Beauty is Not Skin Deep

by Dwight Furrow

Turner the fighting temeraire

Turner's The Fighting Temeraire

Beauty is not solely in the eye of the beholder so I argued last month. This month I can't resist taking on the other platitude that harms our understanding of beauty—that beauty is only skin deep.

The word "beauty" has fallen on hard times in the art world despite occasional signs of a revival. Yet, in everyday conversation the word "beauty" is so ubiquitous it has fallen into cliché. Perhaps these two phenomena are related. It is routine to say a flower is beautiful; and almost all flowers would seem to qualify regardless of how ordinary. But that just reduces the concept of "beauty" to meaninglessness. I want to rescue the term by arguing that to grasp the nature of beauty we need an aesthetics of depth, not of surfaces, which is to say that beauty is not skin deep.

There is, it would seem, an obvious counter example to my thesis. I suspect the word "beauty" is most often applied to women largely because throughout history most people who publicly wrote about or depicted beauty were men. And this seems to apply to physical features especially in the way the beauty industry uses the term. But this is not because beauty is superficial; it is because beauty is an object of longing, especially the kind of "ideal", unattainable beauty portrayed by the beauty industry. It's the depth of something out of reach, illusive, a consummate idealization, of satisfaction infinitely deferred that is at work in this form of allure. The whole process of cosmetics is to make something desirable and is thus no longer only about appearances but rather something more subterranean.

The idea that beauty is about superficial qualities readily apparent in our experience is an assumption adopted by much of modern aesthetics since Kant and Hume. Aesthetic experience is made possible by a bundle of qualities and if the qualities are alluring enough we call the object beautiful. Yet to report that a painting is red, rectangular, depicting figures of a certain shape, and suitable for hanging tells us nothing about its aesthetic appeal.

Read more »

12 Steps

by Tamuira Reid

1. Theresa killed a man with her car. It wasn't her fault but still.

It was dark. The road was long. Oldies played on the radio. The kind of music people dance to when they think no one is watching and there is still that chance of something good happening.

He hit her, not the other way around.

Thought it was a deer, she told the police. Same kind of thud, thick and heavy. It was raining but not too hard. The impact dented the hood, busted the window, the glass splintered and folded in on itself.

The paper runs his photo with details for a memorial service at the Y on Harrisburg Street. He was nineteen, worked weekends at a Ford dealership. Best damn worker bee we had, his boss would tell reporters when they turned up at his store, on the hunt for details.

Theresa folds the story into a square and hides it under her mattress. Sometimes she feels him breathing but doesn't tell anyone.

2. A television crackles from a corner of the room where his two little sisters sleep, arms and legs locking. They always do this; try to wait up for their brother. Sometimes he brings home candy or soda or other deliciously bad things their mother will not let them have. Junior, I wish you'd stop bringing that crap into my house, she will say to his back as he opens the fridge and sighs.

Her first born. Her son. How secretly proud she is of the man he's becoming. The man his own father turned out not to be.

3. The last thing he saw was the glare of headlights. Like rays of sun coming straight towards him.

4. The silk blouse and the gray slacks from Macy's with the pleats down the front. They go into the washer with extra Woolite. Theresa studies the water for signs of death but it's all over at this point. She lets the lid down slowly, disappears into the kitchen for another cigarette.

People call and she tells them. Didn't see him coming. Out of nowhere. I held his hand. Sometimes the people who call are friends. Sometimes the people who call are strangers. Fucking drunk bitch, they'll say and then hang up.

5. She was sober when she hit him. Ninety five days without anything, she'd tell the police. But no one would believe her, even when the blood tests showed she was telling the truth.

Read more »

The Real Deal: Authenticity in Literature and Culture

by Claire Chambers

Goodness Gracious MeIn the late 1990s, the BBC comedy team Goodness Gracious Me produced a radio sketch entitled 'Authentic Artefacts'. In it, an artefact buyer for a chain of London stores visits an Indian village. She expects its rustic denizens to be 'connected with the flow of the seasons, the pull of the earth, the soft breathing of the ripening crops'. Despite her naïve fears that these apparently simple people will 'never sell [their] heritage', they are attracted by the buyer's evident wealth. They take a pragmatic approach, selling her a rusty pail as a birthing bucket − 'three generations of downtrodden dung-handlers have squatted over its rim' − a deck-chair ('my maternal uncle's prayer seat'); a formica coffee table with a leg missing, which is presented as a 200-year-old bullock slide; and a can-opener as 'an authentic turban winder'. The villagers' constant refrain is that these modern-looking items are 'authentic', and the Western woman is easily duped out of two thousand pounds.

Authenticity is a term that often comes up in postcolonialism and especially my own subdiscipline of Muslim literary studies. But what does it mean to be authentic, and is the quest for authenticity a productive or stifling one? As the Goodness Gracious Me example suggests, a fetishization of authenticity can trap apparently 'authentic' cultures in picturesque poverty and a pastoral past that never existed, ignoring their plural present.

Read more »

Caste lives on, and on


Prayaag Akbar in Aeon:

In October 2016, a young man walked into a flour mill in Uttarakhand, a state of northern India where the mist-wrapped mountains of the outer Himalayas begin. He was Dalit (Sanskrit for broken, scattered, downtrodden), a relatively recent collective identity claimed by communities across the nation that are considered untouchable in the caste system. Present in the mill was a Brahmin schoolteacher – Brahmins are the caste elite – who accused the Dalit man of having defiled all the flour produced there that day, merely by his entry: notions of purity and pollution are integral to caste. After the Dalit man objected to the insult, the schoolteacher took out a blade and slit the Dalit’s throat, killing him instantly.

The incident caused uproar in the national press. Dalit groups in Uttarakhand staged a series of protests. The Brahmin schoolteacher was arrested, along with his brother and father, who had threatened the murdered man’s family if they went to the police; booked for murder and criminal intimidation, the men were also charged under the ‘Prevention of Atrocities’ act – a vital part of the Indian Penal Code that prohibits a range of violent and non-violent action against members of the lowest castes and tribes.

After the initial flurry of limited upper-class angst – followed by self-congratulation (at the foresight of the lawmakers for how the state machinery kicked into gear to protect the lower-castes) – the violence was then safely imagined as belonging to a distant, retrograde realm, where things would soon change. Silence followed, then forgetting. There was no discussion of the deep-seated convictions and codes that enabled this gruesome act, or how each Indian life was linked to it: the key to living in a caste society is to distance yourself from its most horrifying manifestations.

More here.

Value and Alienation: A Revisionist Essay on Our Political Ideal


Akeel Bilgrami in the NOMIS Workshop Series: Nature and Value Discussion Papers (page 107 and on):

There are several other features of the political philosophy we have inherited that one could summon to present the tension between liberty and equality, and I have mentioned only these two just to give a completely familiar sense of how far such thinking has gone into our sensibility, how entrenched it is in the very way we deploy these terms, and how, therefore, it would seem almost to change the semantics of the terms if we were to think that the tension could be removed or resolved. That is to say, if we managed to see them as not being in tension, it would only be because, as Thomas Kuhn might have put it, we have changed the meanings of the terms ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’, not because we have produced an improved theory or politics within the framework of the Enlightenment. Within that framework things are, on this score, unimprovable. In other words, what I mean by framework here is perhaps one of the (diverse) things that Kuhn meant by his term ‘paradigm’ and, if so, clearly we need to shift to another framework if we are ever going to remove the tension between these two notions. In such a new framework, neither ‘liberty’ nor ‘equality’ would mean what they mean in the framework of Enlightenment thought, no more than ‘mass’ in Einstein’s physics meant what it meant in Newtonian mechanics, if Kuhn is right.

How might such a shift in framework be sought? Here is a proposal. Let’s, as a start, usher the very ideals of liberty and equality off centre-stage. If this is to disinherit an entire tradition of liberal thought of the Enlightenment, so be it. Once these are exeunt, we need to replace them on centre-stage with a third, more primitive, concept; that is to say, a concept more fundamental to our social and political life than even liberty and equality. And this is to be done with the idea that ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ may subsequently be introduced once again – by the back door, as it were– but now merely as necessary conditions for the achievement of this more basic ideal that occupies the central position. So re-introduced, there is reason to think that these terms may have undergone substantial revision in their meaning, and thus may not any longer express concepts that are at odds with one another.

More here. Sanjay Reddy responds following Bilgrami's essay.

Habermas and the Fate of Democracy


William E. Scheuerman in Boston Review:

Germany’s defeat helped free Habermas from the provincial social climate. He listened to live radio broadcasts of the Nuremberg Trials and, shocked by the horrors recounted, seems to have quickly grasped the criminal nature of the regime under which he had grown up. Revealingly perhaps, his academic interests shifted away from medicine, a more professionally secure field, to philosophy. His 1954 University of Bonn doctoral dissertation on the Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling offers little evidence of Habermas’s growing radicalism, but his early journalistic pieces, published during the early and mid ‘50s in major German newspapers and intellectual journals, anticipate his life-long political concerns. Directed against right-wing intellectuals (for example, Heidegger), they criticize an older generation for failing to take democracy seriously—that “magic word,” according to Habermas, that brought together otherwise disparate voices within his own postwar generation who sought a clean break from Nazism.

Because Habermas took the magic word of democracy so seriously, he found himself disenchanted not only with established conservative intellectuals but also political elites who preferred to keep their mouths shut about their Nazi entanglements, and for whom Germany’s new liberal order was primarily about stability and security, not democratic self-government. Dictatorship and the racism that motored it still haunted his country. Democracy was not a fortunate historical inheritance one could simply take up, but instead an unfinished project. As he has more recently claimed, democracy represents the surviving “remnant of utopia”: only democracy is “capable of hacking through the Gordian knots of otherwise insoluble problems.” Thus his life-long intellectual project of trying to understand democracy’s promise and possibilities.

More here.

A Buffet of French History


Robert Darnton in The New York Review of Books:

One of the bombs dropped during the current presidential campaign in France is Histoire mondiale de la France, an eight-hundred-page tome surveying 40,000 years of French history. A collaborative work written by 122 academics and directed by Patrick Boucheron, a distinguished medievalist at the Collège de France, it hardly seemed destined for the best-seller lists when it was published in January. But the French have snapped it up: 70,000 copies have been sold as of mid-March and sales are still going strong. After several decades of somnolence, academic history is a hit.

Although the book owes much of its success to the talent of its authors, its publication was timed perfectly to make a splash during the election campaign. History has always been a battleground in France. As Éric Zemmour, a right-wing journalist and historian, remarked in an angry review in Le Figaro, “History is war. Not just the history of war but the war of history.” He went on to condemn Histoire mondiale de la France as an attack on the identity of France and an attempt to destroy the “national narrative” (“roman national”) at the heart of what it means to be French.

Alain Finkielkraut, a conservative philosopher and member of the Académie française, damned the book in an equally savage review: “The authors of Histoire mondiale de la France are the gravediggers of the great French heritage.” Other commentators on the right have echoed the same theme. Michael Jeaubelaux, a blogger who supports the conservative presidential candidate François Fillon, wrote: “When the Collège de France buries France and the French, it is urgent for the people to seize power against those who are paid to destroy our country, its history, its heritage, its culture!”

More here.

Silicon Valley executives are hiring philosophers to teach them to question everything

Michael J. Coren in Quartz:

ScreenHunter_2676 Apr. 23 20.36Silicon Valley is obsessed with happiness. The pursuit of a mythical good life, achievement blending perfectly with fulfillment, has given rise to the quantified self movement, polyphasic sleeping, and stashes of off-label pharmaceuticals in developers’ desks.

Yet Andrew Taggart thinks most of this is nonsense. A PhD in philosophy, Taggart practices the art of gadfly-for-hire. He disabuses founders, executives, and others in Silicon Valley of the notion that life is a problem to be solved, and happiness awaits those who do it. Indeed, Taggart argues that optimizing one’s life and business is actually a formula for misery.

“I call it “the problematization of the world,” he said. “Once you start looking for this relatively new way of thinking—problem, challenge, solution, repeat—you see it nearly everywhere.” Instead of asking, How can I be more successful, he says, “It’s far more important to ask, ‘Why be successful?’”

Taggart is among a small band of “practical philosophers” entering the world of business. Serving as a kind of Chief Philosophy Officer, they summon ancient thinkers to probe eternal questions like, “How does one live a good life?” but also more practical ones like “What should my startup build?” This strand of philosophical inquiry, aided by books, blogs, and advisors, is gaining a small but intensely loyal following.

More here.

Antarctic Scientists Go Chasing Waterfalls

Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic:

Lead_960 (1)January 29, 1912, was a beautiful day in Antarctica. A group of British explorers, led by a 37-year-old Victor Campbell, were on a cheerful journey across what we now call the Nansen Ice Shelf and Priestley Glacier. It was a kind of summer sojourn around the continent: They would make the first maps of the area, then rendezvous with their ship, Terra Nova, six weeks later.

Campbell’s notes are brief on January 29. The terrain on which he and his team tottered around that day was at the foot of some glaciers and mountains, which loomed above the icy plain. The area even sounded different: “The noise of running water from a lot of streams sounded very odd after the usual Antarctic silence,” he wrote. “Occasionally an enormous boulder would come crashing down from the heights above, making jumps of 50 or 100 feet at a time.” His party set up camp that night on a bed of gentle gravel, then moved on.

But the Terra Nova did not reach them in February, or March, or ever. Early sea ice set in and blocked off the ship’s route. With winter bearing down, Campbell and his team took steps that later made them famous. They dug an ice cave on Inexpressible Island and made camp for the the winter. They remained in the cave for months— eating seal and penguin meat, burning blubber for warmth—all through the black night of Antarctic winter. Not until September 30 did they finally set off for the 200-mile march back to their basecamp.

More here.

The anniversary of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto

Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:

Bak-ghettoThis week marked the anniversary of the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Ghetto had been established by the Germans in 1940 in the Muranów district of the Polish capital, imprisoning some 400,000 Jews, virtually all of whom were eventually killed, either in concentration camps, through hunger and deprivation, through executions, or in the final destruction of the Ghetto.

The uprising began on April 19, 1943, after German troops entered the Ghetto to deport its surviving inhabitants. Some 750 fighters fought the heavily-armed soldiers, holding out for nearly a month. Around 13,000 Jews were killed in the Ghetto during the uprising. Of the more than 56,000 Jews captured after the uprising was crushed, 7,000 were shot, and the remainder were deported to concentration camps, mostly to Treblinka.

More here.

Harvard’s nondiscrimination hypocrisy

Harry Lewis in the Washington Post:

Harvard-0fb63When should traditional liberal values be sacrificed to important but narrower ends? That is the question behind Harvard University’s effort to subordinate freedom of association and freedom of speech to a locally fashionable form of “nondiscrimination.”

Last spring, the university decided to attack the off-campus, all-male Final Clubs by disqualifying their members from Rhodes Scholarships and other distinctions — unless the clubs admitted women. A few of these clubs are infamous for loud parties and drunken misbehavior. The new strategy against them had the merit of novelty, even in the absence of evidence that coed clubs would behave any better.

Faculty members reacted with alarm, recalling Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of Harvard professors in the 1950s simply for belonging to a hated organization. Students deserve a better lesson from Harvard than an attempt to solve social problems by blackballing members of unpopular groups.

The policy covers all “single-gender social organizations” consisting of Harvard students, so the same sanctions would be visited on women’s clubs, including sororities. More women than men are affected, even though most of the women’s clubs don’t have real estate, much less raucous parties. Hundreds of women staged a surprise protest in response.

More here.


HM Naqvi in Dawn:

NaqviIn Ways of Seeing, John Berger, the late, great, British art critic, posits that, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe. In the Middle Ages when men believed in the physical existence of Hell, the sight of fire must have meant something different from what it means today… History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past.”

…In his opus, Image and Identity, the late, great, Pakistani art critic, Dr Akbar Naqvi, announces, “Pakistan’s history is older than its age… The thesis of this book is that Pakistan is inseparable from [the] heritage of Al-Hind, and without that it has no identity.” Although this might not be news to serious historians, in the ever-evolving exclusionary socio-political ecosystems of the subcontinent, the assertion was like a brick lobbed in the oft stagnant pond of popular discourse. This theme pervades Dr Naqvi’s oeuvre, from Shahid Sajjad’s Sculpture to Sadequain and the Culture of Enlightenment.

“The subcontinent was partitioned,” he writes elsewhere, “but its people continued to share myths, histories, cultures and a multifaceted civilisation.” Consequently, we in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are “joint custodians” of the discourse of the subcontinent. Dr Naqvi observes this shared ethos in the work of Abanindranath Tagore, who responded to late Mughal miniatures, Abdur Rehman Chughtai, who routinely rendered icons from Hindu mythopoetics, Syed Sadequain Naqvi, who distilled everything from tantric symbolism to Arabic calligraphy, and Ustad Allah Buksh. “Buksh’s art was the Indian face of European painting and accepted national art … [i]n this style, local romantic lore and mythological subjects were painted according to Euro-Indian conventions of Raj art schools.” Manifestly, we, demonyms of the subcontinent, “have several histories converging upon us.”

For Dr Naqvi, history is not good, bad, some sort of binary, or for that matter, linear: Picasso’s Cubism, derived from African masks, in turn influenced the likes of Jean Metzinger and Albert Gleizes or Zubeida Agha and Shakir Ali.

More here. (Note: Thanks to Professor Sadia Abbas)

Yuval Harari: People Have Limited Knowledge. What’s the Remedy? Nobody Knows

Yuval Harari in the New York Times:

Harari-superJumboIn “The Knowledge Illusion,” the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach hammer another nail into the coffin of the rational individual. From the 17th century to the 20th century, Western thought depicted individual human beings as independent rational agents, and consequently made these mythical creatures the basis of modern society. Democracy is founded on the idea that the voter knows best, free market capitalism believes the customer is always right, and modern education tries to teach students to think for themselves.

Over the last few decades, the ideal of the rational individual has been attacked from all sides. Postcolonial and feminist thinkers challenged it as a chauvinistic Western fantasy, glorifying the autonomy and power of white men. Behavioral economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts rather than rational analysis, and that while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with the African savanna in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate for dealing with the urban jungle of the silicon age.

Sloman and Fernbach take this argument further, positing that not just rationality but the very idea of individual thinking is a myth. Humans rarely think for themselves. Rather, we think in groups. Just as it takes a tribe to raise a child, it also takes a tribe to invent a tool, solve a conflict or cure a disease. No individual knows everything it takes to build a cathedral, an atom bomb or an aircraft. What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.

More here.

Ghalib’s Life and Times

From Columbia University Press:

9780231544009This selection of poetry and prose by Ghalib provides an accessible and wide-ranging introduction to the preeminent Urdu poet of the nineteenth century. Ghalib's poems, especially his ghazals, remain beloved throughout South Asia for their arresting intelligence and lively wit. His letters—informal, humorous, and deeply personal—reveal the vigor of his prose style and the warmth of his friendships. These careful translations allow readers with little or no knowledge of Urdu to appreciate the wide range of Ghalib's poetry, from his gift for extreme simplicity to his taste for unresolvable complexities of structure.

Beginning with a critical introduction for nonspecialists and specialists alike, Frances Pritchett and Owen Cornwall present a selection of Ghalib's works, carefully annotating details of poetic form. Their translation maintains line-for-line accuracy and thereby preserves complex poetic devices that play upon the tension between the two lines of each verse. The book includes whole ghazals, selected individual verses from other ghazals, poems in other genres, and letters. The book also includes a glossary, the Urdu text of the original poetry, and an appendix containing Ghalib's comments on his own verses.

Go here to read the introduction to the book.

This Is Your Brain On Music

Rick Nauert in Psych Central:

Music-And-Brain-big-bigstockNew research discovers that your favorite music, be it Willie Nelson, Bach, the Beatles, or Bruno Mars, triggers a similar type of activity in your brain as other people’s favorites do in theirs.

Music is primal, said neuroradiologist Jonathan Burdette, M.D., of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina. It affects all of us, but in very personal, unique ways.

“Your interaction with music is different than mine, but it’s still powerful,” he said.

“Your brain has a reaction when you like or don’t like something, including music. We’ve been able to take some baby steps into seeing that, and ‘dislike’ looks different than ‘like’ and much different than ‘favorite.’”

To study how music preferences might affect functional brain connectivity — the interactions among separate areas of the brain — Burdette and his fellow investigators used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which depicts brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

Scans were made of 21 people while they listened to music they said they most liked and disliked from among five genres (classical, country, rap, rock, and Chinese opera) and to a song or piece of music they had previously named as their personal favorite.

Those fMRI scans showed a consistent pattern: The listeners’ preferences, not the type of music they were listening to, had the greatest impact on brain connectivity, especially on a brain circuit known to be involved in internally focused thought, empathy, and self-awareness.

More here.

Saturday Poem


A Venetian critic named Bruno Alfieri saw:
(in Jackson Pollock’s work)

—absolute lack of harmony
—complete lack of structural organization
—total absence of technique, however rudimentary
—once again, chaos
from Art In America, February 1994

1. Chaos

Being true to what we are, what is,
frayed around the edges, perhaps, and growing weird.
Born in NYC, and from there, no movement.
It is our own terror, our own making,
abandoned in the high-rise night
like an impotent frog.

2. Absolute lack of harmony

There are times when you can’t illuminate nothing, man.
Don’t open that door, they say, don’t even enter the room.
My second wife would know, she didn’t belong
among the pacifists making music. Every
day you encounter people going
straight to hell.

3. Complete lack of structural organization

The summer air, by itself, is enough.
Add a few fireflies at twilight for memory’s sake.
And measure all the green you’ve seen.
Insane with desire to go home again?
Listen, the sky is whirling overhead.
Listen to the silence.

Read more »

The Weirdness of Juggling Many Different Roles at Work

Jessica Brown in NY Magazine:

HatsIt’s very likely that, even in the last 24 hours, you’ve switched so seamlessly between being a friend to an employee, boss to parent, or customer to neighbor, that you didn’t even notice yourself doing it. We all switch between multiple roles in a given day, requiring us to draw on different aspects of our personality, and even alter how we talk. (If you spoke to your newborn baby the same way you greeted your boss in the morning, for example, you’d probably be sent home to rest up.) One place most people juggle different identities is at work. Maybe you belong to a few different teams, for example, or maybe you both do and teach your job at the same time, like a doctor who also teaches medical students. Or you might have two or three different jobs entirely; perhaps you work part-time in a coffee shop to fund your freelance endeavors or tech start-up. Even within one role, you might be a supportive co-worker one minute, and deal-clinching boss the next, all before your morning coffee.

But while this constant juggling sounds exhausting, it doesn’t necessarily harm us, according to a study recently published in the journal Academy of Management. There are two main responses to identity-switching, according to Lakshmi Ramarajan, one of the study’s authors. Some of us will experience what she calls “identity conflict,” where we find it difficult to manage multiple identities, whereas others have “identity enhancement,” where different roles are seen as being complementary to each other. Ramarajan, from Harvard University — along with co-researchers Steffanie Wilk from Ohio State University, and Nancy Rothbar, from the University of Pennsylvania — argues, perhaps unsurprisingly, that your experience hinges on your outlook. Seeing multiple work identities as good for each other can help you be more productive and feel more motivated at work. Seeing your different identities as being in conflict with each other, however, could be putting a downer on your day.

More here.