A Time of Regressive Politics

by Adele A. Wilby

A brief scan across global politics generates concerns as to what is actually going on in the politics of many states. Authoritarian regimes have always been with us, and will probably be with us for some time to come. Of greater concern is the emergence of political leaders in liberal democracies who espouse a politics which resonates with the past: a politics of nationalism, and nativism, and the inward-looking thinking that is associated with those ideologies. This trend, in what I would call a ‘regressive politics’, is in opposition to the process of globalisation.

The ascendency of regressive political tendencies has surfaced and gained force in the states of the two global leaders of liberal democracies: the United States and the United Kingdom from 2015 onwards.  Since then we have witnessed a time where the ‘progressive’ in the ‘liberalism’ that is associated with the two states has come under considerable strain.

Glimpses of a beginning of a period of regressive politics in the UK became evident with the publication of the Conservative Party Manifesto of 2015. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party, faced a major political challenge from the political right both inside and outside the Conservative party. On one hand, the incessant grumbling and whining from English nationalists and Euro-sceptics over the ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ of the UK was a persistent source of discontent and division within the Conservative party.  The far right anti-European Union political party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was a growing political threat. Read more »

“I am a Pornographer”: Conversation with Saskia Vogel on her debut novel “Permission”

Andrea Scrima: Saskia, you’ve written a book that invites us into the BDSM community to explore the complicated emotional landscape lying at the heart of its negotiations over consent and—as the title you chose for your book underscores—permission. When the book begins, Echo, the young narrator, is submerged in a fog of emotional blunting following her father’s accidental death; she trusts bodies and the language they engage in more than emotional intimacy. We’re in southern California: the milieu is wealth and privilege, Hollywood beckons, and the narrative is full of gleaming surfaces. Can aspects of Permission be read as a social commentary?

Photo: Nikolaus Kim

Saskia Vogel: Thank you for that introduction, Andrea! The book certainly came from questions I had about the society I encountered when I moved back to LA after spending most of high school in Sweden and university in London. LA, where I was born and raised, was suddenly new to me. I could legally drink, which meant access to new spaces, and I finally had a driver’s license. I was also carrying years of distance and encounters with new cultures with me. Nothing about LA life was a given anymore. I thought it would feel like free space. However, when I arrived in LA as an adult, in my early twenties, I became aware of a strong current that asked me to conform to certain norms as a woman, for instance in how I presented myself. Dating culture was oddly formal, like we were supposed to demonstrate our skill in performing a script rather than make a connection. Looking back, I might suggest that the kind of abuse of power that was happening in the upper echelons of Hollywood, and I’m thinking of Weinstein here, trickled down into parts of society, creating a dishonest economy of sex and power. Very soon I found a group of friends who were deeply involved in the kink community. Half of myself, shall we say, was in that community, and the other was trying to navigate life outside of that community. There was quite a stark contrast between the BDSM community I knew—informed by mutual respect and consent, articulated boundaries, and an awareness of power dynamics—and my life outside it, which I experienced as far more patriarchal and conventional than my imagination of life in LA had been. Those two worlds left me with questions about the roles available to women in society, about who benefits from the existing power structures, and if there was a way out. I dropped my main character Echo right into the middle of these questions. Read more »

The Farce of Darkness: Introducing Tony Conrad

by Nickolas Calabrese

Tony Conrad’s retrospective of objects produced for galleries or institutions, titled Introducing Tony Conrad, is currently on view at the ICA Philadelphia. “Introducing” because so many people are still unfamiliar with his work. His works were predicated on both the amount of time they took to make and the patience that they required of their audience, which no doubt contributed to his lack of popularity. Conrad, the prodigal Harvard grad, spent his career working through aesthetic problems like an eccentric scientist. This can be gathered from his exhaustive lectures, teaching, and writings on sound and film. Formally, however, the works often look like a child made them. Not in a cynical way denoting lack of care, but in an earnestly amateur approach to object making. Because the works are less concerned with looking skillfully produced and more concerned with what a durational existence might impart onto things, the audience is left with big-picture questions like, what does it mean for an artwork to still be in progress after the artist’s death?

This is best captured in Conrad’s most well-known artworks, the “infinite duration” Yellow Movies, which were painted yellow squares on paper. The idea was that they would darken and yellow with age over the course of their lifespan, thus constituting an ever-changing work, or “movie” (and for Conrad, the longest durational movie ever, putting Warhol’s Empire (1964) to shame). These works and others in the show capture his fascination with time and what it entails. The objects on view in the retrospective are largely the byproducts of experiments. Conrad, an accomplished experimental musician and filmmaker known for his vexing compositions, took his cue from thorough research into a topic, investigating the variety of forms it could take. For instance, one of the first things visitors see are a selection of handmade instruments using unorthodox materials, like a guitar made from a child’s racquet, or violin affixed to a stationary scrap-wood apparatus. Another instance is Conrad’s pickled film, which he shot and then cured in a vinegar solution in Ball jars, riffing on how film is developed in an alchemical solution. Read more »

The ‘debate of the century’: what happened when Jordan Peterson debated Slavoj Žižek

Stephen Marche in The Guardian:

The great surprise of this debate turned out to be how much in common the old-school Marxist and the Canadian identity politics refusenik had.

One hated communism. The other hated communism but thought that capitalism possessed inherent contradictions. The first one agreed that capitalism possessed inherent contradictions. And that was basically it. They both wanted the same thing: capitalism with regulation, which is what every sane person wants. The Peterson-Žižek encounter was the ultra-rare case of a debate in 2019 that was perhaps too civil.

They needed enemies, needed combat, because in their solitudes, they had so little to offer. Peterson is neither a racist nor a misogynist. He is a conservative. He seemed, in person, quite gentle. But when you’ve said that, you’ve said everything. Somehow hectoring mobs have managed to turn him into an icon of all they are not. Remove him from his enemies and he is a very poor example of a very old thing – the type of writer whom, from Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, have promised simple answers to complex problems. Rules for Life, as if there were such things.

The mere dumb presence of the celebrities on the stage mattered vastly more than anything they said, naturally. But there was one truly fascinating moment in the evening. It came right at the end of Žižek’s opening 30-minute remarks.

More here.

An electrical meltdown looms: how can we avert disaster?

Keith Harary in Aeon:

You might find your car dying on the freeway while other vehicles around you lose control and crash. You might see the lights going out in your city, or glimpse an airplane falling out of the sky. You’ve been in a blackout before but this one is different.

In critical facilities across the country, experts predict that it is only a matter of time before the electrical infrastructure holding society together undergoes catastrophic failure. According to the most recent report of the United States Congressional Commission appointed to assess the risk, published July 2017, we face the threat of ‘long-lasting disruption and damage’ to everything from power and clean water to electronic banking, first-responder services and functioning hospitals. Until now, such a dire prediction has typically been associated with only the most extreme doomsday true believers but William Graham, the former chairman of the Congressional Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Commission, says that in this case they could be right.

In the broadest sense, an EMP is a sudden burst of extreme electromagnetic interference that causes systems using electricity – especially devices controlled by chips or computers – to fail when the load gets too high. EMPs come in three basic varieties, including a ground-level or high-altitude EMP (HEMP) released by a nuclear burst that could potentially impact power lines, transformers and other critical devices; drive-by EMPs created by high-powered microwave weapons that could silently incapacitate equipment from hundreds of yards away; and coronal mass ejections (CMEs) resulting from solar storms that could interfere with the magnetic sphere surrounding the Earth, bringing down the grid that powers the electronic devices defining our contemporary way of life. According to the 2017 report, Russia, China and North Korea could already have these weapons under wraps.

More here.

Whistling Past the Graveyard

Jonathan Kirshner in the Boston Review:

“Has economics failed us?” Larry Summers, the former president of Harvard and economic adviser for presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, recently asked in an op-ed for the Washington Post. “Hardly.” On the contrary, he declares, “textbook macro . . . has stood up very well.” Dismissing the notion that economists ought to have seen the financial crisis coming with a hand-waving “market breaks are inherently unpredictable,” Summers conveniently forgets that the economic theories he championed in the Clinton administration provided crucial intellectual succor for the deregulation of the financial sector—policy blunders that made something like the global financial crisis an accident waiting to happen.

Summers’s self-confidence is legendary, but he is hardly alone—his sentiments reflect a broad consensus among mainstream economists. In the unhappy 1970s, academic battles were pitched over macroeconomic theory as Keynesians, stumbling over stagflation (high unemployment and high inflation at the same time), were challenged by those who would return economic theory to its pre-Keynesian days under the banner of “new classical economics.” By the 1990s the Keynesians were chased from the scene, and in macroeconomics at least, everybody pretty much agreed on everything important—that is, with modest variations to taste on how to model and manage the aggregate economy.

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A Talk By Ian McEwan: Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan at Edge:

What’s been preoccupying me the last two or three years is what it would be like to live with a fully embodied artificial consciousness, which means leaping over every difficulty that we’ve heard described this morning by Rod Brooks. The building of such a thing is probably scientifically useless, much like putting a man on the moon when you could put a machine there, but it has an ancient history.

Then of course you had Frankenstein’s monster, which shifted the debate into what it means to conjure up a version of ourselves. Now, you have the contemporary TV series of Westworld and movies like Blade Runner specifically addressing the notion of what it would be like to have an artificial being aware of its own mortality.In medieval churches or cathedrals, you will find wax effigies of the Virgin Mary that, on certain occasions, weep or shed blood. As anyone who’s been on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin will know, there’s a Virgin Mary that bleeds. Throughout the 18th century you had water-powered android figures, figures driven by levers and cogs, and as clockwork got more sophisticated in the 18th century, such figures remained a matter of profound interest and fascination.

I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to live alongside someone we made who is artificial and who claims to have consciousness, about which we’d be very skeptical and to which we’d be applying a constant form of Turing tests.

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Rethinking the American High School

Jonathan Shaw in Harvard Magazine:

WHEN JAL MEHTA and Sarah Fine embarked on a six-year study of 30 of the most effective public high schools in the United States, what they found among students was largely “bored, disengaged compliance,” Mehta recalls. The dominant pattern of instruction is rote transmission: worksheets, multiple-choice questions, and teachers lecturing. Objective comparisons to other countries confirm the mediocrity of this model: U.S. high-school students score near the bottom in math, and are just middling in reading and science. “Not surprisingly,” he says, students consistently called lectures a “very disengaging mode.” But there were bright spots: classrooms where “teachers had moved away from that by dint of their own skill and inventiveness.”

In every school, the researchers found at least one or two settings where students were engaged and inspired by what they were learning—often in activities outside the classroom. By the end of their study’s first year, Mehta, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Fine, who began the project as Mehta’s doctoral student (and is now director of a teacher preparation program associated with a network of schools in San Diego), decided to focus on the bright spots. Their book about the project, In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School (Harvard), weaves analysis and richly descriptive vignettes together in the most comprehensive assessment of the topic since the 1980s.

The authors offer a thoughtful critique of three of the most successful schools, pseudonymously named Dewey High, No Excuses High, and I.B. High. The first, which follows the pedagogical philosophy of John Dewey, LL.D. ’32, is characterized by project-based learning that works because it actively engages students in their own education. No Excuses High is strict, demanding, and goal-oriented.

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DeepMind and Google: the battle to control artificial intelligence

Hal Hodson in 1843 Magazine:

One afternoon in August 2010, in a conference hall perched on the edge of San Francisco Bay, a 34-year-old Londoner called Demis Hassabis took to the stage. Walking to the podium with the deliberate gait of a man trying to control his nerves, he pursed his lips into a brief smile and began to speak: “So today I’m going to be talking about different approaches to building…” He stalled, as though just realising that he was stating his momentous ambition out loud. And then he said it: “AGI”. AGI stands for artificial general intelligence, a hypothetical computer program that can perform intellectual tasks as well as, or better than, a human. AGI will be able to complete discrete tasks, such as recognising photos or translating languages, which are the single-minded focus of the multitude of artificial intelligences (AIs) that inhabit our phones and computers. But it will also add, subtract, play chess and speak French. It will also understand physics papers, compose novels, devise investment strategies and make delightful conversation with strangers. It will monitor nuclear reactions, manage electricity grids and traffic flow, and effortlessly succeed at everything else. AGI will make today’s most advanced AIs look like pocket calculators.

The only intelligence that can currently attempt all these tasks is the kind that humans are endowed with. But human intelligence is limited by the size of the skull that houses the brain. Its power is restricted by the puny amount of energy that the body is able to provide. Because AGI will run on computers, it will suffer none of these constraints. Its intelligence will be limited only by the number of processors available. AGI may start by monitoring nuclear reactions. But soon enough it will discover new sources of energy by digesting more physics papers in a second than a human could in a thousand lifetimes. Human-level intelligence, coupled with the speed and scalability of computers, will make problems that currently appear insoluble disappear. Hassabis told the Observer, a British newspaper, that he expected AGI to master, among other disciplines, “cancer, climate change, energy, genomics, macro-economics [and] financial systems”.

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The Book on Marx That Arendt Never Finished

Geoffrey Wildanger in the Boston Review:

The essence of Arendt’s disagreement with Marx is the importance she places on the question of political rights above social ones. She develops this priority most extensively in On Revolution (1963). Elizabeth Young-Bruehl, her biographer, cites a review by Michael Harrington, who would go on to found the Democratic Socialists of America, as representative of the Marxist reception. Though he accepts the arguments of the latter half of the book, with its praise of Rosa Luxemburg’s “council communism,” Harrington rejects the argument upon which Arendt’s praise rests: the priority of political rights over social amelioration. In our post-Occupy era, the starkness of Arendt’s dichotomy may strike us as exaggerated, yet she stuck to it. Late in life, when her friend Mary McCarthy asked her why certain social matters could not simply be defined as rights (health care, say), she dodged the question. For Arendt, the fundamental distinction is between the private and the public spheres. Attempting to politicize the private, she believes, will more likely subjugate politics to economics than vice versa.

As in her conversation, Arendt’s writing on social concerns is often characterized by defensiveness, yet she does criticize capitalism. This volume is a boon to those interested in her idiosyncratic thought on economic matters, in particular her distance from both socialist and free market thinkers. According to his dialectical model of history, Marx thought capitalism would create its own gravediggers. Arendt doubts any such tendency to self-destruction, and thus she finds nothing dialectically redeemable about the violence of the marketplace. While a free market would totally colonize the space of political action, Arendt also argues that total expropriation is “hell.”

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Long Snake Moan: How Capitalism’s Productivity Failure Is Driving Debt and Speculation

James Meadway in Novara Media:

New research from US business think tank Conference Board shows that the rush into the digital economy is doing nothing for capitalism’s global woes.

Far from spurring the system to greater and greater heights, digital technology seems to be having no impact on the growth in productivity that is crucial to the system’s long-term future. Measured as output per worker, global productivity has risen just 2% a year in the past few years, compared to 2.9% a year in the decade before the 2008 crash. Strikingly, Conference Board reckons almost none of this productivity growth has emerged because new technology has made work more efficient. And with sick man of Europe Britain leading the way, the productivity slowdown here has been worst out of all the so-called ‘advanced economies’.

One traditional culprit for low productivity is low investment, which continues to falterBusiness investment in Britain has been falling for some time, but this is about more than just the uncertainty induced by the government’s Brexit failures, since investment is also weak across the advanced economies, including the US and Germany.

As discussed in my previous column, in the place of investment, companies (especially large companies) are hoarding cash at record levels, with British companies holding nearly £700bn unused in their bank accounts, and paying out record amounts to shareholders, often using share buybacksIMF figures show US corporations making payouts worth 0.9% of their assets to shareholders last year, but making investments worth just 0.7%. At the same time, financial chicanery has become routine for non-financial corporations, with the growth in the use of dubious debt instruments like collateralised loan obligations piggybacking the wider expansion of corporate debt.

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America’s Misuse of Its Financial Infrastructure

Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman in The National Interest:

THREE DECADES ago, a German history professor listed 210 proposed explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire. The remarkable array included such fanciful causes as Bolshevism, public baths, hedonism, the pressure of terrorism and, most famously, lead poisoning.

The last explanation has been discredited. It is highly unlikely that lead water pipes caused the empire to collapse in a tumult of brain damage, gout and madness. Yet exploded theories can point towards important truths. Like classical Rome, America’s empire today depends less on pomp than on plumbing. Instead of roads, aqueducts and seaports, it relies on pipelines conveying financial flows and torrents of data, as well as vast distributed supply chains. These look like a global public infrastructure, but can readily be redirected to private national strategic advantage. America’s domination of obscure, seeming technical structures is generating its own forms of hubristic folly among imperial administrators, who have begun to think that there is nothing they cannot do with it.

Far beneath the boastful speeches, petty insults and spiteful feuds; the fights over NATO and Russian influence operations; the subterranean conduits of empire are failing. If America’s empire is indeed headed towards expiry, many future historians will blame the obvious problems: the rise of China, overextension in the Middle East, the defection of allies. Yet some might trace the beginnings of decay back to two more quotidian crises: America’s botched decision to sanction the Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE Corporation, and Europe’s creation of an apparently innocuous technical arrangement—the “Special Purpose Vehicle”—purportedly to facilitate humanitarian exchange with Iran.

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A Young Poet, a Mysterious Stranger and an El Salvador on the Brink of War

Francisco Goldman in the NYT:

It is the late 1970s and Carolyn Forché is a 27-year-old poet with one published book of poetry, teaching at a university in Southern California. One day Leonel Gómez Vides, 37, arrives at her door with his two young daughters, claiming that he’s driven all the way from El Salvador just to talk to her. Forché has never met Gómez, though he’s a cousin of Claribel Alegría, whose poetry Forché, despite her rudimentary Spanish, wants to translate, and whose home in Mallorca she has visited. (Alegría’s daughter is a close friend.) There she heard Gómez warily described as a man involved in dangerous things, possibly even working with the C.I.A.

Gómez’s plan is to spend just a few days in California, and then drive home. It’s unclear to Forché why he’s come. He gives her a crash course on Salvadoran history from the pre-Columbian era to the present, when the tiny country, marked by staggering economic inequality, is ruled by a corrupt military that steals millions of dollars every year in United States aid, murders priests and political opponents, and tosses disappeared torture victims, including an American, from helicopters into the Pacific. It’s a country also increasingly terrorized by the right-wing death squads of Mano Blanco, the White Hand.

Looking back on Gómez’s visit in “What You Have Heard Is True,” a memoir of the consequences of that encounter, Forché reflects that he was translating “not only between languages, but also from one constellation of understanding and perception to another.”

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Live Commentary on the Zizek-Peterson Debate

Nathan Robinson in Current Affairs:

Tonight, “philosopher” Slavoj Žižek will debate “psychologist” Jordan Peterson in Toronto, ostensibly on the subject of Capitalism vs. Marxism. It has been said of the debate that “nothing is a greater waste of time.” Tickets to the livestream are $14.95, and admission to the venue itself was running as high as $1,500. By popular demand, our editor has been instructed to stare into the abyss and report on what he sees. Those grateful for his sacrifice should consider purchasing a subscription or making a donation as a means of supporting his recovery expenses, which are sure to be considerable. …

8:27 P.M. — Now a recitation of the familiar pro-capitalist arguments: poor people today have iPhones, poverty is going away, etc. He cites the familiar statistic that there are many fewer people living on extremely small amounts of money. This the usual dodge: the question has always been “Why is there so much deprivation that could be alleviated and is not being?” not “Is there less deprivation?” If you adopt the “Have things gotten better?” approach, as Peterson and Steven Pinker do, then you could make the same argument in 1900: oh look, we’re better off than the Middle Ages, therefore things must be great and nobody has any legitimate objections.

8:30 P.M. — Zizek begins by whining about how he has been marginalized by the academy and says he is disowned by the left. Inexplicable. And annoying. Pity poor Zizek.

8:31 P.M. — Zizek correctly begins with China: if capitalism is the force lifting people out of poverty, then why did the greatest reduction of poverty occur in an authoritarian state that intervenes extensively in its market? But he then raises the question that the debate is ostensibly about: what is happiness? Peterson didn’t really talk about this. He just talked about why Marx was wrong about things. I don’t even think happiness came up.

8:34 P.M. — I turned away for a minute and now I have no idea what Zizek is talking about. “Trump is the ultimate postmodern president.” I don’t know where happiness went. Zizek was doing so well at staying on topic… for about ten seconds.

More here.

The Science of Storytelling

Alex Preston at The Guardian:

The American novelist John Barth claimed that rather than the traditional “what happened next?”, the real question that every reader is asking him or herself as they read is “the essential question of identity – the personal, professional, cultural, even species-specific ‘Who Am I?’” Stories are ordering, sense-making machines, helping our brains to render the frantic incoherence of chaotic existence into comprehensible narratives. These narratives, as Peter Brooks showed in his classic critical work Reading for the Plot, “follow the internal logic of the discourse of mortality” – stories have beginnings, middles and ends because our lives do. Every time we read a novel, we’re giving ourselves a new way of thinking about the shape and structure of our own lives. And even in the age of AI, the novel remains our most subtle and sophisticated piece of technology when it comes to answering these deep, existential questions.

more here.