Daphne Merkin at Bookforum:
Somewhere a child is being hidden. The time is mid-July, 1942, and the first great roundup of Jews—more than thirteen thousand foreign Jews in all, including four thousand children—has begun in Paris, to be followed by more arrests days later in the unoccupied zones. A small boy—"born in Prague at the worst possible moment, four months before Hitler came to power," he recalls in the memoir he will grow up to write—has been living for two years in Néris, a resort town in France known for its waters, with his parents. Before this, the family has been continually on the run, trying to flee across the Hungarian border by car before discovering that the Germans had already occupied Hungary, and then settling in Paris, where the father, once vice president of a large German insurance company in Czechoslovakia, studies to be a cheesemaker and the mother a beautician. They have learned to keep their heads low, in hopes of going undetected by the glare of the Nazi searchlight. The boy has grown up in the assimilated context of the Central European Jewish bourgeoisie: "We observed none of the rules of life that Orthodoxy laid down, celebrated none of the holidays, respected none of the customs." The first song he was taught when given piano lessons was a funeral march played in the German army and performed at ceremonial occasions during the Third Reich.
The boy, whose name is Pavel—it will be changed to "Paul" when his family escapes to France—is an avid reader, devouring Jules Verne, Karl May, Jack London, and a novel of Pearl Buck's, The Patriot, that his mother is reading.
David Sims in The Atlantic:
Mary Tyler Moore was a sitcom star who redefined what a sitcom could be, both onscreen and behind it. She was an actress who became a producer, a Hollywood mogul who worked hard to change her industry. Moore, who died Wednesday at the age of 80, was a TV icon in the 1960s and ’70s whose on-screen persona radically changed with the times she lived in and helped set new benchmarks for America’s image of the working woman. She died of cardiopulmonary arrest in Greenwich, Connecticut, after contracting pneumonia.
Born in Brooklyn in 1936, Moore began her Hollywood career as a dancer in television commercials in the late ’50s, before landing bit parts on various serialized dramas. In 1961, she was cast as Laura in The Dick Van Dyke Show, Carl Reiner’s showbiz sitcom about Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke), the head writer for a TV variety show. Moore was the definitive image of the harried, though supportive, sitcom wife of the early 1960s, a restrictive role that she nonetheless managed to stand out in. The Dick Van Dyke Show emphasized slapstick physical comedy; Moore and Van Dyke, who both came up in Hollywood as dancers, were rare comic talents who invented many of the vaudevillian aspects of the sitcom pratfall.
Sharon Butler in Smithsonian:
Filippo Tommaso Marinetti was the first artist in the modern era to think of the preparation and consumption of food as art. The avant-garde Futurist movement, formed by Marinetti and other artists in Milan in 1909, embraced the industrial age and all things mechanical—from automobiles and planes to manufacturing methods and city planning. They thought cooking and dining, so central to everyone’s day-to-day lives, should also be central to their farsighted, far-out ideals. In 1932, Marinetti published The Futurist Cookbook. It was not merely a set of recipes; it was a kind of manifesto. He cast food preparation and consumption as part of a new worldview, in which entertaining became avant-garde performance. The book prescribed the necessary elements for a perfect meal. Such dining had to feature originality, harmony, sculptural form, scent, music between courses, a combination of dishes, and variously flavored small canapés. The cook was to employ high-tech equipment to prepare the meal. Politics could not be discussed, and food had to be prepared in such a way that eating it did not require silverware.
Marinetti’s musings could not have predicted the role food would come to play in art nearly a century later. Contemporary artists have used food to make statements: political (especially feminist), economic, and social. They’ve opened restaurants as art projects, conducted performances in which food is prepared and served in galleries, and crafted elaborate sculptures from edible materials like chocolate and cheese. Horrifying as it might have seemed to Marinetti, some artists today even embrace food as a rejection of everyone and everything that is future-obsessed. Looking back, food has always played a role in art: Stone Age cave painters used vegetable juice and animal fats as binding ingredients in their paints, and the Egyptians carved pictographs of crops and bread on hieroglyphic tablets. During the Renaissance, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a painter for the Habsburg court in Vienna, and later, for the Royal Court in Prague, painted whimsical puzzle-like portraits in which facial features were composed of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
Ben Sixsmith in Quillette:
There is an idea that human nature is a “blank slate,” a tabula rasa, free of inherited content, on which education and experience leave their marks. This idea, found in the work of progressive philosophers like John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, suggests that we are wholly or mostly the products of our environments. This concept is central to left-wing belief regarding unequal societies and the almost unlimited potential of mankind if we escape what Marx and Engels called our “chains”.
This belief has been extensively discredited, first by observation and now, increasingly, by science. Steven Pinker summarised the genetic and psychometric research that documents the scale of our inherited characteristics in his 2002 book The Blank Slate, which has since been updated in 2016. Some of this research is unsurprising. No one would maintain that if they had worked out more in the gym and eaten fewer hamburgers they could outsprint Usain Bolt. Yet there is evidence that numerous physical and cognitive traits, including intelligence, are more heritable than previously thought, and that these traits have a significant influence on our lives.
Critics of these findings have tended to be left wing, like the psychotherapist Oliver James, whose book, Not In Your Genes, was judged by the intelligence researcher Stuart Ritchie to be “bending over backwards to avoid awkward conclusions”. Conservatives have less cause for surprise and alarm. They have always believed in what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision”, according to which human nature is real, flawed and inflexible. And there is, for some conservatives, a greater temptation to exploit than ignore genetic research.
Nonetheless, while blank slateism has persisted on the left, so, in subtler forms, has blank slateism on the right.
Joan Acocella at the New York Review of Books:
Obscene language presents problems, the linguist Michael Adams writes in his new book, In Praise of Profanity, “but no one seems to spend much time thinking about the good it does.” Actually, a lot of people in the last few decades have been considering its benefits, together with its history, its neuroanatomy, and above all its fantastically large and colorful word list. Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word, an OED-style treatment of fuckthat was first published in 1995, has gone into its third edition, ringing ever more changes—artfuck, bearfuck, fuck the deck, fuckbag, fuckwad, horsefuck, sportfuck,Dutch fuck, unfuck—on that venerable theme.
Meanwhile, Jonathon Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang, in three volumes (2010), lists 1,740 words for sexual intercourse, 1,351 for penis, 1,180 for vagina, 634 for anus or buttocks, and 540 for defecation and urination. In the last few months alone there have been two new books: What the F, by Benjamin Bergen, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at San Diego, together with Adams’s In Praise of Profanity. So somebody is interested in profanity.
Many writers point out that there hasn’t been enough research on the subject. As long as we haven’t cured cancer, it’s hard to get grants to study dirty words. Accordingly, there don’t seem to have been a lot of recent discoveries in this field
Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker:
The Met Breuer is not yet a year old, but it has already distinguished itself as a site of beguiling and serious surprises: a huge survey of unfinished works by masters of Western art, a provocatively ingenious installation of Diane Arbus photographs, and a terrific retrospective (soon to close) of the African-American painter Kerry James Marshall. The latest is “Marisa Merz: The Sky Is a Great Space,” the first major retrospective of the Italian artist in the United States. Merz is the least-known and, perhaps not incidentally, the only female member of Arte Povera, a movement shepherded into existence, in 1967, by the art critic Germano Celant, as Italy’s ambitious riposte to American Pop and minimalism. About a dozen artists participated, creating large, often sprawling abstract sculptures in humble materials—dirt, rocks, tree branches, used clothes, rope, burlap, industrial detritus—putatively to counter the sterility of consumer culture, but also, more practically, to master the capacious exhibition spaces that were becoming an international norm.
Marisa Merz was routinely identified as the wife and, since 2003, the widow of one of Arte Povera’s leading figures, Mario Merz; for years her own work was exhibited sporadically and afforded only glancing consideration. But at the Met Breuer she emerges as the liveliest artist in a movement that was often marred by intellectual and poetic pretensions, and whose abstracted themes of nature and metaphysics rarely appealed to American sensibilities, and still don’t very much. (Minimalism, which never took hold in Italy, had pretty well cauterized symbolic content for the art world here.)
Parade, the ballet he wrote for Diaghilev in 1916, scored by a clamorous sensory mix of Satie, gunfire, and typewriters—booed at its premiere but praised by Apollinaire for its “surrealism”—and of his first film, The Blood of a Poet, a ghostly moving-picture manifesto with an artist-protagonist passing through mirrors and squinting through keyholes, anguished by what he sees (“documentary scenes of another kingdom,” in Cocteau’s words), which culminates in an act of self-destruction. But art could also exceed the typical materials (celluloid, language, the stage): Indeed, a life could be a work of art, lived out with great bravado and ebullience in the company of many admirers, ingénues, and madmen. Life was, or could be, as Cocteau remarked about his own childhood, a “theater in which you played every role, in unequalled possession of the world.”
The total, devouring work, which forgoes not only its author but also its audience, was Cocteau’s privileged aim. It was the principle of
But, of course, it could also be an initiation into infirmity. “The child wants a bedroom, to gather together his belongings and loves there,” Cocteau wrote. “He hates things that disperse. He likes illnesses, which bring people together and leave him in seclusion.” And the illnesses—among them hay fever and scoliosis, rheumatism and insomnia, shingles and toothaches—would, like his opium addiction of later years, prove painful and transfiguring.
Alexander Adams in Spiked:
There are few figures in modern literature as enigmatic as Samuel Beckett (1906-1989). His dramas Waiting for Godot and Happy Days present characters in predicaments equally pitiful and grotesque. His novels such as Murphy, Watt and Malone Dies give internal monologues of characters trapped in webs of memory and doubt. These works are quintessential examples of existential literature, though they have been described as absurdist. He was famously resistant to exegesis and refused to explain what his writings ‘meant’, a stance which generated exasperation and admiration in equal measure from detractors and supporters. ‘I know no more of the characters than what they say, what they do and what happens to them.’ A collection of approximately 2,500 letters, postcards and telegrams fills the 3,500 pages of the recently completed four-volume set, The Letters of Samuel Beckett. Beckett, and later his estate, stipulated that the only letters to be published should be those directly addressing his work. Yet it would be incorrect to say the selection neglects the personal because writing described and defined Beckett’s outlook on life. As readers of his novels notice, there is often an overlap between the fiction and the events in Beckett’s own life.
After studying in Dublin and Paris, in the winter of 1936-7, Beckett toured the museums of Germany. ‘The trip is a failure. Germany is horrible. Money is scarce. I am tired all the time. All the modern pictures are in the cellars.’ He had introductions to artists who, having been forbidden by Nazi authorities to exhibit or publish their work, were living under conditions of living death. A close friend was the poet Tom MacGreevy, later director of the National Gallery in Dublin, and art is a constant subject throughout Beckett’s correspondence. Beckett’s enthusiasm for art meant that he came into contact with many artists and formed strong friendships with some, including Jack B Yeats. He bought art and also wrote brief catalogue essays to support his favourite artists. The development of literature might have been different had Beckett’s application for a place at the Moscow state school of cinematography been accepted. His rather casual letter to Sergei Eisenstein is printed here. Instead of pursuing a career in cinema, teaching or academia, Beckett published fiction before the Second World War. Beckett’s first published novel, Murphy, almost became a posthumous publication. In January 1938, while the book was in the proofing stage, Beckett was stabbed in a Paris street by a drunk. He made a full recovery and in letters to friends he downplayed the risk his life had been in.
Ash and Mueller in Science:
In John Donne's famous words, no man is an island. Rather, all organisms, including humans, exist within a sea of microorganisms. A select few microbes cause great harm, but most are benign, some essential. In fact, many aspects of normal plant and animal development require benign microbial colonization and the establishment of specific relationships that have probably coevolved since the origins of life.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the human genes masterminding the selection of symbiotic microbes are largely those involved in immune regulation and barrier defense. In turn, the microbes that colonize mucosal tissues after birth play a pivotal role in shaping the development of the host immune system. Consequently, the effectiveness of early microbial colonization may have long-term effects on susceptibility to inflammatory diseases, such as allergy and autoimmunity. Maintaining a healthy microbiota is no easy task. Diet, severe disease, and medications can all wreak havoc on the microbiota.
An ant on the tablecloth
Ran into a dormant moth
Of many times his size.
He showed not the least surprise.
His business wasn't with such.
He gave it scarcely a touch,
And was off on his duty run.
Yet if he encountered one
Of the hive's enquiry squad
Whose work is to find out God
And the nature of time and space,
He would put him onto the case.
Ants are a curious race;
One crossing with hurried tread
The body of one of their dead
Isn't given a moment's arrest-
Seems not even impressed.
But he no doubt reports to any
With whom he crosses antennae,
And they no doubt report
To the higher-up at court.
Then word goes forth in Formic:
“Death's come to Jerry McCormic,
Our selfless forager Jerry.
Will the special Janizary
Whose office it is to bury
The dead of the commissary
Go bring him home to his people.
Lay him in state on a sepal.
Wrap him for shroud in a petal.
Embalm him with ichor of nettle.
This is the word of your Queen.”
And presently on the scene
Appears a solemn mortician;
And taking formal position,
With feelers calmly atwiddle,
Seizes the dead by the middle,
And heaving him high in air,
Carries him out of there.
No one stands round to stare.
It is nobody else's affair
It couldn't be called ungentle
But how thoroughly departmental
by Robert Frost
In his quiet film "In the Last Days of the City", Tamer El Said brilliantly captures a struggle I’ve had for years: how to pin down what it is about Cairo that leaves us feeling as if we exist in a no man’s land.
Yasmine El Rashidi in the New York Review of Books:
Last winter and spring, I was away from my native Cairo for the longest stretch in my life—nearly five months—and with each piece of news about home from friends and family, or even via Twitter, my feelings were conflicted. Little of what was reaching me was good. A journalist friend arrested on a trumped up charge. Someone else I knew barred from leaving the country. Another’s assets frozen. A young activist, feeling defeated, turning herself in, no longer able to fight a venal system intent on manufacturing charges to keep her behind bars. A TV show, a publishing house, shut down. With each passing week, the number of arrests, crackdowns, censorship cases, seemed only to increase. My impulse was at once return home, to be present, to witness and write and support those I knew as best I can, but at the same time, I knew it would be futile.
Then one morning last April, I woke to an email with the subject line, “Townhouse Fell Today.” The somewhat dilapidated nineteenth-century building in downtown Cairo that housed the country’s leading art gallery and cultural foundation had partially collapsed, after cracks had emerged in its walls. I had spent years in it writing and passing time with friends (it was there that a gathering of us watched the results of the 2012 presidential election that Morsi won come in). The building’s collapse seemed to capture the general state of things. A state security entity immediately ordered its complete demolition. A group of us who had been associated with the gallery attempted, by way of emails and phone calls to contacts with sway, to fight to keep the remainder of the building standing. The governor’s office and a local heritage entity seemed persuaded, issuing an order to immediately assess the condition of the building, and consider listing it as a part of the “heritage” of the city to be restored and conserved. But what was deduced to be an arm of the state’s security apparatus, seemingly adamant on erasing this cultural space, which they had earlier raided and shut down for a month (on charges of “administrative irregularities”), sent in a make-shift demolition team the next day at the crack of dawn. They hammered at walls and through floors, tearing down windows, balconies, breaking tiles, pulling wiring out of walls, edging the building to precariousness. This back and forth of intent ensued for days. I set up a Kayak price alert for flights to Cairo, and searched almost compulsively for tickets home.
Paul Ratner in Big Think:
Jobs were a big topic in the 2016 Presidential election in the United States and continues to be a hot-button issue. The loss of manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt states was largely responsible for propelling Donald Trump to a surprise win. As President-elect, Trump has continued to push the jobs message, making deals like his recent involvement in the fate of Indiana’s Carrier plant to show that he will bring jobs back to regions with great job loss. Yet, regardless of such efforts, many futurists are predicting that a large amount of our jobs will be replaced by automation and robots within a very foreseeable future. Professor Moshe Vardi projected recently that more than half of the workers in the world will be replaced by robots in just 30 years from now. This is in line with a 2013 Oxford University study that put the future number of robot-replaced jobs in America at 47%.
What to do about this looming threat? One obvious solution would be re-educating the labor force, finding a way for it to work with the automation and artificial intelligence that will become ubiquitous. Still there is a strong likelihood that the inequality of wealth distribution will continue to grow around the world, and large parts of the labor force will be simply unable to find meaningful employment.
Elon Musk waded into this discussion recently by suggesting that a different economic system would have to be in place.
"There is a pretty good chance we end up with a universal basic income, or something like that, due to automation," Musk told CNBC in an interview. "Yeah, I am not sure what else one would do. I think that is what would happen."
The idea of universal basic income (UBI) is that the government would provide citizens with a minimum amount of money to live on. Proposals for UBI are being considered in Switzerland, Finland and the Netherlands, while Canada is instituting a pilot program in 2017 to provide supplemental income to keep people above poverty level in the province of Ontario.
Patrick Phillips in the New York Times:
One Sunday in 1984, my father did something unexpected, at least for a white man in Georgia. He drove us past the little rural church we usually attended and kept going 40 miles south, all the way to Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist — home parish of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and an epicenter of the American civil rights movement.
Reading Michael Eric Dyson’s “Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America,” I was often reminded of that morning, when I was first exposed to the righteous anger, wry humor and unflinching honesty of a black pastor, determined to guide and teach his flock. While Dyson is best known as a writer and sociologist, he is also an ordained Baptist minister, and his new book draws both its impassioned style and its moral urgency from his years in the pulpit.
At a time when one video after another has forced us to acknowledge that unarmed African-Americans are regularly killed by the police, Dyson desperately wants his readers to confront the sources of that violence in our nation’s longstanding culture of white supremacy. But he also knows how many political arguments and sociological studies have fallen on deaf ears. And so rather than a treatise, “Tears We Cannot Stop” is a fiery sermon, and an unabashedly emotional, personal appeal. “What I need to say” to white America, Dyson writes, can only be said in “a plea, a cry, a sermon, from my heart to yours.”
Ashutosh Jogalekar in The Curious Wavefunction:
David Hilbert (born today in 1862) was one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century. He made incisive contributions to a remarkable range of mathematical fields, published a best selling textbook on mathematical methods in physics, laid out a famous list of twenty-three unsolved problems which still challenge the field's practitioners and was a kind of philosophical godfather to at least two generations of mathematicians. Under his influence German mathematics reached its zenith before it was scattered apart by the rise of totalitarianism.
Perhaps less known is Hilbert's friendly and sometimes not-so-friendly rivalry with Einstein. Einstein's two most serious mathematical competitors were Hilbert and Henri Poincare. Poincare came close to discovering special relativity. Hilbert came close to discovering the equations of general relativity. Unlike Einstein, both were men of prodigious mathematical talent. Einstein's own mathematical shortcomings are well known; he had to learn most of the mathematics he needed for cracking open general relativity from friends and colleagues, most notably Marcel Grossmann.
In 1915 Hilbert came very close to publishing the equations of general relativity before Einstein did. Einstein had given a lecture in Berlin on his tentative attempts at formulating the equations. Hilbert was in the audience and doubled his efforts to find the right formulas. In the end Einstein ended up finding the correct form of the equations just a few days before Hilbert. It's quite likely that Hilbert would have gotten there first had Einstein gotten stalled for some reason.
David Chalmers at Edge:
I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of technology on philosophy, and how technology can illuminate or sometimes even transform philosophical questions. These are exciting times right now in technology, with massive advances the last few years in artificial intelligence and virtual reality that’s got them in use on a wider scale than ever. Both of these technologies raise very deep philosophical issues. What’s artificial intelligence? That’s an artificial mind. What’s virtual reality? That’s an artificial world. This is great for a philosopher because philosophy, as I see it, is all about thinking about the nature of the mind, the nature of the world, and the connection between them. Thinking about artificial minds and artificial worlds can shed a lot of light on the mind and the world more generally.
I’ve thought a lot about the mind and consciousness, and when you’re doing that it becomes very natural to think about artificial intelligence. Could a computer have a mind? Could it be conscious? What kind of mind would it have? I’ve also thought a lot about technology augmenting the mind—like smartphones as extensions of the mind. Thinking about those questions about technology has helped philosophers get clearer on traditional questions about just what it is to have a mind.
Lately, I’ve been getting especially interested in questions about the world and about artificial worlds. It turns out that thinking about artificial worlds can help to think about many of the central questions in philosophy—the nature of reality, our knowledge of the external world, the existence of god, the mind-body problem, even the meaningfulness of life.
Sarah Lyall in National Post:
If anyone is insane in Class, Lucinda Rosenfeld’s stiletto-sharp new novel about the quandaries and neuroses that consume the lives of a small swath of privileged white public-school parents in Brooklyn, it’s Karen. At 45, she works for a nonprofit organization that provides food to poor children, and she is about as self-conscious, self-involved and self-questioning a person as you’re likely to meet. It’s the rare encounter or decision that doesn’t fling her into a whirlpool of semantic, emotional and sociological analysis and second-guessing about whether she (as well as everybody else) is conveying the correct impression and living the correct way. Here she is described, for instance, after trying and failing to imbue her daughter with the requisite degree of empathy for an African-American classmate, Empriss, who lives in a homeless shelter.
“What was Karen doing wrong?” Rosenfeld writes. “She feared the only thing she’d accomplished by sending her child to a mixed-income school was to make Ruby feel venomous toward at-risk children. Or was she expecting too much from an 8-year-old?” The novel is called Class, but it’s just as preoccupied with race, and Rosenfeld deserves a great deal of credit for taking on this minefield of a subject. Karen and her “chronically underemotive” husband, Matt, a low-income-housing advocate who is “currently earning zero dollars per week,” try to live according to their values. This effort entails, among other things, sending their daughter to a public school, Betts, where white students are in the minority. It’s an admirable ideal, but Karen has a hard time with the ensuing reality. She’s reflexively dismayed at various elements of the African-American experience that she witnesses among Ruby’s classmates – the “beaded braids, buzz cuts and neon backpacks”; the names, like Sa’Ryah, “with their apostrophes, dashes, purposeful misspellings and randomly added letters”; – and then reflexively worried that she’s at heart a racist. But Mather, the predominantly white public school a few blocks away – where Karen impulsively enrolls Ruby (with the help of some forged documents) after an unpleasant incident with a bully named Jayyden, and where the children have names like Harper and Hudson – is hardly better.
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
Among clonal raider ants, there are no permanently designated workers and queens. Instead, all the ants in a colony switch back and forth from one role to the other. About half the time, they behave like workers, gathering food for their young — generally, by raiding the nests of other ants and stealing their larvae. The rest of the time, they go into queen mode and all colony members lay eggs together.
…Whereas normal raider ants will happily pile on top of one another whenever possible, the knockout ants avoided the crowd, instead wandering around on their own for days at a time, as though they were nothing more than the average asocial beetle. The results suggest that the diversification and specialization of olfactory receptors were keys to the evolution of ant sociality. The researchers are also exploring the biochemistry of caretaking, asking which signals prod ants to leave the nest and find food for their young. Preliminary results suggest that volatile pheromones exuded by newborn larvae stimulate the brains of adult ants to begin generating the hormone inotocin, the ant’s equivalent of oxytocin, which is famed for its role in promoting nurturing behavior among mammals. For raider ants, an inotocin surge galvanizes the urge to venture forth and start plundering, and ants with the greatest number of inotocin-making neurons, Dr. Kronauer said, “are the first ones out the door.” Some ants, by contrast, ignore the community cues altogether, and they pay dearly for their scoffery. Reporting in the journal Current Biology, Dr. Kronauer and his colleagues described the strictness with which a colony of clonal ants synchronized its schedule: Now everyone lays eggs, now the eggs hatch into larvae, now the adults shut down their ovaries and instead attend to the hungry young. On occasion, though, an ant’s ovaries remain animated when they should be suspended, and other ants can detect the illicit activity through telltale hydrocarbon signatures on the offender’s cuticle. Policing ants soon move in on the hyperovarian individual, drag it out of the nest, hold it down and pull it apart, an execution that can take hours or days. “These ants are like little tanks,” Dr. Kronauer said. Why is it important to kill off an ant that might breed off-season when that ant is your genetic twin? Dr. Kronauer compared the police ants to the body’s immune system, and the rebel ant to cancer. “An ant colony faces similar problems as a multicellular organism,” he said. “You can’t have components that don’t respond to regulatory cues and start to replicate out of control.” When the ant police come knocking, there’s no rock big enough to hide you.
by Genese Sodikoff
One does not normally think about infection, illness, and recovery in terms of a three-staged "rite of passage" as European ethnographer Arnold van Gennep defined it, although catching a disease certainly involves a period of physical transition and disruption of our sense of self.
Of course, a "rite of passage" conventionally refers to a ceremony that marks a change in status, such as a wedding or commencement, where one social identity is shed and another assumed. Van Gennep's three stages include the separation from peers, a liminal or in-between period, and reassimilation into society with a new status. But if we loosely apply this concept to other life experiences, such as illness, we begin to see a structure to the stories that make up our lives.
Say an individual goes from healthy person, to ill patient, and finally to some resolution. At this point the individual has either returned to the prior state of healthiness, dies, remains somehow marked by the period of suffering, or persists in a state of impaired health, neither here nor there. Certain diseases seem to occupy the liminal space, casting their victims into medical limbo as neither diagnosable nor well. Chronic Lyme disease is one of those. Since the source of prolonged suffering is contested by doctors, many sufferers must seek help at the edges of the medical mainstream.
To turn back to the "rite of passage" schema for a moment, anthropologist Victor Turner was intrigued by Van Gennep's demarcation of a liminal period, the "betwixt and between" stage. In the late 1960s, Turner elaborated the concept, finding it rife with both social ambiguity and possibility. For Turner, liminality evoked an unstructured space, an opposition to the dominant structure at the edges of the cultural mainstream. It is here where people experience "communitas," a spirit of camaraderie and equality. Liminality is counter-cultural, a state of flux in which the dominant structure is recast in the image of the oppositional force until that new image becomes the structure from which to pull away.
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