What Is the Meaning of Mother!?

Lead_960 (1)David Sims at The Atlantic:

Since it was announced, the prime selling point of Darren Aronofsky’s new film mother! has been two-fold: that it stars one of the most famous actresses working today, Jennifer Lawrence, and that the particulars of its plot are an utter mystery. Well, after months of secrecy, the movie hit theaters in wide release last weekend, and audiences are finally getting the chance to puzzle over this bizarre, chaotic work of horror.

Aronofsky’s tale is blunt, fantastical, and obviously laden with symbolism, but for me, the biggest delight about mother! is how many people have shared with me their different takes on the film’s message. My colleague Christopher Orr discussed the movie’s openness to multiple interpretations in his review, noting both the story’s Biblical allusions and its apparent self-referential tone about the difficulty of life as an artist, and how monstrous creators can become. Now that mother! is out, it’s worth dig more deeply into the great debate that’s already emerged over the film’s meaning.

The plot of mother! is very simple—at least until it starts getting more unhinged. It begins on a shot of a woman’s crying face in the middle of a vast inferno, after which a man (Javier Bardem) inserts a crystal into a pedestal and magically repairs the burnt home around him. Cut to: an unnamed woman (Jennifer Lawrence) who lives in this gorgeous house in the middle of nowhere with her husband (Bardem). He’s a poet of some renown, busy toiling on his next great work (although he appears to be suffering from writer’s block). She’s devotedly renovating their home, painting the walls and such, and seems to have some mystical power to “feel” the heart of the house, by touching the walls and visualizing a giant, pumping organ.

more here.

Do big, world-scale art exhibitions have any use today?

D14_Martha_Minujin_The_Parthenon_of_BooksBarry Schwabsky at The Nation:

My real problem with Documenta 14 isn’t its possible relation to neocolonialism, which may be significant but hard to assess. What bugged me was that every curatorial “move” seemed so damned familiar. The new style of global exhibition-making that began tentatively with David’s Documenta, in 1997, and asserted itself more forcefully with Enwezor’s, in 2002, has by now been repeated in innumerable biennials and triennials worldwide. It has hardened into a formula. The recipe goes something like this: Put the accent on the documentary side of art without entirely neglecting its imaginative or formal core (what Khalili refers to as “fiction”), while framing the curatorial project in terms of what the artist Liam Gillick—a veteran of Documenta X and many biennials—has described as “an ethical demand that exceeds what is being produced by artists and posits new models in advance of art being made today.” It is this perception that art is inadequate on its own that has given rise to the by-now-standard Documenta/biennial tactics of mixing art with folklore and anthropological research; of exhibiting musical and choreographic scores, architectural plans, literary manuscripts, and all sorts of archives and collectibles as if they were drawings, paintings, or sculptures. Sometimes the artist is called on as an intermediary: for instance in Kassel, where Igo Diarra and La Medina presented a compendium of memorabilia of the great Malian guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré. But at other times this collecting and archiving can be done directly by the curators, as in another part of the Kassel edition, where various materials relating to the Brothers Grimm, the Nazi-era art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, and other aspects of local and national history were displayed without much explanation. These are all tactics for evoking an idea of art beyond what today’s artists can express through their works.

more here.

whither the west

41dqZWxy60L._SY346_Pankaj Mishra at the London Review of Books:

Is it finally closing time in the gardens of the West? The wails that have rent the air since the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory rise from the same parts of Anglo-America that hosted, post-1989, the noisiest celebrations of liberalism, democracy, free markets and globalisation. Bill Emmott, the former editor of the Economist, writes that ‘the fear now is of being present at the destruction' of the ‘West’, the ‘world’s most successful political idea’. Edward Luce, for example, a Financial Times columnist based in Washington DC, isn’t sure ‘whether the Western way of life, and our liberal democratic systems, can survive’. Donald Trump has also chimed in, asking ‘whether the West has the will to survive’. These apocalyptic Westernists long to turn things around, to make their shattered world whole again. David Goodhart, the founding editor of Prospect, told the New York Times just before the general election that he believed Theresa May could dominate British politics for a generation. Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia and a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, wants the Democratic Party, which under Bill Clinton captured ‘Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny’, to abandon identity politics and help liberalism become once more a ‘unifying force’ for the ‘common good’. Douglas Murray, associate editor of the Spectator, thinks that Trump might just save Western civilisation.

The ideas and commitments of the new prophets of decline do not emerge from any personal experience of it, let alone adversity of the kind suffered by many voters of Brexit and Trump. These men were ideologically formed during the reign of Reagan and Thatcher, and their influence and prestige have grown in step with the expansion of Anglo-America’s intellectual and cultural capital. Lilla, a self-declared ‘centrist liberal’, arrived at his present position by way of working-class Detroit, evangelical Christianity and an early flirtation with neoconservatism.

more here.

Life Beyond Sight: The microbial earth, brought into view

Jonathan Shaw in Harvard Magazine:

EarthIn rocks and soil, air, ponds and oceans, life is dominated by creatures that humans cannot see. Microbes thrive everywhere, from gardens and kitchens to the harshest environments on the planet: under polar ice, in hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the sea, in hot springs that spew acid. A single gram of soil teems with billions of them, and their genetic diversity is equally impressive, dwarfing that of all the plants and animals on Earth. Life at the Edge of Sight: A Photographic Exploration of the Microbial World (forthcoming from The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), brings the planet-shaping diversity of these single-celled, microscopic organisms into view through stunning images. Co-authors Roberto Kolter, professor of microbiology and immunology, and Scott Chimileski, a research fellow in microbiology and immunology at Harvard Medical School, share their passion for the subject in part by magnifying what cannot be seen unaided, in part by revealing large-scale microbial impacts on the landscape. Kolter has long been a leader in microbial science at Harvard, while Chimileski brings to his scholarship a talent for landscape, macro, and technical photography.

Humanity, they note in the preface, is a fleeting presence in the four-billion-year-old story of life on the planet. Microbes, on the other hand—omnipresent and abundant beyond comprehension—have dominated that story for three billion years. In fact, microbes have written it, forming rocks and giving rise to the oxygen in the atmosphere, and underpinning many other atmospheric and geological processes that can span millennia. In crafting a human-scale narrative, the authors remind readers that the local ecology of microbes is closely tied to health: most germs protect people by keeping harmful microbes in check, boost access to nutrients in food, and only rarely cause disease—not surprising, because genus Homo evolved in a microbial world. Humans have even domesticated some microbes, albeit unwittingly for most of history: in the fermentation of wine, or the culturing of cheese. From these familiar examples, the authors pivot to specimens so bizarre that they seem almost extraterrestrial: single-celled intelligent slime molds (cabbage-sized, or larger) that can crawl along a decaying log at five centimeters an hour, or a “humongous fungus,” covering 10 square kilometers in Oregon, that lives in the soil and reaches up into trees, fruiting from under the bark as mushrooms each autumn. The mutability and generative force of microbes are so great, in fact, that Kolter and Chimileski assert that if life exists in distant galaxies, microbes are almost certainly involved.

More here.

The Real Unknown of Climate Change: Our Behavior

Justin Gillis in The New York Times:

IceAs Hurricane Harvey bore down on the Texas coast, few people in that state seemed to understand the nature of the looming danger. The bulletins warned of rain falling in feet, not inches. Experts pleaded with the public to wake up. J. Marshall Shepherd, head of atmospheric sciences at the University of Georgia and a leading voice in American meteorology, wrote ahead of the storm that “the most dangerous aspect of this hurricane may be days of rainfall and associated flooding.” Now we know how events in Texas turned out. Dr. Shepherd and his colleagues have spent their careers issuing a larger warning, one that much of the public still chooses to ignore. I speak, of course, about the risks of climate change. Because of atmospheric emissions from human activity, the ocean waters from which Harvey drew its final burst of strength were much warmer than they ought to have been, most likely contributing to the intensity of the deluge. If the forecasts from our scientists are anywhere close to right, we have seen nothing yet. In their estimation, the most savage heat waves that we experience today will likely become routine in a matter of decades. The coastal inundation that has already begun will grow worse and worse, forcing millions of people to flee. The immense wave of refugees that we already see moving across continents may be just the beginning.

Scientists urged decades ago that we buy ourselves some insurance by cutting emissions. We yawned. Even today, when millions of people have awakened to the danger, tens of millions have not. So the political demand for change is still too weak to overcome the entrenched interests that want to block it. In Washington, progress on climate change has stalled. The administration has announced its intent to withdraw from the global Paris climate accord. And top Trump appointees insist that the causes of climate change are too uncertain and the scientific forecasts too unreliable to be a basis for action. This argument might have been halfway plausible 20 years ago – or, if you want to be generous, even 10 years ago. But today?

Today, salt water is inundating the coastal towns of the United States, to the point that they are starting to put giant rulers in the intersections so people can tell if it is safe to drive through. The city leaders are also posting “no wake” signs — not on canals but on the streets, to stop trucks from plowing through the water so fast as to send waves crashing into nearby homes. We all see the giant storms, more threatening than any in our lifetimes — and while scientists are not entirely comfortable yet drawing links between the power of these hurricanes and climate change, many people are coming to their own common-sense conclusions.

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Cucumber

The snow is knee-deep in the courtyard
and still coming down hard:
it hasn't let up all morning.
We're in the kitchen.
On the table, on the oilcloth, spring—
on the table there's a very tender young cucumber,
pebbly and fresh as a daisy.
We're sitting around the table staring at it.
It softly lights up our faces,
and the very air smells fresh.
We're sitting around the table staring at it,
We're as if in a dream,
On the table, on the oilcloth, hope—
on the table, beautiful days,
a cloud seeded with green sun,
an emerald crowd impatient and on its way,
loves blooming openly—
on the table, there on the oilcloth, a very young tender cucumber,
pebbly and fresh as a daisy.
The snow is knee-deep in the courtyard
and coming down hard.
It hasn't let up all morning.

by Nazim Hikmet
from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry
Vintage Books, 1996
translation: Randy Blasing and Mutlu Komak


In the Lumber-Room of My Library

by Michael Liss

Sherlock ImageWhat are you reading?

A friend asked me that question recently, and I almost found myself stumped.

Reading isn't skimming. It's not staring at a screen, spasmodically flipping back and forth between the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, Barron's, electoral-vote.com, Foreign Policy, NRO and anything else to which Twitter would lead. It's certainly not dipping myself into the digital inkwell of the Comments section, finding something to be outraged about, and letting it fly. That's not even writing, much less reading for content.

So, what was I reading? Books. I need books, something to stimulate my brain instead of my adrenals. I could, as I have done countless times, head to Strand and wander up and down the aisles looking for things that might pique my interest. There's always something at Strand. Fiction, non-fiction, history, science, art, architecture and music, tomes on various topics. I am a serious tome fan, and Strand is the place where you can amuse yourself just by scanning the blurbs. "Professor Throckmanshire has produced the definitive work on mid-18th Century Cornish snuffboxes." If that doesn't appeal….

Yet, I have enough books. I know, you can never have enough, but I live in a Manhattan apartment, and, short of tethering rucksacks of them to the outside of the windows (a practice frowned upon by both the City and the co-op board) there isn't a lot of space. The bedrooms are filled with them, the living room stuffed. They are piled up on surfaces and double-deep in built-ins. Of course, a few more wouldn't hurt, but a few more are always arriving—gifts from family and friends, odds and ends on which I couldn't resist spending the kids' tuition money. And the dirty secret was I hadn't read them all yet. I'd been too busy feeding my political obsessions. I didn't need to go to Strand—there was plenty to harvest here at home. Clearly, it wasn't the quantity of books; I was falling down on the reading of them.

There was my problem, and my solution. So, I made my way through the vast expanse of my palatial residence looking for ideas—different ones than those that had distracted me for the last year. I started in my daughter's room. Plenty of options, not all entirely interesting to a man of my years. Some were clearly a no. Books on classical music…possible, but perhaps a little esoteric. The contents of my son's room just didn't inspire. Our bedroom…eh, and there was the omnipresent risk of raising dust if I probed too deeply. The living room held the treasures, if I could just get through the piles and obstructions, the vintage speakers, and, occasionally, the plants.

There's a strange feeling when you do this, going from volume to volume, topic to topic. It's almost like reliving past relationships. This love-interest lasted about three months. This one, somewhat longer, but didn't she dump you because you never understood her, or was it that she didn't understand you? Here's a passion that never quite left, and these few…what exactly was I thinking when I made the time and the space?

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Take my camel, dear…..

by Leanne Ogasawara

Caltech libraryThere were not many things that drew me back to America, but the thought of joining a bookclub seemed like one potential perk of moving back. I am not sure if bookclubs exist to this extent in other countries, but in the US they are incredibly popular! More and more people I know had been joining, taking part and talking about their bookclubs… And, I became –slowly but surely–intrigued.

So, when the time came and I found myself back in Los Angeles, I started thinking about–and really started heavy-duty dreaming about– joining one. And not just any bookclub, but I was imagining a kind of glittering evening gathering, which could take place in various refined rooms filled with books and art. And obviously, there had to be alcohol. And definitely my bookclub needed men. Part of my fantasy involved a blurring of bookclub, cocktail party and supper club. I had visions of Turin-style appertivo; discussing Nietzsche over our campari; or a dinner inspired by the gourmand extraordinaire, Detective Mantalbano–featuring my famous caponata (in my fantasy, my caponata is legendary).

My longings finally reached a crisis point last November when I read a really charming post at aNewscafe about a ladies' monthly bookclub in Northern California. The post was about the bookclub's most recent read: A Gentleman in Moscow, about which I was also reading and imagining a dinner party of my own. In my fantasies, I would have prepared a lavish dinner beginning with (of course) champagne and blini and then moving on to the mouth-wateringly-described Latvian stew with Georgian wine of the novel. The author of the blog post, Hollyn Chase, seemed to have it all–a gorgeous dining room filled with books, a fabulous menu plan and best of all, great friends.

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Yes, I’m Defending the Millennials, Goddammit

Crystal-ballby Akim Reinhardt

Generational analysis, when done poorly, is half-a-notch above astrology: All the people born at this time are like this!

Of course there's plenty of good generational research and analysis by demographers and other social scientists. However, most people don't delve into that stuff. Most people simply absorb generational analysis from popular culture. That's unfortunate, because you can often get more penetrating insights from a Chinese restaurant paper place mat.

Worse yet, a lot of pop culture generational analysis is passively racist and classist. You know who we're really talking about when we say “Baby Boomers,” right? It's hardly every American born between 1946-1964. Black people? Latinos? Most immigrants? The deeply impoverished? Pushaw. For the most part, we're just talking about the white MCAU (middle class and up), and whoever can pass through their circles. And we're not even talking about them smartly. By and large, we just rehash dumb stereotypes. This generation sacrificed. That generation navel gazed. Bla bla bla.

For example, when I Googled “Baby Boomers are,” the auto complete came up:
the biggest

When I Googled “Millennials are,” the auto complete came up:
the worst

Indeed, pop culture generational analysis is often so shallow, haphazard, and/or commercialized, that it typically only blathers about every other generation. There's an accordion discourse, which fixates on alternating generations (Greatest, Boomers, Millennials) while largely ignoring the generations between them (Silent, X, Z). As a result, Baby Boomers dominated popular discourse for a long time.

However, Baby Boomers have recently been knocked off their demographic perch. There are now more Millennials than boomers in the U.S. population, and these relative youngens are increasingly the subject of America's generational fascination. As such, they catch a lot of flak, much of it head smackingly stupid. I recently came across a stunning example of this vapid chatter while drinking a blueberry beer in a Lake Placid tavern.

Yes, that Lake Placid, two-time Winter Olympic town and scene of the 1980 Miracle on Ice. And yes, blueberry beer. It was actually quite good, thank you very much, Judgy McJudgerson.

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A brief tribute to Matt Shoemaker

by Dave Maier

MattSIf you google the name “Matt Shoemaker,” the first page of hits is all about the gentleman pictured here, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels. It seems that he has recently undergone season-ending surgery on his pitching arm, a shame as the Angels are still in the mix for an AL wild-card spot. People also naturally search, Google tells us, for his Angel teammates, including pitchers Garrett Richards and Jered Weaver. At the bottom of the page, however, we see eight further related searches, including “matt shoemaker injury” and “matt shoemaker fantasy” (the latter no doubt a reference to “fantasy baseball"). These obviously refer to that same person; but among the eight we also see “matt shoemaker music.” What’s that about?

Clicking, we do find another reference to our ballplayer (referring to his “walk up music,” which is typically played over the PA as a batter approaches the plate to bat, although in this case since our man is a pitcher and plays in the AL, that probably hasn’t happened all year). But we also find several references to another person entirely. One of them reports the sad news that this person, an accomplished sound artist with many releases to his name, recently passed away at a tragically young age.

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Donald Trump is no Leroy Jethro Gibbs

by Bill Benzon

37093809932_f398eef416Donald Trump, of course, is the forty-fifth President of the United States. He is a real person, but Leroy Jethro Gibbs is not. He is the central character in NCIS, one of the most popular and longest running shows on network television. Gibbs is a Senior Special Agent in the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

The Trump campaign is known to have targeted NCIS viewers. Why? What appeal would a show like NCIS have for Trump voters?

The honor to serve

Let’s look at a scene from an episode in season seven, which started airing in 2009. The episode is called “One Shot, One Kill”. It opens in a video game arcade where some teen-aged boys are blown away by the skill of Marine Corps sergeant. We cut to a recruiting office where the sergeant is giving the boys the hard sell about hitching up. He’s talking about Iraq: “Been in the corps 16 years. Closest I’ve ever come to a bullet is…” Shatter! Wham! Splatt! He’s shot. Slumps over on the desk.

Gibbs and his team are called in to investigate. In the course of their investigation the recruiter who replaces the first one is also shot. In both cases, sitting at the desk, shot from long distance, through the window. Sniper.

Gibbs decides he’s got to go under cover. He’ll pretend to be a Marine recruiter, which will be easy form him as he had once been a Marine. To protect Gibbs bullet-proof glass is placed in the window and he wears a bullet-proof vest. Three microphones are placed outside so that, when the shooter fires, their Forensic Specialist, Abby Sciuto, can pick up the sound and use it to triangulate the shooter’s location. We then scoot over there and make the arrest.

We’re in the recruiting office, Gibbs looking sharp in his old Marine uniform. One of his Senior Agents, Kate Todd, is in uniform as a captain. She’s there to profile potential recruits as they visit they office. The major who heads the recruiting unit wants to stay; after all, he’s lost two men to this sniper. Gibbs objects. The major insists.

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Andrew Motion reviews “The Red-Haired Woman” by Orhan Pamuk

Andrew Motion in The Guardian:

3308Orhan Pamuk has written better than most contemporary novelists about the relationship between east and west. His great book Istanbul: Memories of a City mingles history, personal reminiscence and political analysis to produce a panorama of the city that is also a map of the world – at once clearly drawn and poetically evocative. Much the same goes for his novels. While they explore separations, they look for elements that unite.

The Red-Haired Woman, translated by Ekin Oklap, is driven by the same obsessions, but develops them in suggestive new directions. While establishing a link “between the nature of a civilisation and its approach to notions of parricide and filicide”, it blends the close observation of details with the broad brushstrokes usually associated with myth-making and fables.

There are three sections, the first two apparently narrated by Cem Celik, the teenage son of a leftist who in the mid 1980s is snatched from his family by the state police, and later abandons his home for more selfish reasons. This leaves Cem searching for a father substitute, which he finds in the figure of Master Mahut, a well-digger who employs him as an apprentice.

More here.

Two mathematicians have proved that two different infinities are equal in size, settling a long-standing question

Kevin Hartnett in Quanta:

ScreenHunter_2822 Sep. 18 11.12In a breakthrough that disproves decades of conventional wisdom, two mathematicians have shown that two different variants of infinity are actually the same size. The advance touches on one of the most famous and intractable problems in mathematics: whether there exist infinities between the infinite size of the natural numbers and the larger infinite size of the real numbers.

The problem was first identified over a century ago. At the time, mathematicians knew that “the real numbers are bigger than the natural numbers, but not how much bigger. Is it the next biggest size, or is there a size in between?” said Maryanthe Malliaris of the University of Chicago, co-author of the new work along with Saharon Shelah of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Rutgers University.

In their new work, Malliaris and Shelah resolve a related 70-year-old question about whether one infinity (call it p) is smaller than another infinity (call it t). They proved the two are in fact equal, much to the surprise of mathematicians.

More here.

In a society too short of common goals, identity politics are an imperfect answer


Kenan Malik in The Guardian:

“As identity consciousness has increased among liberals,” Lilla has observed, “political consciousness has decreased.” That is to look at the issue back to front. It is not so much that identity consciousness has diminished political consciousness, but rather that the diminishment of ideological politics has allowed the politics of identity to flourish. In the 1960s, the struggles for black rights and women’s rights and gay rights were closely linked to the wider project of social transformation. But as the labour movement lost influence and radical struggles faltered, from the 1980s on, so the relationship between the promotion of identity rights and broader social change frayed. Eventually, the promotion of identity became an end in itself. The universalism that once fuelled radical movements has largely evaporated.

The erosion of the power of labour movement organisations, the demise of radical social movements, the decline of collectivist ideologies, the expansion of the market into almost every nook and cranny of social life, the fading of institutions, from trade unions to the church, have all helped to create a more fragmented society. These are the changes that have snapped social bonds and hollowed-out civic life.

That hollowing out has been exacerbated by the narrowing of the political sphere, by politics that has self-consciously become less ideological, more technocratic. The Democrats in America have discarded much of their old ideological attachments as well as their links to their old social constituencies. Dick Morris, former chief political adviser to the then president Bill Clinton, whom Lilla lauds, called this the process of “triangulation” – the left stealing the right’s clothes, so that it can appear to be above ideological politics. It was an approach appropriated by Tony Blair for New Labour; many see in Emmanuel Macron’s policies an attempt to fashion a new Gallic version of the same.

It is not, however, through triangulation or managerialism that people bind together. They do so through common struggles for social change. Such struggles enable people to reach out beyond their own identities and give meaning to civic solidarity. It is through such social struggles that we can define what common goals should be, and what we might mean by the common good.

More here.

How Norway Dispels the Private vs Public Sector Myth


David Sloan Wilson interviews Sigrun Aasland in Evonomics:

DSW: Thanks for this background—very helpful. Now let’s dive in. I first met you at a talk I gave at BI, Norway’s largest business school. My talk was titled “The Competitive Advantage of Cooperation” and you were present as a commentator. I was struck by how you described the Norwegian economy as a complex adaptive system with interlocking parts. Could you please repeat that succinct description?

SA: I would love to. My main point – well illustrated recently by the Economistand others, is that the Nordic model makes sense economically. It is not just about justice and equality. It is also – and more importantly – about using all the talent, using all the technology possible and changing all the time. That means high productivity.

The so-called Nordic model can be illustrated as a triangle consisting of three interlocking factors: First: a strong tax-funded welfare state providing education, healthcare and social safety nets. Second, an open market economy with active monetary and fiscal policies to ensure stability, distribution, and full employment. And third, strong collaboration in an organized labor market with coordinated wage formation and company-level collaboration.

Now this model has demonstrated the ability to combine relatively high taxes with high productivity. Productivity growth has fallen less in Norway than in many other countries. There are a number of reasons for this.

A collectively bargained and compressed salary structure means that low-skilled labor is relatively expensive while high-skilled labor is relatively cheap. Since high-skilled labor complements technology while low-skilled labor substitutes technology, three things happen. First, employers invest in technology to replace the expensive low-skilled workers. They also choose high skilled over low-skilled workers since the cost differential is small. Second, unless highly productive, the same employers cannot afford to keep workers and have to let them go. This ensures adaptability within companies but also among companies. Adapt or die.

More here.