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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In conversation: Molly Haskell and Matt Zoller Seitz

January 24, 2017
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In conversation: Molly Haskell and Matt Zoller Seitz

Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies is now in its third edition (accompanied by Manohla Dargis’s new foreword)—and the classic work of feminist criticism remains as urgent as when it was first released, crucially analyzing not only images of women in movies, but also the relationship between these images and the status of women in society, the stars who fit these images or defied them, and the attitudes of their directors. Below follows an excerpt from an interview between Haskell and critic Matt Zoller Seitz, wherein the two revisit the book. *** MZS: One of the things that fascinates me about From Reverence to Rape is that, in addition to being about what it’s about—the image and treatment of women throughout movie history—the book is also about what’s shown and what’s withheld, what’s said and what’s unspoken, and what effect that all has on the viewer. At times it seems as if you think that a bit of repression can be good for movies. MH: I do. Well … it’s really plus and minus. Last night I was watching “North by Northwest” and I thought, “That can’t be done anymore.” They can’t make films that have . . .

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White studies and Arizona’s HB 2120

January 20, 2017
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White studies and Arizona’s HB 2120

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. . . .

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