A Fairy’s Tale

Greta Lafleur in Public Books:

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl tells a series of stories that we already know, but it achieves its familiar ends through decidedly unfamiliar means. Andrea Lawlor’s first novel presents us with the queer young adulthood of Paul, who possesses a seemingly magical skill: the ability to change form, to will his body into whatever shape he would like it to take.

Beginning in Iowa City—where Paul and his best friend, Jane, share beer, coffee, and clothes as they commiserate about the challenges of being sexually ambitious young queer people in a small, Midwestern college town—Lawlor’s novel quickly removes to Michigan, to New York, to Provincetown, and to San Francisco, following Paul in his search for fun and experience throughout a geography familiar to many who were queer in the 1990s. And with every new setting, a new body: Paul proves a most effective sexual chameleon—jokingly referring to himself as a “replicant” and a “T-1000” (in the cultural idiom of the decade)—by changing form from leatherman to twink, femme dyke to punk faggot, depending on the social milieu and what seems most likely to get him laid.

Because of its locations, its desires, and its literary influences, this is a novel that creaks with the weight of familiarity; this is not a fault.

More here.

Einstein in Athens

Benjamin Liebeskind at The New Atlantis:

The answer is that the last century of science has partially recapitulated Aristotle’s teachings on nature, for the most part unwittingly. Since roughly the turn of the twentieth century, the scientific enterprise has focused not only on the elemental, but increasingly also on large-scale phenomena: solids, fluids, organisms, ecosystems, human behavior, and computing machines. Scientists have often maintained that these systems cannot be understood solely in terms of action at the lowest levels of organization. Thus one hears of “systems theory” or “the theory of complex systems,” of “holism,” “irreducibility,” “downward causation,” “information theory,” and other musings from scientists that assert, to quote the physicist Philip Anderson, that “more is different” — that “the ability to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe.”

These challenges have unknowingly echoed Aristotle. For Aristotle’s science was concerned primarily with the difficulties that arise when we try to discern the causes of beings, of wholes. A return to his ideas, then, is no mere conceit of the fusty halls of academic philosophy, but a clamor coming from science itself. Seen in this light, the claims in Neo-Aristotelian Perspectives on Contemporary Science do not seem quite so radical. Indeed, one could claim that the authors are attempting to make more explicit what many scientists have been dancing around for a century.

more here.

Bill Traylor Deserves to Be Exalted

Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine:

The art of Bill Traylor comes to us with the ghosts of slave ships, lynchings, chain gangs, Jim Crow, justice denied — an American night-story without end. Born in Alabama in 1853, Traylor was 9 years old when Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and 12 when slavery was abolished with the 13th Amendment. He bore his owner’s name for life and resided for 55 years near the plantation where he was born; then he moved to nearby Montgomery County, where he remained until his death in 1949. In 1927 or 1928, he moved alone to the city of Montgomery, and in 1929, his son was killed by police. Ten years later, when Traylor was 85 and essentially homeless, he began to draw and paint on the streets of Montgomery, and a massive arc of art as powerful and profound as any in the 20th century shot out of him. His drawings and paintings in ink, pencil, and gouache were made on found cardboard, candy-box tops, and other odds and ends. Today, only four years of his output remain, yet we have about 1,200 works.

more here.

A History of Mescaline

Emily Witt at the LRB:

In the early 20th century, peyote and mescaline were embraced by mystics, who saw them as a way to stave off the alienation of modernity and what Jay calls ‘the loss of the sacred’ and ‘the tyranny of reason’. Aleister Crowley used peyote in his séances. Frederick Madison Smith, the grandson of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, explored it as a possible means of achieving religious ecstasy. Smith also lobbied against the prohibition of the peyote religion, which had grown since the 1890s and was now attracting opposition. After a bill to prohibit peyote was narrowly voted down in the Senate, representatives of the Cheyenne, Oto, Ponca, Comanche, Kiowa and Apache tribes gathered to sign the charter of incorporation of the Native American Church in 1918, which they hoped would give the peyote religion First Amendment protections. Despite repeated attempts at state and federal prosecution in the decades that followed, the church successfully defended itself until a Supreme Court case in the 1990s rescinded its rights. A backlash to the court’s decision resulted in the 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which protects the church’s right to peyote in federal law, though attempts at local bans have continued.

more here.


Julia Alexander in The Verge:

Emily Dickinson’s poems are obsessed with youthful themes: fame, popularity, intense bouts of emotion and, of course, a fetishization of death. Her work isn’t changed in Dickinson. The stanzas are true to the source material. Modernizing the way characters speak to each other, but keeping the poems consistent, allows Dickinson’s words to feel more approachable for an audience that came into their own by way of Lil Peep Instagram live-streams and SoundCloud emo rap. Most brilliantly, Dickinson isn’t trying to be a teen show. That’s precisely why it works as one. It kind of stumbles into itself, finding its footing along the way. There isn’t any clear direction or structure to help it stay on the same path. Dickinson doesn’t shy away from ludicrousness, but leans into it unabashedly. It’s an “unapologetic, crying on the floor at two in the morning, flirting with the fetishization of death even when floating on the undeniable highness of life” type of disaster.

That’s especially true when it comes to Emily’s forbidden relationship with Sue. Steinfeld and Hunt charm whenever they’re on-screen together, excellent at playing up grandeur expressions of their love for each other while putting just as much importance into the small gestures that cement their relationship. They’re giddy when with each other, full of sneaky kisses and uncontrollable giggles that define first loves. Although their relationship is forbidden, made harder by Sue’s engagement to Emily’s brother, Austin (Adrian Enscoe), it’s never tragic. Their obsession with each other is all-encompassing. Everything is carefree and in the moment. It’s not fraught with drama or cocooned in sadness the way other queer relationships on TV can be, especially with younger characters. Emily is upset by Sue’s engagement, but even that isn’t enough to drive them apart. They simply exist, together, now.

Dickinson is so unafraid of being itself that I found myself enamored by it, flaws and all, by the middle of the first episode.

More here.

Photography: Best of the decade

Susan Goldberg in The National Geographic:

SAY THE WORDS “National Geographic,” and the first thing that comes to mind is photography.

We are known, and have been for most of the past 130 years, for taking people on visual journeys into every corner of the Earth—from the highest mountains to the deepest oceans, from jungles to deserts, from the biggest metropolises to the most remote countrysides. In the past 10 years alone, our photographers have taken 21,613,329 images in the quest to document life on this planet for our print and digital platforms. More than 21.6 million images! That’s an amazing number—and a bit terrifying if you try to narrow it down to some kind of “best” or “favorites” list.

…“Reverence,” photographer Lynn Johnson says, remembering the moment when she and medical staff crowded around the human face laid carefully on the operating room table before them. Just the face, a living thing, clipped away from an organ donor, not yet attached to its next recipient. “It made one question everything we know and think about identity,” Johnson says.

More here. (Note: Take a minute to see all the stunning images.)

Was Socrates Anti-Democratic?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

When people talk about Socrates, they typically refer to the leading character in Plato’s dialogues. This is because little is known about the historical Socrates beyond the fact that he wandered barefoot around Athens asking questions, an activity that got him executed for religious invention and corrupting the youth in 399 BCE. The relation between the historical figure and the Platonic character is debatable. In any case, Plato’s Socrates is most commonly read as a staunch anti-democrat. However, once one distinguishes between being opposed to democracy from theorizing the ways democratic society can fail, the relationship between Socrates and democracy grows more complicated.

The depiction of Socrates as an anti-democrat draws largely from the scathing critique he launches in Plato’s masterpiece, The Republic. There, Socrates famously characterizes democracy as the rule of the unwise, corrupt mob. Like children loose in a candy store, the democratic herd pursues pleasure only, rewarding sweet-talkers and flatterers with the power of political office, who in turn exploit politics for their own gratification. The result is injustice. Accordingly, Socrates says, democracy ultimately dissolves into tyranny — a population of citizens dominated by their basest desires, and an opportunistic ruler that manipulates them for personal gain.

Socrates’ critique of democracy is formidable. Notice, however, that Socrates is laying out a vulnerability inherent within democratic politics that no advocate of democracy can afford to ignore. In fact, the tradition of democratic theory is largely focused on identifying ways in which this vulnerability can be mitigated. And popular discussions today about disinformation, corruption, and incivility tend to concede much of Socrates’ case. The point is that giving voice to a standing weakness of democracy does not by itself make one an anti-democrat. One might argue that a crucial part of democratic advocacy is to engage in criticism of extant democratic practice.

Yet in The Republic, Socrates also lays out a vision of the perfect city, the kallipolis, and it is decidedly undemocratic. Kallipolis is an absolute kingship where philosophers rule over a strictly stratified society in which everything is exactingly regulated, from education, production, and conquest to art, diet, sex, and parenting. According to the standard line, that Socrates proposes the kallipolis as the paradigm of justice entails that he is an anti-democrat. Read more »

Monday Poem

Two young men greeted a new crew member on a ship’s quarterdeck almost 60 years ago to the day and, in a matter of weeks, by simple challenge, introduced this then 18 year-old who’d never really read a book through, to the lives that can be found in them.  —Thank you A. Gaeta and E. Budde for your life-altering tinkering.

Narragansett —New Year

A night walk to the base library

The bay to my right (my rite of sea and asphalt:
I hold to shoulder, I sail, I walk the line)

the bay moved as I moved, but retrograde
as if the way I moved had something to do

with how the black bay moved
(as if in animation) backward, how it tracked

how it perfectly matched my pace, but
in direction opposed (Albert would have

a formula or two to say about this
if he were here), behind, over shoulder

a steel grey ship at pier transfigured
in cloud of cool white light— a spray

from lamps on tall poles ashore, and aboard
from lamps on mast and yards

among pins of antennae
that gleamed above its raked stack—

an electric cloud, a photon aura edges
feathered into night enveloped it as it lay

upon the shimmering skin of bay,
from here she’s still as the thought

from which she came: upheld steel on water
arrayed in light, heavy as weight, sheer as a bubble,

the line of pier beyond etched clean
as if cut by horizon’s knife

ahead, a library
behind, a ship at night

the bay to my right (as I said) slid dark
as the confluence of all nights

the light of low barracks and high offices
of base ahead spread west and skip off bay

each of its trillion tribulations jittering at lightspeed
fractured by bay’s breeze-moiled black surface in splintered sight

ahead the books I aim to read,
books I’ve come to love since Anthony & Ed

in the generosity of their own fresh enlightenment
teamed to bring bright tools to this greenhorn’s

stymied brain to spring its self-locked latch
to let crisp air in fresh as this breeze —and how

that breeze blew across a bay from where to everywhere
troubling Narragansett from then to me here now!

Jim Culleny

The Santa Fallacy

by Anitra Pavlico

As I sit here marveling at the inexorability of deadlines, even in the midst of holiday cheer, I consider that I should, in the absence of time for research ventures, write about “what I know.” Isn’t that the default advice for people who don’t know what to write about and don’t want to come across as false? Well, I spend at least half of my time, and most of my psychic energy, on tasks stemming from being a mother. But do I “know” anything about it? For example, how do you get your child to become a good person, and by that I don’t mean compliant or obedient, but ethical? I spend a lot of time fretting about it, but I don’t know if I have any answers.

There are different schools of thought. One uses promises of gifts or other rewards. My husband’s friend has recommended Oreos as a relatively inexpensive behavior modification device. A variant of this philosophy cajoles children into thinking that whenever they act rightly, some outside entity, beyond the family unit, will reward them. Santa Claus is an outcropping of this parenting-out-of-desperation. One problem with this is that, as they grow older, young people soon realize that there is no one who necessarily rewards them when they act in a moral or ethical manner. Who’s to say whether children who became addicted to rewards following right actions might abandon the high road when the rewards stop coming?

Another school of thought relies on the threat of force or other recrimination. Sadly, these methods have waned, but haven’t completely gone out of style. Do this, or I will do that. Don’t do this, or I will take away that. Yet even children are aware that bad behavior is not always punished. After all, if you do something wrong while the strict teacher’s back is turned, there may be no repercussions at all. Instead of a sense of guilt, there is exhilaration at escaping a harrowing punishment. It is hard to see where the learning takes place. Read more »

The Age of Freedom and Enslavement 

by Christopher Horner

We have it in our power to begin the world over again —Tom Paine

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes? —Dr Johnson

That the Age of Revolution and Rights was also the Age of Slavery and Empire is well known. Less obviously, it was also the time (roughly 1775-1835) which a template was established for the control and exploitation of citizens and subjects which has lasted into our own day. The rhetoric of liberty and equality accompanied a reality of control and subordination. It still does.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt commented that the French  Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789)  marked a historic turn: a claim that man was now ‘emancipated from all tutelage and announced he had come of age’ [1]. It is an echo of Kant’s 1786 answer to the question ‘What is Enlightenment?’: for him, it is the end of tutelage, casting aside the would-be guides (and gaolers) in the shapes of priest and King, in order to achieve maturity which Kant takes to be thinking for oneself. He adds that this must involve the free use of public reason, the uncensored exchange of opinion between citizens qua citizens  – as distinct from the use of the private reason of the specialist, bureaucrat, etc. Kant’s message then, and that of the Declaration, is anti-paternalist, invoking the ideal of a mature citizenry. A core meaning of the politics of Enlightenment: free citizens, deliberating together without the miasma of superstition, taboo or state censor. But this is a kind of promise, not an accomplished fact, a statement of what might be about to emerge. Read more »

The Cancer Questions Project, Part 22: Alan Burnett

Dr. Alan Burnett has a main research interest in the development of treatments for Acute Myeloid Leukemia. He has served on numerous advisory committees and is a past President of the British Society of Haematology and Chair of the UK National Training Programme. Professor Burnett was appointed as Chair of the National Cancer Research Institute Haematological Oncology Study Group. He was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Science in 2002, was awarded the Gold Medal of the British Society for Haematology in 2004 and gave the prestigious Ham Wasserman Lecture at the American Society of Hematology meeting in 2012. Currently, he is a Professor at the University of Glasgow in Scotland.

Azra Raza, author of The First Cell: And the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the Last, oncologist and professor of medicine at Columbia University, and 3QD editor, decided to speak to more than 20 leading cancer investigators and ask each of them the same five questions listed below. She videotaped the interviews and over the next months we will be posting them here one at a time each Monday. Please keep in mind that Azra and the rest of us at 3QD neither endorse nor oppose any of the answers given by the researchers as part of this project. Their views are their own. One can browse all previous interviews here.

1. We were treating acute myeloid leukemia (AML) with 7+3 (7 days of the drug cytosine arabinoside and 3 days of daunomycin) in 1977. We are still doing the same in 2019. What is the best way forward to change it by 2028?

2. There are 3.5 million papers on cancer, 135,000 in 2017 alone. There is a staggering disconnect between great scientific insights and translation to improved therapy. What are we doing wrong?

3. The fact that children respond to the same treatment better than adults seems to suggest that the cancer biology is different and also that the host is different. Since most cancers increase with age, even having good therapy may not matter as the host is decrepit. Solution?

4. You have great knowledge and experience in the field. If you were given limitless resources to plan a cure for cancer, what will you do?

5. Offering patients with advanced stage non-curable cancer, palliative but toxic treatments is a service or disservice in the current therapeutic landscape?

Oedipus, Reversed

by Elizabeth S. Bernstein

In 1885 Mary Terhune, a mother and published childcare adviser, ended her instructions on how to give baby a bath with this observation:

When perfectly dry, his flesh sweet and pure with the exquisite lustre imparted by bath and friction, he is the most kissable object in nature.1

A quarter century later, at the tail end of the Victorian era, another mother and author, Marion Foster Washburn, offered a similar assessment of infant massage:

Nothing on earth is so delicious to the touch as the firm, fine flesh of a healthy baby! In these strokings and kneadings, something of your mother-love and magnetism passes over into the baby, and you are more closely bound to each other. . . . Touch is especially the love-sense, and we, who cannot yet make little children understand the words, can tell them, through our hands, how dear they are to us and how tenderly we care for them.2

“Tenderness,” in English translation, is also the word Sigmund Freud regularly used to describe the relationship of parent and child. But in his case it was used primarily in the context of warning. The mother, he wrote in 1905, “supplies the child with feelings which arise from her own sexual life; she pats him, kisses him, and rocks him, plainly taking him as a substitute for a perfectly valid sexual object. . . . Excessive parental tenderness surely becomes harmful, because it ‘spoils’ the child and makes him unfit to renounce love temporarily, or to be satisfied with a smaller amount of love later in life. . . . [N]europathic parents, who usually display excessive tenderness, often awaken with their caressing a disposition for neurotic diseases.”3

How much tenderness was too much? Read more »

What we must learn to deal with the technological disruption of our normative concepts

by Michael Klenk

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

While some people voluntarily act out their private lives on the public stage, the vast majority tries to maintain some privacy – by drawing a firm distinction between their private and public lives. But at the same time, almost all of us are using connected technologies like mobile phones, wearable devices, social media, search engines, or web-shops. By using connected technologies, we leave a conspicuous trail of data traces, and to the trained eye, innocuous traces can tell exciting stories – no less (and perhaps more) revealing than the party-pictures some voluntarily share on Facebook.

For example, the New York Times recently used readily available phone-usage data to trace, amongst other things, someone frequently visiting roadside motels at night-time for an hour each. The Times could have easily revealed the name of that person and determined what exactly was going on at the motels, which illustrates that data scientists, modern-day trappers if you will, need less and less effort to read such intimate stories off these seemingly innocuous traces. Almost anyone is thus opening up about their private lives in the public domain.

In consequence, privacy may well be dead – killed by the ubiquitousness and necessity of using connected technologies – at least if we maintain an old conception of privacy that needs a distinction between the public and the private sphere. We may not find that distinction born out by the world anymore, and consequently, we might be looking for privacy in vain. And yet, most people do not conclude that privacy is dead – instead, they offer new interpretations of the concept of privacy in response to the new realities created by connected technologies. Read more »

What Should the Distribution of Wealth be?

by Tim Sommers

A 2011 survey by Michael Norton and Dan Ariely, of Harvard’s Business School, found that the average American thinks the richest 25% of Americans own 59% of the wealth, while the bottom fifth owns 9%. In fact, the richest 20% own 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% controls only 0.3%. An avalanche of studies has since confirmed these basic facts: Americans radically underestimate the amount of wealth inequality that exists – and the level of inequality they think is fair is lower than actual inequality in America probably has ever been. As journalist Chrystia Freeland put it, “Americans actually live in Russia, although they think they live in Sweden. And they would like to live on a kibbutz.”

Thomas Piketty ramped up the inequality debate, a couple of years later, with “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, a massive 250-year survey of wealth inequality. He discovered that r > g. That is, the rate of return on investment is always greater than growth. The rich really are getting richer – and the poor? Well, not so much. The post-war middle-class, Piketty warned, may well have been a historical anomaly. Economic inequality is likely to get worse – and never get better – without coordinated international action. The good news is that not one, but two, serious candidates in the current Democratic Presidential Primary are endorsing versions of Piketty’s “Wealth Tax” – Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. (And, by the way, the English-translation of Piketty’s latest book, “Capital & Ideology” is due out in March.)

So, what should the distribution of wealth be? What does justice have to say about wealth inequality? Read more »

Less than Human: The Dehumanisation of Human Beings

by Adele A Wilby

We are all aware that from amongst the vast diversity of life forms that inhabit the earth, human beings are exceptional. But while human beings are capable of inexhaustible creativity and goodness, they also have the potential to commit the most heinous acts and demeaning of fellow human beings. Accounting for such a phenomenon in the human condition and the committing of abominable acts towards their own species, is an issue that perplexes many. Perhaps the answer to such a question can be found by studying the genes or analysing the brain functioning of the perpetrators, but that could involve investigating entire populations who knowingly condone or participate in such acts. A simpler answer could be that human beings have yet to evolve into a species that is incapable of acts of inhumanity. David Livingstone Smith’s book Less than Human: Why We Demean, Enslave, and Exterminate Others offers us insight into the processes  that lead to the  designating of fellow human beings as ‘subhuman’ and makes possible the potential for human beings to perpetrate acts that can only be considered as evil.

Crucial to Livingston Smith’s argument is the concept of dehumanisation.He defines the term as ‘the act of conceiving of people as subhuman creatures rather than as human beings’, and it has two components: thinking in terms of what people lack, and as thinking of them as less than human. While people might be dehumanised in different ways, as for example, the objectification of women, Livingstone Smith is concerned with the dehumanisation of peoples that enables the perpetration of genocide, slavery, and war. Read more »

Monday Photo

A couple of years ago I accompanied my friend (and 3QD colleague) Morgan Meis to Basel, Switzerland, so he could look at this painting called The Fate of the Animals by Franz Marc as part of some research he was doing for a book. I took this photo of him and thought it made a nice visual metaphor for looking back at this past year which will conclude tomorrow. Happy New Year, People!

Equal as the Teeth of a Comb

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Photo credit: Sayed Amjad Hussain

Ami, my mother, does my hair, “Helen-of-Troy-style,” a high pony tail with strands wrapped around it on days there is extra time before school. She remembers the hairdo from an old movie which she talks about often, along with her other favorite The Taming of the Shrew with Liz Taylor. When she combs, she hums, mostly Urdu songs, occasionally Punjabi. Since settling in Peshawar, she has taught herself Pashto not only because it isn’t easy to run a household and her myriad projects without knowing the local language, but because she has a genuine love for connecting with people of all kinds, everywhere. We joke that she can make friends while crossing the road; this is something she and I don’t have in common. I tend to be withdrawn, like my father, content with my books and thoughts.

There are times when I do enjoy going on outings, especially when Ami takes me on an excursion to the old city and shows me how herbs, spices, henna, tealeaves, and grains of every kind are sold box-less, displayed in smooth mounds. I like to walk through the narrow streets with her, taking in the crisp, salty aroma of street food, the colors of sherbets, glass bangles, sparkly trim for dupattas, watching shopkeepers with their paraphernalia— their weighing scales, aluminum scoops and glossy brown paper bags. The joy of walking through a bazar, which will become a subject I’ll explore for years in my writing, begins here. I feel certain that if I were to put my ear to the ground, I’ll hear the tread of Silk Road caravans. My curiosity about how cultures of encounter are formed and revealed in the marketplace— about trade- and work habits, competition and conflict, creative marketing, the ethos of fair-play and equality and the complex dynamics of cosmopolitanism— is born as a result of watching my mother interact. I’m astonished by how she varies the language or dialect, accent or register, “code-switching” naturally as she goes. Read more »