Geoff Shullenberger at The New Atlantis:
The old net delusion was naïve but internally consistent. The new net delusion is fragmented and self-contradictory. It vacillates between radical pessimism about the effects of digital platforms and boosterism when new online happenings seem to revive the old cyber-utopian dreams.
One day, democracy is irreversibly poisoned by social media, which empowers the radical right, authoritarians, and racist, misogynist trolls. The next day, the very same platforms are giving rise to a thrilling resurgence of grassroots activism. The new net delusion more closely resembles a psychotic delusion in the clinical meaning of the word, in which the sufferer often swings between megalomaniacal fantasies of control and panicked sensations of loss of control.
Elizabeth Lowry at Literary Review:
‘Oh – Vivienne! Was there ever such a torture since life began!’ a dazed Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in 1930 after a typically miserable visit from T S Eliot and his wife. Vivien had been paranoid and cryptic, rambling about hornets under her bed as Tom tried to cover up with ‘longwinded and facetious’ stories, as she wrote to Vanessa Bell. What agony ‘to bear her on ones shoulders,’ Woolf marvelled, ‘biting, wriggling, raving, scratching, unwholesome, powdered … This bag of ferrets is what Tom wears round his neck.’ To offset this grotesque picture, Ann Pasternak Slater provides a kinder but equally revealing image of the Eliots’ early married life together, supplied by their friend Brigit Patmore. While they were all in the chemist’s one day, Vivien, a keen dancer, decided to demonstrate a ballet move, holding onto the counter with one hand, rising on her toes and putting out her other hand, ‘which Tom took in his right hand, watching Vivien’s feet with ardent interest whilst he supported her with real tenderness … Most husbands would have said, “Not here, for Heaven’s sake!”’ It’s a brilliant snapshot of their marital pas de deux, Viv letting it all hang out, Tom enabling.
Tuesday, December 1, 2020
Becca Rothfeld in Bookforum:
IT IS CUSTOMARY TO START an essay about Kafka by emphasizing how impossible it is to write about Kafka, then apologizing for making a doomed attempt. This gimmick has a distinguished lineage. “How, after all, does one dare, how can one presume?” Cynthia Ozick asks in the New Republic before she presumes for several ravishing pages. In the Paris Review, Joshua Cohen insists that “being asked to write about Kafka is like being asked to describe the Great Wall of China by someone who’s standing just next to it. The only honest thing to do is point.” But far from pointing, he gestures for thousands of words.
It goes practically without saying that Kafka would have appreciated these squirming feats of self-flagellation. In an essay about the master, we must observe the degrading formalities and undergo the ritual debasements. How dare I, etc. In The Trial, Josef K.’s crowning shame is his inability to reprimand himself for his unspecified crime. Though he knows it is “his duty to seize the knife as it float[s] from hand to hand above him and plunge it into himself,” he lacks the strength to do so. Like Kafka’s most famous protagonist, the critic is convinced of her guilt yet incapable of submitting to her punishment. She apologizes for writing yet another essay about Kafka—sorry!—but still she does not twist the blade and shut up. And so she stands as irrevocably and irredeemably accused as one of Kafka’s harrowed characters.
Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:
Aristotle conceived of the world in terms of teleological “final causes”; Darwin, or so the story goes, erased purpose and meaning from the world, replacing them with a bloodless scientific algorithm. But should we abandon all talk of meanings and purposes, or instead conceptualize them as emergent rather than fundamental? Philosophers (and former Mindscape guests) Alex Rosenberg and Daniel Dennett recently had an exchange on just this subject, and today we’re going to hear from a working scientist. David Haig is a geneticist and evolutionary biologist who argues that it’s perfectly sensible to perceive meaning as arising through the course of evolution, even if evolution itself is purposeless.
Adam Tooze in Public Books:
In the first half of 2020, as the world economy shut down, hundreds of millions of people across the world lost their jobs. Following India’s lockdown on March 24, 10s of millions of displaced migrant workers thronged bus stops waiting for a ride back to their villages. Many gave up and spent weeks on the road walking home. Over 1.5 billion young people were affected by school closures. The human capital foregone will, according to the World Bank, cost $10 trillion in future income.
Meanwhile, in China, economic growth had resumed by the summer. Amazon has added hundreds of thousands to its global workforce. The world’s corporations issued debt as never before. And, with Jeff Bezos in the lead, America’s billionaires saw their wealth surge to ever-more-grotesque heights.
In Las Vegas the painted rectangles of parking lots were repurposed as socially distanced campsites for those with no shelter to go to. Tech-savvy police forces in Southern California procured drones with loudspeakers to issue orders to the homeless remotely. Lines of SUVs and middle-class sedans snaked for miles as 10s of thousands of Americans stopped commuting and queued for food. Meanwhile, in the Hamptons, wealthy exiles from Manhattan outbid each other to install luxury swimming pools on the grounds of their summer residences.
Even in a world accustomed to extreme inequality, the disparate experience of the COVID shock has been dizzying. It will be years before comprehensive data is available to chart the precise impact of the pandemic on global inequality. But what might a sketch look like?
Once in Twelve Years, I Go to Church
I go to the church with the cross in it
and I kneel, because it hurts too much to sit,
and I pray, wordlessly. I go when it’s quiet,
when service is over, ideally when no one
is there. But someone is always there.
I don’t mean the priest. I don’t mean Jesus
or some deity who looks down on us.
God does not look down on us.
God does not exist, and yet God is
all there is. I mean I look at these walls,
mammoth two-foot by four-foot
blocks of limestone that could crush us,
beautifully. And I recall that limestone
is composed entirely of skeletal fragments,
of organisms caught in their less-than-final
resting places. And I hear in the stone
a rustling, the rustling of creatures
who once crept and bled upon the Earth,
like you and me. Creatures still here,
still whispering in our ears, still embodied
and participating in the language of the world.
What I hear is: that word—upon—is wrong.
We say upon as if the Earth were merely
lithosphere—the ground beneath—
and not the atmosphere, the Ecosphere:
not the sky and why above, not the blood
and good within. We say upon as if
the Earth and men were not each other,
and the lesser was merely a visitor
upon the greater’s soils. We say upon
but mean as one, we mean the Earth
that rose up and lived as us, as she lives
the creatures who whisper in these walls,
and as she lives the little poet
turning to limestone in this poem.
by Ricky Ray
from the Echotheo Review
Lydia Davis at The Believer:
The 1898 children’s classic known in America as Bob, Son of Battle and in England as Owd Bob: The Grey Dog of Kenmuir, by Alfred Ollivant, was long declared—and still is considered, by some—one of the great dog stories of all time, if not the greatest. One reviewer, E.V. Lucas, writing in The Northern Counties Magazine soon after the book was published, felt that this was the first time “full justice” had been done to a dog as a character in fiction. He declared, “Owd Bob is more than a dog story; it is a dog epic.”
Bob, Son of Battle is set in the county of Cumbria, in northern England, in the wild Daleland country close to the Scottish border, within a sheepherding community. The plot centers upon the rivalry between two sheepdogs—the noble Owd Bob, last of a long line of champions, gentle and patient; and the pugnacious, ill-tempered, ugly mongrel Red Wull—along with their masters and a boy who is caught in the middle, the son of one man but devoted to the other. Depicted in the most extreme terms throughout is the contrast between the character of the good master, James Moore, with his good dog, Owd Bob, and that of the violent father, M’Adam, with his mongrel, Red Wull, though both dogs and both masters are extraordinarily adept at the exacting skill of herding sheep.
Margaret Talbot at The New Yorker:
In 1964, a twenty-year-old Canadian singer named Joan Anderson began composing her own folk songs. They were good folk songs, sturdily constructed and memorable, but the genre corseted her. She would need to roam the mountains and plains of rock and jazz in order to claim her gift. Folk was not enough—but it was what was available to her as a young woman from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in the early nineteen-sixties, a woman in possession of an ethereal soprano and a four-string baritone ukulele, the instrument she could afford to buy on her own after her mother nixed a guitar. At nineteen, she left home for art school in Alberta—painting was her first creative outlet—and then began touring, playing in coffeehouses or church basements in Toronto and Calgary and Detroit. For her mother Myrtle’s birthday in 1965, Joan made her a tape with three of the songs she had written, “Urge for Going,” “Born to Take the Highway,” and “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.” In the folk tradition, they celebrate footloose rambling.
Monday, November 30, 2020
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NEW POSTS BELOW
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Before the COVID pandemic, travel to academic conferences and colloquia was a large part of the job of being a professor at a research-focused university. The last few months have given us the opportunity to reflect on the hurly burly of academic travel. We’ve keenly missed many things about those in-person events. Yet there were things we don’t miss very much at all. While academic conferences are still paused, we wanted to make a note about what’s worth our time and not, and then make some resolutions about what we can do better.
The bloom of online conferences since last Spring provides a key point of comparison. The online conference has many of the same problems that beset the in-person conference: the schedules are overfull with interesting papers at conflicting times, presenters go over their allotted times and thereby leave no time for discussion, and the Q&A sessions tend to go off the rails with people asking questions that have more to do with their own views than with the presentation. But we were still pleased that the move online allowed younger scholars the opportunity to shine and get uptake with their work. And we were able still to hear a few presentations that provided some real insight. In these respects, online conferences are much like their in-person counterparts.
But there are differences. A unique feature of in-person conferences lies in the unplanned sociality that they make possible. The in-person setting allows for the possibility of passing some luminary in the hall between sessions, or meeting someone whose work you just read. In fact, it’s a piece of unacknowledged common wisdom that the true value of in-person conferences lies in unstructured time when one is not attending sessions. Read more »
by Ali Minai
Given where we find ourselves in this late November of 2020, it is hard to think of a book more relevant or timely than The Hype Machine by Sinan Aral. The author is the David Austin Professor of Management and Professor of Information Technology and Marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As one of the world’s foremost experts on social media and its effects, Prof. Aral is the perfect person to look at how this phenomenon has changed the world and the human experience. This is what he sets out to do in his new book, The Hype Machine, published under the Currency Imprint of Random House this September, and with considerable success.
The book provides an excellent overview of where things stand with social media, its promise and its peril. For anyone looking for a single, accessibly non-technical source of information and insight on these important issues, this book is essential reading. The book is very well-organized, and the logical flow – both across and within chapters – is remarkably smooth. Overall, the book is an easy read that informs and educates the reader without getting mired in technical jargon – no mean feat for a book about a technical field that is rife with jargon. And, while a large proportion of the book simply communicates information on where things stand and how different social media platforms are shaping the lives of their users, Prof. Aral does not shy away from building a useful abstract framework in which to place all this, and to address the complex issues raised as a result. Read more »
Dylan Kwait. Surfers by Plum Island, October 2020.
With permission … thanks Dylan!
by Claire Chambers
This has been a terrible year with almost no redeeming features. I have written elsewhere about Covid-19’s hardships, both personal and political. Today, with a vaccine on the horizon and Trump defeated, I want to find some other crumbs of comfort that, as with Hansel and Gretel, might take us somewhere.
I am privileged to live with my husband Rob and two sons in our own house with a garden, and to hold down a lecturing job which is pretty secure. Rob is even more financially stable in his career, working as he does in a growth industry this pestilent year: he’s a family doctor.
But of course being a GP has brought its own share of unexpected stresses recently. In March when the UK government spectacularly failed to get PPE for medical professionals and disaster capitalists were circling, Rob bought some pyjamas from Marks and Spencer for turning into improvised surgical scrubs. He even fashioned his own visor using a piece of sponge, some plexiglass, and a coat hanger. Although he never had to use it, I won’t forget that time of helpless, abandoned terror.
Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie posted a microblog to Instagram early into this crisis about her fears around the pandemic. When I read these terse words, I nodded vigorously:
My husband is a doctor and each morning when he leaves for work, I worry. My throat itches and I worry. On Facetime I watch my elderly parents. I admonish them gently: Don’t let people come to the house. Don’t read the rubbish news on WhatsApp.
Out of the two vulnerable parents Adichie was worrying about in this essay from April, it is poignant to realize that her father was to die just two months later. Read more »
by Chris Horner
Not long ago there was an article circulating on Facebook about ‘Hating the English’, originally published in a large circulation newspaper. The Irish author says something to the effect that once she thought it was just a few bad ones etc., but now she hates the lot of them. It’s been stimulated, I think, by the repulsive English nationalism that has been raising its head since Brexit, plus the usual ignorance about Ireland, Irish history and Irish interests on the part of your typical ‘Brit’. It’s not a very good piece of writing, and it has a rather slight idea in it. I’d ignore it but for the ‘likes’ and positive comments it’s received, particularly from ‘leftists’. It’s an example of what we could call ‘bloc thinking’ – the emotionally satisfying but futile consignment of entire masses of people into categories of nice and nasty.
It has a number of obvious problems. It is deeply unwise to brand entire national groups good or bad, to declare love or hate for whole ethnic or national communities. Too many English people have branded the Irish in just that way throughout their shared and troubled history; just repeating it the other way is hardly progress. This kind of thing is the habit of the worst kinds of right wing chauvinists, and we should steer well clear of it. We get the same kind of thing about, for instance, from ‘anti-imperialists’ despising the ‘Americans’ (meaning usually: ’citizens of the USA’). This is particularly obtuse when it comes from people who have never visited the USA and don’t know anyone who lives there. Just think: 328 million people, rich and poor, white, black or brown, anglo and latino, from coast to coast. All dismissed, because policies emanating from ‘America’s’ ruling 1%. It is true that many – not all by any means – US citizens will have supported those policies, but that ought to be the beginning of a problem to think about, not the invitation to simple minded moralising. Fatuous generalisations are so obviously foolish that it might not detain us long, if it were not for the tendency of this kind of approach to encompass whole swathes of people, demographics and even generations as Good or Bad. So we get Greedy ‘boomers’ versus ‘millennials’, or whatever crass label is currently in use. And so on. Read more »
by Brooks Riley
by Thomas Larson
According to Donald Trump, in a statement made to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” April 11, 2011, about the fake “birther controversy” of President Barack Obama—the opening salvo in Trump’s campaign of political disinformation—Obama’s “grandmother in Kenya said, ‘Oh, no, he was born in Kenya and I was there and I witnessed the birth.’ She’s on tape,” Trump went on. “I think that tape’s going to be produced fairly soon. Somebody is coming out with a book in two weeks, it will be very interesting.”
And, according to Vox News, President Trump, two weeks after losing the 2020 November 3rd election, tweeted, “I won the election!” He had warned many times prior to the vote that the only way he would lose the election would be if it was rigged, and the only way he would win was if the election was fair, a remarkably trenchant conjuration of the Three Witches’ spell on Macbeth, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.”
And, according to Chanel Dion of One America News and Trump legal team lawyer, Sydney Powell, software engineers in Michigan and Georgia (and in parts of 26 other states) contracted with Dominion Voting Systems, which has financial ties to Nancy Pelosi, Dianne Feinstein, George Soros, the Clinton Foundation, and the seven-years-dead Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, to make ballot-counting machines switch votes from Republican to Democrat presidential candidates or to leave out a prescribed number of votes for President Trump in Joe Biden’s favor. Read more »
by Adele A Wilby
Recent protests in the US by Trump supporters since the election of Joe Biden, highlight just how political ideologies have the potential to tear seemingly ‘stable’ societies apart. A political divide however cannot always be seen as a clear-cut contradiction between the right and the left, as, for example, the way Trump supporters might assert; Biden, and Democrats more broadly, could hardly be seen to represent the left. Likewise, the right has it shades of commitment to conservatism. However, Trump’s 70 million supporters represent a congealing of far-right politics in America identifiable by the policies articulated by Trump that they endorse: anti- immigration, racism, a resurgent nationalism. While there is little doubt that such policies have been magical music to the ears of many right wingers, for others Trump and the Republican Party do not go far enough, and it is these extreme right-wing groups that are the subject of Talia Lavin’s book Culture Warlords: My Journey into the Dark Web of White Supremacists.
Lavin opens her book with an explicit acknowledgement of her politics. She admits that she is ‘to the left of Medicare for All’. Thus, there is no pretence of ‘objectivity’ in the subject of her research and analysis: the book is an account of her one year internet engagement with a ‘sliver of a movement’ of the right-wing spectrum. Her research though adds up to a shocking yet thought provoking first-hand account of the thinking that underpins the deep hate and the almost godlike worship of violence that white supremacists profess. Read more »