Getting to the “Click”: Teaching the MFA at Bennington

Sven Birkerts in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

Teaching writing, unlike most other kinds of teaching, is an intervention, closer to therapy than to any transmissible instruction. But with all the fussing about craft — anyone who teaches has a personal punch-list — we almost never hear about or get close to the real business, the meld. Maybe because each teacher is different and each interaction draws on a unique set of human variables.

Let me start at the beginning. Bennington MFA: the residency

Day one. The residency begins: greetings all around, the hors d’oeuvres and the better wine laid out in the big cafeteria space. Reminders have been posted and emailed that the first workshop starts tomorrow at one o’clock in the Barn. But really, the whole business has begun already. Because, of course, the student-teacher assignments have been made, and the first workshop packets have been sent to everyone, and it’s a good bet that everyone has read everything in order to suss out the field. Most students have surely Googled their instructor.

More here.

How Wavelets Allow Researchers to Transform, and Understand, Data

Alexander Hellemans in Quanta:

In an increasingly data-driven world, mathematical tools known as wavelets have become an indispensable way to analyze and understand information. Many researchers receive their data in the form of continuous signals, meaning an unbroken stream of information evolving over time, such as a geophysicist listening to sound waves bouncing off of rock layers underground, or a data scientist studying the electrical data streams obtained by scanning images. These data can take on many different shapes and patterns, making it hard to analyze them as a whole or to take them apart and study their pieces — but wavelets can help.

Wavelets are representations of short wavelike oscillations with different frequency ranges and shapes. Because they can take on many forms — nearly any frequency, wavelength and specific shape is possible — researchers can use them to identify and match specific wave patterns in almost any continuous signal. Because of their wide versatility, wavelets have revolutionized the study of complex wave phenomena in image processing, communication and scientific data streams.

More here.

A Professor’s Apology for Showing a Film With Blackface Was Not Enough

Tom Bartlett in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Sheng, a professor of composition at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater, and Dance, said he was sorry for showing a 1965 film version of Othello, starring Laurence Olivier in blackface, during an undergraduate class last month. In the first apology, sent to students shortly after the class ended, he called the film’s use of blackface “racially insensitive and outdated” and wrote that it was “wrong for me” to show it. He promised they would discuss the issue in the next class. As it turns out, he wouldn’t get that chance.

In an email sent several days later, Sheng again apologized, this time at more length, writing that he did not initially realize the “graveness of my action” and that he “failed to recognize that showing a heavy makeup of a black face in fact has a strong racist content.” But that didn’t stop calls for Sheng, a renowned composer and pianist who was selected as MacArthur fellow in 2001, to be removed from the class.

More here.

Tuesday Poem


You stand in the scuffed Box Brownie square,
pretty and slim in your summer shorts,
your Heddy Lemarr hair, in front of a stage-left
parasol somewhere on the Côte d’Azure
between your two young daughters,
like the border guard between rival nations.
All of us squinting in the unfamiliar sun.

The past, they say, is another country,
one I barely remember as I search
our eyes to understand the real story.
I forget what was going on in front of us.
A man waving to his wife from the sea,
perhaps, a barefoot boy in a sombrero
selling sugared almonds on the beach,
children in a pedallo, laughing.

Years later, as you lay
trying to catch your shallow breath
in the summer heat –
the same month as your name,
the same month as your birth –
I sat beside your cot holding
your frail hand in mine
like a child in danger of getting lost –
wanting to tell you,
this is who I am, this has been the story.
That there are no drafts, no proofs
to be corrected, that we do not
get to write it again.

by Sue Hubbard
the punch magazine

Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life

Jackson Arn at Art in America:

Yet the fact remains that Harold Rosenberg is to the intellectuals of midcentury Manhattan what Andrew McCarthy is to the Brat Pack of 1980s Hollywood—the most minor of the major, the one people may have heard of but couldn’t tell you much about. He wrote for Partisan ReviewCommentary, and the other august little magazines that flourished between the rise of the New Deal and the fraying of the New Left. At the time of his death, he’d been the New Yorker’s art critic for twelve years. He knew everyone, sat on all the panels, went to all the parties; he even had an archnemesis in the art critic Clement Greenberg. He proposed daring theories and coined arresting phrases, most of which have been banished to the dustier corners of the library. Still, one good biography is all it would take to get a comeback going.

Instead, he got Harold Rosenberg: A Critic’s Life. Debra Bricker Balken has dug the man up, only to bury him in sentences like “Rosenberg’s sense of ostracism affected him emotionally.”

more here.

Ed Atkins’s ‘The Worm’

Hal Foster at Artforum:

The wager made by Atkins is that if reality can be derealized by such technologies, it might also be rediscovered there, and this might occur in a few ways. First, he believes that, once outmoded, technology passes over to the side of “base materiality”; its very clunkiness becomes a reality effect. Atkins adapts the term corpsing—the moment when an actor breaks character and so dispels the illusion of the performance—“to describe a kind of structural revelation more generally”; his examples are when a vinyl record jumps or a streaming movie buffers. To corpse a medium is to expose its materiality, even to underscore its mortality, and in this moment the real might poke through. Second, punctuated by the gestural tics of the Atkins avatar, The Worm is also rife with manufactured glitches—sudden blurs, flares, beeps, and crackles—and these apparent cracks in the artifice might provide another opening to the real. Although these reality effects are artificial, “they baffle the signs of reality by parodying them, engendering a new kind of realism.”7 Third, if the real might be felt when an illusion fails, so too might it be sensed when that illusion is “glazed with effects to italicize the artifice,” that is, when illusionism is pushed to a hyperreal point.

more here.

The next frontier for human embryo research

Elizabeth Svoboda in Nature:

In a laboratory in Israel, an incubator drum spins on a bench. The two glass bottles attached to the drum contain mouse embryos, each the size of a grain of rice, with translucent, pulsing hearts.

Whole mouse embryos have typically been grown in vitro for only about 24 hours. But by carefully tuning the mix of chemicals that the mouse embryos are bathed in, a team at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, managed to sustain five-day-old embryos outside the uterus for six more days1. This is about one-third of their normal three-week gestation and parallels some events in the first trimester of human embryonic development. Growing human embryos using similar techniques could allow scientists to study processes integral to human development that have long been hidden from view. “This may become the gold standard of looking at human embryonic biology,” says Jacob Hanna, a stem-cell biologist and lead researcher on the project at the Weizmann Institute of Science.

This and other recent breakthroughs, such as the creation of human-embryo-like structures from pluripotent stem cells, give scientists an arsenal of tools with which to probe further into early human development. Hanna’s drum incubator and these human-embryo models promise to allow more detailed study of processes such as gastrulation — in which three germ-cell layers develop into an array of tissues — and organ formation. Hanna and others say that understanding these crucial embryonic phases is essential to devising therapies that correct developmental errors, as well as to creating transplantable human organs.

More here.

Republicans would “rather end democracy” than turn away from Trump, says Harvard professor

Dear Obeidallah in Salon:

It can happen here. The “it” ought to be obvious by now: an authoritarian or even fascist regime in the United States. That was a big reason why Harvard professor Steven Levitsky, along with his colleague Daniel Ziblatt, published the 2018 book “How Democracies Die.” They wanted to warn Americans of the dangerous signs they saw in Donald Trump’s presidency that followed the authoritarian playbook.

So where are we now in terms of our democracy? I spoke with Levitsky recently for Salon Talks, and here’s one line that really stood out: Levitsky told me, “Five years ago I would have laughed you out of the room if you suggested our democracy could die.” But today, he added, we see the Republican Party apparently focused on breaking our democracy. In a nutshell, Levitsky believes the threat to our democracy is more acute today than when Trump was in the White House, since the GOP is desperate to retain its fading power in the face of hostile demographic change.

Levitsky describes today’s GOP as “clearly an authoritarian party.” Worse yet, it’s no longer all about Trump. He sees the GOP continuing on its anti-democratic path for years to come, saying that even the contested term “fascist” is becoming more defensible given the GOP’s defense or denial of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.

More here.

Crime and Punishment – The Need For Inconsistency

by Martin Butler

Imagine a world where the prison population was a rough mirror of wider society. In such a world there is a similar spread of rich and poor, highly educated and less educated, as well as a roughly equal proportion of men and women and those from deprived areas and well-off areas. The proportions of different ethnic groups reflect those in the surrounding society, as does the age profile, and having a mental health problem bears no relation to the likelihood of being in prison, neither does being in care in any systematic way increase the chances of ending up as a young offender. In addition, there seems to be no pattern from year to year. Some years there are low levels of crime and in other years the crime rate jumps for no discernible reason. The random nature of the prison population is recognised as providing good evidence for the belief that criminality is simply a result of individuals using their free will to make bad decisions, since we are all equally capable of this.  After all, it could be argued, everyone is equal in possessing free will, and crime is a conscious and fully autonomous act in which social and psychological conditions play little part. Anyone, the argument goes, can be selfish or greedy and so succumb to criminality. In such a world, the general view is that prison exists to teach these individuals the error of their ways by providing them with extra motivation to retain their self-control next time temptation beckons.

It is instructive to ask how this imaginary world differs from, and is similar to, the actual world in which we live. What implications can we draw from the contrast? The obvious difference is that our prison population is nothing like that of the imaginary world, and I hardly need to go through the statistics that show how it’s very much not a cross-section of wider society with regards to gender, mental health, education level, family background, ethnicity, social deprivation, and so on. Read more »

The Von Neumann Mind: Constructing Meaning

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The homunculus fallacy: attempting to explain understanding in terms of representation begs the question of how that representation is itself understood, leading to infinite regress.

Turn your head to the left, and make a conscious inventory of what you’re seeing. In my case, I see a radiator upon which a tin can painted with an image of Santa Claus is perched; above that, a window, whose white frame delimits a slate gray sky and the very topmost potion of the roof of the neighboring building, brownish tiles punctuated by gray smokestacks and sheet-metal covered dormers lined by rain gutters.

Now turn your head to the right: the printer sitting on the smaller projection of my ‘L’-shaped, black desk; behind it, a brass floor lamp with an off-white lampshade; a black rocking chair; and then, black and white bookshelves in need of tidying up.

If you followed along so far, the above did two things: first, it made you execute certain movements; second, it gave you an impression of the room where I’m writing this. You probably find nothing extraordinary in this—yet, it raises a profound question: how can words, mere marks on paper (or ordered dots of light on a screen), have the power to make you do things (like turning your head), or transport ideas (like how the sky outside my window looks as I’m writing this)? Read more »

Epistemology of the Internet — and of Traditional Media

by Joseph Shieber

The scrapheap of history?

Given the seemingly daily stories of misinformation and its often tragic consequences, it can be tempting to search for ways to limit the impact of the Internet and social media outlets in contributing to the spread of misinformation. In a recent preprint, “The Epistemology of the Internet and the Regulation of Speech in America,” Brian Leiter, the Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School and a prominent blogger on both the philosophical and legal scenes, offers not only a very clear-headed diagnosis of the current landscape of online and media-driven misinformation, but also proposes remedies to improve our information landscape.

While Leiter’s discussion provides a useful — indeed necessary — way for thinking about the challenges posed by media outlets and the Internet alike, I will suggest that his focus on the Internet blinds him to the real culprit. Indeed, it is traditional media — and, in particular, Fox News — that is largely to blame for our current situation. I will suggest that this makes remedying the problems of our contemporary information environment at once easier, but also perhaps less exciting. Read more »

Monday Poem

Show Moon

look out your window, the moon is huge!

though not bigger than life, smaller than that
but big enough to have life take a look
and admire a midnight sun with hint of rouge
upheld in a mosh-pit of trees bare limbs a dark mesh
beyond a field upon a sky of blue-grey steel which
as long as nights last and days begin
will be the place this moon plays stage rear
then up and front as it climbs a starry scrim
and down again as life applauds before it disappears

Jim Culleny


Some Thoughts on Language

by Derek Neal

I went to France to study abroad as a 20-year-old in my third year of university. At the time, I had been studying French for eight years, but when I arrived in France, I found I was unable to express myself beyond the most rudimentary statements, and I couldn’t understand the rapid-fire questions sprayed at me by curious French students. After attending a dorm party that first weekend, I realized the gap between myself and the French students was simply too large to bridge; the most I could hope for from them was small talk and polite chatter—deep, meaningful conversation, and thus friendship, would be impossible.

Luckily, a group of Italians came to my rescue. Their English skills were more or less equivalent to my French, and their French, while being much better than mine, was at least comprehensible to my ears. I quickly fell in with them, we used French as our lingua franca, and my language ability rapidly improved.

After a few weeks, I stopped translating what I would say from English to French, and then I stopped forming sentences in my head altogether; I just said whatever I felt like saying, often to the amusement of my interlocutors (for whatever reason, foul language doesn’t seem so serious in another language). Eventually, I reached a point that seems to me a benchmark for all language learners: using a word without knowing its equivalent in one’s native language. A word pops into your head and you’re not sure exactly what it means, but it feels like the right word in the right moment, so you say it and judge the appropriateness of its use based on the reaction of the person with whom you’re speaking. The conversation continues, indicating you’ve made the correct choice. This is, in fact, how most language works, and it’s why learning a language in an educational environment where theory is emphasized over practice can be so difficult. In France, I quickly realized attending courses wouldn’t actually help me learn how to speak French, so I skipped class and went to the cafés instead; my grades suffered, but my fluency increased. Read more »

Trying to understand vaccine resistance

by Emrys Westacott

Upton Sinclair famously remarked that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” It is easy to imagine the sort of scenario that illustrates his point. A drug company rep works to increase how often a certain drug is prescribed, putting aside any worries that it is addictive. A video game designer seeks to increase the number of hours young players spend hooked on a game, not thinking about the impact this might have on their education.

Yet the current situation in the US regarding vaccine hesitancy–or, more accurately, vaccine resistance–seems to offer some striking examples that call Sinclair’s claim into question. A number of states, including New York State, have mandated vaccinations against covid for health care workers. Those who refuse to get the vaccine face termination. Some of these workers have nevertheless chosen to forfeit their jobs, income, and benefits rather than be vaccinated. Their salary depends on them not allowing their judgement to be influenced by the anti-vaxxers; yet they appear to have fallen under the influence just the same. Read more »

Birds and Bullies

by Tamuira Reid

He’s easy to spot. 

Signature knee-length yellow raincoat, with a stenciled peace sign on the back of it, that he wears irregardless of the weather. Army green cargo shorts with wrappers erupting from every pocket. White sneakers with orthopedic inserts to help him manage his slippery gait. The Roblox backpack from two Christmases ago, packed with sketch pads and sharpened pencils, an eraser to smudge and soften the lines of his alien bad guy drawings; one sandwich bag filled with gummy bears in case of an emergency snack attack situation (of which there have been many); a love letter from a classmate he’s too preoccupied to love back. 

Ollie Duffy, all eleven years of him, comes hurling towards me where I stand, back against a tree, off to the side, where I hide from the uncomfortable conversations that waiting parents are subjected to. Where I drink the last of my coffee in parental anonymity. Ollie Duffy, the kid always falling out of the frame, sliding on giant orthopedic shoes, coke-bottle glasses magnifying his eyes to the point of ridiculousness. In a sea of wayward school kids at pick-up, Ollie Duffy is the tsunami. 

He hugs me, always. He asks for food, always. And halfway down Christopher Street, after he’s inhaled his 99 cent bodega chips, is when I get the “How was your day, mom?” Always.

I know he’s not listening because listening is hard. Because grown-up shit is boring. Because Christopher Street is so sparkly, right? We move in-synch and at a fast clip, weaving in and out of pedestrian traffic, our shared skill set. I hold onto his hand, and he lets me. For now. Read more »

Grzegorz Kwiatkowski interviewed by Cynthia Haven

by Cynthia Haven

“People in the know know him.” That’s what his English translator, Peter Constantine, told me. Grzegorz Kwiatkowski is becoming an important poetic voice from today’s Poland, with six volumes of poetry, and translated editions on the way. His translator added, “He has a strange poetic voice, very original and stark.”

Grzegorz is also a celebrated musician: his internationally known post-rock band Trupa Trupa has been featured on NPR, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, and elsewhere.  He has called his music a “vital pessimism” which shows the “rather dark and rather frightening sides of human nature.”

He grew up in Gdańsk, in the shadow of a family marred by his grandfather’s internment in a concentration camp. “My grandfather and his sister were both in the camps. This experience buried them,” he said. “After the war, she went crazy and he became a quiet, hidden man.”

His minimalist poems explore not only conflicted pasts of Eastern Europe – for example, the Nazi euthanasia program – but also the paradoxes of contemporary genocides –Rwanda, for instance. His poems have been perceived as quasi-testimonies, provocative and lyrical utterances delivered by the dead.

Yale critic Richard Deming said that Kwiatkowski’s work “reveals that the unforgettable is also the undeniable. Is it beautiful? I say it is powerfully necessary, unrelentingly direct. I say it burns.” Read more »