbunova, a biologist at the University of Rochester who studies the long-lived rodents, which have been shown to survive for up to 28 years—a lifespan eight times that of similarly-sized mice—and have never once been observed to develop cancer, even in the presence of carcinogens. In recent years, Gorbunova and her husband Andrei Seluanov have looked closely at the species, which lives in underground colonies in East Africa, hoping to figure out how exactly it manages to survive so long. As revealed in new research her team published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their team thinks they’ve found at least part of the answer: naked mole rats have strange ribosomes.
Every one of our cells (and, for that matter, every living organism’s cells) converts the genetic instructions present in our DNA into proteins—which control a cell’s overall operation—through a process called translation. Tiny microscopic structures called ribosomes handle this translation, reading genetic instructions that specify a particular recipe and churning out the protein accordingly. The ribosomes in almost every multicellular organism on the planet is made up of two large pieces of RNA, a genetic substance similar to DNA. But last year, one of the Rochester lab’s students was isolating RNA from cells taken from the naked mole rats when he noticed something unusual. When he separated the RNA pieces, instead of seeing two distinct pieces of ribosomal RNA, he saw three. “At first, we thought we were doing something wrong and it’d gotten damaged,” Gorbunova says. “Because for all mammals, you’d see two, but we kept seeing three.”
Peter E. Gordon on Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation in The Immanent Frame:
[T]he characteristic stance of liberal society toward substantive metaphysical commitments is not dogmatic rejectionism but epistemic humility. This is why John Rawls famously characterized his own theory of justice “political, not metaphysical.” And for similar reasons Jürgen Habermas recommends that we build a society on the basis of nothing more than intersubjective argumentation itself and without recourse to metaphysics. What he calls “post-metaphysical thinking” does not presume that all members of a society surrender their respective religious beliefs. It only suggests that, given the current pluralism of our crowded world, we can no longer afford the arrogant expectation that others will conform to the metaphysical commitments we happen to hold and that we should no longer make such conformity a requirement for social inclusion.
Gregory does not judge the liberal ideal according to its own internal criteria. He does not see the liberal ideal as viable chiefly because he does not think that there can be any viable alternative to the substantive conception of normativity that helped to underwrite the medieval Christian world. He states this with the boldest confidence: “Once the metaphysical basis of an ethics of the good has been jettisoned, nothing remains in principle [my emphasis] but the human will and its desires protected by the state” (189). We are protected from this nihilistic outcome today only thanks to the surviving metaphysical beliefs of “ancient and medieval Christianity” and “secular adaptations to them, in addition to similar beliefs and values from peoples of other religious traditions and parts of the world.” Absent these persistent resources of the world’s metaphysical traditions, “human life in Europe and North America would be either unbearably oppressive, unbearably chaotic, or both.”
I fear that this is not a good argument. A great many philosophers have disagreed and continue to disagree as to what sort of meta-ethical commitments we require for our ethical beliefs. It is surely a bit grand and obviously too soon to conclude that if one type of meta-ethical commitment is cast aside everything must go to hell in a handbasket. And here is the point. Why should there be only one species of meta-ethics that somehow remains our permanent ideal?
Gary J Bass in Open the Magazine (via Omar Ali):
Kissinger now [in 1971 during the India-Pakistan war] proposed three dangerous initiatives. The United States would illegally allow Iran and Jordan to send squadrons of US aircraft to Pakistan, secretly ask China to mass its troops on the Indian border, and deploy a US aircraft carrier group to the Bay of Bengal to threaten India. He urged Nixon to stun India with all three moves simultaneously.
Kissinger knew that the American public would be shocked by this gunboat diplomacy. “I’m sure all hell will break loose here,” he said. Still, Nixon quickly agreed to all three steps: “let’s do the carrier thing. Let’s get assurances to the Jordanians. Let’s send a message to the Chinese. Let’s send a message to the Russians. And I would tell the people in the State Department not a goddamn thing they don’t need to know.”
Nixon and Kissinger’s most perilous covert gambit was the overture to Mao’s China— already on poisonous terms with India. Kissinger believed that Zhou Enlai was somewhat unhinged when it came to India, and the deployment of Chinese soldiers could easily have sparked border clashes. Such a movement of Chinese troops would have made an effective threat precisely because of the danger of escalation out of control. At worst, this could have ignited a wider war. That, in turn, risked expanding into a nuclear superpower confrontation. If China was moving troops to help Pakistan, India would surely want the Soviet Union to do likewise. According to the CIA’s mole in Delhi, Indira Gandhi claimed that the Soviet Union had promised to counterbalance any Chinese military actions against India. Just two years before, China had set off hydrogen bombs in its western desert to threaten the Soviet Union. Would the Soviets dare to confront the Chinese? And if the Soviets got dragged in, how could the Americans stay out?
Back on November 23, Kissinger had enticingly suggested to a Chinese delegation in New York that India’s northern border might be vulnerable. Now, on December 6, Nixon told Kissinger that he “strongly” wanted to tell China that some troop movements toward India’s border could be very important.
Eliot Weinberger at Harper's Magazine:
In Yorkshire, where Herbert Read was born in 1893 on a remote farm at the western end of the Vale of Pickering, south of the moors and north of the wolds, young girls would pin ivy leaves together and throw them into wishing wells, and supernatural hares could only be killed with pellets of pure silver. Two sisters, nuns in the convent of Beverley, vanished into the moonlight on Christmas Eve and were found asleep at the convent door in May. A white horse would appear, hovering over the river, on the day someone would drown, and at night the bargest, the spectral hound, dragged its large and clanking chain. The images of two veiled women in white and a small child would flit from window to window in the Trinity Church, and the bells en route to St Hilda’s abbey, lost in a shipwreck, could still be heard from under the waters. There, the hapless cowherd Caedmon was instructed in a dream how to sing the origin of things and the dying William the Hermit performed his own burial; seven witches, in the shape of black cats and crows, possessed the daughters of Edward Fairfax, the translator of Tasso. It was said that a village — no one remembered its name — suddenly sank under a lake because it had refused hospitality to a poor beggar. The rivers were inhabited by kelpies, who claimed one human victim every year, and fairies played in Craven Dales among the Druid rocks of Almas Cliffe and the ancient burial mounds of Willy Houe.
Pankaj Mishra at the London Review of Books:
I first visited Indonesia in 1995. For someone from India, as I was, to arrive in a country that was once part of the Hindu-Buddhist ecumene was to drift into a pleasurable dream where minor figures familiar from childhood readings of the Ramayana and theMahabharata loomed over city squares. The Dutch, unlike the British in India, had inflicted few obviously self-aggrandising monuments on the country they exploited. Squatters now lived in the decaying colonial district of Kota in Jakarta where the Dutch had once created a replica of home, complete with mansions, canals and cobbled squares. By the time I visited, the language of the colonial power had been discarded and a new national language, Bahasa Indonesia, had helped pull together an extensive archipelago comprising more than 17,500 islands and including hundreds of ethnic groups. Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim-majority population (87 per cent), but also large Hindu, Christian and Buddhist minorities, came close to matching India’s diversity. The Nehruvian discourse of non-alignment, secularism and socialism had been eagerly abandoned in India, but Indonesian newspapers still spoke reverently of Pancasila, the national ideology of social harmony vigorously promoted by Suharto, still at this point in power.