Saturday, November 28, 2015
Such is the thread that runs so exquisitely through The Argonauts, poet and critic Maggie Nelson’s memoir, for lack of a more comprehensive term. At once a meditation on queerness, language, and family, and in part a spiritual follow-up to the melancholic Bluets, Nelson’s book traverses the gap between theory and the lived experience that it so often abstracts into oblivion. She traces her relationship with artist Harry Dodge, and memories pass through critical-philosophical cogitation. We often find Nelson and Dodge in conversation, or sharing passages from Wittgenstein or Barthes, and the two spar on the function of names and categories, assimilation and resistance in X-Men, and Nelson’s neglecting the queer part of her life in her writing until now, which is effectively the starting point of this project.
Once we name something, is it irreversibly changed? Can words “do more than nominate”? At one point Nelson recalls the fervor for and against Proposition 8 in California (which made same-sex marriage illegal), and her and Dodge’s frantic journey from courthouse to courthouse to get married once it becomes clear that the ballot proposition would likely pass. But how adequate is the term “same-sex marriage,” anyway? And how many queer folk actually “think of their desire’s main feature as being ‘same-sex’”? What really makes a family unit? And what exactly are the so-called defenders of traditional marriage reallylamenting?
In 1967, John Lennon bought a small island off the west coast of Ireland called Dorinish. It wasn't much of an island, just a pasture and some rocks, which, Kevin Barry tells us in his second novel, "Beatlebone," "were harvested for ballast by the local fishing fleet." Although Lennon wanted to establish a utopian community on Dorinish (in the early 1970s, he invited a group to start a commune on the land), he visited the island just twice.
The story is intriguing, not least because it's rare to come upon a lesser-known narrative about the Beatles — and yet the unexpected turn of Barry's novel, which imagines a 1978 trip by Lennon to Dorinish, is that it isn't really about the singer at all.Sure, there are identifying traces: This Lennon lives at the Dakota and he longs to "work again and breathe again and write again, and not be locked to the … past — that he might play again — not locked to the past — that he can write again — not locked to the past and its same old song." But he is also tormented in ways that may have less to do with Lennon than with Barry himself.
Easily the best, most entertaining book about Gore Vidal is his 1995 memoir “Palimpsest.” But with the possible exception of “In Bed With Gore Vidal,” Tim Teeman’s 2013 tell-all, “Palimpsest” is also the least reliable of the Vidal books. Vidal was a tireless self-mythologizer, and as his title suggests, that book is a layering of rememberings, re-rememberings and mis-rememberings. In his new, much sounder biography, “Empire of Self,” Jay Parini suggests that even the account of Vidal’s idyllic romance with his high school friend Jimmie Trimble, one of the touchstones of “Palimpsest” — the story of a love so perfect and unearthly that it could never be duplicated — was most likely a fabrication.
Parini was close enough to Vidal to know when not to take him at his word. An English professor at Middlebury College, he met Vidal while on sabbatical in Italy in the mid-80s, and somewhat improbably — Parini is modest, earnest, scholarly and straight, none of which could be said about Vidal — the two became friends. “It would be fair to say, in a crude way, that I was looking for a father, and he seemed in search of a son,” Parini writes, not adding that, as so often happens, the son wound up taking care of the father to a certain extent and putting up with more than he had bargained for.
Sally Satel in The Atlantic:
In December 1966, Leroy Powell of Austin, Texas, was convicted of public intoxication and fined $20 in a municipal court. Powell appealed his conviction to Travis County court, where his lawyer argued that he suffered from “the disease of chronic alcoholism.” Powell’s public display of inebriation therefore was “not of his own volition,” his lawyer argued, making the fine a form of cruel and unusual punishment. A psychiatrist concurred, testifying that Powell was “powerless not to drink.”
Then Powell took the stand. On the morning of his trial, his lawyer handed him a drink, presumably to stave off morning tremors. The prosecutor asked him about that drink:
Q: You took that one [drink] at eight o’clock [a.m.] because you wanted to drink?...And you knew that if you drank it, you could keep on drinking and get drunk?
A: Well, I was supposed to be here on trial, and I didn’t take but that one drink.
Q: You knew you had to be here this afternoon, but this morning
you took one drink and then you knew that you couldn’t afford
to drink anymore and come to court; is that right?
A: Yes, sir, that’s right.
The judge let stand Powell’s conviction for public intoxication.
Two years later, the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of punishment for public intoxication, rejecting the idea “that chronic alcoholics … suffer from such an irresistible compulsion to drink and to get drunk in public that they are utterly unable to control their performance.”
Now, fast-forward almost half a century to the laboratory of Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, who has been showing that cocaine and methamphetamine addicts have a lot in common with Powell. When Hart’s subjects are given a good enough reason to refuse drugs—in this case, cash—they do so too.
Gene Seymour in Bookforum:
Fine. Let’s start with “Negro,” or, if one prefers, “negro.” Even with this word’s present-day, often lower-case status, there are African Americans for whom “Negro” is a trigger word for outrage or affront. Some want the word excised altogether—which, at least to this African American, displays amnesia toward (or, worse, disrespect for) our collective history. Between the years 1900 and 1970 (give or take), “Negro” defined a people in transition through two world wars, a cultural renaissance, and a social and political movement that changed everything around it. Those who defined themselves as “Negro” flew airplanes to battle fascism, made their own movies, established baseball franchises, and used their hard-won education in law, the arts, and science to pull their people ahead with them, transforming a nation that otherwise refused to see them as they were, when it chose to see them at all. Where that other “N-word” demeaned and distorted (and still does, no matter who uses it), “Negro” dignified and elevated. After the ’60s had run their course, Negroes collectively agreed to shift to “black” because the other was no longer considered sufficient, or useful. It was outdated, perhaps. But an insult? Our grandparents and great-grandparents might beg to differ, no matter what they chose to call themselves.
I am, in short, riding the same train as Margo Jefferson, who may be even more bullish on the matter than I am, certainly more lyrical: “I still find ‘Negro’ a word of wonders, glorious and terrible. . . . A tonal-language word whose meaning shifts as setting and context shift, as history twists, lurches, advances, and stagnates. As capital letters appear to enhance its dignity; as other nomenclatures arise to challenge its primacy.”
Edward Mendelson in The New York Times:
Primo Levi studied chemistry at Turin and worked as a chemist until, at 24, he joined the Italian “partisans” resisting the Nazi occupation of northern Italy in 1943. He was arrested by Italian Fascists and turned over to the Germans, who sent him to Auschwitz — he called it the Lager, the German word for a concentration camp — where he survived partly by luck, partly because he was put to work in a synthetic-rubber factory that used prisoners as slave labor. Returning to Italy, he wrote his memoir of Auschwitz, “If This Is a Man” (1947), and worked 30 years for a paint factory while writing stories, poems, memoirs, essays, a novel and “The Periodic Table” (1975), his idiosyncratic autobiography in which each chapter was named for a chemical element and some chapters were short stories.
Levi earned world fame for the quiet, undramatic lucidity of “If This Is a Man” and for the strangely moving blend of scientific fact and quicksilver fantasy in “The Periodic Table.” In the United States his work was published haphazardly, with some books retitled for marketing purposes (“If This Is a Man” became “Survival in Auschwitz”), some printed in incomplete translations, some never translated at all. “The Complete Works of Primo Levi,” expertly edited by Ann Goldstein — and the product of six years of negotiations to bring together the translation rights — includes everything Levi published, in new or revised translations. Twenty-eight years after his death, these three handsome volumes bring into focus the breadth and coherence of his genius, and make unexpectedly clear how deeply his work as a chemist shaped his unsettling work as a moralist and his unique vision of psychology and history.
The Patience of Ordinary Things
It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?
by Pat Schneider
from Another River: New and Selected Poems
2005, Amherst Writers and Artists Press
posted in Anchor Magazine, 11/18/15
Friday, November 27, 2015
Margaret Wertheim in The Conversation:
One hundred years ago this month, an obscure German physicist named Albert Einstein presented to the Prussian Academy of Science his General Theory of Relativity. Nothing prior had prepared scientists for such a radical re-envisioning of the foundations of reality.
Encoded in a set of neat compact equations was the idea that our universe is constructed from a sort of magical mesh, now known as “spacetime”. According to the theory, the structure of this mesh would be revealed in the bending of light around distant stars.
To everyone at the time, this seemed implausible, for physicists had long known that light travels in straight lines. Yet in 1919 observations of a solar eclipse revealed that on a cosmic scale light does bend, and overnight Einstein became a superstar.
Einstein is said to have reacted nonchalantly to the news that his theory had been verified. When asked how he’d have reacted if it hadn’t been, he replied: “I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct.”
What made him so secure in this judgement was the extreme elegance of his equations: how could something so beautiful not be right?
From Bright Side:
Raza Rumi in Aeon:
A few months earlier, I had moved to Pakistan’s second largest news channel – Express News – to host a current affairs show. Ten days before, as I left the Express Television Studios, a group of armed men on motorbikes attacked my car. I escaped more than a dozen bullets fired at my car.
When we turned off the busy Ferozepur Road onto the quieter Masood Farooqi Road leading to my home, they were waiting in a dark corner. I heard the tremors of a submachine gun. The flash of the bullets triggered my survival instinct. I leapt forward, huddling on the car’s floor. Later, I saw the bullet hole in its window: it would have been a precise shot had I not got down on the floor. Mustafa, my 25‑year‑old driver, together with a sturdy guard, sat in the front seats. The guard screamed: ‘Hamla ho gaya!’ (‘We have been attacked!’)
James Harkin in Harper's:
In the summer of 2012, as the initial demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad gave way to armed conflict between government and rebel troops, the Syrian army began pounding parts of its biggest cities with missiles and barrel bombs. The aim was to wipe out the regime’s armed opponents, but the result was to destroy the country’s social fabric and displace whole communities — leaving millions of Syrians with little to lose. Groups like the Nusra Front took control of towns across the north, and foreign jihadis flooded into Syria to join the fight. I’d seen them myself when I went to Aleppo in the spring of 2013. On the way into the city we were surrounded by countless shiny SUVs with tinted windows and black Islamist flags hanging off the back. At one point, as we waited in a traffic jam, a North African jihadi on the back of a truck fixed me with a stare and waved at me to put my camera down.
Now Nusra’s biggest rival for power in the north is the Islamic State — even though, until February 2014, ISIL was, like Nusra, an affiliate of Al Qaeda. But the marriage had always been uncomfortable. ISIL sprang from Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was led by a Jordanian named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Zarqawi had angered Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s leadership by slaughtering Shias in Iraq. After Zarqawi’s death in a U.S. air strike in 2006, the group went into decline until a man named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over, in 2010. Baghdadi started as a low-level street fighter during the American occupation of Iraq and is reported to have done some time in a U.S. Army prison. It was his decision to move the group into Syria’s stateless rebel areas in 2013 that changed its fortunes radically — and pushed its differences with Al Qaeda into the open. Al Qaeda’s aim had been to build a terror organization powerful enough to take the battle to its enemies in the West, but ISIL saw its mission as more religiously purist and more constructive — to improve the piety of Sunni Muslims and build a government around them. After ISIL began competing with the Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda declared it was severing ties with the former.
In Cuba today, population growth is stable, malnutrition is low, higher education is free, and most tropical diseases have been eradicated. Cubans can expect to live seventy-nine years, slightly outliving Americans. No other country in the world has achieved such longevity while at the same time polluting so little. The average Cuban has a 4.7-acre ecological footprint, the total amount of land area needed to grow the food they eat, produce the goods they use, and absorb the carbon they emit. For humans to avoid depleting the earth’s ecological resources, we would all have to live on about 4 acres each, according to the environmental nonprofit Global Footprint Network. As of 2011, Costa Ricans each used 5.4 acres, Norwegians almost 12, Americans nearly 17.
Cuba owes this ecologically lean development to strong social programs, a dedicated cadre of conservationists, and, despite revolutionary leaders’ grand visions, a chronically erratic economy. “Cuba hasn’t been able to develop like it has wanted to. Cuba has wanted to increase its level of consumption—and now wants to even more, in fact—but it hasn’t been able to,” said Isbel Díaz Torres, head of the Havana-based environmental activist group Guardabosques. “It hasn’t known how. It has chosen bad international allies to do it on many occasions. And so that has brought us to the place we are now with low consumption, but it’s not because of a policy of ‘we’re going to consume less to have less environmental impact.’ In fact, the policy has always been the opposite.”
In 1916, the young Benjamin praised Cervantes’s method—“only by becoming humor can language become critique”—and would render similar scenes on the radio. In one of his most popular broadcasts, “What the Germans Were Reading While Their Classical Authors Were Writing,” he notes that 18th-century Germans discussed mountains of second-rate literature in the same breath as the works then being composed by their great masters. After an academic claims that newspapers belong in the hands of even the least-educated people, a pastor named Grunelius remarks, “I am better placed than anyone to survey the appalling epidemic of reading to which our public has fallen prey…. The bourgeois girl who belongs in the kitchen is reading her Schiller and Goethe in the hallway.”
Benjamin took up the idea again late in his life, albeit with a much more somber tone. Among a collection of fragments under the title “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he argues that any cultural historian who studies the landmark artistic achievements of the past must see that “they owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.”
Whatever his shortcomings as a novelist of character and dramatic action, there was certainly no denying the staggering panorama of ideas that Huxley, a self-styled professor of nothing-in-particular, could navigate in his fiction and essays. From the history of scissors to Chinese ceramics, Vedic scripture to medieval gastronomy, his reach was telescopic. But Southern California, his adopted home, ushered him towards a new role. Frustrated by his moderate success as a Hollywood scriptwriter, Huxley found sustenance in a diet of mysticism and mescaline, hypnosis and dianetics. Writing for Esquire and the Saturday Evening Post, lecturing to ever-more crowded auditoriums, Huxley took the question of human potential writ large as his intellectual lodestar. What non-revolutionary measures could the godless society pursue to expand the heart and mind? How could co-operation and collectivism replace the urge to control and dominate?
To answer these and other questions, Huxley plundered psychology, psychiatry, neuroscience, anthropology, psychopharmacology and evolutionary biology. According to his own definition, he was now a “pontifex”, a bridge between science and the general world, a kind of freelance human engineer. But like the hapless Theodor Gumbrich, the inventor of the world’s first pneumatic trousers, from Antic Hay (1923), Huxley’s rapport with new scientific research and technology was sometimes seriously misjudged.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
As you may already be aware, I have recently published a cookbook of South Asian food for beginners. I don't have any turkey recipes in the book but I thought I would share with you a recipe for a vegetarian side dish (one of my favorites from the book) as a way of thanking you, on this day of gratitude, for being a 3 Quarks Daily reader.
Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at 3QD!
In this recipe, you can skip the fennel seeds, kalonji (nigella), and methi (fenugreek) seeds if you don't have them. It will still be very good, even if a little less authentically South Asian (the difference those ingredients make is subtle). You'll be surprised at just how good this is, I say with confidence! (Or you may register complaints in the comments!) You can just double (or even triple) the amounts of everything if you have a lot of guests coming. Do try it:
- 4 fluid ounces (120 milliliters) oil
- 1 teaspoon yellow or black mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 1 Tablespoon fennel seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon kalonji (nigella)
- 1/4 teaspoon methi (fenugreek) seeds (optional), they add a certain depth but are not necessary
- 1 large onion (12 ounces or 350 grams), chopped finely
- 5 medium sized cloves of garlic, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
- 16 ounces (450 grams) green beans, ends trimmed off and then cut into 1 inch (2.5 centimeter) lengths
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 6 fluid ounces (180 milliliters) of water
- 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 limes' worth of juice (60 milliliters).
- Heat the oil in a large frying pan (or a large pot) on high heat for two minutes.
- Put in the mustard seeds, cumin seeds, fennel seeds, kalonji, and methi seeds (optional), and fry for 1 minute.
- Add the onion and fry for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
- Add the garlic and fry for 1 minute, stirring frequently.
- Add the cayenne pepper and turmeric and mix well.
- Add the water, green beans, sugar, and salt, and turn heat down to medium-high (7 on a scale of 1 to 10), stir well once or twice, then cover and cook for 10 minutes.
- Uncover and turn heat to high and cook while stirring for 3 more minutes, or until most of the water is evaporated.
- Turn heat off and add the ground black pepper and lime juice, and mix well.
- Taste and add salt and lime juice if needed.
This recipe makes about four servings as a side dish. Oh, and there is much more information about the cookbook here:
Sean Carroll: This year we give thanks for an area of mathematics that has become completely indispensable to modern theoretical physics
Sean Carroll at his own blog, Preposterous Universe:
Now, the thing everyone has been giving thanks for over the last few days is Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, which by some measures was introduced to the world exactly one hundred years ago yesterday. But we don’t want to be everybody, and besides we’re a day late. So it makes sense to honor the epochal advance in mathematics that directly enabled Einstein’s epochal advance in our understanding of spacetime.
Highly popularized accounts of the history of non-Euclidean geometry often give short shrift to Riemann, for reasons I don’t quite understand. You know the basic story: Euclid showed that geometry could be axiomatized on the basis of a few simple postulates, but one of them (the infamous Fifth Postulate) seemed just a bit less natural than the others. That’s the parallel postulate, which has been employed by generations of high-school geometry teachers to torture their students by challenging them to “prove” it. (Mine did, anyway.)
It can’t be proved, and indeed it’s not even necessarily true. In the ordinary flat geometry of a tabletop, initially parallel lines remain parallel forever, and Euclidean geometry is the name of the game. But we can imagine surfaces on which initially parallel lines diverge, such as a saddle, or ones on which they begin to come together, such as a sphere. In those contexts it is appropriate to replace the parallel postulate with something else, and we end up with non-Euclidean geometry.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in the New York Times:
The philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, beloved by generations of Columbia University students (including me), was known for lines of wit that yielded nuggets of insight. He kept up his instructive shtick until the end, remarking to a colleague shortly before he died: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” For Morgenbesser, nothing worth pondering, including disbelief, could be entirely de-paradoxed.
The major thesis of Tim Whitmarsh’s excellent “Battling the Gods” is that atheism — in all its nuanced varieties, even Morgenbesserian — isn’t a product of the modern age but rather reaches back to early Western intellectual tradition in the ancient Greek world.
The period that Whitmarsh covers is roughly 1,000 years, during which the Greek-speaking population emerged from illiteracy and anomie, became organized into independent city-states that spawned a high-achieving culture, were absorbed into the Macedonian Empire and then into the Roman Empire, and finally became Christianized. These momentous political shifts are efficiently traced, with astute commentary on their reflection in religious attitudes.
Ed Yong in The Atlantic:
You're sitting at a table with a friend and a stranger offers you some candy. Hooray! Who doesn't like candy? But wait! You're not getting the same amounts. One of you gets four delicious pieces, and the other gets a measly one. Does that feel unfair? Do you bristle? Do you forfeit your candy and your friend’s candy, because they’re unevenly distributed?
For decades, psychologists have argued that the answers depend on how old you are, and whether you're the one with the bigger or smaller share. Adults seem to reject inequality of any form, and will pay a personal cost to avoid it even if they stand to get a bigger slice of the pie. Children are more nuanced.
In 2011, Katherine McAuliffe and Peter Blake showed that 8-year-olds, like adults, will reject any unequal offer. But younger children, aged 4 to 7, only bristle at situations when they are disadvantaged. In other words, they'd take the four pieces of candy, thank you very much, and screw the other kid.
“They start out with this very self-focused idea that they recognize unfairness when it’s unfair to me,” says Blake. “It takes more years for different psychological processes to kick in before they can flip that, and say: What's unfair to you is also unfair in general.”
These and other experiments have shown that our aversion to advantageous inequity (when we get more than others) is distinct from our aversion to disadvantageous inequity (when others get more than us). These two reactions involve different parts of the brain. They appear at different ages. They appear in different species: Chimpanzees and capuchins don't like disadvantageous inequity, but they'll tolerate the advantageous kind just as much as 4-year-old humans.
Now, McAuliffe and Blake have found that this distinction also depends on where we come from.
Editorial in The Feminist Wire:
Last week, Republican frontrunner Donald Trump expressed support for a database of Muslims in the United States, a registry so that “we” can keep track of “them.” Trump, of course, is no friend to civil liberties. We know this from his 1989 advocacy of the death penalty for five Black New York boys whom police had forced to confess to a rape and attempted murder they did not commit and Trump’s subsequent refusal to apologize to the boys in the face of exculpatory evidence so overwhelming that the state has dropped the charges. The youths (now adults) have been awarded millions of dollars in compensation for their wrongful imprisonment and received an apology from the state. But Trump is not alone.
...But let’s be clear about what just happened: in a nation founded on principles of religious freedom and expression, a major candidate in a presidential race has suggested that we target, profile, and “manage” a group of people on the basis of their religious beliefs and presumed ethnicity. This is fascism, not democracy, and it represents the fullest expression of the state’s racist and xenophobic biopolitical impulses. Little surprise that pundits are connecting Trump’s comments to Nazi Germany. Hitler, who felt it useful for governments that “men do not think,” moved far beyond registries and special identification badges to containment and extermination. Hate is a slippery slope, but the U.S. has an insidious history of draping itself in the mantle of patriotism while squelching human rights both here and elsewhere.
...Trump’s Islamophobia, shared by all too many around the world, in which the Other becomes a datapoint to be managed rather than a human being, and Congress’s anti-refugee bill embody a “logical” connection between biopolitics and fascism. Michel Foucault theorized biopolitics as the application of political power to human life, with “race” positioned as a technology of classification. Achille Mbembe moved beyond biopower, which he saw as insufficient to account for contemporary forms of killing, to necropolitics, locating the sovereign state’s right to kill in histories of colonization. Fascism is an ideal political form for the expression and operation of necropolitics, allowing the authoritarian state to decide whose lives matter.
Sadie Stein in The Paris Review:
This vintage video from the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually gives a very good primer on carving—frankly, it’s the best guide I’ve found, and the thigh-meat trick is indeed neat, even if the announcer’s chummy tone can grate. (Be sure to watch long enough to hear him intone, “There goes that drumstick for a hungry boy!”)
But it raises other questions. Mainly: What is “turkey time,” and why is it separate from “carving time”? Best of all is the rather menacing, passive-aggressive coda: “You can carve without these directions, but you can probably carve better with them.” As a random drunk in a bar once slurred at me when I said I didn’t want to go to the pier with him, “Fine, whatever, just thought you might want to see the Statue of Liberty!”
Wanderer, your footsteps are
the road, and nothing more;
wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.
By walking one makes the road,
and upon glancing back
one sees the path
that must never be trod again.
Wanderer, there is no road—
Only wakes upon the sea.
by Antonio Machado