Blog Archives

1971: A Year in the Life of Color

February 13, 2017
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1971: A Year in the Life of Color

Darby English’s 1971: A Year in the Life of Color points to a moment when the self-representation of black American artists working in the wake of modernism manifested in two shows staged during a tumultuous period of cultural, political, and aesthetic change—Contemporary Black Artists in America, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, and The DeLuxe Show, “a racially integrated abstract art exhibition presented in a renovated movie theater in a Houston ghetto.” *** Hyperallergic (in a piece by Jessica Bell Brown) has more commentary on what the convergence of these two shows meant for dismantling a homogeneous narrative of black modernist expression: Enter 1971, which takes as its starting point a most urgent year in aesthetic and racial politics. English’s object of study are two exhibitions essential to the ongoing relationship between black American artists and modernism: The Deluxe Show and the Contemporary Black Artists in America exhibition at the Whitney Museum, preceding Deluxe in the spring of 1971. In his book, English magnifies “an unprecedented brief swell of dissent within black political culture” that year, centering his study on the status and relevance of “color” as an aesthetic and social obsession. For so long, historians of African American art were unable . . .

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How to make a minor motion picture about the timber rattlesnake

February 10, 2017
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How to make a minor motion picture about the timber rattlesnake

Michael Swingen was assigned to review Ted Levin’s America’s Snake: The Rise and Fall of the Timber Rattlesnake for Rain Taxi Review of Books. What did he do instead? He created the 30-minute short film, “Snakes and Such,” about “the book, the author, and the process of reviewing.” Watch it in full below: To read more about America’s Snake, click here. . . .

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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

February 9, 2017
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RIP Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)

Tzvetan Todorov (1939–2017)—literary theorist, intellectual historian, and philosopher—died earlier this week; in particularly uncanny circumstances, our free e-book of the month happens to be his The Fear of Barbarians. Rather than link to an obit, we’re going to reblog a conversation between Todorov and media scholar WJT Mitchell—who had never met in person or previously exchanged correspondence—that unfolded over three days on our blog, back in December 2010, on the heels of the then-recent publications of Barbarians and Mitchell’s Cloning Terror. Little more than six years ago, and the topics they discuss—the politics of occupation, the war on terror, the then-emergent Wikileaks, Goya, the US State Department’s penchant for torture, Guantanamo, cloning—feel both like prescient observations from a time now past, and nearly enraging in their unfortunate contemporaneity. Below, you’ll find links to Parts II and III. Download your free copy of The Fear of Barbarians here. ** We’re kicking things off with a series of letters between Tzvetan Todorov, author of The Fear of Barbarians: Beyond the Clash of Civilizations and W. J. T. Mitchell, author of Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present on the visual imagery of the war on terror, our current global political climate, and the role of . . .

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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

February 8, 2017
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Alice Kaplan on the origins of “Meursault”

Meursault, the protagonist (or anti-hero) of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, is one of literature’s all-time classic characters—a French-Algerian, emotionally detached drifter who murders an Arab in a griefless rage. Below, Alice Kaplan, author of the National Book Critics Circle-nominated Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic, writes at Wonders and Marvels on the origins of the character’s name, and her theory as to why Camus picked the epithet he did. *** For any French reader, that name can only signify the delicious and expensive white Burgundy wine. I was really shocked when I looked at the only surviving manuscript of The Stranger and discovered that Camus writes his character’s name without a “u” throughout. Where did that “u” come from? Some Camus experts claim he thought of the name change at a dinner party where he was served an especially good bottle of the Burgundy wine. Then there’s the story of the contest. Every November, a literary prize of 3,000 bottles of Meursault wine was awarded to a book celebrating the glory of the land. An ad for the prize appeared in the French press in November, 1941, as Camus was putting finishing touches on his novel. Although Meursault isn’t a very funny . . .

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How the Zebra (and the researcher) Got Its Stripes

February 6, 2017
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How the Zebra (and the researcher) Got Its Stripes

If that doesn’t grab your attention, then perhaps this? A recent piece at WIRED profiled wildlife biologist Tim Caro’s fieldwork for Zebra Stripes, under the zingy headline, “The Man in the Zebra Suit Knows the Secret of the Stripes,” though the article itself willingly deep dives into Caro’s behaviorial-ist adventures. Zebra Stripes is based on Caro’s decade of fieldwork, which questioned the significance of black-and-white striping, and through every possible hypothetical series of circumstances, arrived at an unexpected conclusion: zebra markings are nature’s defense against fly bites. As WIRED writes: At four in the morning, Tim Caro roused his colleagues. Bleary-eyed and grumbling, they followed him to the edge of the village, where the beasts were hiding. He sat them down in chairs, and after letting their eyes adjust for a minute, he asked them if they saw anything. And if so, would they please point where? Not real beasts. Despite being camped in Tanzania’s Katavi National Park, Caro was asking his colleagues to identify pelts—from a wildebeest, an impala, and a zebra—that he had draped over chairs or clotheslines. Caro wanted to know if the zebra’s stripes gave it any sort of camouflage in the pre-dawn, when many predators hunt, and he needed the sort of replicability he . . .

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The Difference It Makes: On Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock

February 3, 2017
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The Difference It Makes: On Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock

From a recent review of Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, by George Scialabba at Inference: According to the delightful science fiction romance film, Her, artificial intelligences also socialize, or will before long. I imagine them asking one another at parties, “Are you an agent?” They will not, of course, be asking about literary representation, but about the psychological or emotional or moral capacity we commonly call agency. They’ll be looking to find out whether the AI they’re meeting answers ultimately to itself or to someone else, whether it can set and change its own goals, whether it can surprise itself and others. Beings possessed of agency are autonomous, spontaneous, capable of initiative, and moved by internal as well as external forces or drives. According to Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock, agency is everywhere, or at least far more widespread than is dreamt of in modern philosophy of science. If agency is “an intrinsic capacity to act in the world,” then science is not having any of it. It is “a founding principle of modern science … that a scientific explanation must not attribute will or agency to natural phenomena.” This ban on agency is . . .

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Our free e-book for February: The Fear of Barbarians

February 1, 2017
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Our free e-book for February: The Fear of Barbarians

Our free e-book for February is Tzvetan Todorov’s The Fear of Barbarians—download your copy, here. *** The relationship between Western democracies and Islam, rarely entirely comfortable, has in recent years become increasingly tense. A growing immigrant population and worries about cultural and political assimilation—exacerbated by terrorist attacks in the United States, Europe, and around the world—have provoked reams of commentary from all parts of the political spectrum, a frustrating majority of it hyperbolic or even hysterical. In The Fear of Barbarians, the celebrated intellectual Tzvetan Todorov offers a corrective: a reasoned and often highly personal analysis of the problem, rooted in Enlightenment values yet open to the claims of cultural difference. Drawing on history, anthropology, and politics, and bringing to bear examples ranging from the murder of Theo van Gogh to the French ban on headscarves, Todorov argues that the West must overcome its fear of Islam if it is to avoid betraying the values it claims to protect. True freedom, Todorov explains, requires us to strike a delicate balance between protecting and imposing cultural values, acknowledging the primacy of the law, and yet strenuously protecting minority views that do not interfere with its aims. Adding force to Todorov’s arguments is his . . .

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Brooke Borel on fact-checking and fake news

January 30, 2017
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Brooke Borel on fact-checking and fake news

Brooke Borel, the author of The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking, on “Fact-Checking Won’t Save Us from Fake News,” at FiveThirtyEight: As for tech, fact-checking and blocking fake news sites from advertising dollars is a start, but it’s not enough. Facebook and Google keep giving users more of what they want to see through proprietary algorithms. This may be great for entertainment, but it doesn’t help when it comes to news, where it may just strengthen existing bias. “Facebook was not designed for this purpose,” said Claire Wardle, research director at First Draft News, a network of newsmakers and academics who provide resources on checking and verifying stories on social media. “It has become the civic town hall, but it was never designed to be.” Tech’s role isn’t only about stifling fake news on social media. Some companies and academics are building algorithms that can help fact-check portions of the web. Here, the key will be not only computer programming, but also transparency in terms of how those algorithms are constructed and building trust by showing how a fact-check is sourced, said Dhruv Ghulati, co-founder of the fact-checking system Factmata. As for readers, we’re the ones consuming all this news. Our clicks feed . . .

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On gentrification in the Cappuccino City

January 27, 2017
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On gentrification in the Cappuccino City

Derek S. Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, an ethnography that uncovers the shifting demographics of Washington, DC’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood—a “gilded ghetto” under pressure of displacement from late-capitalist gentrification by an influx of young, white, relatively wealthy, and/or gay professionals—publishes this April. In the meantime, here’s a teaser—an episode from NPR’s “Around the Nation” focused on Shaw’s gentrification, through the eyes of its residents—that leans on Hyra’s research. *** For as much good as Valentine sees happening in his neighborhood, he recognizes there are real lapses when it comes to how people from different backgrounds interact with each other. The neighborhood’s changing demographics have created a space where identities such as race, age and class are constantly brushing up against each other. It’s a tension Shaw is still dealing with years after “gentrification” began. “Until I sit down and talk to you, we’re not going to get anywhere,” he said. “I can say good morning to you, but unless I sit down and say, ‘Where are you from?’ until I let you into my comfort zone and you’re not afraid of what happened once upon a time here in Shaw, there’s not going to be that cultural assimilation.” Derek . . .

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RIP JSG Boggs (1954/55–2017)

January 26, 2017
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RIP JSG Boggs (1954/55–2017)

In 1992 New Yorker critic Lawrence Weschler published Boggs: A Comedy of Values, which made the case for idiosyncratic conceptual artist JSG Boggs (1954/55–2017), whose work fabricated both a physical variety of currencies and the notion of legal tender, when Boggs tried to cash his bills in for goods and services. Boggs died this past week, and was duly eulogized, by both his hometown paper and the art world, and each offer up some details that enhance his story, perfect fodder for a world sorting out “alternate facts” from the “fake news.” From the Tampa Bay Times: Mr. Boggs’s full name was James Stephen George Boggs, but he was better known as J.S.G. Boggs and often just as “Boggs.” His art was all about money. It consisted, in fact, of exquisitely detailed, exact-sized reproductions of American dollars, English pounds and Swiss francs — though with one side left blank and key features drawn with an off-kilter twist. The George Washingtons on his “Boggs bills” sometimes faced the wrong way. Some were drawn laughing. Others crying. On some notes, Mr. Boggs’ own face appeared in place of the dead presidents. Others he signed above phrases like “crazy cash” or “for what it’s worth.” Often . . .

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