The semi-satisfied life

David Bather Woods in aeon:

On 13 December 1807, in fashionable Weimar, Johanna Schopenhauer picked up her pen and wrote to her 19-year-old son Arthur: ‘It is necessary for my happiness to know that you are happy, but not to be a witness to it.’ Two years earlier, in Hamburg, Johanna’s husband Heinrich Floris had been discovered dead in the canal behind their family compound. It is possible that he slipped and fell, but Arthur suspected that his father jumped out of the warehouse loft into the icy waters below. Johanna did not disagree. Four months after the suicide, she had sold the house, soon to leave for Weimar where a successful career as a writer and saloniste awaited her. Arthur stayed behind with the intention of completing the merchant apprenticeship his father had arranged shortly before his death. It wasn’t long, however, before Arthur wanted out too. In an exchange of letters throughout 1807, mother and son entered tense negotiations over the terms of Arthur’s release. Johanna would be supportive of Arthur’s decision to leave Hamburg in search of an intellectually fulfilling life – how could she not? – including using her connections to help pave the way for his university education. But on one condition: he must leave her alone. Certainly, he must not move to be near her in Weimar, and under no circumstances would she let him stay with her.

What her line of 13 December doesn’t reveal is that Johanna simply couldn’t tolerate Arthur: ‘All your good qualities,’ she wrote on 6 November, ‘become obscured by your super-cleverness and are made useless to the world merely because of your rage at wanting to know everything better than others … If you were less like you, you would only be ridiculous, but thus as you are, you are highly annoying.’ He was, in short, a boorish and tiresome know-it-all. If people found Arthur Schopenhauer’s company intolerable, the feeling was mutual. He spent long depressive periods in self-imposed isolation, including the first two months of 1832 in his new rooms in Frankfurt, the city that became his adoptive home after a stint in Berlin. He defended himself against loneliness with the belief that solitude is the only fitting condition for a philosopher: ‘Were I a King,’ he said, ‘my prime command would be – Leave me alone.’ The subject of happiness, then, is not normally associated with Schopenhauer, neither as a person nor as a philosopher. Quite the opposite: he is normally associated with the deepest pessimism in the history of European philosophy.

Schopenhauer’s pessimism is based on two kinds of observation. The first is an inward-looking observation that we aren’t simply rational beings who seek to know and understand the world, but also desiring beings who strive to obtain things from the world. Behind every striving is a painful lack of something, Schopenhauer claims, yet obtaining this thing rarely makes us happy.

More here.

The Profound Heroism of Chadwick Boseman

David Sims in The Atlantic:

Almost as shocking as the news that Chadwick Boseman died yesterday at the age of 43 was the revelation that the actor had spent the past four years battling colon cancer. This timeline means that he was diagnosed in 2016—the year that he debuted as King T’Challa in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. And it means that after his diagnosis, Boseman filmed and appeared in MarshallBlack Panther, two more Avengers movies, 21 Bridges, Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, and an upcoming adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This output is immense coming from an actor who had been making major Hollywood films for only two years before his big Marvel break—a superstar run that seems all the more miraculous in light of the knowledge that Boseman pulled it off while quietly undergoing many surgeries and rounds of chemotherapy.

…Boseman’s history of playing beloved, revolutionary figures shaped the way audiences and other directors saw him. When Spike Lee was making his latest film, Da 5 Bloods, he centered the plot on a Black soldier who had died in the Vietnam War: Stormin’ Norman, a wise squad leader whose compatriots try to recover his body many years later. Lee was adapting an original script that depicted Norman as still being alive, carrying out raids deep in the jungles, but he decided that the character made more sense as a deceased, romanticized figure—a tragic loss from a bleak era in American history. “Here’s the thing for me. This character is heroic; he’s a superhero. Who do we cast? We cast Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and we cast T’Challa!” Lee told me in an interview earlier this year. “Chad is a superhero! That character is Christlike … there’s light from heaven coming down from above on him.”

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Allen Ginsberg at the End of America

Michael Schumacher at the Paris Review:

In 1965, Bob Dylan gifted Allen Ginsberg with a Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder, which Ginsberg was to use to record his thoughts and observations as he traveled throughout the United States. Ginsberg, already heavily influenced by Jack Kerouac’s methods of spontaneous composition, felt the taping was an ideal way to pursue his own spontaneous work. He began planning a volume of poems, a literary documentary examining contemporary America, not unlike what Kerouac had done in On the Road, or what Robert Frank had accomplished in his photographs in The Americans. He would add one important element: the violence, destruction, and inhumanity of the escalating war in Vietnam—an edgy contrast to what he was witnessing in his travels, particularly his country’s natural beauty. The public’s polarized dialogue over Vietnam—and, earlier in the decade, the civil rights movement—convinced Ginsberg that America was teetering on the precipice of a fall.

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2020’s Existentialist Turn

Carmen Lea Dege in Boston Review:

Existentialist ideas have seen a remarkable comeback during the COVID-19 pandemic, from Albert Camus’s frequently invoked novel The Plague, Friedrich Nietzsche’s turn to tragedy, and Simone de Beauvoir’s and Jean-Paul Sartre’s critique of bad faith, to Giorgio Agamben’s Carl Schmitt–inspired musings about the state of emergency and what Michel de Montaigne, Martin Heidegger, and Blaise Pascal can teach us about facing death.

The thread running through all these appeals to existentialism is a sensitivity to human fragility felt to be especially pertinent in the midst of a global pandemic and stark disruptions of social order. Even Jürgen Habermas, not typically thought of as an existentialist philosopher, said in a recent interview that we have never had so much knowledge about our non-knowledge and about the necessity to act and live in conditions of uncertainty. As the writer Rebecca Solnit describes it:

We are in the middle and the end is not in sight. We are waiting, which is among most people’s least favorite thing to do, when it means noticing that you have taken up residence in not knowing. We are in terra incognita, which is where we always are anyway, but usually we have a milder case of it and can make our pronouncements and stumble along.

This resurgence of interest in existentialism is not entirely surprising. The body of work we now think of as existentialist emerged during the first half of the twentieth century in conflict-ridden Germany and France, where uncertainty permeated every dimension of society. Its major advocates and sole explicit supporters were Beauvoir and Sartre, who gained immense popularity in postwar France. They followed German existentialist thinkers such as Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Barth, who had already risen to fame in interwar Weimar with their readings of Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard. Though their work varied in the details, they all shared a type of thinking that rejected religious and political dogma, expressed scorn for academic abstraction, and focused on the finitude and absurdity of human existence.

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Economics, Bosses, and Interest

Maya Adereth, Shani Cohen and Jack Gross interview Stephen Marglin in Phenomenal World:

Stephen Marglin: There’s a story that keeps coming back and is never going to go away: most people believe that I only revealed my radical leanings after receiving tenure. The facts of the story are true—I was a neoclassically trained economist, I got tenure, and I changed my orientation. But the implied cause and effect are false.

I was a pink diaper baby. Pink, not red. I vividly remember my cousin coming back from WWII and trying to convince my parents to join the Communist Party, and their heated push-back. As a young adult, I was broadly left wing, but I didn’t view economics as an ideological discipline. For me it was a kind of operations research; I was at the tail end of a generation who entered economics in order to improve the world through appropriate government interventions. I saw no contradiction at all between doing neoclassical economics from nine to five and going to demonstrations against the Vietnam War evenings and weekends.

Things changed dramatically in 1968. I was in India during the academic year 1967–68, working on water-resources planning and teaching graduate students at the Indian Statistical Institute. Their mathematical preparation was so much better than that of Harvard grad students I had taught the previous year that I could indulge my own predilection for mathy economics. But I was surprised to learn that for many of my students, who had grown up in rural villages with largely communal forms of living, classical theory which began with the interests of individuals made little sense to them. The theoretical assumptions of economics bore no clear relation to how they lived. Working with these students formed the personal transformation through which I registered the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. From afar, the May protests in France seemed to herald the breakdown of the existing order.

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A Novel Way to Fund a Green Economy

Kate Aronoff in TNR:

The government has been pretty kind to fossil fuel companies these last few months. Recent disclosures from the Federal Reserve’s secondary bond-buying program show that it has now bought $17 billion worth of ExxonMobil debt and $28.5 million from Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. Private asset manager Blackrock oversees this purchasing program, among others.

Blackrock, with friends in both parties, is on the verge of becoming a fourth branch of government. Despite its pledge in early 2020 to recalibrate investment practices with climate change in mind, so far on behalf of the Fed it has seemed to offer up nearly unlimited public funds to bail out the world’s biggest polluters. These investments serve as a lifeline to a deeply troubled and increasingly unprofitable industry. Meanwhile, state and local governments—and the millions of people who’ll soon lose their unemployment insurance—have found bailouts much harder to come by. And hopes for a green recovery (which an increasingly large swathe of the Democratic Party supports to stave off depression and climate catastrophe) look alarmingly scarce.

A novel proposal gaining steam in Washington could address all of these problems. In a recent memo for Data for Progress, Cornell University law professor and financial regulation expert Saule Omarova proposed creating a National Investment Authority, or NIA. Modeled loosely off the New Deal-era Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the NIA Omarova outlined would contain two main bodies—a National Infrastructure Bank, or NIB, and a National Management Corporation, or “Nicki Mac”—to provide a lifeline to millions in the current crisis, jumpstart a green transition, and democratize the financial system in the process—a lender, guarantor, venture capitalist, and investment manager all rolled into one.

Democratizing the financial system, Omarova and others believe, is a crucial step toward enabling both the government and ordinary people to invest in a climate-friendly future.

More here.

What Should a Museum Look Like in 2020?

Kimberly Drew and various people in the arts in Vanity Fair:

Black life—our joys and our oppression—has been embedded into American history since the first ship of enslaved Africans arrived in 1619. Now we’re seeing a seismic shift in how individuals, corporations, and institutions are reckoning with our nation’s racism.

On social media, companies use marketing dollars to value signal their “wokeness”; a trend that has made its way into the cultural sphere, with museums sharing the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag alongside works by African American artists. In an ideal world, this show of solidarity would be powerful. But, as a former employee of Creative Time, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I, like many art workers and visitors, have been underwhelmed. Watching museums like the British Museum and the Met—institutions with historic ties to colonialism—use a slogan rather than admit to their own roles in the “race problem” ignites a desire for a more holistic investigation of museums not only as homes for art and culture, but as entities with both the buying power and the political ties to make a lasting impact on life beyond this uprising.

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There’s a reason it’s hard to discipline police. It starts with a bill of rights 47 years ago.

Rebecca Tan in The Washington Post:

On a Thursday afternoon in March 1973, 50 uniformed officers filed into a red-brick legislative building in the Maryland state capital, armed with stories of being wrongfully disciplined by highhanded police chiefs, gripes of low morale, and threats for lawmakers who didn’t agree to help them.

At stake was the “Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights” — a first-in-the-nation law that codified workplace protections for police officers far beyond those afforded to other government employees. They included giving officers a formal waiting period before they had to cooperate with internal inquiries into police conduct, scrubbing records of complaints brought against officers after a certain period, and ensuring that only fellow officers — not civilians — could investigate them.

It was not a controversial bill at the time, lawmakers say. But its impact would be profound.

Within four years, a Howard County police chief abandoned his call for public disciplinary hearings, citing the new law. A court ruled that an officer who was fired after using excessive force had to be reinstated and given back pay. And in 1977, a human relations commission in Prince George’s County was told it could not investigate police brutality allegations — a decision the county’s only Black council member at the time called a “slap in the face.”

For more than four decades, critics say, the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights has been one of the biggest obstructions to police accountability, hindering investigations and shielding misconduct from public scrutiny.

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War — What Is It Good For? Chemotherapy, Apparently

Scott Anderson in The New York Times:

Although Mark Twain apparently didn’t coin the phrase “truth is stranger than fiction,” he offered perhaps the best explanation for why it is so. “It is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities,” he wrote. “Truth isn’t.” History is replete with proof; try, for instance, plotting a novel that faithfully replicates the events of Sept. 11 or John F. Kennedy’s assassination and watch it be dismissed as absurd.

This phenomenon takes on special resonance when the vagaries of circumstance are compounded by human idiocy, as is the case with the catalyzing event in Jennet Conant’s “The Great Secret.”

Here’s the setup: Skirting an international ban on the use of chemical weapons, an American merchant ship carrying a top-secret shipment of nitrogen mustard gas shells slips into the port city of Bari mere months after Italy’s surrender to the Allied forces. Despite the ship’s highly explosive cargo, its captain is told to berth in the overcrowded harbor and await his turn in the unloading queue, a wait that extends for five days. And despite Bari being a mere 150 miles from the German front lines, the Allies are so convinced of their air supremacy that they don’t even bother putting up a fighter screen to guard the port; to the contrary, to facilitate round-the-clock unloading operations, authorities have dispensed with the usual blackout rules, so that on the night of Dec. 2, 1943, the place is lit up like a Christmas tree. Oh, and the one telephone linked to air command that might alert fighters that a great squadron of German bombers is bearing down on the harbor? Yeah, for some reason the phone isn’t working that night. In the hands of an accomplished writer like Conant, whose earlier works include the best sellers “Tuxedo Park” and “The Irregulars,” this real-life scenario — and resulting disaster — offers great, if awful, promise.

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Saturday Poem

The Lesson

I keep on dying again.
Veins collapse, opening like the
Small fists of sleeping
Memory of old tombs,
Rotting flesh and worms do
Not convince me against
The challenge. The years
And cold defeat live deep in
Lines along my face.
They dull my eyes, yet
I keep on dying,
Because I love to live.

by Maya Angelou

Truth: What Is It Good For? Absolutely Something

Rachel Handley in 3:16:

You walk into your living room to find your friends, Anne and Bob, talking about whether euthanasia is morally right or wrong. Their conversation starts in a friendly way, but when Bob claims that his view is “clearly true” Anne rolls her eyes and tells him why his view isn’t true. Anne claims that Bob’s view about euthanasia is not only not obviously true, it is not true at all. She gives a counterexample, and Bob gives his reply. Eventually their argument stops, they both sense they are going in circles. Bob turns to you and asks which view you think is true. You tell them that they need to answer another question first. Anne and Bob sigh and don the well-worn expressions of people who have a philosopher for a friend.

“What’s your question?” asks Anne.

“Well” you say “what do you mean by ‘is true’?”

It may seem puzzling to raise a question about truth amid an argument about euthanasia. Such a question is abstract in nature, whereas Anne and Bob’s discussion is concrete; they are concerned with what we ought to do. Nevertheless, Anne and Bob both claim that each of their views about euthanasia are true and this, you tell them, could imply a number of things about what truth is and in turn, how truth is linked to what we mean when we say something is morally wrong.

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Justin E. H. Smith has started a newsletter

Justin E. H. Smith in his own newsletter:

Among the several hundred people who signed up for this newsletter within two days of its launch, I recognised the e-mail addresses of perhaps twenty percent. This means that, for the rest, I have no idea at all what you know of me. So, briefly, I am, among other things, a professor of philosophy, American by birth, based in Paris since 2012.

That said (and this is important), I consider myself fundamentally a failed academic. A university career provides a steady income (if not a wholly adequate one; more on that below), and there are some true moments of joy and fulfilment that come with teaching, but for the most part the university is in the present historical moment an institution adrift, with only vestigial connections to the mission of humanistic cultivation that I naïvely believed it still conserved when I began my career twenty years ago.

We needn’t dwell on this, and in truth if I emphasise my own failure first, rather than the failure of the institution, this is because I acknowledge it would have been an odd fit no matter what the era.

More here.

Returning to Storm King

Peter Schjeldahl at The New Yorker:

Sculpture parks proliferated, worldwide, in the second half of the twentieth century, in the wake of an identity crisis for large three-dimensional art. Modernist austerity had stripped sculpture of its traditional architectural and civic functions: there were no more integrated niches and pedestals, few new formal gardens, and an epochal apathy regarding statues—until lately! (We are now practically neo-Victorian in our awakenings—rude, for the most part—to symbolism in statuary.) Never mind the odd plaza-plunked, vaguely humanist Henry Moore. Where could one put outsized works that were almost invariably abstract—modernism’s universalist ideals persisting—to give them a chance of seeming to mean something? In nature! Conjoining the made with the unmade, gratifying both. Sculpture parks emerged as game preserves and laboratories for big art. Storm King’s early concentration of works by relevant artists of the late nineteen-sixties and seventies includes some formulaic banalities, tending to presume a surefire magic in embowered angular geometry, but even there you may savor the zest of a moment when sculpture jumped into nature’s lap. The history is complicated and obscured, in the art world, by the contemporaneous development, in the sixties, of Minimalism, which, by engaging the physical presence of viewers, shrugs off its surroundings.

more here.

Storm King – Old and New

Jason Farago at the NY Times:

Across Storm King’s open fields and rolling meadows are giant works by Sol LeWitt, Alice Aycock, Ursula von Rydingsvard; ensconced within the paths of a wood is smaller, earlier statuary by names grown obscure, as well as a weathered, trowel-nicked concrete slab by Mia Westerlund Roosen, a post-Minimalist sculptor well overdue for rediscovery. A few sculptures here, curators have observed in years past, are notorious for attracting close inspections and caresses: Joel Shapiro’s 21-foot-tall geometric totem of a walking figure; Nam June Paik’s bronze Buddhas watching TV. They have been ringed this season with thin black ropes; not lovely, but you’ll live. In these first days of artistic re-entry, you might find yourself drawn as much to the lush landscape as to the large sculptures that punctuate it. The meadow grasses and wildflowers have grown high around Richard Serra’s “Schunnemunk Fork” (1990-91) a suite of four weathered steel plates that originally sliced across the mowed lawn but now nearly disappear into the brush.

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QAnon explained: the antisemitic conspiracy theory gaining traction around the world

Julia Carrie Wong in The Guardian:

To Donald Trump, it’s “people who love our country”. To the FBI, it’s a potential domestic terror threat. And to you or anyone else who has logged on to Facebook in recent months, it may just be a friend or family member who has started to show an alarming interest in child trafficking, the “cabal”, or conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and the coronavirus.

This is QAnon, a wide-ranging and baseless internet conspiracy theory that reached the American mainstream in August. The movement has been festering on the fringes of rightwing internet communities for years, but its visibility has exploded in recent months amid the social unrest and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, a QAnon supporter is probably heading to the US Congress, the president (who plays a crucial role in QAnon’s false narrative) has refused to debunk and disavow it, and the successful hijacking of the #SaveTheChildren hashtag has provided the movement a more palatable banner under which to stage real-life recruiting events and manipulate local news coverage.

Here’s our guide to what you need to know about QAnon.

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