The latest (somewhat random) collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
What the war on terror looks like
Loulouwa al-Rachid & Peter Harling, Synaps, 27 March 2017
Clausewitz famously described war as the continuation of politics by other means. Iraq, however, challenges this definition, given the triumph of petty short-termism over any coherent political endgame. All players involved seem to be wagering that their own shortcomings will somehow be offset by their equally inadequate partners. The international coalition trumpets tactical victories despite lacking any coherent long-term strategy, leveling neighborhoods and villages in support of unruly militias; it acts, in the meantime, as though the Iraqi government might somehow reform itself and reconcile with its detractors, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Baghdad appears to bank on the Islamic State to justify all its failings, on foreign military aid to defeat the terrorists, on uncontrollable militias and tribes to hold the ground, on a weak and chaotic “civil society” to mend the social fabric, and on the outside world to rebuild from the rubble. For their part, Turkey, Iran and the KRG are pushing their pawns as if a thoroughly dislocated, brutalized society would miraculously settle enough to endorse their opportunistic gains—when they are merely sowing the seeds of the next rounds of fighting.
In this Hobbesian dystopia where politics has vanished, ordinary Iraqis do not fear terrorists as much as they are terrorized by everyone. They are utterly defenseless—forsaken by their purported leaders, preyed upon by their liberators, ignored by the rest of the world. Perhaps the worst part of their plight is how difficult it is for them to imagine any sort of future. For they know firsthand that, in today’s Iraq, war is just the continuation of war by other means.
Who are the new jihadis?
Olivier Roy, Guardian, 13 April 2017
What is more radical about the new radicals than earlier generations of revolutionaries, Islamists and Salafis is their hatred of existing societies, whether western or Muslim. This hatred is embodied in the pursuit of their own death when committing mass murder. They kill themselves along with the world they reject. Since 11 September 2001, this is the radicals’ preferred modus operandi.
The suicidal mass killer is unfortunately a common contemporary figure. The typical example is the American school shooter, who goes to his school heavily armed, indiscriminately kills as many people as possible, then kills himself or lets himself be killed by the police. He has already posted photographs, videos and statements online. In them he assumed heroic poses and delighted in the fact that everyone would now know who he was. In the United States there were 50 attacks or attempted attacks of this sort between 1999 and 2016.
The boundaries between a suicidal mass killer of this sort and a militant for the caliphate are understandably hazy. The Nice killer, for instance, was first described as mentally ill and later as an Isis militant whose crime had been premeditated. But these ideas are not mutually exclusive.
The point here is not to mix all these categories together. Each one is specific, but there is a striking common thread that runs through the mass murders perpetrated by disaffected, nihilistic and suicidal youths. What organisations like al-Qaida and Isis provide is a script.
‘They call us uneducated and bigoted’
Zia Weiss, Politico, 21 April 2017
In fact, the political and cultural divisions in Turkey are much more complicated, and much more widespread, than mere geography would suggest. Yes, the referendum has split Turkey in two in the way that the US election split America. But there are many ways to draw the fault lines here, and in major cities, they often sit side-by-side. If one thing is clear, it’s that Turkey’s divisions are hardening, creating a deep polarization that threatens to further destabilize a country rattled by terror attacks, violent insurgency and economic woes.
Take Istanbul, where I live, and recently spoke with more than two dozen residents about the referendum and the political climate in Turkey. On paper, according to Sunday’s referendum results, the city has turned against the government. Yet the margin was narrow – 51.3 percent for ‘no’ – and the city’s districts are disunited. In leftist Besiktas, more than 80 percent voted ‘no’. A 10-minute bus ride takes you to Beyoglu, the city center, where the electorate was split nearly 50-50. Ride the tram from there to the last stop and you’ll find yourself in conservative Bagcilar, where more than 60 percent voted ‘yes’.
For the most part, Istanbul’s residents themselves don’t see a stark urban-rural divide in Turkey. ‘No’ voters told me they do feel alienated from the rest of the country, in the way that some coastal Americans might feel in the wake of Trump’s win, but they consider ideology to be the primary dividing line, not geography. Many of the Istanbul residents I spoke with this week pointed to religious divisions – between secularists and Erdogan’s religious conservative supporters – while others said Turkey is principally split between the former elites and the newly empowered working class, or, less kindly, the educated and the uneducated. It all depends whom you ask – and often, despite their insistence that geography plays no role, where in the city they live.
He fought the mafia and won.
Now this mayor is taking on Europe over migrants
Renate Van der Zee, Guardian, 18 April 2017
Europe needs migrants, in his opinion. ‘Nobody wants to work in agriculture any more, for example, whole areas are deserted, villages lie empty. Migrants can revitalise those areas. Europe, with a population of 600 million, could absorb migrants easily.’
This enthusiasm about migrants and their freedom of movement would be radical for any politician, but it’s particularly surprising coming from someone who leads one of Italy’s poorest cities where almost a quarter of its inhabitants is unemployed. Some 400,000 migrants have arrived in Sicily (population 5 million) in the past two years – a fairly significant number to absorb.
But when asked if the poor of Palermo are happy with this influx of people, Orlando replies: ‘I was elected mayor with a victory of 74%. That means people think I’m right. There is no intolerance in the stomach of the people, it’s only in the minds of politicians.’
The dangerous academic is an extinct species
Yasmin Nair, Current Affairs, 11 April 2017
It’s amusing, then, that conservatives have long been so paranoid about the threat posed by U.S. college campuses. The American right has an ongoing fear of supposedly arch-leftist professors brainwashing nubile and impressionable young minds into following sinister leftist dictates. Since massively popular books like Roger Kimball’s 1990 Tenured Radicals and Dinesh D’Souza’s 1992 Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race on Campus, colleges have been seen as hotbeds of Marxist indoctrination that threaten the civilized order. This is a laughable idea, for the simple reason that academics are the very opposite of revolutionaries: they intentionally speak to minuscule audiences rather than the masses (on campus, to speak of a ‘popular’ book is to deploy a term of faint disdain) and they are fundamentally concerned with preserving the security and stability of their own position. This makes them deeply conservative in their day-to-day acts, regardless of what may come out of their mouths. (See the truly pitiful lack of support among Harvard faculty when the university’s dining hall workers went on strike for slightly higher wages. Most of the ‘tenured radicals’ couldn’t even be bothered to sign a petition supporting the workers, let alone march in the streets.)
But left-wing academics are all too happy to embrace the conservatives’ ludicrous idea of professors as subversives. This is because it reassures them that they are, in fact, consequential, that they are effectively opposing right-wing ideas, and that they need not question their own role. The ‘professor-as-revolutionary’ caricature serves both the caricaturist and the professor. Conservatives can remain convinced that students abandon conservative ideas because they are being manipulated, rather than because reading books and learning things makes it more difficult to maintain right-wing prejudices. And liberal professors get to delude themselves into believing they are affecting something.
The Syrian people have been betrayed by all sides
Mehdi Hasan, The Intercept, 20 April
Pity the poor people of Syria. They continue to be ruled by a war criminal whose main opponents also engage in war crimes; their country has become a battlefield for Americans and Russians, Turks and Iranians, rebel fighters from Chechnya and pro-regime militias from Iraq. Rather than focus their energies on a diplomatic solution, or at least a durable ceasefire, all of these outside powers have spent the past six years ratcheting up, rather than down, the level of violence while failing to adhere to any consistent or principled positions whatsoever.
The Russian and Iranian governments constantly complain that foreign fighters (or ‘terrorists’) have violated Syria’s sovereignty. But does anyone really think that Vladimir Putin, who has gleefully violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and borders since 2014, gives a damn about Syria’s sovereignty and borders? Or that the Islamic Republic of Iran, which asked Lebanon’s Hezbollah to intervene on the ground on behalf of the Assad regime and has also rounded up Shia fighters from as far afield as Afghanistan to fight against the rebels, is committed to preventing ‘foreign fighters’ from entering Syria?
The Turkish and Saudi governments, meanwhile, loudly demand that the Syrian people be able to choose their own leaders. But are we supposed to accept that President Erdogan’s Turkey, which now jails more journalists than any other country on earth, or the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia, which still beheads people, want to see a secular, liberal democracy replace the Assad dictatorship in Damascus?
Then there is Donald Trump, who claims to have launched 59 missiles against an Assad airfield on April 6 because he was pained and moved by images of children choking to death in the aftermath of the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhun. Please. Are we really expected to believe that a trigger-happy narcissist who banned Syrian refugee children from entering the United States, and has compared them to ‘snakes’, cares in the slightest about those same children when they’re being gassed inside Syria?
A buffet of French history
Robert Darnton, New York Review of Books, 11 May 2017
Although the book owes much of its success to the talent of its authors, its publication was timed perfectly to make a splash during the election campaign. History has always been a battleground in France. As Éric Zemmour, a right-wing journalist and historian, remarked in an angry review in Le Figaro, ‘History is war. Not just the history of war but the war of history.’ He went on to condemn Histoire mondiale de la France as an attack on the identity of France and an attempt to destroy the ‘national narrative’ (‘roman national’) at the heart of what it means to be French.
Alain Finkielkraut, a conservative philosopher and member of the Académie française, damned the book in an equally savage review: ‘The authors of Histoire mondiale de la France are the gravediggers of the great French heritage’. Other commentators on the right have echoed the same theme. Michael Jeaubelaux, a blogger who supports the conservative presidential candidate François Fillon, wrote: ‘When the Collège de France buries France and the French, it is urgent for the people to seize power against those who are paid to destroy our country, its history, its heritage, its culture!’
Why such outrage? In choosing a president, the French will be voting, at least in part, for an interpretation of French history. When Fillon launched his campaign last August, he proclaimed that he would change the way history is taught in primary schools: ‘If I am elected president of the Republic, I will ask three academics to seek the best advice in order to rewrite history programs around the idea of a national story [récit national].’ He described his view of France’s past as ‘a history made of men and women, of symbols, of places, of monuments, of events that derive their meaning and significance from the progressive construction of France’s distinct civilization.’ To the right of Fillon, Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the National Front, has insisted on the need to ‘relearn the history of France – all the history of France, the most positive, the most prestigious – so that each Frenchman should be conscious of the past and proud of it.’ In practice, she explained, that would mean eliminating references at the primary-school level to World War II and colonialism.
Has Trump stolen philosophy’s critical tools?
Casey Wiliams, New York Times, 17 April 2017
Trump’s playbook should be familiar to any student of critical theory and philosophy. It often feels like Trump has stolen our ideas and weaponized them.
For decades, critical social scientists and humanists have chipped away at the idea of truth. We’ve deconstructed facts, insisted that knowledge is situated and denied the existence of objectivity. The bedrock claim of critical philosophy, going back to Kant, is simple: We can never have certain knowledge about the world in its entirety. Claiming to know the truth is therefore a kind of assertion of power. These ideas animate the work of influential thinkers like Nietzsche, Foucault and Derrida, and they’ve become axiomatic for many scholars in literary studies, cultural anthropology and sociology.
From these premises, philosophers and theorists have derived a number of related insights. One is that facts are socially constructed. People who produce facts — scientists, reporters, witnesses — do so from a particular social position (maybe they’re white, male and live in America) that influences how they perceive, interpret and judge the world. They rely on non-neutral methods (microscopes, cameras, eyeballs) and use non-neutral symbols (words, numbers, images) to communicate facts to people who receive, interpret and deploy them from their own social positions.
Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power. The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.
The Galilean challenge
Noam Chomsky, Inference, April 2017
One fact appears to be well established. The faculty of language is a true species property, invariant among human groups, and unique to humans in its essential properties. It follows that there has been little or no evolution of the faculty since human groups separated from one another. Recent genomic studies place this date not very long after the appearance of anatomically modern humans about two hundred thousand years ago.14 It was at this time that the San group in Africa separated from other groups. There is little evidence of anything like human language, or symbolic behavior altogether, before the emergence of modern humans. That leads us to expect that the faculty of language emerged along with modern humans or not long after, a very brief moment in evolutionary time. It follows, then, that the Basic Property should indeed be very simple. The conclusion conforms to what has been discovered in recent years about the nature of language, a welcome convergence.
Discoveries about the early separation of the San people are highly suggestive. Although Khoisan speakers appear to possess the general human language capacity, their languages are all and only those with phonetic clicks, with corresponding adaptations in the vocal tract. The most likely explanation for these facts, developed in detail by the Dutch linguist Riny Huijbregts, is that their possession of an internal language preceded their separation from other groups; this in turn preceded the externalization of their language.15 Other groups proceeded in somewhat different ways. Externalization seems to be associated with the first signs of symbolic behavior in the archaeological record. We may be reaching a stage of understanding where the account of language evolution can be fleshed out in ways that were unimaginable until recently.
Liberté, egalité, fraternité, racisme?
Ursula Lindsey, Chronicle of Higher Education, 16 April 2017
That is one of the arguments of a book published this year for which Bensoussan was the lead editor: Une France Soumise, Les Voix du Refus (A Vanquished France, the Voices of Refusal). A collection of essays and interviews with public employees and officials, the book paints a dire picture of France turning into “a foreign land,” its culture, identity, and rule of law threatened by the advance of Islamism. France faces a choice, a passage in the books warns, between civil war or “Houellebecquian” submission to Islam (a reference to the best-selling 2015 satire by Michel Houellebecq, Submission, in which the country elects a Muslim president and adopts Shariah law).
As evidence of creeping Islamization, the book cites demands for prayer rooms and halal meals; husbands who will not allow their wives to receive medical care from male doctors; reports of Muslim high-school students’ refusing to observe the moment of silence after terrorist attacks or expounding conspiracy theories. Many of the interviews are anonymous or do not specify when and where particular incidents took place. Bensoussan admits that it ‘is not an exhaustive investigation and does not have scientific pretensions.’ Yet he insists that it exposes a reality that France’s elites refuse to acknowledge…
Bensoussan’s book is, in fact, part of a crowded field dedicated to the threat of Islamism and Islamic radicalism, skepticism about Islamophobia, and the crisis of French identity….
Olivier Roy, a prominent sociologist at the European University Institute who writes on Islam and radicalization, dismisses works such as Une France Soumise as part of ‘a paranoid delirium’. ‘I’m not saying there’s nothing true in it’, says Roy. ‘But it’s impossible to verify. There are no facts.’
Yikes! New behind-the-scenes book
brutalizes the Clinton campaign
Matt Taibi, Rolling Stone, 20 April 2017
At the end of Chapter One, which is entirely about that campaign’s exhausting and fruitless search for a plausible explanation for why Hillary was running, writers Allen and Parnes talk about the infighting problem. ‘All of the jockeying might have been all right, but for a root problem that confounded everyone on the campaign and outside it’, they wrote. ‘Hillary had been running for president for almost a decade and still didn’t really have a rationale.’
Allen and Parnes here quoted a Clinton aide who jokingly summed up Clinton’s real motivation:’I would have had a reason for running’, one of her top aides said, ‘or I wouldn’t have run.’
The beleaguered Clinton staff spent the better part of two years trying to roll this insane tautology – ‘I have a reason for running because no one runs without a reason’ – into the White House. It was a Beltway take on the classic Descartes formulation: ‘I seek re-election, therefore I am… seeking re-election.’
Shattered is sourced almost entirely to figures inside the Clinton campaign who were and are deeply loyal to Clinton. Yet those sources tell of a campaign that spent nearly two years paralyzed by simple existential questions: Why are we running? What do we stand for?
Anatomy of a lynching
Aatish Taseer, New York Times, 16 April 2017
The lynching of Pehlu Khan, a 55-year-old dairy farmer, in the western Indian state of Rajasthan at the beginning of this month attracted a live audience of dozens and a virtual one in the millions. Mr Khan, a Muslim, stood accused of smuggling cows, which are sacred to Hindus. A whole nation watched the scene on its smartphones and televisions: Mr Khan, a lone hunted figure in white, lurches and stumbles along the edge of a dusty highway. He is pursued by ‘cow vigilantes’, young men in striped T-shirts and jeans, armed with belts and sticks. Eventually they gain on Mr Khan, who falls to the ground, clutching his stomach. A crowd with cameras and smartphones circles. In screen within screen, we see Mr Khan brutally beaten by the vigilantes in broad view of everybody. He died three days later, the sixth fatality since 2015 of a Muslim man subjected to vigilante justice of this kind.
A lynching, unlike, say, a terrorist attack, does not depend on maximizing the loss of life. What matters — whether in the American South a century ago or in India today — are not numbers, but the public, almost orgiastic character of the violence. The crowd surrounding Mr Khan was baying for him to be doused in gas and set alight. A lynching is a majority’s way of telling a minority population that the law cannot protect it. That is why in the American South so many African-American men were dragged from jails or hanged outside courthouses — unmistakable symbolism of the law’s paralysis.
In Mr Khan’s case, the law was not merely paralyzed; it actively served the killers. In the first hours after Mr Khan was attacked, 11 people were rounded up and arrested for cow smuggling — but not one for murder. Three people were arrested for Mr Khan’s lynching, but only days later, after he died. But the effect of the arrests was minimized by the role played by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
A dual emancipation:
How black freedom benefited poor whites
Kerri Leigh Merrit, Black Perspectives, 15 April 2017
During early Reconstruction, while many former slaves questioned the actual socio-economic benefits of their emancipation, poor whites experienced a time of mostly positive change. Before the Civil War, poor whites had functioned as social pariahs in the Deep South because they had no real place or stake in the slave system, and thus actually stood to threaten it. Slavery had driven the wages of southern white laborers well below those of their northern counterparts, but even more detrimentally, it decreased the demand for white farmers, tenants, day laborers, and even mechanics, creating a large underclass of white people who were unable to find consistent work or earn a living wage. As one laborer from Georgia complained, ‘the slaveholders could get the slave for almost nothing and the poor young men like myself, could not get a job’…
Occasionally this rampant poverty led to well-known psychological and social ills, from depression, fatalism, and apathy to alcoholism, domestic violence, and criminal activity. They made particularly inviting targets for a southern legal system dominated by slaveholders, who generally incarcerated them for behavioral, non-violent ‘crimes’ like trading, drinking, and other social interactions with slaves and free blacks. On the eve of secession, slaveholders were still jailing poor whites for small amounts of debt, publicly whipping thieves, and auctioning off debtors and criminals (for their labor) to the highest bidder. Completely removed from many of the privileges of whiteness, poor whites were essentially ‘masterless’ men and women in an increasingly hierarchical world held together by mastery. This fact deeply troubled the region’s slaveholders.
In effect confirming Hinton Helper’s claim that poor whites suffered a ‘second degree of slavery’ in the antebellum period, the post-bellum era ‘freed’ poor whites in several critical ways. Most importantly, poor white workers were finally able to compete in a free labor economy, which at least provided them with a potential opportunity to improve their economic situation. ‘But another great element of productive power in the South is now to be brought into action’, one Georgia paper opined, ‘the labor of poor white men who have heretofore been completely idle for want of employment. They will find agricultural labor to be creditable, in the absence of negro slavery, as well as highly remunerative.’ Furthermore, during Reconstruction poor whites also became beneficiaries of both the state and federal government, and for the first time in Deep South history, free public education became widely available. Finally, while newly emancipated slaves waited in vain for their fabled 40 acres and a mule, some poor whites took full advantage of the Homestead Act and the Southern Homestead Act, at last entering the ranks of landholders.
Magdalena Abakanowicz, whose poetic sculptures wrestle with the trauma of World War II, dies at 86
Alex Greenberger, Art News, 21 April 2017
In the years following World War II, Abakanowicz came up with a visual language that was unlike that of her European colleagues, many of whom were inclined toward the Pop-inflected use of commercial imagery and, later, conceptually rigorous objects. Her formalist sculptures relied on rumpled, crumpled, and distressed surfaces that became metaphors for the effects of violence on human skin and land turned up by bombings and battles.
Abakanowicz burst onto the contemporary art scene in the early ’60s with a series of sculptures known as the ‘Abakans’. Working on a monumental scale (some were more than 15 feet tall), she hung large pieces of sisal, a type of fiber, from the ceiling, or pinned them to the wall, and arranged them in dramatic installations that recall carcasses hung by meat hooks in butcheries. Though they were briefly met with resistance from critics who expected young artists to work with a Pop aesthetic, the ‘Abakans’ brought Abakanowicz mass acclaim. When they were shown at the 1967 Bienal de São Paulo, they won her the festival’s Golden Medal and established her reputation as one of Poland’s most important artists. (Some are currently on view in the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘Making Space’, which focuses on abstraction made by women in the ’60s and ’70s.)
How the government is turning protestors into felons
Natasha Lennard, Esquire, 12 April 2017
Government action, like the mass J20 arrest, could make the tired ‘good protester/bad protester’ narrative obsolete, if presence, proximity and chanting are sufficient to ‘bad protester’ make. While radical leftists would banish the ‘bad protester’ label to collapse the dichotomy, the state seems keen to erase the concept of ‘good’ protest. In recent weeks, as the preliminary hearings J20 defendants began, Republican lawmakers in at least 18 states introduced legislation to increase the severity of charges for traditionally non-violent protest tactics, like blocking highways.
The government has already proven its willingness to set what Goldstone called ‘a monstrous trap’ for protesters, by leveraging high risk trials against paper-thin cases. At this point, unsurety hangs over the remaining J20 cases. With 213 remaining defendants, and nearly as many separate lawyers defending them, it is unknown whether better pleas will be offered or taken, how many protesters will take their case to trial, and how many, if any, convictions will stick. The process may well bleed into 2018, with the threat of lengthy sentences weighing on the defendants every day as it goes on.
‘It definitely hits in waves’, Alsip told me. ‘I’m nervous. I try to think that even if I do go to prison, I would remain committed, and politically active. But’, she paused, ‘I just can’t believe that my thoughts have to go there. And that we’re all facing this.’ Another pause. ‘A few broken windows.’
The double game of Egyptian surrealism:
How to curate a revolutionary movement
Jonathan Guyer & Surti Singh,
Los Angeles Review of Books, 17 April 2017
Two efforts to curate this revolutionary art movement from the archive have sparked debates about the Art and Liberty Group and Surrealism in the Middle East. In October, the Centre Pompidou launched the exhibit Art et Liberté: Rupture, War, and Surrealism in Egypt (1938-1948), with support from Qatar, which will tour Europe throughout 2017 and 2018. It is now showing at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid. A few weeks earlier, in September, the Sharjah Art Foundation and Egyptian Ministry of Culture opened a sprawling show in Cairo, When Art Becomes Liberty: The Egyptian Surrealists (1938-1965). This was associated with Cornell University’s three-day academic conference on Egyptian Surrealism, convened at the American University in Cairo in November 2015.
Art et Liberté portrays a discordant group that both broke with the establishment and also contained a multitude of perspectives, eventually leading some younger members to break away and form the more folkloric Contemporary Art Group and others the more militantly political Bread and Freedom. By contrast, When Art Becomes Liberty imposes a sense of continuity within the group and suggests that its impact can be felt in the work of many successors. The substance of Art and Liberty Group’s revolt — their Marxist critique of Egyptian tyranny, their antifascist bent — is concealed. Instead, Sharjah’s curators emphasize how Surrealist motifs persist in the folk nationalism and social realism of midcentury Egyptian artists. The fact that the show was co-hosted by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture might explain this narrative of continuity, which obscures the group’s radicalism.
How Google Book Search got lost
Scott Rosenberg, Backchannel, 11 April 2017
Two things happened to Google Books on the way from moonshot vision to mundane reality. Soon after launch, it quickly fell from the idealistic ether into a legal bog, as authors fought Google’s right to index copyrighted works and publishers maneuvered to protect their industry from being Napsterized. A decade-long legal battle followed — one that finally ended last year, when the US Supreme Court turned down an appeal by the Authors Guild and definitively lifted the legal cloud that had so long hovered over Google’s book-related ambitions.
But in that time, another change had come over Google Books, one that’s not all that unusual for institutions and people who get caught up in decade-long legal battles: It lost its drive and ambition.
What was the universe like before the Big Bang?
Ryan F Mandelbaum, Gizmodo, 2 February 2017
Theoretical physicists and cosmologists deal with the biggest questions – like ‘Why are we here?’ ‘When did the universe begin?’ and ‘How?’ Another questions that bugs them, and likely has bugged you, is ‘What happened before the Big Bang?’
To be perfectly clear, we can’t definitively answer this question – but we can speculate wildly, with the help of theoretical physicist Sean Carroll from the California Institute of Technology. Carroll gave a talk last month at the bi-annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Grapevine, Texas, where he walked through several pre-Bang possibilities that would result in a universe like ours.
Again, this is a speculation, not theory. ‘As of yet, these aren’t established as laws of physics we understand or have checked in any way’, said Carroll. As Peter Woit, a theoretical physicist at Columbia University put it to Gizmodo, ‘A general piece of advice around physicists is when they say “we don’t understand what’s going on here”, they really, really mean it. They’re really in the dark.’
So, now, let’s speculate. One of the strangest properties of our universe is that it has very low entropy, meaning there is relatively low disorder, or conversely a large amount of order, among all of the particles. Think of it this way: Imagine a bomb full of sand exploding onto an empty surface – that’s the Big Bang. You would expect a pretty uniform heap of sand after the explosion, but instead, our universe immediately arranged into lots of sand castles seemingly for no reason and with no help, and we don’t really know why, Stefan Countryman, a physics PhD student at Columbia University, explained to Gizmodo. The Big Bang could have (and maybe should have) resulted in a high-entropy mass of uniformly distributed, disorganized stuff. Instead, we’ve got star systems, galaxies, and galactic clusters all linked together with dark voids between them. We have order.
Living for the city
Andy Merrifield, Jacobin, 19 April 2017
Marshall’s untimely death left more unfinished business – another book, likewise incomplete, similarly in fragments: The Romance of Public Space, extracts of which now appear in Modernism in the Streets, a wonderful collection of Marshall’s ‘life and times in essays’, a treasure trove of five decades’ living and writing for the city, lovingly consecrated by Dissent and Nation editor David Marcus, all done with the blessing of Marshall’s widow, Shellie. At last those books-in-progress have been consummated as an organic whole; the incomplete has been posthumously assembled in One Bright Book of Marshall’s Life.
‘Modernism in the streets”’was a label coined by one of Marshall’s old teachers, the great liberal critic Lionel Trilling, a staunch anti-communist whose classes Marshall took as an undergraduate at Columbia in the late 1950s. For Trilling, ‘modernism in the streets’ was something pejorative. In 1968, when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) occupied the university campus, protesting the Vietnam War, Trilling despaired: modernism was spilling out of the classroom, out of great texts, into the streets, and an ‘adversary culture’ was taking hold, imposing its will through violence rather than decorum.
As ever, Marshall forgave Trilling his faults and often spoke of his love for his ‘shabbily genteel’ teacher. ‘Lionel was uneasy, brooding, melancholy’, Marshall said, almost describing himself, ‘full of Beckettesque hesitation about communication (it was in seminars, in small groups, in dialogue, that he opened up and soared)…[He] forced us to read modern literature in ways that made us wonder whether we could live at all.’
Discovering what’s already there
Michael Walzer, The Nation, 6 April 2017
Because The Invention of Humanity is an intellectual history and not a social or political one, Stuurman doesn’t discuss all of these movements. He lets the antislavery movement stand in for the rest, and this is entirely legitimate. But there’s an intellectual invention (I think that’s the right word) that he might usefully have noticed. It was the product of leftist militancy and is what militants call the ‘unity of theory and practice.’ This new unity was critical to the development of the Western left, and it remains so today. The commitment to practice was the source of much of the left’s gains in the 19th and 20th centuries; it is what makes the movements move. The left has had its share of failures and disasters, some of them connected to its belief in temporal inequality and vanguardism. Still, it’s an important part of Stuurman’s story; he could have written more about it.
But the left is only a part of the story, as this splendid book makes clear. At times one might fault The Invention of Humanity for its survey-like quality, moving from one author and text to another. But Stuurman’s panoramic vision of discovery and invention, reiterated in many different cultural and religious idioms across a vast expanse of time and space, makes for a dramatically original history. Those of us who grew up on the Western left may think that it’s our egalitarian ideology that has been emulated around the world. Not so: The discovery and invention of humanity has been the work of humankind.
The photo of spiders’ webs is by Alejandro Erickson on flickr.