Scavenging Science: On John Horgan and Tao Lin

by David Kordahl

Covers of Pay Attention and Leave Society

From the moment we’re born into bright hospital lights until that last day when we’re topped off with embalming fluid, it’s hard to escape the human world. By the “human world,” here, I mean the world that we have built for ourselves, a world where, whether or not you know the specific secrets of bridge struts or brain imagers, you can be sure that someone out there knows. Most questions, here, have their straightforward answers. So many, in truth, that you can easily lose sight of the mystery, the “human” part of this world, hidden like a pilot light inside the machine.

John Horgan and Tao Lin are two writers who are each interested in both the “human” and the “world” parts of this, and each has recently written a new autofiction. Pay Attention: Sex, Death, and Science describes a day in the life of Eamon Toole, Horgan’s stand-in, an aging, recently-divorced professor who ruminates on free will as he looks forward to meeting his girlfriend. Leave Society, starring Li as a stand-in for Tao Lin, chronicles Li’s attempts to cure himself from society-induced sicknesses. By the end of the book, getting a girlfriend seems to do the trick.

It’s a little glib to compare these books just because they both involve sad guys who are grateful for their girlfriends. But Pay Attention and Leave Society also rhyme in more significant ways. Both are essentially about the shortcomings of traditional science in capturing the world. Horgan never pushes this idea very far, while Lin pushes it into the realm of pseudo-science. Yet it’s not obvious which book is ultimately more rational. Read more »


Simone Weil on the Beach

by Michael Abraham-Fiallos

“The Iliad, or The Poem of Force” is a now-canonical lyrical-critical essay by the French anarchist and Christian mystic, Simone Weil. In it, Weil critiques the Iliad to arrive at an understanding of what she calls force, something just beyond human action, alive in and ruling over the interactions of persons. “In this work,” Weil writes of the Iliad at the top of the essay, “at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” The truth of force, she writes later, is that “nobody really possesses it”; instead, it possesses us: it intoxicates, destroys, instigates conflict and props of hierarchy between the weak and the strong, strikes finally and surely with the intensity of what Weil calls “blind destiny” against both the weak and the strong. “He that takes the sword will perish by the sword,” Weil writes, and then she cites the Iliad: “Ares is just, and kills those who kill.”

What force really does for Weil is turn the human into an object. “Once the experience of war makes visible the possibility of death that lies locked up in each moment,” Weil argues, “our thoughts cannot travel from one day to the next without meeting death’s face.” The soul who discovers death’s omnipresence must castrate itself, she continues, of all yearning for life; its sole aim becomes the destruction of others. There might be a way out of this bind, she suggests: “To respect life in somebody else when you have had to castrate yourself of all yearning for it demands a truly heart-breaking exertion of generosity,” a generosity which Weil believes attaches only to Patroclus in the poem. But, she dismisses out of hand that such generosity is a historical force. Those who possess force—which is to say, those for whom force is acting in the benefit for the moment only—do not have space for this generosity. “Lacking this generosity,” she continues, in a dark mood, “the conquering soldier is like a scourge of nature. Possessed by war, he, like the slave, becomes a thing … Such is the nature of force. Its power of converting man into a thing is a double one”—double for it takes hold of the soul of the possessor of force, remaking him into a mere peon of force’s action, the aim of which action is to reduce the victim of force to mere body, to destroy them.  Read more »

Monday Poem

 

Galleon America

the complexity of your crossed purposes,
beauty and war, grace and wastefulness,
you rest solidly at sea upon a liquid
without yet dropping through,
a steel log with algorithmic spurs
hollow inside of rust and rot, a contradiction,
weighty and weightless, floating
white swan, Earth burns, black pawns,
Jesus weeps, Mars is gloating

Jim Culleny
2/15/20

Pen & ink 1997, Jim C.

Musings On The Anthropocene

by Usha Alexander

[This is the twelfth in a series of essays, On Climate Truth and Fiction, in which I raise questions about environmental distress, the human experience, and storytelling. All the articles in this series can be read here.]

In the late 1960s and early 70s, Pocatello, Idaho, was one of the fastest growing towns in the United States. It was, and still is, a bland little place in the arid montane region of the American West. I don’t know why it mushroomed then; it has since stagnated and even shrunk. Nevertheless, the summer I turned four, my family was one among many who moved to reside there. Our little red brick house, still unfinished on the day we moved in, was the last house at the end of a newly laid street, still half-empty of houses. Our street stretched like a solitary finger into a kind of wilderness, an austere, high-desert landscape that surrounded our foundling residential colony. From my vantage as a child, preoccupied with the flowers, spiders, and thistles that stuck to my socks, I would see this place transformed.

Little did I know that this landscape was, in fact, already overgrazed and degraded, that some of the plants, which so quickly became familiars—like the Russian Thistle, aka tumbleweed—were actually invasive species. Despite that, it thrived. The undulating hillsides were coarsely matted with hard grasses and sedges, sagebrush, gnarled juniper, all hues of dusty green and wood. Here and there, yellow flares of prickly pear blossoms. Blood red Indian paintbrush splashed across the pale dirt. A sprinkling of white sego lilies.

All the new, single-story homes along our street were encircled by large, grassy yards, where the neighborhood kids played for hours into the lingering, northerly summer sunsets. Next to our house, a dusty trackway wound down the hillside toward a rustic, little ranch below. A brook that passed by the ranch could be made out by the vibrant streak it traced through the pale grasses and shrubs, an incongruous density of ferns and spindly, deciduous trees that grew up from its steep banks. A set of fences out beyond the dirt road sometimes corralled a few horses or cows. Alongside them, a scratch of a trail led further up into the open hills. Read more »

9/11/01: A Memoir

by Eric J. Weiner

The chill in the early morning air hinted of autumn, yet the intensity of the rising sun promised summer heat. Black Tupelo and Red Maple leaves teased memories of fall with premature wisps of yellow and orange. The sky was a depthless cobalt blue, its crystallinity making everything and everyone shimmer. It makes sense that the stunning weather on that particular morning should become a shared referent for our collective dissonance, a common denominator of terror, mourning, and remembrance spanning two decades.

In the cool air and bright glare of the sun, our glass and steel towers gave evidence of our dominion over nature and, by extension, everything and everyone else. Our arrogance, brilliance, barbarism, and beauty, wrapped in the spectacular innovations and intoxicating aesthetic brutalism of modernity, stretched magnificently into the endless expanse of sky. In a reversal of Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam, the twin towers, like two fingers of iron and glass rising out of the mud, reached toward the heavens searching for the invisible hand of God. We were the kings and queens of the second millennium, 21st century global conquistadors of culture and finance, the immaculate children of Artemis, oblivious yet intuitively aware of our power as only the powerful can be. A comforting stillness cocooned us in the din of our urban hustle, told us that we were safe, to go about our business, to even pause for a few seconds to admire the tragedy and majesty of it all. Who could deny that we not only had the world by the balls, but Mother Nature on her knees?

It was my first semester as an assistant professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey and the first week of classes. From the highest point on campus, you could see New York City’s iconic skyline. Even though it’s a suburban New Jersey public university in the heart of Essex county, its proximity to New York City allowed me to imagine its ethos as more urbane than it actually was. By proximal association, I would claim New York City my spiritual home, even though I slept in Hoboken and worked in Montclair. Read more »

Hidden in the Field: a conversation with Margot Livesey

by Philip Graham

Margot Livesey’s The Boy in the Field is a mystery novel in the broadest sense of that literary term. Yes, the novel begins with the discovery of a crime, and the perpetrator remains at large for most of the narrative. Yet the “what happened next” of a standard mystery novel concentrates on the three siblings who came upon the victim lying in a field, the reverberations of that event on their young lives, and of the family they are a part of. “Mystery” can reside within all of us, to locate or evade, and that is the deeper reveal that Livesey hunts for in this wise and haunting book.

Philip Graham: In your novel, The Boy in the Field, Duncan makes an observation about his family: “During his brief period as a Boy Scout, he had learned that the compass has thirty-two points. Now he could say with confidence that each person in his family was heading toward a different one.” This insight of Duncan’s seems to be the basso ostinado of your novel’s structure: how do members of a family find their individual paths while still remaining a unit called a family?

Margot Livesey: What a great phrase: phrase basso ostinato. Years ago, I read a quotation by Katherine Mansfield, (from her diary, I think) musing about her great story “Prelude.” Even in the happiest of families, she claimed, every member is striving desperately to get free. In The Boy in the Field I hoped to show what is, in many respects, a happy family but one in which, as Duncan remarks, everyone is heading in a different direction. How far can they go, on their separate quests, without threatening the family? The father’s affair threatens it in one way; Duncan’s search for his birth mother in another. Matthew’s and Zoe’s quests are less immediately threatening but also carry them away from the family. Perhaps that’s why they all need Lily, Duncan’s almost perfect dog. Read more »

A Car Story

by R. Passov

By the time my father left to do some time, everything of any value had been pawned. What remained were a few stale cigars which led to a serious vomiting fit, and an old Craftsman tool box. If anything entered our small flat, and if it wasn’t a cat or a dog, I’d drag that tool box out from the bottom of a closet.

Not long after my father went away, my paternal grandmother talked the manager of a gas station into giving me a job. For a dollar a day, every now and then I was sent for a tool. Once, a mechanic let me watch as he adjusted the valves on a running engine. The pushrods, he explained, sat on the lifters, one each for intake and exhaust valve. The rocker arms sat on the pushrods. With a valve cover off, the inner workings were exposed: Eight rocker arms, running in a precise rhythm, moving so fast they looked still. 

From experience I learned an engine, if you treat it well, gives rise to a faith your care will be rewarded. Read more »

This Be The Prose

by Rafaël Newman

Fatherhood and motherhood are always a compromise between a form of Nazi eugenics and a compulsion for repetition. —Paul B. Preciado

Graffiti, Kensington Market, Toronto, 2021

If it were up to certain contemporary authors, the title of arch-villain—or rather, Worst Person Ever—might go collectively to a particular category of human normally held up as a model of nurturance and care: viz, to anyone who has willingly and consciously engaged in the act of procreation, whether by “traditional” means, or with scientific assistance. Sally Rooney and Ottessa Moshfegh have written very different, equally angry indictments of parents, while those who appear in the works of Jenny Erpenbeck and Deborah Feldman give the Grimm Brothers a run for their money. And Paul B. Preciado, the gender theorist of my epigraph, is joined in his radically downbeat appraisal of human reproduction by Junot Diaz, who has accused dating apps like Tinder of propagating a species of selective racist breeding.

The convention of decrying rather than celebrating parenthood, of course, did not first arise with the Millennials, or even Generation X. In 1818, Mary Shelley chose as the epigraph to Frankenstein Adam’s surly question to God in Paradise Lost (1667):

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?

—a complaint that places culpability for the travails of life squarely on the shoulders of progenitors, who carelessly indulge their arbitrary, self-centered whims (or allow free rein to their rampant libidos) at the expense of hapless future generations. Read more »

Narrative Medicine

by Danielle Spencer

As we look toward wending our way out of the COVID-19 global health crisis, what tools can we use to make sense of what we are experiencing? For if there is anything self-evident in our current predicament, it is that any given field—medicine, sociology, political science, psychology—are insufficient in isolation. “Pandemic,” from the Greek πάνδημος, means of or belonging to all the people; and the challenges of this pandemic compel us to take a pan-disciplinary approach.

As it happens, the need for an inclusive and transdisciplinary approach to healthcare is one which has been expressed with regularity. In the U.S., for example, there have been a series of movements in the last 50 years or so; from the biopsychosocial model to patient-centered care, these reforms seek various ways of enacting Francis Peabody’s dictum that “the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.” “Patient-centered care” should be a redundancy—like food-centered eating, or text-centered reading, or air-centered breathing—but it’s an important corrective to the reductive proclivities of western biomedicine. In a similar spirit, the field of bioethics, arising in response to terrible abuses in research practices, is an intentionally interdisciplinary tent, inviting ethicists, clinicians, epidemiologists, researchers, and everyone with a stake in what happens to our bodies to join the dialogue. Just how inclusive and effective these efforts have proven to be is of course another matter entirely.

In more recent years my own home field of narrative medicine has emerged to join the effort. In part nourished by the late-20th-century “narrative turn” in many humanities and social sciences disciplines (some might be surprised that we were ever estranged from narrative—but some of us certainly were) the field centers the importance of narrative competence in training clinicians and empowering all persons to engage with the narrative complexities of healthcare, striving for greater equity and justice. Read more »

On the Road: Needing a Rest in Dakar

by Bill Murray

It is time to go home. You can pull down the window shade for some relief; then it’s only 100 degrees. An Air Burkina Fokker F28 has sidled up to join us on the tarmac in Bamako, Mali. Not quite home yet.

“Pull the strops around your west,” explains the flight attendant.

We’re leaving now though, en route to Dakar, rumbling along a bumpy, corrugated taxiway. We pull up to wait, curious about the glint of the other jet coming in. Turns out it’s full of whoever comes to Bamako on Royal Air Maroc.

Mali is scrub. It’s brush. It’s Sahel, hot as hell. We lumber into the air around eleven o’clock and we have spent one hour and seventeen minutes in Mali. Look down on Gambia and what do you see? Gambia the river glinting below the wing, Gambia the country a pelt of land on either side, itself gobbled up by Senegal, except where the river debouches to the sea. Read more »

Modern American Extremism

by Akim Reinhardt

There’s a lot we can learn about today’s America by observing the Mormon Church.

Last month the Church of Latter Day Saints, as its officially known, issued a strong, positive directive to its 16.5 million members. Vaccines had been proven safe and effective, it reminded them. And please wear a mask in public gatherings, it implored them. The statement’s language was uplifting and unifying: “We can win this war if everyone will follow the wise and thoughtful recommendations of medical experts and government leaders,”

It led to a backlash.

Despite this urging from the LDS’ top ranks, nearly a fifth of church members say they will not get vaccinated. Another 15% are hesitant. Some anti-vax and anti-mask members complain the church is restricting their freedoms. In response, some Mormon vaccination and mask supporters are accusing the mask and vaccine holdouts of apostasy. Even bishops (regional church leaders) are divided. In one Idaho church, bishops stood in front of their congregation unmasked to read the official proclamation encouraging masks.

The Church of Latter Day Saints has one of the most loyal constituencies of any large social organization in America. There is no unanimity of course; small splinter groups have always existed, and as with any religion, some people are always distancing themselves from the church or leaving it altogether. Nonetheless, for two centuries practicing Mormons have been bound together by faith; a history of persecution; geography; relative cultural homogeneity here in the U.S.; a rigorous schedule of activities in the home, at church, and elsewhere, all designed to reinforce membership and belonging; and by a highly organized, hierarchical, patriarchal, and doctrinaire leadership that has wielded tremendous influence over its loyal followers, who typically follow specific dictates such as no alcohol, coffee, or tea.

So if even the Mormon Church is having trouble getting its truehearted constituents to follow simple health directives overwhelmingly backed by science and designed for their own benefit, then you know this about something much bigger than masks and shots. This is about what has happened in America during the last four decades. Read more »

Your Brain on Art: Timothy Morton’s All Art is Ecological

by Leanne Ogasawara

1.

And You May Find Yourself Living in an Age of Mass Extinction…. So begins Timothy Morton’s latest book, All Art is Ecological.

Published as part of Penguin’s new Green Ideas Series, this slim paperback sits alongside nineteen other works of environmental writing. From farmers and biologists to artists and philosophers, spanning decades, the books offer a wide range of perspectives, which Chloe Currens, the editor of the series, says serves to present an evolving ecosystem of environmental writing.

Along with classics like Masanobu Fukuoka’s The Dragonfly Will Be the Messiah and Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring; there is the work of many contemporary thinkers, such as Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, Amitav Ghosh’s Uncanny and Improbable Events, and George Monbiot’s This can’t be happening.

I wanted to read them all—but I started with Timothy Morton, who has been called “the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene.” A big fan of his writing, I think Timothy Morton is pretty much the most exciting thinker alive. I was, therefore, not surprised to find myself challenged from the very first sentence.

What does this mean exactly: You MIGHT find yourself living in an age of mass extinction?

Why the subjunctive? Read more »

Timothy Morton Meditates on the Millennium Falcon and Futurality

by Bill Benzon

The purpose of a book review, I suppose,  is to tell the reader enough about the book to decide whether or not they would find it worthwhile.

What do you think would be in a book entitled Spacecraft? A catalogue of spacecraft, both real (e.g. Sputnik, Voyager, Apollo) and imaginary (the Enterprise, the Altair IV, the various ships in the recent Expanse novels and TV series)? A history maybe? Perhaps a focused discussion of, say, a dozen carefully chosen craft? Each of those implies criteria of judgment. Is the catalogue well-organized? Is the history coherent and easy to follow? Are the dozen examples well chosen, with each representing an important type?

Timothy Morton’s book, Spacecraft (Bloomsbury 2021), is none of those, though it contains aspects of all of them. What, then, is it?

The book might well be called Some Meditations on the Millennium Falcon. But how does one summarize and assess someone’s meditations?

What, by the way, IS a meditation? When I type “meditation” into a search engine, the return list includes, “meditations marcus aurelius,” “meditations in an emergency,” “meditations on first philosophy,” “meditations on the tarot,” “meditations book,” “meditations for anxiety”, and several others. If we combine emergency, first philosophy, tarot, and anxiety, with a discothèque and, I don’t know, Miss Piggy, and a fire cracker, we’ll be headed in the right direction. Read more »

Remembering the towers

by Brooks Riley

I was there when they first went up. From my south-facing bedroom on Morton Street in the village, I watched them grow, floor by floor, to a height unimaginable for that time. When they were finished, I began to measure their height against their distance from my bedroom. If they fell over, would they reach me? Not only was I ignorant of structural engineering, I never gave a thought to what would happen to the people inside if they did fall over. Years later I would learn that they didn’t fall over, they fell down. This time my thoughts were with those people inside.

The twin towers were not a pretty sight: In-your-face architecture for a nation with a chip on its shoulder, they served as metaphors for America’s perpetual declaration of might and size.

Their incongruous ground-floor gothic arches brought to mind to Joseph Campbell’s asserti0n that the height of buildings reflects a society’s priorities. For centuries, churches were the tallest buildings in a city. WTC and other 20th century skyscrapers exemplified the shift in a world gone secular and commercial. How appropriate that those arches, inadvertent homages to bygone beliefs, were the only things left standing after 9/11, looking eerily like the remains of a bombed out cathedral.

WTC-bashing was a perennial pastime in the early days. At Windows on the World, a restaurant on the top floor of one of the towers, I understood immediately why Frank Lloyd Wright considered the Harkness Tower in New Haven as the ideal place to live while he was teaching at Yale, because it was the only place in town where he wouldn’t have to see it.

Inside those towers, you didn’t feel grand and powerful, you felt small and insignificant, like one of the masses on those multi-storied cruise ships that have abandoned nautical elegance in favor of container ship utilitarianism.

After years away from New York, I landed in Newark late on a sunny Saturday afternoon, the 8th of September 2001. From the taxi into the city, I marveled at how those towers reflected the setting sun, their monolithic dullness transformed by light. One week later, I landed again in Newark and took another taxi into the city. The sun was setting, just as it had a week earlier. This time there was nothing left to catch the light. Then I wept.

Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 9

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Sachin Chaudhuri, who lived in Bombay, came to know, I think from Binod Chaudhuri, about my teenage forays into writing political pieces, and he asked me to share them with him, and sent back detailed (handwritten) comments on them. A little later he started encouraging me to write for EW (copies of which he sent me every week). But I was too diffident; I was a neophyte Economics student, and I knew of EW’s sky-high reputation (Prime Minister Nehru had a standing instruction to his assistants that as soon as the weekly comes out it should immediately be at his desk). Many years later in my MIT days when I met Paul Samuelson, the great American economist, he once told me that he thought EW was a unique magazine, having topical columns on every week’s events and at the same time publishing specialized analytical articles, some quite technical. I found out that he, like many stalwart economists and other social scientists in the world at that time, had himself written for EW—this was partly a tribute to the magnetic personality of Sachin Chaudhuri which attracted some of the finest minds and created a rich intellectual aura around the magazine.

Finally I yielded, and my first EW article (it was a review article on a book by the Chicago economist Bert Hoselitz, the founding editor of the journal Economic Development and Cultural Change) came out while I was still at Presidency College. Since then over many decades I have lost count of the number of pieces I have contributed to EW and its successor EPW, some articles on quantitative analysis, some others straightforward opinion pieces. (Every time I have felt like paying a small part of my debt to Sachin Chaudhuri). Read more »

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Akeel Bilgrami: A Brief Personal Reflection on September 11

Akeel Bilgrami (along with many others) in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

February 14, 1989, and September 11, 2001, have stood like bookends in my occasional writing on contemporary politics as it relates to Muslims. A rite of passage, a personal education. But the personal here reflects something wider in American, more generally Western, public life.

When the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was pronounced on the first of those dates, I had written critically of the absolutist stances taken by some Muslims in the aftermath of the publication of The Satanic Verses and in support of the commitments to free expression that I had been accustomed to in all the societies (India, England, America) I had inhabited. The long aftermath of the atrocities on September 11 found me withdrawing from these critical undertakings — not out of any funk but, curiously, out of a sense that it was the only self-respecting thing to do. My reason was just this: one does not make criticisms on demand. And there was an expectation, occasionally even explicitly voiced to me, that a Muslim living in a society that had been subjected to such an atrocity, should be declaring his anti-Jihadi credentials. It soon became clear, in fact, that criticism of extremist Islamist politics had become a sort of career path for Muslims in this part of the world and it was not a path I was willing to tread, even though a certain recognizably zealous type — some among my friends — thought my reaction to be too rarefied in its scruple.

This raises a wide range of issues about truth, speech, and location.

More here.

Tariq Ali: 20 Years of Bloodshed and Delusion

Tariq Ali in The Nation:

The Taliban observed the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in startling fashion. Within a week of the United States’ announcement that it would withdraw its forces from Afghanistan on September 11, the Taliban had taken over large parts of the country, and on August 15, the capital city of Kabul fell. The speed was astonishing, the strategic acumen remarkable: a 20-year occupation rolled up in a week, as the puppet armies disintegrated. The puppet president hopped a helicopter to Uzbekistan, then a jet to the United Arab Emirates. It was a huge blow to the American empire and its underling states. No amount of spin can cover up this debacle.

More here.