The Real Tragedy of Beth March

Carmen Maria Machado at The Paris Review:

People who have studied anything about Little Women know that the novel is based, roughly, on Louisa’s family, a clan of thinkers, artists, and transcendentalists who rubbed elbows with some of the premier minds of their time: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller.

Beth is no exception; she is based on Alcott’s second-youngest sister, Lizzie. Lizzie, like Beth, was stricken with scarlet fever. (During this initial illness, her family—vegans and believers in alternative medicine—did not send for a doctor.) Like Beth, she recovered from the illness but, her heart weakened, never regained full health. Like Beth, she died tragically young, though not quite as young as her literary counterpart.

But while Beth bore her suffering gladly, with unconscionable cheer and resolution, Lizzie was enraged at the fact of her own mortality. “In Little Women,” writes Alcott biographer Susan Cheever, “Beth has a quiet, dignified death, a fictional death. Although young Lizzie Alcott was a graceful, quiet woman, she was not so lucky.

more here.

Adorno’s Radical Positions on Philosophy, Art and Society

Lambert Zuidervaart at the TLS:

Perhaps Adorno’s greatest legacy for philosophers lies in the two books that most absorbed his scholarly attention in the 1960s and overlapped with the courses he was teaching: Negative Dialectics (1966) and Aesthetic Theory, published posthumously in 1970. Together with a volume he had planned on moral philosophy but did not live to write, these are the books Adorno himself wanted to have “weighed in the balance”. Both are complex and uncompromising summations of Adorno’s philosophy; the first focused on questions about experience, knowledge, history and metaphysics, and the second addressing aesthetics, beauty, art and society.

The two books also work out the implications of Horkheimer and Adorno’s wartime social critique for the radical change in philosophical approach already envisioned in Adorno’s inaugural lecture of 1931.

more here.

American Nationalism: A Debate

Michael Kazin and Atossa Araxia Abrahamian in Dissent:

[Michael Kazin] Last fall, Atossa Araxia Abrahamian wrote a bracing essay for The Nation that criticized progressives in the United States who oppose free migration and defend the existence of nation-states. We should not, she argued, promote “the idea that someone arbitrarily born on the wrong side of a line is less deserving of a good life” or “play by the far right’s rules” that, in part, “got us into this mess.”

An ethical internationalism has always been a cardinal virtue of the left, one we should never abandon. But we can uphold that ideal without calling for scrapping borders and nations. In fact, there are both principled and practical reasons for American leftists to retain them.

One cannot engage effectively in democratic politics without being part of a community of feeling. For most Americans, their nation, with all its flaws, is that community. And nationalism in the United States has always served tolerant, democratic ends as well as racist and authoritarian ones. Think of Frederick Douglass, in 1852, basing his hopes for abolition partly on “the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions.” Or of Franklin D. Roosevelt calling in 1944 for an “Economic Bill of Rights” in the middle of a war against fascism. Or of Martin Luther King Jr. proclaiming during the Montgomery Bus Boycott that “the great glory of American democracy is the right to protest for right.” Each figure, in a different way, was engaged in a transnational effort to advance equality and tolerance. But each also depended on the power and legitimacy of the United States to gain mass support for his ideas.

More here.

‘Winds of Change’ by Peter Hennessy

Kathryn Hughes at The Guardian:

It is entirely characteristic of Hennessy to leave space in this seismic account for the free play of individual quirks. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchevemerges as an oaf who could easily have postured his way into a third world war simply because he wanted to send a message to Mao Zedong about who was the biggest, baddest kid in the communist playground. Hennessy presents Harold Macmillan as a wounded war hero from the Somme – the old man still lived with a piece of Krupp ordnance buried in his thigh – who could never quite bring himself to trust the Germans since they were, he pointed out privately, the “people who have tried to destroy us twice in this century”. All the same, “Mac”, the unofficial hero of this book, was prepared to overlook his instincts about “the Teuton” if it meant advancing his grand design. This was an ambitious plan to position Britain as the hinge between the free world’s two great blocs. On the one hand was the Anglo-American alliance, the historical special relationship that had received such a boost during the recent war and was maintained under Eisenhower and, later Kennedy. On the other was a Europe that was forging itself into a bulwark against communism, and Britain’s relationship with it. Much as Germany still pained Mac literally, it made overwhelming sense for Britain to become fully European.

more here.

RIP Shareholder Primacy

Lenore Palladino in Boston Review:

In 1962 Milton Friedman—the economist who, more than anyone else, worked to undo Keynesian theory—published his landmark book, Capitalism and Freedom. In it, he argued for many of the policies we now call libertarian or neoliberal: free markets promote freedom, government intervention does not, and therefore government should be extremely limited. But the book was also crucial in advancing what is now known as the theory of shareholder primacy, the idea that corporations have no higher purpose than maximizing profits for their shareholders. “Few trends,” Friedman wrote, “could so thoroughly undermine the very foundation of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”

By 1970 he was expanding on this theory even more. Since markets are efficient, he argued, corporations should be constituted like markets; and since shareholders are the only stakeholders in the company who assume risk, the corporation’s purpose should be to generate returns for them. The messy and complex power dynamics of group interactions were thus written out of the story, and decision-making within corporations, Friedman and his acolytes argued, should focus on a singular goal, an “optimum”: maximizing shareholder value.

More here.

Our Shared Fate: Carolyn Forché’s memoir of the Salvadoran Civil War

Suzy Hansen in The Nation:

This past winter, after the Trump administration appointed Elliott Abrams as its special envoy to Venezuela, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota reminded him during a hearing that he once described US foreign policy in El Salvador in the 1980s as a “fabulous achievement.” At the time, Abrams was an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, which was funneling weapons, aid, and advisers to El Salvador’s right-wing government during the country’s civil war. Referring to the 1981 El Mozote massacre, one of the worst episodes of the conflict, Omar asked, “Do you think it was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?” Abrams reacted with outrage: “That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it. I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”

Many politicians and pundits rushed to defend him, mostly (but not always) Republicans. And in any case, Democrats have been responsible for many similar foreign policy evasions. What seemed to shock many was Omar’s perspective—and her memory. As Benjamin Wallace-Wells wrote in The New Yorker, Omar was saying to Abrams and the rest of the world that “the overseas crimes of America’s recent past would now be interrogated from a victim’s point of view. If Abrams had been associated with some of these crimes and nevertheless thrived in Washington, then that should not operate as a defense of him but as an indictment of us.” Even in an era of failed interventions in foreign countries and a devastating migrant crisis emerging from Central America on our own border, many Americans still have little collective memory of the civil war in El Salvador or those responsible for it, let alone the ability or motivation to see the war from the victims’ point of view. In fact, they have no sense of the victims at all.

More here.

A Market Correction in the Humanities — What Are You Going to Do with That?

Leigh Claire La Berge in the LA Review of Books:

A RECENT SPATE of both liberal arts school and art school closings has reintroduced a sometimes dormant but never forgotten question: are the humanities entering their death throes? Seemingly in decline since Socrates was forced to drink hemlock for corrupting the youth of Athens, the long arc of the humanities nadir has assumed multiple trajectories of near-defeat since its 19th-century institutionalization in American universities. Sick of the humanities’ attachment to Classics, in 1902 Andrew Carnegie complained that, “while the college student has been learning a little about the barbarous and petty squabbles of a far-distant past, or trying to master languages which are dead, such knowledge seems adapted for life upon another planet.” Then emerged the “culture wars” of the 1980 and ’90s. That period saw humanistic disciplines regularly degraded in national media and campus novels as little more than a site of performative nonsense and grotesquerie undertaken by overly entitled women, queers, and people of color.

Now we have a different, perhaps more empirical, narrative of humanistic decline: the financial/demographic one. This logic holds that the humanities, particularly as offered in liberal arts schools, are not cost-effective at scale. Even worse, that scale itself is dwindling along with the country’s college-age population: a million fewer students were enrolled in US higher education in 2018 than were in 2011.

More here.

The right poem for the wrong time: WH Auden’s September 1, 1939

Ian Sansom in The Guardian:

AJP Taylor, in his famous account in The Origins of the Second World War(1961), claimed that a second world war “was implicit since the moment when the first world war ended”. It became explicit at exactly 4.30am on Friday 1 September 1939, when the German panzer divisions that had been gathering on the Polish border began their advance. The front page headline of the New York Times that day tapped out the news in telegraphese: GERMAN ARMY ATTACKS POLAND; CITIES BOMBED, PORT BLOCKADED; DANZIG IS ACCEPTED INTO REICH. On 3 September the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain broadcast to the nation on the BBC: the country, he announced, was at war with Germany. Auden’s poem consists of 99 lines, written in trimeters, divided into nine 11-line stanzas with a shifting rhyme scheme, each stanza being composed of just one sentence so that – as the poet Joseph Brodsky pointed out – the thought unit corresponds exactly to the stanzaic unit, which corresponds also to the grammatical unit. Which is neat. Too neat.

Because of course this is only the beginning of an understanding of how a poem works. It takes us only to the very edges of the piece, to the outskirts of its vast territory. In order properly to comprehend it we would need to know why Auden chose this rigorous, cramped, bastard form. And why did he begin the poem with an “I”, undoubtedly the most depressing and dreary little pronoun in the English language?

I sit in one of the dives 
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid 
As the clever hopes expire 
Of a low dishonest decade:

Who is this “I”? And why are they sitting in a dive? And is it real or is it imagined, this place? And why the double adjectives?

More here.

If Kafka Were Israeli and Wrote About Talking Goldfish

Gal Beckerman in The New York Times:

The car crash brought it all into focus. For the short-story writer Etgar Keret, a new collection usually takes shape in response to some overwhelming event in his life. He’ll be writing his three- or four-page tales, saving them to folders on his computer that he occasionally loses, then boom, something happens that ties them all together. This time it was a literal boom. Two years ago, he was on his way from Connecticut to Boston when his driver, speeding to get to the next reading, hit another car on the highway. The windshield shattered, the airbags exploded, and the car filled with the smell of fuel. Keret had broken two ribs. “I was waiting for the whole shebang, for all my life to pass before my eyes,” he said. “Lots of thoughts entered my head. That I’d had a good life, but I was a little bit sad that it was short. I was hoping that my wife would get remarried. And I was thinking to myself that I should have switched to a new agent because it will really be more difficult for my wife to work with my current agent. Practical and tiny issues.”

As a police officer dragged him out of the smoking car, Keret focused on summing up his impending death: “All in all what is happening now, my death, is just a glitch at the edge of the galaxy.” With that, he had the binding idea for his sixth collection of stories, coming in September in English as “Fly Already.” In many ways these sardonic and very short fables are the next installment in the series of strange scenarios cooked up in Keret’s brain since his first collection appeared in Hebrew in 1992. In the United States, they have made him into a cult darling for those who have heard him interpreted on “This American Life” or read them in The New Yorker.

…One of the most nightmarish new pieces is “Tabula Rasa,” about an institute in which people pay to produce clones they can then kill. It’s told from the perspective of a man who turns out to be the clone of Hitler, whose creation was paid for by a Holocaust survivor. But Keret shifts the readers’ sympathies to the clone, who has so much humanity that the survivor is robbed of the satisfaction he thought he would get from shooting him in the head.

More here.

Saturday Poem

per il Mulatto Brischdauer
gran pazzo e compositore mulattico
………. ––Ludwig van Beethoven, 1803

The Bridgetower

If was at the Beginning. If
he had been older, if he hadn’t been
dark, brown eyes ablaze
in that remarkable face;
if he had not been so gifted, so young
a genius with no time to grow up;
if he hadn’t grown up, undistinguished,
to an obscure old age.
If the piece had actually been,
as Kreutzer exclaimed, unplayable––even after
our man had played it, and for years,
no one else was able to follow––
so that the composer’s fury would have raged
for naught, and wagging tongues
could keep alive the original dedication
from the title page he shredded.
Oh, if only Ludwig had been better-looking,
or cleaner, or a real aristocrat,
von instead of the unexceptional van
from some Dutch farmer; if his ears
had not already begun to squeal and whistle;
if he hadn’t drunk his wine from lead cups,
if he could have found True Love. Then
the story would have held: In 1803
George Polgreen Bridgetower,
son of Friedrich Augustus the African Prince
and Maria Anna Sovinki of Biala in Poland,
traveled from London to Vienna,
where he met the Great Master
who would stop work on his Third Symphony
to write a sonata for his new friend
to premiere triumphantly on May 24th,
whereupon the composer himself
leapt up from the piano to embrace
his “lunatic mulatto.”
Who knows what would have followed?
They might have palled around some,
just a couple of wild and crazy guys
strutting the town like rock stars,
hitting the bars for a few beers, a few laughs . . .
instead of falling out over a girl
nobody remembers, nobody knows.
Then this bright-skinned papa’s boy
could have sailed his fifteen-minute fame
straight into the record books––where,
instead of a Regina Carter or Aaron Dworkin or Boyd Tinsley
sprinkled here and there, we would find
rafts of black kids scratching out scales
on their matchbox violins so that some day
they might play the impossible:
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47,
also known as The Bridgetower.
by Rita Dove
from Sonata Mulattica
W.W. Norton, 2009

Artist Designs Book to Help Migrants Survive: If art can occupy both poetic and utilitarian registers, Mladen Miljanović succeeds with his Didactic Wall exhibition

Laura Raicovich in Hyperallergic:

The city of Bihać in Bosnia and Herzegovina is about a 10-minute drive or one-hour walk from the Croatian border, making it a key gateway to enter the European Union for people displaced by war, climate realities, and economic crisis. As a result, over the past several years, the region has seen a dramatic militarization of its border areas. In a bid to prevent or discourage migrants from attempting the crossing, the EU funds both humanitarian support for migrants in Bosnia, which is not an EU country, and strengthening the military apparatus in Croatia, which is part of the EU (but is not party to the Schengen Agreement).

Acutely aware of this bottleneck, artist Mladen Miljanović recently put his artistic skills together with the practical knowledge attained from his mandatory military training to help migrants survive their journey through myriad obstacles of natural terrain, border fences and walls, and sundry surveillance and emergency situations. He imagined the kind of information that would be most useful and created diagrams and drawings similar to those in military training manuals for a pocket-sized handbook.

More here.

How close can physics bring us to a truly fundamental understanding of the world?

George Musser in Scientific American:

Physics seems to be one of the only domains of human life where truth is clear-cut. The laws of physics describe hard reality. They are grounded in mathematical rigor and experimental proof. They give answers, not endless muddle. There is not one physics for you and one physics for me but a single physics for everyone and everywhere. Physics often seems weird, but that’s a good sign—it is not beholden to preconceptions. In a world that can seem claustrophobic, where the same debates go round in circles, physics injects some genuine novelty into life and jolts us out of the ruts we fall into.

Physics is also the bedrock of the broader search for truth. If you follow the chains of explanation in other sciences, you eventually wind up in physics. The success of physics and its role in grounding other sciences support a broadly naturalistic, or physicalist, worldview: that all phenomena have physical explanations and that notions such as élan vital or incorporeal souls have no place in serious thought anymore. Physics does not dictate how we run our lives or resolve pressing moral dilemmas, but it sets the backdrop against which we decide these questions.

Yet if physics strikes most people as truth seeking at its purest, it doesn’t always seem that way to physicists themselves.

More here.  [Thanks to Misha Lepetic.]

Imran Khan: The World Can’t Ignore Kashmir

Imran Khan in the New York Times:

After I was elected prime minister of Pakistan last August, one of my foremost priorities was to work for lasting and just peace in South Asia. India and Pakistan, despite our difficult history, confront similar challenges of poverty, unemployment and climate change, especially the threat of melting glaciers and scarcity of water for hundreds of millions of our citizens.

I wanted to normalize relations with India through trade and by settling the Kashmir dispute, the foremost impediment to the normalization of relations between us.

On July 26, 2018, in my first televised address to Pakistan after winning the elections, I stated we wanted peace with India and if it took one step forward, we would take two steps. After that, a meeting between our two foreign ministers was arranged on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly session in September 2018, but India canceled the meeting. That September I also wrote my first of three letters to Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling for dialogue and peace.

More here.

Mexico and the 1968 Generation

Anne Freeland at Marginalia Review:

On October 2, 1968, Mexican police fired on unarmed student protesters in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas of Tlatelolco, in the historical center of Mexico City. While the state initially reported twenty-six dead, witnesses and independent investigators have estimated that two to four hundred people were killed. Many more were injured and imprisoned. Ten days after the massacre, president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz inaugurated the Olympic Games that were meant to showcase Mexico’s burgeoning modernity on the global stage, something the increasingly conspicuous mass protests had threatened to disrupt. The games themselves were used as a stage for political dissent when, on October 16, Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave a Black Power salute as the Star-Spangled Banner played at their medal ceremony, an iconic gesture linking Mexico’s student movement to another site in the global constellation of protests that year, the American civil rights movement. The Tlatelolco massacre and its impunity, closely followed by the symbolic performance before the international community of the legitimacy of the authoritarian rule of the PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) by means of the Olympics, dealt a devastating blow to the mass movement in the streets. But the collective political and aesthetic projects that had begun in the laboratory of the Mexican student movement continued to evolve.

more here.

Challenging the Social Media Moral Panic

Milton Mueller at the Cato Institute:

Social media are now widely criticized after enjoying a long period of public approbation. The kinds of human activities that are coordinated through social media, good as well as bad, have always existed. However, these activities were not visible or accessible to the whole of society. As conversation, socialization, and commerce are aggregated into large-scale, public commercial platforms, they become highly visible to the public and generate storable, searchable records. Social media make human interactions hypertransparent and displace the responsibility for societal acts from the perpetrators to the platform that makes them visible.

This hypertransparency is fostering a moral panic around social media. Internet platforms, like earlier new media technologies such as TV and radio, now stand accused of a stunning array of evils: addiction, fostering terrorism and extremism, facilitating ethnic cleansing, and even the destruction of democracy.

More here.

Nick Cave’s Boyhood in Wangaratta

Mark Mordue at The Sydney Review of Books:

‘One of the many things I regret about writing And the Ass Saw the Angel (1989) was that I didn’t set it in Australia. It could just as easily be set in Wangaratta rather than an imaginary part of the American South. I don’t know why I didn’t do that. I wish I had. For sure that book comes from growing up in the country, from living a life in country Australia. It’s not from listening to murder ballads. The river was the sacred place of my childhood and everything happened down there.

‘On the edge of the river there’s willow trees, just like it says in “Sad Waters”. The plaiting of the willow vines – that happened. So a song like “Sad Waters” is a remembrance of that childhood scenario. The tree roots all torn out of the ground.

more here.

The Alarming Case of the Missing Insects

Maddie Stone in The Atlantic:

In the biological wonderland of Puerto Rico’s Luquillo Mountains, slinky boasand emerald anoles hang out in lowland tabonuco trees, delicate bromeliads decorate the mountaintop cloud forests, and the island’s eponymous parrotsforage in the canopy. At dawn, the rain forest swells with the mating calls of thousands of coquí frogs. Underpinning this ecological tapestry is a world teeming with arthropods—which is why, when a pair of scientists reported last fall that Luquillo’s arthropod populations were crashing due to climate change, the internet reacted with horror. The Guardian called the research “deeply worrying”; one scientist told The Washington Post that the collapse was “hyper-alarming.” The study, conducted by the biologists Brad Lister of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Andres Garcia of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was picked up all overthe web (including by me) and has been cited in more than 75 academic papers since its publication. The work stuck out as a particularly worrying data point in a growing pile of evidence that Earth’s insects might be speeding toward some sort of apocalypse.

But the process of scientific knowledge-gathering can be messy, and scientists with Luquillo’s Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Program—which furnished much of the data underpinning Lister and Garcia’s conclusions—now believe many of those conclusions are false. These researchers aren’t disputing the fact that climate change is occuring in Puerto Rico, or that insect declines are a serious issue. They just don’t see evidence for a simple link between the two in this particular ecosystem. Instead, they see a rain forest experiencing profound boom-and-bust cycles in response to disturbances such as hurricanes.

More here.

Giant Study Helps Clarify Role of Genes in Same-Sex Sex

Emma Yasinski in The Scientist:

Genes play a role in—but cannot alone predict—same-sex sexual behaviors, according to a study published today (August 29) in ScienceUsing genetic data from nearly half a million participants who consented to be surveyed about their sexual experiences, the authors find that at most, genetics accounts for 825 percent of the variation in sexual behaviors and only some of the genes involved are shared between men and women. “The strength of the paper is that it used a very large dataset,” says Jacqueline Vink, a behavioral geneticist at Radbound University who was not part of the study but has worked with some of the researchers before. The methods allowed the researchers to “find novel genes associated with same-sex sexual behavior and learn more about possible biological pathways.”

Joel Gelernter, a psychiatrist and geneticist at the Yale School of Medicine who was not involved in the study, agrees. “This study included the largest sample to date for this kind of trait, and meticulously careful analyses,” he says. “There is a high level of support here that the genetics of same-sex sexual behavior is similar to that of other complex traits,” in that many genes are involved, each of which only has a very minor effect on its own. Previous studies of families had suggested that about one-third of the variation in sexual behaviors could be explained by genetics. Others have attempted to study the genetic underpinnings of these behaviors but have only been able to analyze data from limited numbers of participants.

The researchers gathered genetic information from people who had submitted DNA to the UK Biobank and 23andMe and asked them to answer questions about their sexual experiences and to what degree they were with partners of the same sex or other sex. “One of the top requests that we got from our customers as a topic to study is sexual orientation/sexual behavior,” says 23andMe’s Fah Sathirapongsasuti in a press conference.

The authors found two genes that were significantly associated with having engaged in same-sex sexual behaviors. Then, when the team separated the data by the individual’s sex, they found two more genes associated with same-sex sexual behaviors in men and one gene associated with the behaviors in women. These differences identified in men and women suggest that some of the variation in behavior may be related to hormonal influences, the authors say. One of the genes, for example, is tied to balding in men, which is affected by hormone levels.

More here.

Friday Poem

Each Form of Bringing Death Brings Forth a Song

From my blood you wish to build an Empire
to wipe out whole jungles risen from waterfalls that sing in mother tongues
waterfalls of women
waterfalls of men

you long to open fire with Constitution in hand
other ways of “loving” “giving birth” “making fire”

to hush an ache that has been drawn out hundreds of years
in the name of gods that came from other seas
in the name of Gospels from another world

in the name of Progress
you want to make the god that lives inside me wither
but i am everlasting
the deathless blood that lifespan to lifespan
has lived on
even without land
even without food
even in the worst hardship
i am my earth
i am my own fatherland
i am the seed of myself man and of myself woman
love lives in me
and also wrath
in this thirst for bloodshed is born a god
who dies in the same breath
i breathe out holiness
it’s in my tears
and in the almighty strength of all the mother tongues of this world
and other worlds
i curse you from the womb to your last gasp
i curse your laws
i curse your flag
i curse your mouth

sunk in your most fearsome blackness you hold up a Nation
born in hate
suckled by Governments with golden teeth to bite us
Letters drawn from my blood

Read more »