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 . . .
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 . . .
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 . . .
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 . . .
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 . . .
Just this past week in Arizona, lawmakers in Arizona killed HB 2120 (but only after significant academic protest), a bill spurred by a white studies course at Arizona State University, which would have prohibited state-funded universities “from offering any class or activity that promotes division, resentment or social justice toward a race, gender, religion, political affiliation, social class or other class of people,” or encourages “solidarity or isolation” based on those same categories. Ethnic studies is already banned in K-12 education in Arizona, and HB2120 would have built on recent cases like one in Wisconsin, where because of a course on racism entitled “The Problem of Whiteness,” Republican legislators threatened to withhold funds from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. A recent piece at Inside Higher Ed goes in much deeper about this crisis in representation, including an account from Christina Berchini, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, who wrote about the attempt to shutdown whiteness studies in a local op-ed: Berchini, who studies whiteness, said in an interview that conversations about it are often “upsetting because it’s so uncomfortable” — in part because many people have never before been asked what it means to be white. . . .