Beyoncé’s Knowing Ethnic Splendor in “Black Is King”

Lauren Michele Jackson in The New Yorker:

The story of Disney’s “The Lion King,” about a cub who avenges his uncle’s regicide, is said to have borrowed its bones from “Hamlet” (though Marlon James would say otherwise). “Black Is King,” the new “visual album” from Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, borrows its bones from “The Lion King,” and is comparably interested in rehearsing the drama of its source material—which is to say, not very interested at all. The project is a cinematic adaptation of “The Lion King: The Gift,” the Beyoncé-produced companion album to Disney’s 2019 remake of the film, in which she voiced the part of Nala and for which she created an original song. “Black Is King” follows a young child (Folajomi Akinmurele) whose wayward adventures and visions provoke the question of what kind of man he will become. Royal titles are treated, with urgency, as a means of affirming the innate worth of the human spirit, a message that the film aims especially at the many Black peoples who were long denied the status of human (and, depending on who is asked, still are). Anchored by the lyrical grandeur of its soundtrack, which includes the fourteen songs co-written and co-produced by Beyoncé for “The Gift” (“black parade,” a bonus single on the deluxe edition of the soundtrack, plays during the credits),“Black Is King” expertly slides between talk of bloodlines and molded thrones and more modest—but far from modest—footage of impeccably styled, beautiful Black people in motion.

…The album’s knowingly ethnic splendor is mesmerizing in its scope; it does not attempt to provide cultural lessons but, rather, invitations to awesome delights. Above all, “Black Is King” is a tribute to the manifold ways that a body can be displayed, from root to toe, dressed up and painted in white, gold, seafoam, lilac, electric green, and pink; in cowhide, denim and tulle, ink, acrylic, lace, leopard, and satin, and fringe; cowry shells and goddess braids; bejewelled everything; good shirts tucked into good chinos; pearl-drenched headdresses, harnesses, thick gold rings; gowns and bleached tips, evening gloves, track jackets, catsuits, tunics, chunky sneakers, mammoth gele; cornrows, ribbon-wrapped feet, cargo pants, and trapezoidal shades. Also, the manifold ways in which a body can move: legwork, footwork, shaku shaku, zanku, twerk, wine, gbese, thrust, grind, shake—the grounded, weight-changing style of choreography that Beyoncé has been fond of since working with the Mozambican trio Tofo Tofo on “Run the World (Girls),” which is prominently shown here in her duet with the Afrobeats artist and divine dancer Stephen Ojo, in “already,” performed with Shatta Wale and Major Lazer. Though Beyoncé, when she appears onscreen, is usually at its center, “Black Is King” also cedes the floor to such charismatic movers as the Afropop artist Yemi Alade, who is featured on “don’t jealous me” and “my power,” alongside the South African artists Moonchild Sanelly and Busiswa and also a supreme slate of professional dancers. There is, in our present moment, a palpable, and reasonable, fatigue when it comes to the superlative showiness of a certain class of celebrity. Some of this sticks to Beyoncé, in particular, given the outsized scale at which she has been working for a while now. But this production—or, rather, the dozens of credited designers, stylists, artists, tailors, architects, weavers, seamstresses, builders, braiders, jewellers, and dancers whose crafts are on display in it—marvels in a way that is difficult to scoff at, especially given that we aren’t likely to see such feats again soon.

More here.

On Afropessimism

Jesse McCarthy in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

The memoirs of Black revolutionaries have been, almost by definition, exceptional in their narratives, exemplary in their aspirations, and dispirited in their conclusions. Traditionally, the disappointment of unfinished and unrealized ambitions is mitigated by a rhetorical appeal to continued struggle and hope for a future Black liberation that the memoirists themselves will not live to see. They look to the future to say: One day. In time we will find our way to freedom, equality, self-loving, and self-respecting — to fully enjoying whatever the best of the human condition ought to entail. But what if the condition of being human is so thoroughly racialized that even appealing to it only further distances them from the possibility of its realization? What if, moreover, the destruction of Black people is not a contingent difficulty that can be corrected, but a necessary fate because the very category of “the human” is premised on their negation? As Frank Wilderson puts it, what if “Human life is dependent on Black death for its existence and for its conceptual coherence”?

Understanding how Wilderson has come to such a conclusion requires a glance at his own exceptionally restless and revolutionary life.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Carl Bergstrom on Information, Disinformation, and Bullshit

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

We are living, in case you haven’t noticed, in a world full of bullshit. It’s hard to say whether the amount is truly increasing, but it seems that everywhere you look someone is trying to convince you of something, regardless of whether that something is actually true. Where is this bullshit coming from, how is it disseminated, and what can we do about it? Carl Bergstrom studies information in the context of biology, which has led him to investigate the flow of information and disinformation in social networks, especially the use of data in misleading ways. In the time of Covid-19 he has become on of the best Twitter feeds for reliable information, and we discuss how the pandemic has been a bounteous new source of bullshit.

More here.

Why M.A. Jinnah was a man of many contradictions

Salil Tripathi in LiveMint:

The peculiarity of hindsight is that it depends on the point from which you look back at Pakistan’s and India’s trajectories. In the early 1970s and till the late 1990s, as Pakistan itself broke up into two and generals and mullahs controlled its politics, India could afford to be smug. In 1992, the destruction of the Babri Masjid changed that, and the consequences of India’s 2014 election are there for us to see. Some Pakistanis may feel triumphant, but the virtue of Pakistani lawyer Yasser Latif Hamdani’s new biography, Jinnah: A Life, is that it takes a sober tone.

In clear, if not sparkling, prose, Hamdani, an admirer of Jinnah, offers a nuanced perspective of the man who began as an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity and ended up being instrumental in dividing India along religious lines. The book adds to the growing body of literature around Jinnah, building on the work of Stanley Wolpert, regarded as the most important biography till Ayesha Jalal’s detailed and absorbing biography, and the indifferent book by former BJP minister Jaswant Singh, which gained notoriety for all the wrong reasons.

More here.

Love Unknown: The Life and Worlds of Elizabeth Bishop

Marian Janssen at berfrois:

Bishop published only about a hundred poems during her lifetime, but won the most prestigious prizes for American literature: the Pulitzer in 1956 and the National Book Award in 1970. Brilliant, quirky critic Randall Jarrell described her poems as “honest, modest, minutely observant, masterly. . . . The poems are like Vuillard or even, sometimes, Vermeer.” Bishop was overwhelmed: “It has always been one of my dreams that someday someone would think of Vermeer, without my saying it first”—adding cheerfully, “So now I think I can die in a fairly peaceful frame of mind any old time.” Her life was tumultuous and tragic, but also filled with love and lust. Bishop’s father died when she was only a few months old, a loss her mother, mentally unstable Gertrude Bulmer, never overcame. Her loving, but simple, maternal grandparents raised Bishop in Great Village, a hamlet in Nova Scotia, Canada, during her infancy, while Bulmer was locked up in an insane asylum for long periods. When Bishop was five years old, Bulmer was put away forever, mostly in solitary confinement. She would never see her mother again. Soon after, suddenly, her father’s parents took her to Worcester, Massachusetts, and Bishop ended up in a world that was less austere, but much colder and more distant. Lonely and alone, she was plagued by terrible asthma and eczema; Travisano convincingly argues that these had psychosomatic origins.

more here.

Writing and Academia

Agnes Callard at The Point:

In making these claims about academic writing, I am thinking in the first instance of my own corner of academia—philosophy—though I suspect that my points generalize, at least over the academic humanities. To offer up one anecdote: in spring 2019 I was teaching Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; since I don’t usually teach literature, I thought I should check out recent secondary literature on Joyce. What I found was abstruse and hypercomplex, laden with terminology and indirect. I didn’t feel I was learning anything I could use to make the meaning of the novel more accessible to myself or to my students. I am willing to take some of the blame here: I am sure I could have gotten something out of those pieces if I had been willing to put more effort into reading them. Still, I do not lack the intellectual competence required to understand analyses of Joyce; I feel all of those writers could have done more to write for me.

more here.

How the Pandemic Defeated America

Ed Yong in The Atlantic:

Despite ample warning, the U.S. squandered every possible opportunity to control the coronavirus. And despite its considerable advantages—immense resources, biomedical might, scientific expertise—it floundered. While countries as different as South Korea, Thailand, Iceland, Slovakia, and Australia acted decisively to bend the curve of infections downward, the U.S. achieved merely a plateau in the spring, which changed to an appalling upward slope in the summer. “The U.S. fundamentally failed in ways that were worse than I ever could have imagined,” Julia Marcus, an infectious-disease epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School, told me.

Since the pandemic began, I have spoken with more than 100 experts in a variety of fields. I’ve learned that almost everything that went wrong with America’s response to the pandemic was predictable and preventable. A sluggish response by a government denuded of expertise allowed the coronavirus to gain a foothold. Chronic underfunding of public health neutered the nation’s ability to prevent the pathogen’s spread. A bloated, inefficient health-care system left hospitals ill-prepared for the ensuing wave of sickness. Racist policies that have endured since the days of colonization and slavery left Indigenous and Black Americans especially vulnerable to COVID‑19. The decades-long process of shredding the nation’s social safety net forced millions of essential workers in low-paying jobs to risk their life for their livelihood. The same social-media platforms that sowed partisanship and misinformation during the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Africa and the 2016 U.S. election became vectors for conspiracy theories during the 2020 pandemic.

More here.

Whence Came Stonehenge’s Stones? Now We Know

Franz Lidz in The New York Times:

Back in the ’30s — the 1130s — the Welsh cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth created the impression that Stonehenge was built as a memorial to a bunch of British nobles slain by the Saxons. In his “Historia Regum Britanniae,” Geoffrey tells us that Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, was enlisted to move a ring of giant mystical stones from Mount Killaraus in Ireland to what is commonly believed to be Salisbury Plain, a chalk plateau in southern England, where Stonehenge is located. Back in the ’50s — the 1950s — a chunk of rock went missing from the magical tumble of megaliths that now compose Stonehenge. The chunk, a three-and-a-half-foot cylindrical core, had been drilled out of one of the site’s massive sarsen stones during repairs and taken home by an employee of the diamond-cutting firm that carried out the work. The core, recently repatriated after 60 years, turned out to be pivotal to an academic paper published on Wednesday in the journal Science Advances. The study pinpointed the source of the sarsens, a mystery that has long bedeviled geologists and archaeologists.

Although the project did not identify the specific spot where the stones came from, Mike Pitts, editor of the magazine British Archaeology, believes that the discovery makes the search for sarsen quarries a realistic option. “If we can find them, we could learn about how they were dressed and moved, and importantly we might be able to date that activity,” he said. “Dating matters, because then we can say what else was present in the landscape at the same time, what was old or gone and what was still to come — other sites are better dated — and of course who actually built the thing.”

More here.

Tuesday Poem

The Invention of the Saxophone

It was Adolphe Sax, remember,
not Saxo Grammaticus, who gets the ovation.
And by the time he had brought all the components
together–the serpentine shape, the single reed,
the fit of the fingers,
the upward tilt of the golden bell–
it was already 1842, and one gets the feeling
that it was also very late at night.

There is something nocturnal about the sound,
something literally horny,
as some may have noticed on that historic date
when the first odd notes wobbled out of his studio
into the small, darkened town,

summoning the insomniacs (who were up
waiting for the invention of jazz) to their windows,
but leaving the sleepers undisturbed,
evening deepening and warming the waters of their dreams.

For this is not the valved instrument of waking,
more the smoky voice of longing and loss,
the porpoise cry of the subconscious.
No one would ever think of blowing reveille
on a tenor without irony.
The men would only lie in their metal bunks,
fingers twined behind their heads,
afloat on pools of memory and desire.

And when the time has come to rouse the dead,
you will not see Gabriel clipping an alto
around his numinous neck.

An angel playing the world’s last song
on a glistening saxophone might be enough
to lift them back into the light of earth,
but really no further.

Once resurrected, they would only lie down
in the long cemetery grass
or lean alone against a lugubrious yew
and let the music do the ascending–
curling snakes charmed from their baskets–
while they wait for the shrill trumpet solo,
that will blow them all to kingdom come.

by Billy Collins
from The Art of Drowning
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995

Prospects of Social Democracy in a Post-Pandemic World

by Pranab Bardhan

Many social commentators in the claustrophobic gloom of their self-isolation have shown a tendency to write in somewhat feverish apocalyptic terms about the near future. Some of them expect the pre-existing dysfunctionalities of social and political institutions to accelerate in the post-pandemic world and anticipate our going down a vicious spiral. Others are a bit more hopeful in envisaging a world where the corona crisis will make people wake up to the deep fault lines it has revealed and try to mend things toward a better world. Some others take an intermediate position of what is called upbeat cynicism: hold out for things to be better but guess that will not happen (somewhat akin to Antonio Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”).

Some have turned to literary narratives of pestilence of one form or another, to make sense of what is happening around us, and referred to the novel by Camus on the plague in the Algerian city of Oran, to the play by Ionesco on the strange disease of humans turning into rhinoceros in a small French village, to the novel by Saramago on a mass epidemic of blindness in an unnamed city with a heavy-handed government, and to the more recent Book of M by Peng Shepherd, where the infected find that they cast no shadow and soon lose their memory, etc.. These are all narratives of human frailty and social breakdown, but also of human resilience as in the portrayal of the respective doctors in the novels of Camus and Saramago. (The narratives of Camus and Ionesco have also been interpreted as analogies for the reactions of ordinary people in the creeping Fascism of occupied France).

In this article we shall look at the prospects of social democracy in the post-pandemic world, at the strengthening or weakening of pre-existing tendencies in this respect, and at new elements, circumstances and challenges. Our attempt should be seen as neither a straight-forward prediction, nor just a matter of wishful thinking, more a clear-eyed analysis of constraints and opportunities that social democrats are likely to face or have to be prepared for. Read more »

How to think about climate change

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

Throughout history there have been prophets of doom and prophets of hope. The prophets of doom are often more visible; the prophets of hope are often more important. The Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg is a prophet of hope. For more than ten years he has been questioning the consensus associated with global warming. Lomborg is not a global warming denier but is a skeptic and realist. He does not question the basic facts of global warming or the contribution of human activity to it. He does not deny that global warming will have some bad effects. But he does question the exaggerated claims, he does question whether it’s the only problem worth addressing, he certainly questions the intense politicization of the issue that makes rational discussion hard and he is critical of the measures being proposed by world governments at the expense of better and cheaper ones. Lomborg is a skeptic who respects the other side’s arguments and tries to refute them with data.

Lomborg has written two books on global warming, but his latest volume is probably the most wide-ranging. The title of the book is “False Alarm”, and the subtitle is “How Climate Change Panic Costs is Trillions, Hurts the Poor and Fails to Fix the Planet.” The book is about 225 pages, clearly and engagingly written, contains many charts and figures and the last 75 pages are devoted to references and a bibliography. The title sounds sensationalist, and while titles are often decided by the publisher, it succinctly captures the three main messages in the book. The first message is that panic about global warming leads people to think irrationally about it. The third message is that all the vocal fixes proposed for fixing global warming won’t make more than a dent in the actual problem. But the second message is perhaps the most important – that not only would global warming fail to alleviate the problems of the poor but it will make them worse. This puts the problem not just in a political but in a moral perspective. Lomborg’s book should be read by all concerned citizens interested in the subject, whether they agree with him or not. Read more »

Death The Leveller

by Thomas O’Dwyer

The Shakespeare family, a 19th-century German engraving. From left, Hamnet, Susanna, William, Judith, Agnes (Anne).
The Shakespeare family, from a 19th-century German engraving. From left, Hamnet, Susanna, William, Judith, Agnes (Anne).

A book subtitled A Novel of the Plague might appear opportunistic at this time. But in Maggie O’Farrell’s new and much-praised Hamnet, the only opportunity the author seems to be taking advantage of is our ignorance of the life of William Shakespeare. “Miraculous,” The Guardian wrote, “a beautiful imagination of the short life of Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, and the untold story of his wife, Agnes Hathaway, which builds into a profound exploration of the healing power of creativity.”

Around the world, library shelves creak under the weight of books, some centuries old and in a babel of languages, about England’s undisputed greatest genius. Analyses of his works aside, all that is written about the life and character of the man is speculation, fabulation or infatuation. A pencil and a postcard suffice to jot down the facts we know. Sifting through his plays and sonnets for clues to his life, beliefs and relationships will not do – though it has been done ad nauseam. The names Hamlet and Hamnet appear to have been interchangeable in documents dating from his time. Therefore, it must follow that William named his great play in memory of his only son Hamnet who died at the age of 11. That is one great burden of proof to place on the swapping of two letters, n and l, in one word.

A striking feature of O’Farrell’s novel is that the name Shakespeare appears nowhere, although it is entirely about the family of the playwright, a shadowy figure who slips in and out of his native Stratford-Upon-Avon.

“Everyone thought the glover’s son would amount to nothing, what a wastrel he had always seemed, and now look at him – a man of consequence in London, it is said, and there he goes, with his richly embroidered sleeves and shining leather boots.”

It is tempting to respond with Petruchio explaining in The Taming of the Shrew why he moved to Padua:

Such wind as scatters young men through the world,
To seek their fortunes farther than at home
Where small experience grows.

But there we go again, drawing conclusions from random quotes from the man’s theatre world. This novel is not the young man’s viewpoint or biography. Its theme is of women in the roles their times dictated for them. It chronicles their emotions and desires, their sorrows, their work and their ferocious protection of their children in a world where “the man” is absent, but nonetheless makes sure to provide money and a comfortable home for his family, as Shakespeare did. Read more »

The Monster of Malmsbury and Me

by Mike O’Brien

Thomas Hobbes

One of the greatest joys of my graduate studies was reading primary sources in full, rather than a mishmash of summaries and excerpts. I could have done this prior to graduate school, but I didn’t, because I was lazy.

(I am still lazy.)

Having to read and re-read the works of authors, in the presentation in which they chose to be received, created a more personal relationship with them. “Personal” meaning, in its literal root sense, pertaining to that which speaks for itself. Rather than dragging the thinker, by means of citations, onto a panel of experts marshalled together for some inquiry, reading all the words, in the order intended, allows the thinker to express themselves as they willed. One has the sense of reading someone rather than just something, and one can posit a mind that understood things in its own way. Getting to know a mind thus, a reader can even guess how a writer might have understood things that are not explicitly mentioned in their work.

One of the misfortunes that befalls great thinkers is that they are cited vastly more often than they are read, and when read are not understood on their own terms because of the frame in which they are presented. When the thinker is someone whom I have read in depth, this can be offensive in the same way that hearing untruths about a friend is offensive. The mistaken claims need not be slanderous or abusive; the mere fact that they have gotten your dear friend wrong is objectionable in itself. But if one has famous friends, one can’t expect every person who speaks of them to know them beyond a public persona. And so one has to distinguish between, for example, discussions about Mark Twain and discussions about Samuel Clemens. (I am not friends with Samuel Clemens, but I like to think we’d get along). Read more »

The limits of startup land and appified thinking

by Callum Watts

The debacle around the development of the UK coronavirus contact tracing app has got me thinking about the role of technology and startup style businesses in addressing large scale social problems. The UK government’s shambolic app release, pursued at the expense of tried and tested human contact tracing, is an example of a larger trend of using technology led approaches to solve social and political problems.

In the US we see it in the enthusiasm with which Trump asked tech luminaries such as Peter Thiel to become key advisors to his government. In the UK we see a similar obsession with “startup land”, where Dominic Cummings has been attempting to hire developers, data scientists and ‘misfits’ into the civil service, apparently inspired by technology startups. Whilst software businesses have led to some incredible ideas that solve individual problems, I’m sceptical of the potential for these organisations to do anything truly radical when it comes to the societal level issues faced by governments. 

There is a double irony here. First, in spite of all their vaunted innovations, the superstar ‘social’ media companies have struggled to match their commercial impact with positive social impact. Secondly, the startups that are so often described with the language of revolution are largely ignorant of the history of true social revolutions. They are culturally disconnected from the reality of the social problems they are being asked to fix. Furthermore the politicians who are so enthusiastic about the potential of technology have a poor understanding of the scope of problems that it can actually solve. It is not difficult to see why this union is likely to end in disappointment for both parties. Read more »

YouTube: Designed to Seduce?

by Fabio Tollon

In 2019 Buckey Wolf, a 26-year-old man from Seattle, stabbed his brother in the head with a four-foot long sword. He then called the police on himself, admitting his guilt. Another tragic case of mindless violence? Not quite, as there is far more going on in the case of Buckey Wolf: he committed murder because he believed his brother was turning into a lizard. Specifically, a kind of shape-shifting reptile that lives among us and controls world events. If this sounds fabricated, it’s unfortunately not. Over 12 million Americans believe (“know”) that such lizard people exist, and that they are to be found at the highest levels of government, controlling the world economy for their own cold-blooded interests. This reptilian conspiracy theory was first made popular by well-known charlatan David Icke.

What emerged from further investigation into the Wolf murder case was an interesting trend in his YouTube “likes” over the years. Here it was noted that his interests shifted from music to martial arts, fitness, media criticism, firearms and other weapons, and video games. From here it seems Wolf was thrown into the world of alt-right political content.

In a recent paper Alfano et al. study whether YouTube’s recommender system may be responsible for such epistemically retrograde ideation. Perhaps the first case of murder by algorithm? Well, not quite.

In their paper, the authors aim to discern whether technological scaffolding was at least partially involved in Wolf’s atypical cognition. They make use of a theoretical framework known as technological seduction, whereby technological systems try to read user’s minds and predict what they want. In these scenarios, such as when Google uses predictive text, we as users are “seduced” into believing that Google knows our thoughts, especially when we end up following the recommendations of such systems. Read more »

The Pandemic Has Made Us Scrutinise The Morality Of Our Day To Day Habits—Is That A Good Thing?

by N. Gabriel Martin

The pandemic has increased our awareness of the moral significance of our day to day habits. While there have always been moral perfectionists who agonise over every choice and action, most of us tended to draw a line under our day to day habits, taking them for granted and reserving moral scrutiny for the extraordinary.

It’s not that eating out, buying chocolate, or going to a party were ever devoid of all moral significance—it was always possible to scrutinise, for example, the labour practices under which chocolate was grown, or the environmental impact of packaging—it just didn’t seem obligatory. Even though we might have known that the choice to buy a chocolate bar had moral significance, we were, for the most part, used to ignoring it. To do otherwise was a lifestyle choice, and not a necessity. That has changed with the coronavirus. Suddenly, we have had to examine—in our own consciences, with our families, and on social media—the choices we used to take for granted.

The pandemic brought moral considerations home to us, into our lives. We can no longer draw a sharp line between obviously immoral actions—spousal betrayal or shoplifting, for example—and the everyday, morally ambiguous ones that we were not used to subjecting to scrutiny. For any one person, visiting a friend, going to a café, or taking a train are not activities that are more likely than not to cause harm to anyone (even now), but if we all carry on with these activities then people will suffer and die and our public health systems will become overwhelmed. As a result, we are now confronted with the moral seriousness of the choices we used to take for granted. Read more »