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.
Novelist’s brilliance was
to make America uncomfortable
Jason Diamond, Rolling Stone, 23 May 2018
In a way, what the Marx Brothers and Mad magazine were to comedy or the Ramones were to rock music, Roth was for American literature. He was a sly smile and smartass remark aimed at the establishment, rather than a middle finger or brick through its window. Maybe you didn’t like his work, but sooner or later you came around to understand its significance. When The Paris Review asked him in 1984 if he had a Philip Roth reader in mind when he started a book, he replied, ‘I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, ‘How he is going to hate this!’ That can be just the encouragement I need.’
It didn’t always work out. The sins of some of his literary creations were just too much for some readers to even consider forgiving; he often gave too good a look into the mind of an American man, to the point that many readers felt his work was in poor taste or simply difficult to approach. But look at his track record – the small library of books he left us with – and you will find more than a few masterpieces. He had at least one stellar book every decade from the 1950s until his retirement in 2012. Reading him chronologically, the evolution of his body of work is staggering. He linked himself to realists like Gustave Flaubert, and later to fabulists like Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz. Again, his willingness to stretch what he could do – to try new and different things, like his Gogol-meets-Kafka-meets-Freud novella The Breast, or his brilliant 2004 alternative-history Nazi novel, The Plot Against America – is further proof of his unwillingness to fall into line.
Great fiction is ultimately about considering possibility, about grasping the reader and leading them to another world. Novels should teach us how to appreciate the art of telling a story, and how to listen when one is being told. But beyond that, fiction should challenge us to question what we know. It should help test the elasticity of our imaginations and embolden us toward empathy by revealing the inner-workings of other people’s minds. And maybe most importantly – and why fiction like Roth’s has been ridiculed or dismissed – is that fiction should help us consider what makes us experience discomfort, and help bring taboo subjects to the surface. Roth did all of these things with a nuance and finesse that might not be obvious at first, but is unmistakable in hindsight. He spent his life writing fiction, and by doing that, he gave us all a lot of very necessary truth if we were willing to look.
Read the full article in Rolling Stone.
Why I escaped the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’
Alice Dreger, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11 May 2018
Conventional wisdom says that if a staff writer for The New York Times wants to feature you in a story about brave intellectuals, you reply, ‘Yes, please!’ This is especially true if the Times sends a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer to create a noble portrait of you for an accompanying visual pantheon.
But every time that Times writer, Bari Weiss, called to talk with me about the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’ and my supposed membership in it, I just started laughing. In case you missed it — though, really, how could you, considering that it seems to be everywhere at the moment? — the Times recently published a piece about a bunch of renegade intellectuals who ‘dare venture into this ‘There Be Dragons’ territory on the intellectual map.’
Why was I laughing? The idea that I was part of a cool group made me think there was at least some kind of major attribution error going on. The confused feeling was exacerbated by the dramatic photo setup: Damon Winter, the Pulitzer winner, had me standing in a marsh full of tall, dry reeds, waiting for a particular moment just past sunset. ‘Why am I in this scene?’ I wondered as we waited, and not just because my favorite dress boots were getting muddy and I worried about ticks.
I also had no idea who half the people in this special network were. The few Intellectual Dark Web folks I had met I didn’t know very well. How could I be part of a powerful intellectual alliance when I didn’t even know these people?
When I asked what this group supposedly had in common, the answer seemed to be ‘they’ve climbed the ladder of fame by pissing people off, saying stuff you’re not supposed to say.’ They regularly made progressives angry with ‘politically incorrect’ statements about gender, race, genetics, and so on. This troubled me the most — that one might think of pissing people off as an inherent good, a worthy end.
While I am very experienced at being annoying, including to members of my own progressive tribes, I don’t think this is a technique that should on its own be valorized. Pissing people off is something to be done accidentally, as a side effect, while you’re trying to fix a significant problem. Yet the operating assumption behind the Intellectual Dark Web seems to be that angering progressives represents a mark of honor in itself. Indeed, the group’s signature hack is leveraging these alleged badges of honor into greater fame and fortune. (Witness the singular genius of Jordan Peterson.)
Read the full article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
On being an arsehole: A defense
Jonny Thakkar, The Point , Issue 16, Spring 2018
One of the norms governing ordinary conversation is that to disagree too much is to be disagreeable. Just as socially competent individuals tend to encourage whoever’s speaking by nodding or giving other affirmative signals, so they also tend to agree with most of what is being said unless something really important is at stake. If a stranger says that the last few days have been brutal with all the rain, a well-adjusted conversationalist might gently suggest an alternative viewpoint (‘It’ll make us appreciate the weekend even more!’) but they would be unlikely to dispute the proposition entirely (‘Actually you’re wrong: there was a lot of gray sky but not that much rain. People often make that mistake.’) Agreeing is a way of preserving a bond between people, so you have to weigh the importance of the truth against the importance of that bond. Among friends the bonds are often strong enough to withstand a lot of disagreement, but it might still be necessary to avoid certain subjects, like politics or religion or the ethics of eating meat, in the interests of getting along.
The trouble for philosophers is that they find disagreement to be one of life’s higher pleasures. Part of the fun of philosophy, for those who have acquired the taste, is the cut and thrust of argument: for the person proposing it’s the thrill of trying to articulate yourself in the knowledge that a step in the wrong direction could get you skewered; for the person responding it’s the thrill of trying to reverse engineer an argument until you find a chink in the armor. In principle there’s nothing personal about this, just as there’s nothing personal about trying to exploit a weakness in someone’s backhand. In practice things tend to be more complicated. To take an obvious example, philosophers will often test an argument to see if it implies something ridiculous or if it rests on premises that do. But it’s a short step from calling someone’s argument ridiculous to ridiculing them—and in most contexts even asking whether someone’s view might imply something ridiculous is already a violation of trust and mutual respect. To claim that this is simply a way of serving the other person is to risk being perceived as what James calls a ‘self-aggrandizing’ arsehole, one who invokes moral causes in order to enhance his own power. But it is also to risk actually being one, inasmuch as you’re taking pleasure in a process that someone else finds humiliating.
This is why context is so important. Philosophy classrooms and conferences are special spaces designed to allow relentless disagreement to occur against a background of mutual respect. The question period after a talk, for example, tends to be structured so as to make it as hard as possible for the speaker to evade a question: usually everyone is permitted at least one follow-up, and often others are encouraged to pile on. In reality, of course, some people are too polite and others are too aggressive. If you fail to express your doubts about your interlocutor’s position, or if you assume the reason you’re not convinced is that you’re not smart enough to understand what they’re saying, or if you preface all of your remarks by objecting to the argument that you’re just about to make, the chances are that you count as overly polite relative to the social norms of philosophy. If you deliberately mischaracterize an interlocutor’s position, mercilessly pursue them despite a gulf in ability or experience, or continually sidetrack the conversation towards your own hobby horses, on the other hand, the chances are that you count as an arsehole relative to those norms. But the nature of the collective endeavor is such that philosophy as a discipline is likely to have a high degree of tolerance for those who are borderline arseholes even relative to its own norms: if you’re one of those people with a mania for popping other people’s balloons, well, you may be a sociopath, but on balance you’re probably helping others improve their arguments.
Just as there are spaces that are made for vigorous argument, so there are spaces in which it is obviously inappropriate—Quaker meetings, for example, or school prize-givings. Often, though, there is no clear divide between philosophical and non-philosophical spaces. People who aren’t astrophysicists don’t typically spend their evenings arguing about dark matter or string theory, but at some level everybody argues over what to believe and what to do. And when an ordinary conversation takes a philosophical turn, the challenge for the philosopher becomes how to sound like a normal being. You have to shake off turns of phrase that have become second nature, especially the pseudo-informal false friends like ‘at first blush’ or ‘by your own lights’ and you also have to stop couching everything as a ‘worry’ (‘I worry this might open you up to a second objection’ or ‘this reminds me of Hume’s worry about causation’). But these adjustments are nothing compared to learning to recognize the times when philosophical reasoning is both perfectly permissible and utterly inadvisable. For philosophy trains you to presume that genuine listening, and so genuine conversation, involves helping people to clarify their thoughts, and while this might be true in some contexts, it can also have the effect of turning a heart-to-heart into an Oxbridge tutorial. ‘I know you’re upset, but you’ve said three different things that are in tension with one another’ isn’t always the most helpful way to respond to a loved one’s distress, as I have repeatedly discovered—but old habits die hard.
Read the full article in The Point.
This land is our land
Lungisile Ntsebeza, Foreign Policy 3 May 2018
Soon after taking power, Mandela’s ANC adopted a land reform program that had three components: land restitution for those who lost their rights in 1913, land redistribution to redress racial imbalances in ownership of commercial land, and land tenure to protect the rights of farm workers and dwellers, labor tenants and those residing in the rural areas of the former Bantustans.
The ANC’s goal in 1994 was to transfer 30 percent of the country’s agriculturally viable land from white farmers to black farmers within five years. At the core of the policy was the idea that land would be purchased from white commercial farmers who were willing to sell. This is a policy that was widely marketed by the International Monetary Fund, and the ANC leadership at the time was aligning its policies with the fund’s dictates. As popular as it may have been in Washington, this land reform program has been a dismal failure in rural South Africa. Despite the ANC’s ambitious five-year plan, less than 1 percent of land had been transferred to black ownership by 1999. And today, nearly 25 years after the ANC came to power, a mere 8 percent of the land is in black hands.
Today’s debates about land reform in South Africa and its failure tend to revolve around section 25 of the South African Constitution: the property clause. This clause attempts to strike a balance between recognizing existing property rights historically held by whites, while at the same time recognizing the need to return land to the indigenous people who were dispossessed of their land and property.
Many analysts, myself included, view this clause as inherently conflictual in that it protects existing property rights, which favor whites, while at the same time promising the dispossessed that their land will be returned to them. Those of us who subscribe to this school of thought argue for a constitutional amendment to make expropriation of land unambiguous. Others argue that section 25(2) of the constitution already provides for expropriation of land with limited compensation which, in terms of section 25(3) ‘must be just and equitable, reflecting an equitable balance between the public interest and the interests of those affected.’ What is lacking, they contend, is the political will on the part of the ANC leaders to do something about it.
Read the full article in Foreign Policy.
From Windrush to Grenfell, the powerful
only see tragedy when it suits them
Gary Younge, Guardian, 11 May 2017
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, leaving the dead floating in the street and the living stranded on highways and rooftops, a huge crowd of mostly black and poor people descended on the city’s convention centre, where the cameras, but little else, were waiting. When asked why relief organisations had been caught off guard, the hapless director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, responded: ‘We’re seeing people that we didn’t know exist.’ Since the population of New Orleans was well known, a more accurate assessment would have been: ‘We’re seeing people that we didn’t realise we were supposed to care about.’
Such is the nature of scandals in the west involving the marginalised. The outrage emerges not from the revelation that a particular injustice exists. The injustices are usually known, assumed and acknowledged. It was not news that New Orleans had a significant poor, black population that had no means of getting out of the city, any more than it was news that black Americans were being shot dead with impunity, or that in the Mediterranean migrants who could be saved were perishing at sea. We knew.
The scandal resides in the popular recognition – often sudden, unpredictable and fleeting – of the humanity in those suffering the injustices. It took the story of Trayvon Martin’s death, his killer’s acquittal, and the body of another black man – also called Michael Brown – being left on the street in Ferguson for four hours before America would finally pay attention. Similarly it took the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Kurdish Syrian refugee crossing the Mediterranean with his family, to wash up in Bodrum, face down in the surf, for Europe to even begin to engage with the effects of its migration policy.
In each case the privileged appear involuntarily struck by a sudden bout of empathy. For a moment, those who are excluded become human beings. A child – not ‘another refugee’ – has drowned; a teenager – not ‘another black kid’ – has been shot. And in that moment a paradigm shifts. A previously supine public demand to know how this could happen, either unaware or uninterested that the polity was taking its cues from them. Politicians, caught flat-footed, wonder when and how the rules changed. They assumed there would be no political price to pay for malign neglect, active mistreatment or flagrant discrimination. For the longest time they were right. They had licence. Worse still, we gave it to them.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
and the UK Gender Recognition Act
Kathleen Stock, Medium, 7 May 2013
All this looks like grist for the philosophers’ mill, you might think, and a great arena for them to exercise their particular skill set. A juicy issue, with many complex aspects to sort out, including identity, conflicts of interests, and competing duties; one that is currently being debated vociferously on many different platforms, with real-life legal implications, and an audience keen to read what they say – what could be better? Where, you might ask, are the philosophers talking about this? The answer is: they aren’t, much.
Take the last issue first, and let’s call the position that TW shouldn’t be counted as women, the Gender Critical position, or GC for short (NB I avoid the term ‘TERF’ as it is a slur). Though historically, feminist philosophy has offered many positions which imply GC – for instance, Sally Haslanger’s position does, at least on one reading. However, since the issue has come to the forefront of public consciousness, as far as I know (though I’d be happy to be corrected), no mainstream published philosophical paper has explicitly argued for the GC position, though some blogs have (an excellent one is Rebecca Reilly-Cooper’s).
Meanwhile, many journal articles and books accept that transwomen are women, and go on from there to build a theory of gender which accommodates this. This Stanford Encylopedia survey article by Mari Mikkola, and particularly sections 4.1.2 and 4.2 give a sense of the field.
Isn’t this absence odd? For most issues in philosophy, even the most obscure positions in logical space tend to be occupied by someone, let alone fairly simple, obviously available ones. So what might be the reason? Let’s be charitable and start with philosophical reasons. Is it because the GC position is so ridiculously implausible as to be not worth considering? Well, first, we all know that hasn’t stopped many philosophers before. But second, it could never be a ridiculously implausible position on its own; it would surely depend on accompanying arguments. Saying that TW are women (or are not) is not like saying that grass is green or rain is wet…
Are GC views rightly absent or underexplored because they are obviously inevitably ‘transphobic’? I suspect some philosophers think so – but it seems equally obvious to me that they need not be, and most aren’t. Transphobia, if it means anything distinctive at all, is a hatred of or prejudice against transpeople simply because they are trans, founded in disgust, shame, or some other related negative emotion. Nearly all the radical feminist discussions I read are motivated by keen anger at the injustices and harms which, they perceive, WNT will suffer if the boundaries are drawn to include TW as women. This is not the same thing, and it is an oversimplification to imply otherwise.
Are GC views rightly absent or underexplored because, it is feared, they will fuel already existent transphobia in readers? Perhaps, and if so, this seems a real possibility. Argumentative details might get lost, conclusions might get seized upon by careless readers or those with an agenda, and used to potentially harm already vulnerable transpeople. I don’t think there is any point denying this, especially given the way the press and social media can seize upon certain sentences out of context to fuel outrage. I simply note that to take this line prioritises the interests of vulnerable TW over vulnerable WNT. Not saying something – not discussing this issue at all – risks, for instance, letting a law through which quite possibly will also cause actual harm to WNT, and perhaps on a greater scale. There are no easy ‘clean hands’ scenarios here.
Read the full article on Medium.
What I believe about sex and gender
(and what I don’t)
Kathleen Stock, Medium, 13 May 2018
The Gender Critical position is the view, focusing on the concepts of womanhood and woman, which argues the class of women is defined as such by the occupation of an oppressed role in a patriarchal society. This oppressive role is theorised as being based on certain biological and reproductive characteristics, or the perception of them based on external appearances (e.g. intersex people with external female genitalia). To put it in plain terms, this view thinks that it is inherent to the structure of womanhood to be someone targeted for abuse on the basis of a perception of biological characteristics. On this view, women as a class have been historically raped, used as prostitutes, trafficked, expected to do the majority of domestic labour, paid less than men, treated as ‘baby machines’, excluded from Universities, denied the vote, married as children, had their wombs hired out, and so on, based on the perception of their possession of having wombs, vaginas, ovaries and breasts, as well as presumed associated ‘weak’ constitutions and inadequate brains. This sex-based oppression, the view says, is what defines them as ‘women’.
This view looks like it straightforwardly entails that biological males — those with XY chromosomes, and male-associated genitalia — cannot usually count as women, since they can’t normally be subject to this kind of sex-based oppression in a systematic way. Those who hold the view are radical feminists, many of whom are also socialists, Trade Union members, Marxists, anti-climate change and anti-nuclear campaigners. In the popular and broadsheet press, with some honourable exceptions this view is largely reductively treated as automatically ‘transphobic’, ‘disrespectful’, and ‘abusive’.
I am asked whether I hold this view. I honestly can say that I do not yet know whether I endorse it or not. I am currently weighing it up. I have been for a while. I feel absolutely no external pressure to reach a view; it is a matter of private conscience what I think about this, as it is for everyone else. People are entitled to affirm it, and deny it, in a free society. Whether or not I hold it, will make absolutely no practical difference to the way I interact with trans people. I’ll continue in all circumstances to treat them with respect and sensitivity and a complete lack of any discrimination.
I am also asked, more generally, what I think being a woman is. I’m fairly sure it isn’t a feeling in the head, or a set of ‘feminised’ preferences and behaviours. I don’t feel like a woman, particularly, and most of my preferences and behaviours are not remotely feminised. I am nonetheless a woman. For the rest, I am still thinking about it. I severely regret the list of restricted options available in the academic literature. Philosophers who in other contexts are highly creative in theorising about ontological matters tend in this area to state certain rather simplistic mantras dogmatically, no doubt partly out of fear of criticism. (Indeed it is not clear that any other sort of claim would be published).
Read the full article on Medium.
The enduring brilliance of Ludwig Wittgenstein
Julian Baggini, Prospect, 7 May 2018
When I was a postgraduate student, the standard view seemed to be that Wittgenstein was a philosopher you would fall in love with when young but grow out of in time.
But as the years pass, his stock only continues to rise. Card-carrying Wittgensteinians might be relatively thin on the ground but he pointed a direction for philosophy to head in that many are now following.
One example of this is the problem of consciousness. For decades this has been seen as the toughest philosophical nut to crack. How can matter give rise to thought, sensation, emotion? How can we be conscious when we are made of the same stuff as stones? More and more people have come to accept that if we frame the problem in these terms, it can never be solved. The alternative is not to solve it but to dissolve it, by seeing the problem as an artefact of a misguided dualistic worldview in which matter and mind are defined such that they can never be aspects of the same thing. I’ve seen something close to this view expressed by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, the psychologist Michael Gazzaniga and the clinical neuropsychologist Paul Broks, to name but three. None attribute their views to Wittgenstein but his fingerprints are all over them.
Wittgenstein‘s most famous and abused idea is that of the ‘language game.’ Reacting against both dominant philosophies of language and his own earlier work, Wittgenstein came to reject the idea that words are kinds of labels for things in the world or ideas in our head, and that the meaning of sentences are therefore entirely determinable. The meaning of a word is rather ‘its use in the language’ which is governed by rules that are neither explicit nor clear. The same word can be used to refer to two things because they have a ‘family resemblance,’ but it might not be possible to precisely define what that resemblance is. This view of how language works anticipated the more empirical prototype theory developed in the 1970s by Eleanor Rosch. Rosch argued that we learn the meanings of words by noticing how they are used, first learning their most typical usages and later their extended or metaphorical ones. Learning meanings by definitions is atypical. The family resemblance to family resemblance theory is too strong to miss. Once again, Wittgenstein cleared the path that others only later followed.
Read the full article in Prospect.
What does quantum physics
actually tell us about the world?
James Gleick, New York Times, 8 May 2018
From one point of view, quantum physics is just a set of formalisms, a useful tool kit. Want to make better lasers or transistors or television sets? The Schrödinger equation is your friend. The trouble starts only when you step back and ask whether the entities implied by the equation can really exist. Then you encounter problems that can be described in several familiar ways:
Wave-particle duality. Everything there is — all matter and energy, all known forces — behaves sometimes like waves, smooth and continuous, and sometimes like particles, rat-a-tat-tat. Electricity flows through wires, like a fluid, or flies through a vacuum as a volley of individual electrons. Can it be both things at once?
The uncertainty principle. Werner Heisenberg famously discovered that when you measure the position (let’s say) of an electron as precisely as you can, you find yourself more and more in the dark about its momentum. And vice versa. You can pin down one or the other but not both.
The measurement problem. Most of quantum mechanics deals with probabilities rather than certainties. A particle has a probability of appearing in a certain place. An unstable atom has a probability of decaying at a certain instant. But when a physicist goes into the laboratory and performs an experiment, there is a definite outcome. The act of measurement — observation, by someone or something — becomes an inextricable part of the theory.
The strange implication is that the reality of the quantum world remains amorphous or indefinite until scientists start measuring. Schrödinger’s cat, as you may have heard, is in a terrifying limbo, neither alive nor dead, until someone opens the box to look. Indeed, Heisenberg said that quantum particles ‘are not as real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.’ This is disturbing to philosophers as well as physicists. It led Einstein to say in 1952, ‘The theory reminds me a little of the system of delusions of an exceedingly intelligent paranoiac.’
So quantum physics — quite unlike any other realm of science — has acquired its own metaphysics, a shadow discipline tagging along like the tail of a comet. You can think of it as an ‘ideological superstructure’ (Heisenberg’s phrase). This field is called quantum foundations, which is inadvertently ironic, because the point is that precisely where you would expect foundations you instead find quicksand.
Read the full article in the New York Times.
The culture wars are dead.
Long live the culture wars.
Andrew Hartman, The Baffler, 39, May 2018
Beyond its present-day appeal, though, ‘Make America Great Again’ speaks to the narrative of decline that has defined conservative cultural attitudes since the 1960s. It is, at bottom, a nostalgic call to revive and restore the orderly, disciplined, and authority-respecting America before the social movements of the 1960s endowed people of color, women, gays and lesbians, immigrants, and other seeming outsiders and fringe characters with the right to call themselves Americans.
In this way, the multivalent Trump slogan marks but the latest stage in the culture wars that have polarized the United States for decades. Trump and his supporters are breathing new life into the venerable right-wing tradition of complaining that the nation went to hell during the Age of Aquarius. Those on the left, by contrast, have tended to view American life through the eyes of those ‘others’ whose very existence challenges the America of Trump’s constricted imagination. These have long been the dividing lines in the culture wars.
Trump’s ascendancy to the White House thus seems to indicate that the culture wars endure. In the years prior to Trump’s improbable victory many observers predicted that the culture wars were dying. So did I. In the conclusion to my A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (2015), I argued that the logic of the culture wars had been exhausted; that the metaphor had run its course. Of course I didn’t believe that Americans had come to a peaceful consensus on the issues that had polarized the nation since the 1960s: abortion, affirmative action, controversial art and censorship, evolution, feminism, gay rights, multiculturalism, national history standards, pornography, school prayer, and sex education, to name but a few.
Cultural conflict would persist, I argued, as it has throughout American history. But I suggested as well that such conflict was now being fought in a different register, one shaped by the ever intensifying disruptions of neoliberalism in American social and economic life.
Trump’s ascendancy certainly complicates that prognosis, though without, perhaps, overthrowing it altogether. Perhaps we can get a handle on the state of America’s new millennial culture wars by asking questions that extend beyond Trump and Trumpism. It may well be, for instance, that in lieu of the traditional culture-war uprisings against the various gate keeping institutions presiding over our common life, we’re seeing a new brand of identity-themed insurgency, one that might prove more sinister and abiding than the former mobilization of cultural conflict on the left and right flanks of our politics. Perhaps the two strongest forces in American history—cultural conflict and capitalism—have merged to create a political culture more divided and despairing than anything in the recent past. And if so, what now?
Read the full article in the Baffler.
Why we should bulldoze the business school
Martin Parker, Guardian, 27 April 2018
The sorts of doors to knowledge we find in universities are based on exclusions. A subject is made up by teaching this and not that, about space (geography) and not time (history), about collectives of people (sociology) and not about individuals (psychology), and so on. Of course, there are leakages and these are often where the most interesting thinking happens, but this partitioning of the world is constitutive of any university discipline. We cannot study everything, all the time, which is why there are names of departments over the doors to buildings and corridors.
However, the B-school is an even more extreme case. It is constituted through separating commercial life from the rest of life, but then undergoes a further specialisation. The business school assumes capitalism, corporations and managers as the default form of organisation, and everything else as history, anomaly, exception, alternative. In terms of curriculum and research, everything else is peripheral.
Most business schools exist as parts of universities, and universities are generally understood as institutions with responsibilities to the societies they serve. Why then do we assume that degree courses in business should only teach one form of organisation – capitalism – as if that were the only way in which human life could be arranged?
The sort of world that is being produced by the market managerialism that the business school sells is not a pleasant one. It’s a sort of utopia for the wealthy and powerful, a group that the students are encouraged to imagine themselves joining, but such privilege is bought at a very high cost, resulting in environmental catastrophe, resource wars and forced migration, inequality within and between countries, the encouragement of hyper-consumption as well as persistently anti-democratic practices at work.
Selling the business school works by ignoring these problems, or by mentioning them as challenges and then ignoring them in the practices of teaching and research. If we want to be able to respond to the challenges that face human life on this planet, then we need to research and teach about as many different forms of organising as we are able to collectively imagine. For us to assume that global capitalism can continue as it is means to assume a path to destruction. So if we are going to move away from business as usual, then we also need to radically reimagine the business school as usual. And this means more than pious murmurings about corporate social responsibility. It means doing away with what we have, and starting again.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Germany’s attempt to fix Facebook is backfiring
Linda Kinstler, Atlantic, 18 May 2018
‘I’m far from being a fan of the far right, but a lot of them are afraid that their postings are deleted because of their beliefs, not because of what they say,’ said Jeorg Heidrich, a German internet lawyer and a longtime opponent of the regulation. He said that the NetzDG incentivizes social-media companies to ‘delete in doubt’—to remove any content that seems like it might be illegal—and he is one of many who have observed a general ‘chilling’ of speech online and offline in Germany. ‘The NetzDG is on people’s minds,’ he said. ‘Generally, people are more careful what to think, what to write. Lots of people are afraid of losing their accounts.’
In the AfD’s case, however, Germany’s attempt to regulate speech online has seemingly amplified the voices it was trying to diminish. The law was created to address the troubling proliferation of incendiary and hateful speech online, but its ambiguities and omissions—its lack of clarity regarding what kinds of speech it targets, and how platforms must comply—leave open key questions about how to define the contours of free speech in the digital age. Those questions are a matter of broad debate within the mainstream of German society. But the fight gives the AfD—some of whose members have been accused of exactly the kind of neo-Nazi rhetoric German speech law is deeply concerned with in the first place—a unique opportunity to capitalize.
AfD politicians have called the NetzDG a return of Stasi-era censorship from the days of the German Democratic Republic (DDR), dubbing it ‘DDR 2.0’ and portraying the party as a victim of censorship. Party members also moved quickly to expose perceived weak spots in the law, said Mirko Hohmann, a technology-policy researcher at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin. ‘When they want to be provocative, they write something that was borderline illegal, they take a screen shot, post it, and see if it gets deleted,’ Hohmann said. The law leaves it up to companies like Facebook and Twitter, with their armies of moderators newly installed in Germany, to decide within 24 hours whether a post is ‘manifestly’ illegal and remove it – a decision that would ordinarily take weeks in a German court, Hohmann explained. ‘Employees at Facebook and Twitter just can’t keep up.’
And despite crying censorship against her, Weidel has also herself forced Facebook to restrict some content. Last month, Weidel earned praise for bringing Facebook ‘to its knees‘ in Germany after winning a court case against the company. She demanded that the platform make a post calling her a ‘Nazi swine’ and viciously attacking her sexual orientation completely inaccessible to Facebook users in Germany, even those using a VPN. When she first reported the offensive comment to Facebook in late January, the company quickly made the post invisible to users with German IP addresses. But Weidel, who has a home in Switzerland, noticed that it was still viewable to users who were outside the country, or whose IP addresses made it seem like they were. (The NetzDG stipulates that social-media companies remove illegal posts that are visible to users inside Germany, but does not consider how this could impact the circulation of content across borders.) As a result of her petition, Facebook must ensure that individuals in Germany cannot use a VPN to access illegal content. The easiest way to do this would be to remove offensive posts completely; the court’s forthcoming written decision is expected to explain how the company should comply with the ruling.
Read the full article in the Atlantic.
Never-ending nightmare: why feminist dystopias
must stop torturing women
Sarah Ditum, Guardian, 12 May 2018
Suffering sells, especially when it’s women who are doing the suffering, and as with any trend, the pressure is for each new iteration to outdo what came before. The results sometimes skirt absurdity: in Vox by Christina Dalcher, due to be published in August, women are fitted with bracelets that deliver electric shocks should they speak more than their allotted 100 words a day. And there’s more to come. At the London Book Fair in March, the big announcements were driven by stories of dreadful things happening to women: Joanne Ramos’s The Farm, to be published by Bloomsbury next year, is set in an industrial surrogacy facility; Vardø, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, about 17th-century witch trials, was acquired by Picador for a six-figure sum after a 13‑way bidding war. In YA, the same fascination holds sway: Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours, published in 2014, established the tone, revisiting The Handmaid’s Tale for the teen market.
Atwood’s 1985 novel endures as a touchstone because its power to shock has never faded. Limiting herself to technology that existed and events that had already happened, Atwood created a vision of patriarchal totalitarianism that has radicalised generation after generation of women readers. Updated to the present day in its TV adaptation, it has acquired new resonance. Commissioned before Trump’s presidency, but broadcast during it, The Handmaid’s Tale has become an instantly recognisable reference point. Feminists have dressed in handmaid costumes to protest anti-abortion legislation; fashion designers have sent handmaid chic down their runways.
Yet with season two already airing in the US and about to begin on Channel 4, some viewers have started to sound their discomfort about the levels of brutality in the drama. Season one, cleaving fairly closely to the novel, had a known arc of pain for Offred. Season two, loosed from its source material, has the potential for unlimited unpleasantness in Gilead. New York magazine called it ‘a ceaseless cavalcade of grisly feminist torture porn to rival our greatest misogynist auteurs’, and wondered whether this was justifiably shocking given the subject matter, or merely sadism.
The Handmaid’s Tale effectively inaugurated feminist dystopia as a genre, and as the feminist dystopia has flourished, its opposite – the feminist utopia – has faded away. Margaret Cavendish’s 17th‑century The Blazing World, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novella Herland, Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) all offered no-places where being female no longer meant being inferior. Revisiting these what-ifs is invigorating. In The Left Hand’s imagined world of Gethen, for example, there are no male and female humans: instead, every individual is capable of ovulation and insemination, and takes each role situationally. In such a world, writes Le Guin, there is ‘no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protected/protective, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive’. It’s an invention that points to both the cruelty of existing human sex classes, and the possibility of a life unconstrained by them.
Read the full article in the Guardian.
Memory transferred between snails, challenging standard theory of how the brain remembers
Usha Lee Mcfarling, STAT News, 14 May 2018
UCLA neuroscientists reported Monday that they have transferred a memory from one animal to another via injections of RNA, a startling result that challenges the widely held view of where and how memories are stored in the brain.
The finding from the lab of David Glanzman hints at the potential for new RNA-based treatments to one day restore lost memories and, if correct, could shake up the field of memory and learning.
‘It’s pretty shocking,’ said Dr. Todd Sacktor, a neurologist and memory researcher at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. ‘The big picture is we’re working out the basic alphabet of how memories are stored for the first time.’ He was not involved in the research, which was published in eNeuro, the online journal of the Society for Neuroscience.
Many scientists are expected to view the research more cautiously. The work is in snails, animals that have proven a powerful model organism for neuroscience but whose simple brains work far differently than those of humans. The experiments will need to be replicated, including in animals with more complex brains. And the results fly in the face of a massive amount of evidence supporting the deeply entrenched idea that memories are stored through changes in the strength of connections, or synapses, between neurons.
‘If he’s right, this would be absolutely earth-shattering,’ said Tomás Ryan, an assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, whose lab hunts for engrams, or the physical traces of memory. ‘But I don’t think it’s right.’
Glanzman knows his unceremonial demotion of the synapse is not going to go over well in the field. ‘I expect a lot of astonishment and skepticism,’ he said. ‘I don’t expect people are going to have a parade for me at the next Society for Neuroscience meeting.’
Read the full article in STAT News.
Am I speaking to a human?
Morten Bay, Slate, 10 May 2018
Alexa and Siri never say ‘like’ or ‘mmm-hmmm’ to buy themselves time. Instead, the virtual assistants from Amazon and Apple are brief and to the point when they speak. They’re machines, after all, and their stilted cadence and brevity are reassuring. They show that we can still tell the difference between humans and robots.
Except that’s not true anymore. A new version of Google Assistant, the company’s answer to Alexa and Siri, can apparently dupe unsuspecting humans into believing it’s made of flesh and blood. This new capability is called Duplex, and two recordings of it conversing with regular humans, recently played to attendees of Google’s developer conference, I/O, are now online. The people on the other end of the phone line, taking bookings for a haircut and for a table at a restaurant, seemed to have no clue that they were talking to a machine. As a technological feat, it was impressive, with Duplex throwing in that very human ‘uuuuh’ or a sassy ‘mmm-hmmm’ when appropriate and making the words seem to flow together like a human would.
But clever as it may seem, Google Duplex comes with a host of ethical issues that relate more to the conduct of its creators than that of the AI itself.
Google hasn’t stated publicly whether it obtained informed consent from people at the salon and restaurant before Duplex called. If it did, and the subjects were aware of the chances of getting Duplex on the phone, the results aren’t quite as impressive. If they didn’t, well, a social scientist at any research university would be fired for something like that.
Yet this is perhaps the least significant of the ethical issues arising from setting Duplex loose on society. At Google I/O, company executives expressed how important it is for the company to ‘get it right‘ when it comes to A.I. Instead, Duplex could very well expand divides across class and socioeconomic strata.
Read the full article in Slate.
How Islam shaped the Enlightenment
Jacob Soll, The New Republic, 12 April 2018
In 1698, the noted Arabic scholar and Catholic evangelical crusader, Ludovico Marracci published the first historically-accurate Latin translation of the Qur’an, as well as a refutation of the Muslim holy book—both of which he hoped could be used to help ‘fight Islam.’ Since the Reformations of the sixteenth century, religious conflicts had been settled not only by the sword, but with the potent weapon of philology, the linguistic science that produced accurate versions and translations of holy and ancient texts. Philology had such force that new translations and interpretations of the Bible had helped split the Church. Marracci hoped that his accurate work would have the same effect in training crusading priests to dispute the word of Muhammad.
As it happened, Marracci’s translation did not have the effect he intended, as Alexander Bevilacqua shows in his tour-de-force study of the origins of modern Islamic scholarship in the West and its central role in the Enlightenment, The Republic of Arabic Letters Islam and the European Enlightenment. Bible critics and burgeoning Islamic scholars from Paris and Leiden to Oxford used his accurate translation of the Qur’an not to fight Islam, but to study and appreciate it. His work became the basis of even more translations and historical works, ultimately leading to the founding of great schools and centers of Islamic languages and culture in Europe the eighteenth century.
Bevilacqua’s extraordinary book provides the first true glimpse into this story. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Gibbon studied and critiqued Islam along with Christianity, giving the study of Islam a new importance in Europe. The idea that one could equally compare religions was the beginning of a movement of religious tolerance that began with seventeenth-century religious scholars and made its way to the thinking of Voltaire, William Penn and Benjamin Franklin, who believed that Muslim theologians should have the freedom to preach their religion to the citizens of Philadelphia.
Read the full article in the New Republic.
Coming in from the cold
Nicholas Dames, n+1, Spring 2018
A postulate, then: the spy novel, that peculiar 20th-century genre with roots as far back as early 19th-century reaction, has as its ideological dominant a pessimistic, fatalistic nationalism. Think of a world where the revolution will never come – the world Julien Sorel’s clandestine employers try to bring into being; that is the world of spies. Instead of rapid change, the glacial melt of national power. If you doubt the sensitivity of intelligence analysts to the contours of a world like this, read the declassified 1985 CIA report on the demise of French high theory (‘France: Defection of the Leftist Intellectuals’) and its replacement by the ‘new philosophy’ of André Glucksmann and Bernard-Henri Lévy. The report quotes an anonymous figure at Paris Nanterre, a center of leftist theory, as saying, ‘This is the permanent nonrevolution.’ The agency, any agency, doesn’t want to tamper with that state of affairs, it wants to preserve it in amber - despite its lingering, melancholy awareness of the world’s entropy. This is the importance of le Carré’s shabby spy milieu; its slow, dingy decay literalizes the genre’s historical position rather than revises it.
Fatalistic about what he serves, the spy is cool – both engaged and detached. The code is already present as early as Kipling’s Kim, another early spy story, about the recruitment and training of an Irish urchin into a British spy combating Russian influence in Central Asia, although it is presented in split form. Kim oscillates between the breathless excitement of working for the Sahibs – mastering tradecraft, pursuing the Great Game against Russian spies – and the profundity of following his mentor the Lama, a Buddhist monk seeking release from the cycle of rebirth, who offers a world of quasi-stoic detachment. In Kipling, Kim’s two worlds are largely a binary, in competition with each other: exuberant, restless adventure against the idea that ‘all doing is evil,’ the plotted thriller against static philosophizing. Kim must choose, although he manages for the most part to keep deferring his choice. The later spy novel, on the other hand, merges the two. Doing is evil, and the spy reluctantly engages in ‘doing,’ or plot – if with a certain embarrassed relish – to keep the world’s balance. The traditional spy is both actor and contemplative, and when they are drawn into action it is unwillingly.
The ethos of this historical condition, in Western terms, is a muted stoicism, and the spy novel, of all our narrative genres, might be our best guide to it. The Victorians had the novel of religious doubt; we have the spy novel, our story of forlorn service to a vanishing ideal. Instead of the church, we have the agency – that compromised, alluring, ridiculous, frightening, and still durable institution, dedicated to ideals that seem no longer viable. The agency may in fact be the villain in most postwar spy stories: it tries to eliminate Jason Bourne, it traduces its employees like Milo Weaver or David Morgan, it cannot be trusted by George Smiley. But one hates most where one has loved. The Service, be it MI6, CIA, or Mossad, is always being dismantled, always needs reconstructing, never seems healthy, never quite collapses – there’s a background sense of some constant partial recovery from a prior disaster. How can you continue to perform your duty to such a flawed thing, a thing whose damage is usually more evident than its healing?
Read the full article in n+1.
Delete your account:
On the theory of platform capitalism
Leif Weatherby, LA Review of Books, 24 April 2018
The term ‘platform’ is everywhere, but it’s not clear if it’s a metaphor or a thing, a new condition in the digital era or semantic camouflage for the banal evil of capitalism. Platforms are raised areas that facilitate — and leave open — exchange and social activity. As long as software platforms were contained behind personal computer screens and locked into physical infrastructures, the metaphor seemed innocuous. But now meatspace and cyberspace have fused. As a recent how-to for the new business era, Platform Revolution, puts it: ‘A platform is a business based on enabling value-creating interactions between external producers and consumers,’ providing ‘an open, participative infrastructure for these interactions’ and setting ‘governance conditions for them.’ This model of privatized governance is spreading. Production and distribution, services and the social: all have been ‘disrupted’ by the rules of the platform. Tom Goodwin observed in 2015 that ‘Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles.’ And the same could be said for Facebook (media), Alibaba (retail), and Airbnb (hotels). It’s true that none of these platforms owns the goods their services enable. But this now ubiquitous observation raises more questions than it answers.
Are these platforms skimming rent off capital and labor? Or do they represent a fundamental shift in economics, a new Industrial Revolution? The second view, espoused by the pop-management guru team Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, holds that that ‘cybernation’ will automate mental labor in the same way the factory automated the work of the arm. Of course, the ‘unburdening’ of the arm unleashed the horrors of 19th-century industrial labor, so we have reason in advance to suspect such boosterism. Cognitive capitalism, to use Yann Moulier Boutang’s term, might be less about allowing creativity to organize the economic cycle than about siphoning value from socio-cultural activity as such. Companies such as Alphabet, with a market cap in the neighborhood of three quarters of a trillion dollars, have claimed to be neutral arbiters and spaces of informational exchange. No one really believes that anymore, but we lack language to grasp the way these platforms collapse profit and the social, culture and capital. As the media scholar Tarleton Gillespie has argued, the term ‘platform’ tendentiously fuses several meanings to the benefit of these businesses, combining the software platform with the figurative and political senses of the word associated with freedom. Yet criticizing the propaganda of such usage is a less urgent intellectual task than trying to understand what the platformed world we now inhabit looks like.
Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.
Israeli series exposes raw wounds
from ethnic Jewish divide
Tia Goldenberg, AP News, 17 April 2018
‘The Ancestral Sin’ has ignited outrage and disbelief by arguing that the immigrants were systematically marginalized by seemingly bigoted bureaucrats. The controversy has exposed just how raw sentiments are about the history of relations between Mizrahi Jews, from the Middle East and North Africa, and those from Europe, known as Ashkenazim.
‘This was a state that directed their fate without including them at all, while deceiving them and imposing its policies on them,’ said David Deri, the director. ‘To this day, society hasn’t really dealt very deeply with these people and places.’
Arriving from Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa after Israel’s establishment in 1948, many Mizrahi immigrants were sent to shantytown transit camps and largely sidelined by the country’s European leaders. They have long complained of discrimination by the European-descended elite that traditionally dominated the government, military and economy. They eventually found their political savior in the Likud Party’s Menachem Begin — even though he was of Polish Jewish descent.
The longtime opposition leader cultivated an outsiders’ alliance that appealed to their sense of deprivation, and with massive Mizrahi backing he swept to power in 1977 to shatter nearly 30 years of Labor rule. The community’s loyalty to Likud has remained steadfast.
Tensions have diminished over time. Marriages between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi Jews are common, and Jews of Mizrahi descent have risen to the highest echelons of the government, military, judiciary and entertainment business. But gaps remain. There has never been a Mizrahi prime minister, for example. Mizrahim far outnumber Ashkenazim in prison, and are far outnumbered in academia. Ashkenazi men earn more than Mizrahim, according to the Adva Center, a think-tank, although less so than in the past.
Read the full article in AP News.
Cognitive scientists define critical period
for learning language
Ann Trafton, MIT News, 1 May 2018
A new study performed at MIT suggests that children remain very skilled at learning the grammar of a new language much longer than expected — up to the age of 17 or 18. However, the study also found that it is nearly impossible for people to achieve proficiency similar to that of a native speaker unless they start learning a language by the age of 10.
‘If you want to have native-like knowledge of English grammar you should start by about 10 years old. We don’t see very much difference between people who start at birth and people who start at 10, but we start seeing a decline after that,’ says Joshua Hartshorne, an assistant professor of psychology at Boston College, who conducted this study as a postdoc at MIT.
People who start learning a language between 10 and 18 will still learn quickly, but since they have a shorter window before their learning ability declines, they do not achieve the proficiency of native speakers, the researchers found. The findings are based on an analysis of a grammar quiz taken by nearly 670,000 people, which is by far the largest dataset that anyone has assembled for a study of language-learning ability…
The findings suggest that the critical period for learning language is much longer than cognitive scientists had previously thought. ‘It was surprising to us,’ Hartshorne says. ‘The debate had been over whether it declines from birth, starts declining at 5 years old, or starts declining starting at puberty.’ The authors note that adults are still good at learning foreign languages, but they will not be able to reach the level of a native speaker if they begin learning as a teenager or as an adult.
Still unknown is what causes the critical period to end around age 18. The researchers suggest that cultural factors may play a role, but there may also be changes in brain plasticity that occur around that age.
‘It’s possible that there’s a biological change. It’s also possible that it’s something social or cultural,’ Tenenbaum says. ‘There’s roughly a period of being a minor that goes up to about age 17 or 18 in many societies. After that, you leave your home, maybe you work full time, or you become a specialized university student. All of those might impact your learning rate for any language.’
Read the full article in MIT News.
Spinoza’s philosophy of freedom
Streven Nadler, Times Literary Supplement, 27 April 2018
Ever since Plato, the human soul was conceived as essentially different from the human body. Descartes took this ‘dualism’ to an extreme, arguing that mind and body are ontologically distinct and independent substances with nothing in common; and yet, somehow, they are united and causally interact in a human being. Spinoza, on the other hand, believes that there is only one substance: the infinite, eternal and necessarily existing God or Nature. An individual human being, as a ‘mode’ of God or Nature (as all things are), is neither a substance nor a union of substances, but simply a finite and determinate parcel or expression of God or Nature’s infinite power. Moreover, this finite power that is the individual manifests itself in two ways: as a mind (or mode of God or Nature’s attribute of Thought) and as a body (or mode of God or Nature’s attribute of Extension). The human mind and the human body are thus, at a deep level, one and the same thing. This intimate unity, even metaphysical identity, of mind and body means that nothing happens in the body that does not have a corresponding ‘idea’ or affect in the mind.
Now the power (or, to use Spinoza’s term, conatus) that constitutes an individual is subject to fluctuations, mainly due to the way the individual is affected by external things. These fluctuations in power are the human passions, all of which are forms of joy (an increase in power) or sadness (a decrease in power). Human beings are egoistically motivated agents constantly striving for joy and to avoid sadness. They therefore pursue those things that they believe will bring about the desired affect and improvement in their condition. Yet this pursuit is all too often guided by ‘inadequate ideas’, by sensory or imaginative beliefs about how a thing may or may not improve one’s power. We thus spend our lives blindly chasing after what we believe, on a deficient basis, to be good. Thus the title of Part Four of the Ethics: ‘On Human Bondage’.
While it is impossible for a human being not to be a part of Nature and subject to passions, there is still a kind of freedom available. Given the exceptionless determinism of Spinoza’s universe, freedom of the will is not possible. But we can liberate ourselves from enslavement to the passions and a life governed by the transitory ‘goods’ of the world around us. What freedom consists in, for Spinoza, is autonomy, rational self-governance. Individuals are free to the extent that what they do follows not from how external things happen to make them feel, but from their own intellectual resources – especially what they know, through ‘adequate ideas’, truly to be good, that is, what will certainly bring about an improvement in their overall condition and bring them closer to maximal power and flourishing.
The one thing that best contributes to this authentic improvement is understanding, and in particular a knowledge of God or Nature and of the ways in which all things are a part of Nature, governed by its deterministic necessity. This deep intellectual insight is our highest good, and it will be followed by a weakening of the passions and happiness understood as equanimity and peace of mind. It is a rather Stoic morality that Spinoza adopts.
Against metrics: how measuring
performance by numbers backfires
Jerry Z Muller, Aeon, 24 April 2018
Contrary to commonsense belief, attempts to measure productivity through performance metrics discourage initiative, innovation and risk-taking. The intelligence analysts who ultimately located Osama bin Laden worked on the problem for years. If measured at any point, the productivity of those analysts would have been zero. Month after month, their failure rate was 100 per cent, until they achieved success. From the perspective of the superiors, allowing the analysts to work on the project for years involved a high degree of risk: the investment in time might not pan out. Yet really great achievements often depend on such risks.
The source of the trouble is that when people are judged by performance metrics they are incentivised to do what the metrics measure, and what the metrics measure will be some established goal. But that impedes innovation, which means doing something not yet established, indeed that hasn’t even been tried out. Innovation involves experimentation. And experimentation includes the possibility, perhaps probability, of failure. At the same time, rewarding individuals for measured performance diminishes a sense of common purpose, as well as the social relationships that motivate co-operation and effectiveness. Instead, such rewards promote competition.
Compelling people in an organisation to focus their efforts on a narrow range of measurable features degrades the experience of work. Subject to performance metrics, people are forced to focus on limited goals, imposed by others who might not understand the work that they do. Mental stimulation is dulled when people don’t decide the problems to be solved or how to solve them, and there is no excitement of venturing into the unknown because the unknown is beyond the measureable. The entrepreneurial element of human nature is stifled by metric fixation.
Organisations in thrall to metrics end up motivating those members of staff with greater initiative to move out of the mainstream, where the culture of accountable performance prevails. Teachers move out of public schools to private and charter schools. Engineers move out of large corporations to boutique firms. Enterprising government employees become consultants. There is a healthy element to this, of course. But surely the large-scale organisations of our society are the poorer for driving out staff most likely to innovate and initiate. The more that work becomes a matter of filling in the boxes by which performance is to be measured and rewarded, the more it will repel those who think outside the box.
Read the full article in Aeon.
Review of Lars Rensmann, The Politics of Unreason: The Frankfurt School and the Origins of Modern Antisemitism
Clemens Holzgruber, H-Net Reviews, April 2018
Rensmann argues that antisemitism, which for a long time was ignored or viewed as a minor issue in academic discussions of Critical Theory, constitutes a central problem within Frankfurt School theory, particularly after the horrors of the Shoah. In response to Nazi barbarism, the Frankfurt School sought to develop a comprehensive theory of modern civilization that illuminates the collapse of society and the devastating rise of Jew hatred. In nine chapters – each dealing with a different aspect of Critical Theory’s research on anti-Semitism – Rensmann discusses the writings and empirical studies of the school between 1929 and 1955. His primary focus is on the works of Adorno and Horkheimer, but he also discusses Erich Fromm, Leo Lowenthal, and Herbert Marcuse.
By revisiting and critically analyzing the empirical studies of the school, many of which have been only marginally addressed in academic publications, among them the survey of German workers in 1929, the unpublished study of the American working class in 1944, and the group experiment in 1955, Rensmann makes clear that, while these empirical studies are informative and original on their own, together they have significantly shaped Critical Theory’s understanding of antisemitism. Therefore, Rensmann argues that despite the robust critique of positivism, it is not possible to detach Critical Theory’s empirical work from their philosophical investigations, and instead sees both as interconnected and essential aspects of their research. Moreover, Rensmann cautions against looking at the theory of antisemitism in isolation. He explains that, for the proponents of Critical Theory, the research on subjectivization in capitalism, authoritarianism, and the dialectical critique of enlightenment have to be connected to understand the irrational and pathological mechanisms typical of antisemitism.
Critical Theory argues that antisemitism, like every form of ‘othering,’ will not be adequately analyzed based merely on economic interest, propaganda, or a general herd mentality. Instead, Critical Theory states that an authoritarian and ego-weak personality is prone to project their internal struggles, desires, and aggression outward. us, this personality type o en seeks to achieve temporary gratification of their psychological needs. e emphasis on the psychological process of projection points to a key premise of Critical Theory that runs like a thread through Rensmann’s entire analysis: antisemitism has nothing to do with the actual experiences or interactions with Jews. Instead, it is based on psychological, subjective, and circumstantial factors of the antisemite’s life. The authoritarian individuals thus project their impulses onto other groups or individuals, who then represent traits and emotions the antisemites cannot tolerate in themselves. Following this understanding of antisemitism, Rensmann discusses the wide-ranging social and psychological functions that antisemitism serves, from enabling the gratification of internal tensions toward seeking narcissistic valorization through the imagination of belonging to a superior collective, nation, or race.
Read the full article in H-Net Reviews.
Thinking about believing:
On Marilynne Robinson’s ‘What Are We Doing Here?’
Nicholas Cannariato, Los Angeles Review of Books, 25 April 2018
Marilynne Robinson is a writer of unique vision. Throughout her work, her religion and politics find urgent but humane expression as her tone modulates easily between prophetic and earnest, impassioned and contemplative. A life, for her, is most meaningful when wedded to aesthetic and religious engagement and, following from them, political engagement. But what makes her truly compelling as a novelist and an essayist is her personal synthesis of humanism and Christianity: two value systems whose ends have historically diverged. Yet, to her, they’re complements revealing that humans really are cast in the image of God.
Robinson’s humanistic Christianity doesn’t wish to coerce belief or impose dogma from a megachurch pulpit or talk radio studio. Coerced religious belief and enforced dogma is tantamount to teaching students in school to score well on standardized tests: they might be doing what they need to do to please the authorities, but they’re deprived of an education that can serve as a means to discovery, empathy, and upbuilding — a guide to grappling with the problem of personal meaning, the world outside, and the sea within. Robinson’s approach is more like that of John Ames, the preacher who narrates her 2004 novel Gilead, who is uninterested in coercing or imploring those without faith. Students from his flock come home from school filled with unbelief, are miserable for it, and want Ames to provide ‘proofs’ of God’s existence. But he ‘just won’t do it. It only confirms them in their skepticism. Because nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.’ In other words, God is better experienced than formulated and promulgated and shouted about. He goes on to add later that ‘creating proofs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.’ His detractors might claim Ames should be full of zeal, ready to mix it up with the unbelievers and their decadence, ready to martyr himself before the besotted gaze of the heathens. But no. His faith is quiet, abiding. It’s the stuff of memory, vision, and the peace that comes from compassionately accepting the loneliness of each life, with or without faith.
Read the full article in the LA Review of Books.
CIA nominee Gina Haspel solves the trolley problem
Susanna Wolff, New Yorker, May 11 2018
A runaway trolley is speeding along a track to which five people are tied, up ahead. I am standing next to a lever that, if pulled, would divert the trolley to a track where only one person is tied. So your question is: What should I do?
Let me start by saying that I support the higher moral standard that we have decided to hold ourselves to. I really do. The original moral standard was torture, so I really support something somewhat above that. Something just a hair above a war crime is, technically speaking, a higher moral standard. Does that answer the question?
Oh, right, the runaway trolley. Well, as I am not a train operator, it would not be my legal responsibility to alter the path of the trolley. So, to be clear, it would be technically legal to do nothing and let the trolley collide with the five people laid out before it. Any resulting casualties would not be a product of my actions.
But I believe very strongly in American values. And, as an American, if the corporation that owns the trolley gave me the order to operate the lever that could alter the trolley’s path, I would do what I was commanded to do.
What if I were in charge of the trolley and had to personally weigh the lives of five people against the life of one? I believe, sitting here today, that my answer is unknowable. Without the ability to question the people tied to the tracks, how could I learn who was the least deserving of life? If I told the single person tied to one track about the five tied to the other, would the psychological agony of the single person lead him or her to willingly sacrifice him- or herself? I think that person would be honor-bound to do so because of American values.
What if the innocent people on the trolley tracks are not American? Let me ask two follow-up questions: Is anyone recording this particular juncture of the trolley route, and, if so, do I have access to that footage?
Read the full article in the New Yorker.
The images are, from top down: SS Empire Windrush docking in Tilbury, July 1948; Quantum equations (source unknown ); Still from the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale; Still from the BBC adaptation of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’; ‘Portrait of Baruch Spinoza’ by Franz Wulfhagen.