The Politics of the Anthropocene in a World After Neoliberalism

Duncan Kelly in the Boston Review:

Historian Adam Tooze has argued that COVID-19 is the first economic crisis of the Anthropocene, a term encapsulating the idea that human impact on the environment and climate is so extreme that it has moved us out of the Holocene into a new geological epoch. While this argument remains the subject of deep disagreement among experts, those advocating for the Anthropocene emphasize that humans have so drastically altered the environment that we have become agents of transformations we cannot reliably control. Indeed, we are daily reminded of these effects by extreme weather events, species extinctions, and new global health emergencies.

The most pressing and most obvious of these forces is the novel coronavirus, which has exposed the frailties of political systems in so-called advanced democracies in collectively terrifying but individually unsurprising ways. As with other pandemics, the least powerful and most insecure members of society are those who suffer the most.

More here.

How a panicking Cambridge institution obliterated the memory of one of its most famous sons, R. A. Fisher

A. W. F. Edwards in The Critic:

Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, founded in 1348, has an extraordinary record as the home of some of the greatest scientists and mathematicians of the past two centuries: John Venn of the logic diagram, Francis Crick of DNA fame, Sir James Chadwick, who discovered the neutron and, like Crick, was awarded the Nobel Prize — and Sir Ronald Fisher.

Fisher (1890-1962) may not be as widely known, but he was the deepest thinker of them all, promoting the new concepts that made him the founder of modern statistics and in evolutionary biology “the greatest of Darwin’s successors”. In statistics he was the worthy successor to Gauss and Laplace. In biology he brought together the work of Mendel and Galton and showed how Mendelism provided the mathematical structure that rescued Darwin’s theory of natural selection from the disfavour into which it had fallen. He was one of the founders of human genetics through his department at University College London.

More here.

On Maria Stepanova’s “In Memory of Memory”

Linda Kinstler at the LARB:

In Russian, the word for oblivion is “zabveniye,” suggesting a prolonged or unending state of forgetting, a designated holding cell for all forgotten things. “Oblivion, the copycat of nonexistence, has a new twin brother: the dead memory of the collector,” Maria Stepanova writes in In Memory of Memory. Beautifully translated by the poet Sasha Dugdale, the book teems with oblivion. Family heirlooms are “dragged out of their oblivion,” experiences and memories are saved from its cold embrace. “All the past is carried off into oblivion,” Stepanova writes, “and it leaves a clear space for the future.” Oblivion is a kind of storage facility for exhausted histories. Inside its walls, Stepanova acts as collector and critic, and makes her temporary home.

Memory is not a novel but “a romance,” a love affair with memory and its advocates. “This book about my family is not about my family at all,” she writes, “but something quite different: the way memory works, and what memory wants from me.”

more here.

Adorno, Aesthetic Negativity, and The Problem of Idealism

Robert Pippin at Nonsite:

One of Adorno’s most sweeping and frequent characterizations of his project in Aesthetic Theory has it that the “task that confronts aesthetics today” is an “emancipation from absolute idealism.” The context (and the phrase itself) makes it explicit that he means Hegel, but only in so far as Hegel represents the culmination and essence of modern philosophy itself, or what Adorno calls “identity thinking.” He means by this that reflection on art should be freed from an aspiration for any even potential reconciliationist relation with contemporary society, or any sort of role in the potential rationalization or justification of any reform of any basic aspect of late modernity, or freed even from any aspiration for an aesthetic comprehension of that society, as if it had some coherent structure available for comprehension. He especially means that any expression or portrayal of the suffering caused in modern societies—capitalist, bourgeois society—that calls such a society to account in its own terms is excluded. Those terms have become irredeemably degraded and corrupt. Modern bourgeois society is in itself, root and branch, “wrong,” “false,” and the problem of art has become what it must be in such a world. What it must be is “negative,” and any attempt to understand Adorno must begin and end with that claim.

more here.

Wednesday Poem

We Sinful Women

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don’t sell our lives
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.

It is we sinful women
while those who sell the harvests of our bodies
become exalted
become distinguished
become the just princes of the material world.

It is we sinful women
who come out raising the banner of truth
up against barricades of lies on the highways
who find stories of persecution piled on each threshold
who find that tongues which could speak have been severed.

It is we sinful women.
Now, even if the night gives chase
these eyes shall not be put out.
For the wall which has been razed
don’t insist now on raising it again.

It is we sinful women
who are not awed by the grandeur of those who wear gowns

who don’t sell our bodies
who don’t bow our heads
who don’t fold our hands together.

by Kishwar Naheed and here
Contemporary Urdu Feminist Poetry (with original Urdu poems)
The Women’s Press Ltd, London, 1991

The Best Movie Performances of the Century So Far

Richard Brody in The New Yorker:

The best cinematic performances don’t share some standard of craft or technique; what they have in common is a feeling of invention and discovery, of emotional depth and power, and a sense of self-consciousness regarding the idea and the art of performance itself. They also reflect broader transformations in the art of cinema during their times. Such actors as Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Jimmy Stewart were already stars in the high studio era of the nineteen-thirties, but their work became more freely expressive, more galvanic, in the postwar years, when the studios lost their tight grip on production—and when a new generation of directors made their mark in that freer environment. The French New Wave, developing new techniques with a new generation of actors (and crew), lifted layers of varnish from the art of acting to fill the screen with performances of jolting immediacy, spontaneity, and vulnerability.

The film performances of the beginning of the twenty-first century are a product of the drastic transformations that have taken place in moviemaking in recent decades, as a new generation of directors, both in Hollywood and outside of it, has managed to invent modes of moviemaking capable of adapting to unprecedented crises in the industry. The competition from television (“prestige” or otherwise), the top-heavy expansion of blockbuster franchises, and the rise of streaming platforms have led to a decline in studio movie production. As a result, independent producers have grown significantly in prominence and power, and their financing has had a liberating effect on directors, and, by extension, on actors: working largely with modest budgets (yet occasionally with larger ones than studios would provide), filmmakers have been able to take greater risks and make more unusual films—and to develop new methods of performance with actors whose artistry closely fits their own.

More here.

A biographer and a bioethicist take on the CRISPR revolution

Jackie Leach Scully in Nature:

What we used to call genetic engineering has been subject to decades of bioethical scrutiny. Then, the arrival of CRISPR — which allows researchers to cut and paste gene sequences with vastly improved accuracy and efficiency — catapulted reassuringly distant science fiction into a pressing reality, and helped to concentrate minds. There’s now enough technical and popular writing on the technology and its ethics to fill many bookshelves. Given that not even ten years have passed since the first papers showing a practical use for CRISPR in human genome editing, these accounts inevitably go over much of the same territory. The differences are in the authors’ perspectives — broadly enthusiastic about the possibilities of genome editing, or not — and whether the focus is on the discoveries, the ramifications, the personalities involved or some combination. Two new books on the topic differ markedly in reach, style and emphasis. Reading them together gives insight into what the CRISPR story means — for knowledge, for society and for research as an endeavour.

Henry Greely, author of CRISPR People, is a bioethicist with a legal background. His focus is the now-familiar tale of biophysicist He Jiankui’s attempt to change the DNA of human embryos, with the aim of producing the first genetically edited human babies. Greely describes the science, ethics and legal framework of genome editing before CRISPR; how that technology changed the game; what He Jiankui actually did in the laboratory, as far as we know; and how the world responded to the news of the births of genome-edited twins in 2018.

More here.

Georg Trakl’s Foreheads, Stars, and Verses

Morgan Meis at Slant Books:

I’ve never really understood why Georg Trakl talks about foreheads so much. I mean, you can imagine the word coming up once in a poem for some reason or other. I can even see that there is something fascinating about foreheads in that they are both of and not of the face. That’s to say, you don’t generally get a face without a forehead. The forehead sets up the face. And yet, it’s not really part of the face per se. The forehead is claimed to some degree by the rest of the head. It is a glimpse of the skull. It is a stoic and mostly featureless reminder that behind the bones of the head are the squishy parts of the brain. So, yes, I acknowledge that foreheads are, perhaps, more intriguing than at first they may seem.

But Georg Trakl mentions foreheads a lot in his poems. Dozens of times. I don’t have the exact number ready to hand. Let’s just accept that Trakl’s poetry is filled with foreheads and that there is no obvious rhyme or reason according to which all these foreheads appear.

Trakl, I should mention, was an Austrian poet of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He amazed and baffled his contemporaries. He was an intense and otherworldly sort of fellow. He wrote poems that were beloved, though admittedly not often understood, by people like Wittgenstein and Rilke and Heidegger. He was heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol and died of overdose aged twenty-seven, just at the start of World War I.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Justin Clarke-Doane on Mathematics, Morality, Objectivity, and Reality

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

On a spectrum of philosophical topics, one might be tempted to put mathematics and morality on opposite ends. Math is one of the most pristine and rigorously-developed areas of human thought, while morality is notoriously contentious and resistant to consensus. But the more you dig into the depths, the more alike these two fields appear to be. Justin Clarke-Doane argues that they are very much alike indeed, especially when it comes to questions of “reality” and “objectivity” — but that they aren’t quite exactly analogous. We get a little bit into the weeds, but this is a case where close attention will pay off.

More here.

Justin Smith on Intelligence, Merit, and the Future of Work

Justin E. H. Smith in his Substack Newsletter:

A few weeks ago I served, as I sometimes do, on a dissertation-defense committee at a certain venerable Old World university. The event took place in a building whose foundations date to the thirteenth century, in a specialized “salle de soutenance” constructed in the nineteenth. The defendant was made to sit at a small desk beneath a looming podium, where we, the honorable members of the jury, were solemnly seated. The borrowed vocabulary from the world of the criminal trial is intentional and unmistakable. As usual I tried to play my part and look as grim and serious as possible. I confess I find it fairly easy, at least for a short time, to get swept up by the spirit of such rituals.

The dissertation itself was excellent. The student, a non-European, jumped right to the chase and gave a formidable account of the finer connotations of the Latin philosophical terms at the heart of his work. It was stunning no-bullshit scholarship — the raison d’être of universities for a millennium or so and right up until the most recent decade, and that still persists in certain protected pockets of Europe.

But neither can it be denied that even here, in this pocket, the vibe of the whole affair was rather like that of, say, a baroque chamber ensemble that insists on playing period instruments. We were, in effect, LARPing, pretending to be scholars from back in the ancien régime, when such endeavors were a secure and meaningful part of our shared social reality.

More here.

The Science and Politics of Migration

Daniel Immerwahr at The Nation:

For Shah, migration has always been the rule rather than the exception, but it will become even more common as the planet warms. The low-lying country of Bangladesh has a population of more than 150 million. If the seas rise three feet—quite likely to happen this century—a fifth of its land, on which some 30 million people live, will be submerged. Those 30 million will be forced to move, and when they do, it will matter how they’re regarded. As “Bangladeshis” perpetually out of place, they will likely struggle to find safe berth. It would be better, Shah suggests, to drop the labels, recognize human beings as a migratory species, and build institutions around that fact.

more here.

Chips Channon: Sex, Scandal and High Society

Andrew Marr at The New Statesman:

We don’t read diarists because we admire them, but because they were there, and they note down what they saw and heard. “Chips” Channon was wrong about almost everything. But do we read Boswell, Casanova, Pepys, Alan Clark or even Sasha Swire for their judgement? We do not. We read them to be taken aback, and to question ourselves. Exhausting, massive, genuinely shocking, and still revelatory, this new edition of the Channon diaries is a work of irrigation and genuine scholarship. Few people may read them from cover to cover, but the stories they contain will rattle noisily around our culture for decades ahead.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

“(The Birth of Guam)” (Poem)

Guam was born on March 6, 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan arrived in the womb of Humåtak Bay and delivered [us] into the calloused hands of modernity. “Guam is Where Western Imperialism in the Pacifc Begins!” St. Helena Augusta, tayuyute [ham] : pray for [us]. The annual reenactment of “Discovery Day” is a must see for all tourists: Chamorros-dressed-as-our- ancestors welcome Chamorros-dressed-as-the-galleon-crew. After the bloody performance, enjoy local food, walking tours, live reggae bands, and fireworks! Guam was adopted on December 10, 1898, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, and Spain ceded [us] to the United States. “Guam is Where America’s Western Frontier Begins!” Guam was declared an “unincorporated territory” on May 27, 1901, when the Supreme Court Insular Cases decided that the U.S. constitution does not follow its flag. “Guam is Where America’s Logic of Territorial Incorporation Ends!” Guam was kidnapped on December 8, 1941, when Japan bombed, invaded, and occupied [us]. “Guam is Where the Greater East Asia Co- Prosperity Sphere Begins!” On July 21, 1944, the U.S. armed forces returned and defeated the Japanese military. Guam was naturalized on August 1, 1950, when the Organic Act bestowed U.S. citizenship upon [us]. “Guam is Where America’s Passports Begin!” Guam was pimped out on May 1, 1967, when Pan American World Airways arrived with the first 109 Japanese tourists. The Guam Visitors Bureau birthed a new marketing slogan: “Guam is Where America’s Day Begins!” Since Guam is located 2,000 miles west of the international dateline, [we] instagram the sunrise before anyone in the fifty states. For the past 30 years, a straw poll on Guam has accurately predicted U.S. presidential elections, even though our votes don’t actually count in the electoral college. “Guam is Where America’s Voting Rights End!” This ironic streak ended in 2016, when Hillary Clinton received 70% of the ballots cast on Guam, yet Donald Trump still won #notmycolonizerinchief. St. Thomas More, tayuyute [ham]. After the election, [we] begin the countdown to Super Bowl Monday, a sacred day when all Chamorros leave work and school in procession to the altar of the television. St. Sebastian, tayuyute [ham]. I attended George Washington High School on Guam, but I often skipped “English” class because the haole teacher made [us] memorize boring, canonical verse. “Guam is Where America’s Poetry Begins!” Sorry not sorry if I threw everyone’s rhyme and meter off.

by Craig Santos Perez

On the anniversary of Selma we are sadly reminded: voting rights are still imperiled

Elliott Smith in The Guardian:

On 7 March 1965, the nation came to grips with one of the most iconic images synonymous with the fight for voting rights and equality. Amelia Boynton, a matriarch of the civil rights movement, lead strategist in the Selma Voting Rights Campaign and my great-aunt, helped prick the conscience of a nation struggling to confront the lie of racism and injustice. She, alongside the late congressman John Lewis and many others, staged a 52-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery to protest the murder of the voting rights activist Jimmie Lee Jackson at the hands of law enforcement and to dramatize the struggle for the right to vote. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the marchers were met by a sea of Alabama state troopers and sheriff deputies determined to hinder the momentum and movement they had garnered. On this anniversary, let us honor our ancestors not by mere reflections and thoughts, but by continuing to push our lawmakers to invest in full democracy that requires the restoration of a new Voting Rights Act.

Until she died at the age of 104, my great-aunt Amelia would solemnly recount that day, which became known as Bloody Sunday, when she and other peaceful marchers fell victim to teargas and beatings. She felt two blows, one on the arm and the other on the head, and fell to the ground unconscious, gasping for breath as Sheriff Jim Clark stood by refusing to offer aid. There were screams, cries and moans for more than a mile, as people were brutally attacked from the front of the line all the way back to Brown’s Chapel AME church, she recounted. Little did they know that Bloody Sunday would mark one of the greatest struggles for freedom and liberation in modern times. As the struggle in Birmingham and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Selma to Montgomery marches led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, as I look back at history and reflect on recent events, I can’t help but wonder: what progress have we really made, as a society, to protect and expand our fundamental right to vote?

More here.

Triangulating Math, Mozart and ‘Moby-Dick’

Siobhan Roberts in The New York Times:

For the mathematician Sarah Hart, a close reading of “Moby-Dick” reveals not merely (per D.H. Lawrence) “one of the strangest and most wonderful books in the world” and “the greatest book of the sea ever written,” but also a work awash in mathematical metaphors. “Herman Melville, he really liked mathematics — you can see it in his books,” said Dr. Hart, a professor at Birkbeck, University of London, during a February talk on “Mathematical Journeys into Fictional Worlds.”

“When he’s reaching for an allusion or a metaphor, he’ll often pick a mathematical one,” she said. “‘Moby-Dick’ has loads of lovely juicy mathematics in it.” Near the beginning of the story, Ishmael, the narrator, describes the stingy landlord and his wares at Spouter-Inn: “Abominable are the tumblers into which he pours his poison. Though true cylinders without — within, the villainous green goggling glasses deceitfully tapered downward to a cheating bottom. Parallel meridians rudely pecked into the glass, surround these footpads’ goblets.”

And at the end, Captain Ahab praises the loyal cabin boy, Pip, with geometry: “True art thou, lad, as the circumference to its center.”

More here.

Hidden Worlds: Science, Truth, and Quantum Mechanics

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: A typical result of googling the word ‘quantum’: pretty, but not especially enlightening.

Hearing the words ‘quantum mechanics’ usually invokes images of the impossibly tiny and fleeting, phenomena just barely on the edge of existence, unfathomably far removed from everyday experience. Perhaps illustrated in the form of bright, jittery sparkly things jumping about in a PBS documentary, perhaps as amorphous, hovering blobs of improbability, perhaps, sometimes, by the confounding notion of a cat that’s somehow both dead and alive, yet neither of those.

This does the subject a disservice. It paints a picture of quantum mechanics as far removed from everyday experience, as something we need not worry about in everyday life, something for boffins in lab-coats to contend with in their arcane ways. Yet, we’re told of the fantastic properties of the quantum world: particles that can be in two places at once, or spontaneously erupt out of sheer nothingness; that can jump through walls and communicate with one another across great distances instantly; that seem to know when they’re being watched; that are somehow both wave and particle; and so on.

Quantum reality, then, is at once beyond our grasp and, apparently, a source of fantastical properties. This combination has always marked the arena of the mystical: something just out of reach, something fundamentally unknowable, that, nevertheless, holds the promise of opening the doors to a strange, new world—to powers far beyond those the mundane world holds in store. The quantum world is a hidden world, and, like other hidden worlds throughout history, access to it becomes a coveted resource—to the profit of those purporting to be able to grant it. Read more »