In The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer makes the case for Donald Trump as the first demagogue of the Anthropocene. What does he mean by this? He means that the conditions generated by climate change—increased migration, competition over dwindling natural resources, widespread immiseration, etc.—exacerbate the social tensions that demagogues like Trump seek to exploit on their road to power. And if Trump is the first demagogue of the Anthropocene, Meyer points out that he most certainly won't be the last. Read an excerpt from the piece below or the full text here.
Spend enough time with some of the worst-case climate scenarios, and you may start to assume, as I did, that a major demagogue would contest the presidency in the next century. I figured that the catastrophic consequences of planetary warming would all but ensure the necessary conditions for such a leader, and I imagined their support coming from a movement motivated by ethnonationalism, economic stagnation, and hatred of immigrants and refugees. I pictured, in other words, something not so far from Trump 2016.
I just assumed it wouldn’t pop up until 2040.
This kind of worry is speculative—very speculative—but it is not ungrounded. A large body of scholarship suggests that climate change could exert grave effects on international politics this century. Planet-wide warming will dry out regions of the world already riven with ethnic and political strife, all the while impoverishing and destabilizing the Western powers that backstop global order. A recent study even argues that climate-triggered environmental shocks will exacerbate the very divisions that authoritarians have historically sought to exploit.
So to now watch a demagogue contest the presidency, running a campaign that appeals to racism and xenophobia, has felt less like the sudden apparition of an unfathomable nightmare and more like the early realization of a seasonal forecast. You can hear the long-predicted gusts, the rain pounding on the roof and the groaning thunder. It’s all just happening four decades earlier than the weather person said.
Image via The Atlantic.
The open letter below was circulated today by an international group of artists and curators in defense of Memory Wound, a proposed memorial by artist Jonas Dahlberg to be installed on Norway’s Utøya island, where 77 people, most of them children, were massacred on July 22, 2011. The Norwegian government, in response to lawsuits brought by local residents who live near the memorial site, is considering cancelling the installation of the memorial. We republish the open letter in full, including its many signatories (the letter originally circulated over email in PDF format):
The installation of Jonas Dahlberg’s work of art, Memory Wound, on Sørbråten has caused heated debate for some time now. The memorial was scheduled to be completed in 2015, but now it is turning into a difficult legal case, jeopardising the plans to realise one of the most important public works of art in the Nordic region in our time, and a crucial manifestation against terrorism. It is hardly surprising that the design of a memorial site is accompanied by debate; this is always the case – because there are strong feelings, and the purpose is to keep the memory alive, and the memory is painful. The discussions are not a problem; they are an essential part of the process, a strategy for coping with the event.
The purpose of memorials is precisely to preserve a memory; living with it enables us to process it. All over the world, memorials have proved to have a healing effect, not just nationally but eventually in the local area. What would happen if we refrained from creating memorials because we were afraid that they might be upsetting? What kind of society would that engender?
Jonas Dahlberg’s design is one of the most powerful works of art in the Nordic countries. Memory Wound is a gash in the bedrock, a wound in nature. For walkers along the pathway it presents a serene and beautiful place for contemplation between sea and cliffs. Jonas Dahlberg forces us to look inwards, away from the island, so that we can embrace the greater sorrow within ourselves.
The work of art is already established in people’s minds all over the world. It has been published in newspapers and books and discussed in workplaces and around dinner tables. The reason for this is that it so poignantly captures the event that it was designed to remind us of, while offering a place for coping with our grief. That is exactly what art is capable of: to give us an emotional relationship to events that are so brutal that they are impossible to comprehend.
In this discussion, it is vital to remember that it is not the work of art that is brutal but the actions that it commemorates. To stop such a work of art is to reduce the magnitude of the event itself. It is to deny people access to their own feelings, to refuse to offer reflection on the value of democratic society.
We appeal to the Norwegian government to be brave and allow Memory Wound to become a dignified place of healing through processing the wounds rather than suppressing them.
Miroslaw Balka, artist Warszawa, and reponible for Estonia monument in Stockholm
Daniel Birnbaum, director Moderna Museet Stockholm
Konrad Bitterli, vice- director Kunstmuseum St.Gallen
Iwona Blazwick, director Whitechapel Art Gallery, London
Ina Blom, professor, IFIKK, Institutt for filosofi, ide- og kulturhistorie og klassiske språk Oslo Universitet
Mikkel Bogh, director Statens Museum for Kunst, Köpenhamn
Manuel Borja-Villel, director Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid
Gerard Byrne, artist Dublin Dan Cameron, curator Prospect I and II, Cuenca Biennial, New York
Lauren Cornell, curator New Museum, New York
Florence Derieux curator Centre Pompidou Foundation Paris og New York
Claire Doherty, director Situations Bristol
Olafur Eliasson, artist Berlin
David Elliott, curator, previously director Mori Art Museum Tokyo
Charles Esche, director Vanabbe Museum
Dora Garcia, artist and professor of visual arts, Kunstakademiet Oslo
Eva Gonzales Sancho, curator, previously director for FRAC Bourgogne
Leevi Haapala, director Kiasma Hesinki
Tone Hansen, director Henie Onstad Kunstsenter Oslo
Sofia Hernandez Chong Cuy, curator CPPCA (Art and Ideas from Latin America), New York
Alfredo Jaar, artist New York
Hicham Khalidi, associate curator Fondation d'entreprise Galeries Lafayette, Paris
Magdalena Malm, director Statens Konstråd, Stockholm
Chus Martinez, curator Institute of Art at FHNW Academy of Art and Design, Basel
David Neuman, director Magasin 3, Stockholm
Isabella Nilsson director Göteborgs konsthall
Lars Nittve, senior advisor M+, Hong Kong
Marit Paasche, art critic and museum curator
Ann Pasternak, director Brooklyn Museum
Laura Raikowitz, director Queens Museum
Mats Stjernstedt, artistic director Hus, Oslo
Kjetil Trædal Thorsen, founding partner Snöhetta, Oslo
Nato Thompson, chief curator Creative Time New York
Sabrina van der Ley, head of contemporary art department, Nasjonalmuseet for kunst, arkitektur og design Oslo
Philippe Vergne, director MOCA, The museum of contemporary art Los Angeles
Image: Mock-up of Jonas Dahlberg's Memory Wound memorial.
In the LA Review of Books, Hugh Ryan reviews the new book by Michelle Tea, best known for her fictionalized queer punk chronicle of pre-gentrification San Francisco, Valencia (2000). As Ryan writes, in Black Wave Tea explores the sometimes humorous and sometimes agonizing effort of a protagonist named "Michelle Tea" to find some measure of stability after a youth spent drinking heavily, partying hard, and experimenting sexually. This storyline is weaved into a dystopian plot that explores what people will do when they know the world is about to end. Here's an excerpt of Ryan's review:
Questions of adulthood — what it means, when we enter it, what adults do and don’t do — permeate the book, as when Tea writes:
It is so hard for a queer person to become an adult. Deprived of the markers of life’s passage, they lolled about in a neverland dreamworld. They didn’t get married. They didn’t have children. They didn’t buy homes or have job-jobs. The best that could be aimed for was an academic placement and a lover who eventually tired of pansexual sport-fucking and settled down with you to raise a rescue animal in a rent-controlled apartment.
Obviously, this is hyperbolic and true only for a very specific valence of “queer,” a segment of the population that grows smaller as those “markers of life’s passage” become more open to gay people — not because we’re all about to toss away the alternative lives we’ve constructed, but because for the next generation of queers, the rights we’ve fought for (marriage, childrearing, etc.) will eventually be understood as obligatory (as they are for young straight people now). In this sense, Black Wave is a eulogy not just for Tea’s life in the 1990s, but also for her entire community in those years.
Her jaundiced view of this community is in contrast to her earlier work, which celebrated her nonconformist compatriots and their antiestablishment stances. In Black Wave, her relationship to her fellow riot queers is deeply conflicted, as in this description of one of the women she’s (sort of) dating at the start of the book:
Penny was indeed amazing, but Michelle worried there was a time limit on that sort of amazing. That it was the sort of amazing that could begin to look sad with age. Michelle fought against this analysis, which seemed cruel and typical. The messed-up queers Michelle ran with tempted fate daily, were creating a new way to live, new templates for everything — life, death, beauty, aging, art. Penny would never be pathetic, she would always be daring and deep, her addiction a middle finger held up to proper society. Right? Right?
Image of Michelle Tea via clintcatalyst.com.
Der Spiegel has an extensive and detailed analysis of the complex geopolitics at stake in the conflict in Syria. Ostensibly a conflict between the Assad regime and rebel forces, the war also involves ISIS and several Middle Eastern governments—participating both openly and covertly—and is a proxy for the boiling tensions between the US and Russia. Der Spiegel suggests that it's not outside the realm of possibility for the Syrian conflict to escalate into a world war in the future. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Even if the Syrians are the ones being forced to suffer, for many of those involved, the conflict is no longer about Aleppo or even Syria. Of this, the Babylonian mixture of languages spoken on the frontlines and in the air above is just one of many indications. "I have the feeling that we have become laboratory rats for Russian, Iranian and Syrian weapons -- and for the West's political experiments," says Sharif Mohammed, a civilian who is holding out in eastern Aleppo.
In its sixth year, the conflagration has become a kind of world war in three respects. Firstly, for the last four years, large numbers of foreigners have been flowing into the country to join the fight. More than 20,000 radical Sunnis have joined Islamic State (IS) and about three times that many Shiites from a half-dozen countries are thought to be fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.
Secondly, the conflict has destabilized the entire region, a development that has helped Islamic State expand its influence in addition to heating up the civil war between the Kurdish PKK and the Turkish government.
Thirdly, Syria has become a proxy war between the US and Russia. At stake is the role America wants to play in the world -- and the role that Russia can play in the world.
Image via Der Spiegel
Writing for The Nation, Michelle Chen reports on the October 10 protest action at American Museum of Natural History organized by the collective Decolonize This Place. Timed to coincide with Columbus Day in the US, the action took the form of an guerrilla education tour through the museum to highlight the colonialist origins of much of the material on display. Here's an excerpt from Chen's report:
At the Hall of Asian Mammals, standing amid a macabre menagerie of decorated carcasses, Tongan artist Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu proclaimed, “Shot down, stuffed, and hauled to the museum for display, these species made their way here through the circuits of empire.” Rooted in colonial plunder, she explained, the project that began with the embalmed animals continues today with the ongoing expropriation of native land throughout the world for “conservation,” with wildlife preserves that have been “depopulated for the use of tourists, just as the tradition of indigenous resistance continues.”
The tour proceeded to examine the antiquated orientalism of the “Hall of Islam,” which depicted the Muslim world as a primitive anti-modern cultural sphere; exposed the eugenicist ideology underpinning the “Man’s Rise to Civilization” exhibit, which placed Western modernity and technology at the pinnacle of social development; and dissected the “Hall of African Peoples,” in which black bodies are displayed as specimens and “the vast multiplicity of African social and cultural life is thinned out and labeled like flora and fauna.”
The collective behind the alternative tour, Decolonize This Place, grew out of the academic and artistic collaborations that began percolating during Occupy Wall Street five years ago. Their museum takeover was a symbolic protest against the gentrification and displacement unfolding just outside the marble walls, in poor communities of color of the surrounding city that are excluded from such elite cultural spheres.
The action was incubated in Artists Space in Soho, a freewheeling downtown studio that cultivates innovative contemporary art projects. During their three-month “takeover” at Artists Space, Decolonize is hosting meetings, performances and film screenings, along with art builds, in which activists gather to create protest signs, paint banners, and construct other DIY productions focused on gentrification, global labor activism, Palestinian resistance, and movements for indigenous rights around the world.
Image: Decolonize This Place's protest outside the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on October 10, 2016. Via The Nation.
In the Boston Review, prominent scholar of international affairs Alex de Waal pronounces the end of the era of interventionism. His basis for this claim is two British government reports on the military interventions in Iraq and Libya. The reports render harsh judgement on these campaigns, citing inadequate planning and a lack of clarity about their actual goals. De Waal suggests that the inherent folly of military intervention is that governments erroneously believe that it is not really war. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
The era of the West’s enthusiasm for military intervention is over. Two reports on Iraq and Libya—written from the heart of the British establishment and published recently—have delivered its obituary. Each is damning; together, they dismember the case for intervention in both its neocon and liberal-hawk variants. Although their focus is almost exclusively on decision-making within Whitehall—the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Ministry of Defence, and, above all, No. 10 Downing Street—Americans will recognize many of the same ills afflicting their own government...
Herein lies the crux of the problem. The central failing of military intervention is not coordination, secretiveness, or dishonesty, though these certainly exist. At its core, the problem is the iron law of organized violence: intervention is war, and war commands those who choose to fight, however much they may believe they are its masters. This became evident in both Iraq and Libya in the failure to call a halt to military action when the original objectives had been achieved, the dismissal and denigration of options for negotiation, and the way in which militarism quashed any emancipatory aspirations that may have existed. In each instance, those who believed in quick, clean applications of force were deluded.
This was compounded by a catastrophic limitation of intellect and imagination. Senior politicians and security officials didn’t know much about the countries in which they wanted to intervene. But, rather than conceding this from the outset, they set a policy course based on faulty precepts, biases, and groundless assumptions. And once set on a trajectory of escalation, political leaders would not be deflected—neither by evidence of failure nor, ironically, of success. Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly described this syndrome as “from Troy to Vietnam.”
Image via Boston Review.
Peter Fleming has written an interesting opinion piece for the Guardian: he argues that self-help gurus have given the overworked unrealistic and innocuous advice, advocating that workers "set boundaries" or find a new job. Fleming writes that such advice is difficult or impossible to apply in today's hyper-competitive workforce, and that workers should rather focus on organizing and creating unions. Read Fleming in partial below, in full via the Guardian.
People encouraged to look as if they are always doing something ironically become less productive. Recent research has convincingly demonstrated that rest and shorter work-days can allow us to work much faster and smarter compared with the excruciating and ultimately needless marathons that are currently the norm.
What’s more, some employees invariably begin to fake these long hours given how difficult it is to pull off in reality. A study of management consultants in the US discovered that some workers devised ingenious ways to give the impression that they were following the 80-hour rule.
Sure, this corporate camouflage allowed the consultants to pick up their kids from football and eat a meal. But maybe it also helped get the work done successfully and on time. Here we see productivity (performing a task well) and the culture of work (staying in the office till late) strangely diverge.
Most employers realise that something is amiss, but the ideology of work seems stronger now than ever. Some people have even convinced themselves that they love being wedded to their job 24/7, what researchers label “enthusiastic workaholics”. They’re the most difficult self-harmers to reason with. They can’t even think about a vacation without having a panic attack.
The trouble with much work-life balance advice is that it’s been captured by the self-help movement. It all centres on the individual. If you want to rekindle your wellbeing and discover your inner potential, then take control of your choices, find a job that better fits your temperament, erect firm boundaries between work and leisure and learn to say no.
This gives an unrealistic picture of what is possible in most jobs, and would probably end with an untimely trip to the Jobcentre if taken seriously. In other words, work-life balance gurus assume that everyone is a middle-aged creative type, living in London with family money to fall back on, and firmly within their rights to tell the boss to bother off. Yeah, right.
The trick is to see the ritual of overwork as a societal pressure, not an individual fault. And much of this pressure stems from the disempowerment of the workforce that has occurred over the last 20 years. Insecurity – real or imagined – naturally makes it more likely that people will sacrifice everything for their job. That’s why confronting work-mania as an individual is pointless. We need to come together as a group to voice these concerns if progressive policy and legislation are to be forged. Otherwise little will change.
Want a heathier work-life balance? Join a union. Or better still, create your own. But steer clear of that self-help section at the airport bookshop. It pretends the ideology of work might still be tamed by individual willpower. But it can’t.
Sonnet Stanfill, a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, has written an op-ed for the New York Times about some major art museum directorship vacancies that she hopes may go to women. She points out the V&A, where she works, as well as Nicholas Serota's Tate position, which are vacant. Also vacant but smaller beans is Stephan Kalmar's executive director and chief curator position at Artists Space. Read Stanfill in partial below, in full via New York Times.
LONDON — The directors of two of the world’s most popular art museums recently announced their resignations. Martin Roth, the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, will step down this year, and Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate museums, both in Britain, will depart next year. These job vacancies, which search committees are now working to fill, offer an opportunity to correct the gender imbalance in art museum leadership in Britain, America and beyond.
In 2015, the world’s top 12 art museums as based on attendance — what I call the “directors’ dozen” — were all led by men. When Frances Morris became the director of the Tate Modern in April, she became the first woman to join the club. This gender gap extends from Europe to North America, where only five of the 33 directors of the most prominent museums (those with operating budgets of more than $20 million) are women, including Kaywin Feldman of the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Nathalie Bondil of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. It’s the leaders of those big-budget institutions who set the tone for all.
The top three art museums have never been run by a woman. The Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are treasure-filled, international destinations. They are also big businesses, together attracting more than 20 million people a year. A large portion of these visitors are tourists who spend money at hotels and shops along the way to contemplating the Rosetta Stone or taking selfies with the Mona Lisa. Museums directly contribute $21 billion a year to the American economy alone, and far more thanks to the indirect spending of their visitors.
Many women work as curators. In American art museums, about 70 percent of curators are women; where I work, at the Victoria and Albert, also known as the V&A, the figure is about 75 percent.
Yet women remain scarce in the directorial roles. A 2014 report released by the Association of Art Museum Directors suggested that gender might not matter in selecting the best candidates, but that museum boards and their search committees, still predominantly male, may be appointing in their own image.
The report also asked whether some women simply aren’t applying for the top jobs. As a curator at the V&A for 18 years, and not on an executive shortlist, I’ve seen firsthand that for the women who aim to balance an arts career with a life outside the institution, reluctance to throw their hats into the ring may be linked to the international travel and all-consuming nature of a directors’ dozen role. For many, the most productive work years coincide with child-rearing years.
Much is at stake, and not just for museums. Last year, 62 million people visited the world’s top dozen art museums. In Britain, there are an estimated 97,000 jobs in museums, galleries and libraries, while 400,000 people are employed in American museums. Executive recruitment at these institutions matters because the cultural sector has such influence. Museums and galleries frame the world for us: Senior managers decide what goes on the walls, and this in turn shapes what the public values and remembers. The male dominance in leadership at the directors’ dozen helps to explain why so much of what’s on display is man-made, rather than work by female artists.
*Image of Tate Modern via the Tate
At The Baffler, Laurie Penny asks why the macho Right is so afraid of feminist visions of the future, as imagined in sci-fi works by authors such as Octavia Butler and Ursula Le Guin. Their fear, she suggests, revolves around the image of a world with men no longer at its center. Here's an excerpt:
A great deal of post-apocalyptic fiction written by women imagines society in a way that is so radically different from the patriarchal literary imagination that it would read as science fiction even without the nuclear fallout. The alt-right cannot imagine a world in which the rights of men and those of women are not opposite and antithetical, in which gains for women must by definition entail losses for men. The alt-right could really do with reading some Octavia Butler, although I’m not sure their delicate sensibilities could cope with the alien sex scenes in Dawn.
One reason it seems easier for women, queers, and people of color to come up with nuanced and diverse futures is that, in many ways, the future is where we’ve always already lived. Women’s liberation today is an artifact of technology as well as culture: contraceptive and medical technology mean that, for the first time in the history of the species, women are able to control their reproductive destiny, to decide when and if they want children, and to take as much control of their sexual experience as society will allow. (Society has been slow to allow it: this is not the sort of progress futurists get excited about.) It has been noted that many of the soi-disant “disruptive” products being marketed as game changers by Silicon Valley startup kids are things that women thought of years ago. Food substitutes like Soylent and Huel are pushed as the future of nutrition whilst women have been consuming exactly the same stuff for years as weight-loss shakes and meal replacements. People were using metal implants to prevent pregnancy and artificial hormones to adjust their gendered appearance decades before “body hackers” started jamming magnets in their fingertips and calling themselves cyborgs.
But what precisely is it about stories by women and people of color, stories in which civilization is built and rebuilt by humans of all shapes and flavor working together, that throws water on the exposed wires of masculine pride? It’s all about how humans cope when their core beliefs are threatened. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn’t fit in with the core belief.” Core beliefs are the ur-myths essential to the way we understand our lives, our identities, our place in the world. For example: “It is right and natural for men to hold most of the offices of power in society.” For example: “Male violence plays a vital role in society, and you can adapt to it, but you can’t resist it.” For example: “Feminism has gone too far.”
For all the alt-right’s vaulted claims to base their reasoning on scientific opinion—most of it hand-wavy, cod-evolutionary psychology filtered through the unreality engine of mass media headline wrangling—they tend to react very badly when presented with evidence against their ideology. As I write, all the evidence suggests that in just under three weeks, a woman will become President of the United States, despite the best efforts of a man who is the very personification of a wilting erection in a suit, leaking drivel everywhere in his failure to grab America by the pussy. Have Trump’s armies of online followers accepted that perhaps a woman in power might not mean the end of society as they know it? Have they hell. For those to whom even the all-female Ghostbusters film was an existential threat, the concept of a female president is enough to fry vital circuits somewhere in the groaning motherboard of neoconservative culture.
Image via The Baffler.
Slovenian philosopher Mladen Dolar, co-founder of the Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis with Slavoj Žižek, Alenka Zupančič and Rastko Močnik, speaks together with Conny Habbel in June 2009 in Ljubljana. They talk about the nature of art, philosophy, and inspiration. Read in partial below, in full via wie geht kunst.
WgK: Is there an artwork that had a lasting effect on you?
Dolar: The work of Samuel Beckett – if I have to single out just one. It is both the importance it had for me and for the particular historic moment of the end of the twentieth century. I think he is the one who went the furthest in a certain way. There are various reasons for this, and one of them has to do with an enormous will to reduction. What Beckett did was to create an infinitely shrinkable world. There is never little enough. You can always take away more.
Take the The Trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. In the Beginning there is some sort of plot and some sort of characters. Then in the second novel you have just Malone, who is dying alone in his room and who is inventing stories as he is waiting for death. The space has shrunk, there is no more travel. And then you have the third novel, where you don’t even have this. You don’t even have a space, you don’t even have a character, you just have a voice. A voice which just rambles on and continues, and it doesn’t matter what it says in the end. It’s just the sheer thrust of perseverance, of persistence, which carries the whole thing. So just persist. You have to go on. And you know how this ends, it ends in the most beautiful way: “I must go on, I can’t go on, I will go on“.
I think this is an incredible point, I don’t think literature has ever gone this far this radically. This is so completely reduced to a bare minimum, what Beckett has called ‘the unnullable least’. And extremely powerful.
WgK: So what is art actually?
Dolar: I think to make art is to make a break. And to make a cut. This would be the simplest way of answering your question.
But there are different ways of answering. One of them would go to Freud’s theory, which looks at art through the spyglass of sublimation. I think what Freud conceives as drive, ‘der Trieb’, actually has to do with the transition between something natural and a creation of a separate space, and that everything he describes as the specificity of culture actually has to do with the structure of the drive. The drive is like thwarting of a natural hang, it gets thwarted towards a different sort of end. This is like a supposed initial natural need, but which in the process of its satisfaction actually gets thwarted. It produces something else than merely the satisfaction of a natural need. If you look at the way Freud describes culture in Unbehagen in der Kultur, he defines culture with a list of features.
The first on the list would be the question of tools. We’re getting more and more tools in order to be the masters of nature, so that we can do all the magic things, we can look at far away distances through the telescope, we can see the invisible in the microscope, we can talk through distance with the telephone, we can do absolutely magical things. And Freud uses the wonderful word, he says: “Der Mensch ist ein Prothesengott“. So he’s a god with prostheses. You just need some prostheses to be a god. So you have these extensions of the body. And what actually the drive to master nature produces at the same time – something more than the simple mastering of nature – it produces prostheses, a sort of ‘in between space’, a space which elongates your body, prolongs your body into the world. The eerie space between the inner and the outer is libidinally invested. And, to cut it short, this is also the area where culture comes in.
WgK: Do you have any idea of what good art is? Which art do you regard as good?
Dolar: Well, this is not a subjective question. There is a strong tendency to reduce art to the question of taste. And the question of taste is kind of dangerous because it always goes down to the question of narcissism. There is something profoundly narcissistic in the judgement of preference. ‘I prefer this, I am a connoisseur, I prefer the late Beethoven quartets against symphonies.’ The difference which means difference as such and which means that you are distinguished and that you can distinguish yourself from the common lot of people by being the man of refined taste, to see all these differences that the others don’t see.
I have this conception of art, which is that art has to do with universality and infinity. It introduces something into the continuity of being, into the continuity of our survival. A break. Which is a universal break. A break to universality. It can speak universally. What is important in art is not a question whether it is an expression of a certain individual or whether it is an expression of a certain ethnic group or nation or of a certain age.
I think that the break is such that it makes the universal out of particularities.
But the problem is how to do this with the subjective means at your disposal, within the nation to which you belong, or language, or culture, within a particular type of civilization, within this historic moment – which are all very finite and singular things. How to produce universality and infinity out of this? And this I think is the moment of art. This is not a production of spirit, this is a material production of the break. I like very much this saying, which is on t-shirts like: “Art is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it“. You have to get your hands dirty. This is a very material thing. You produce the idea with the material, with the matter. Art has always worked with the sensual. If one tries to get immediately to universality or the infinity of a beyond, an idea, the sublime or whatever – this is, I think, a big mistake. You cannot do this. You just have to produce it the hard way. But it depends on being able to produce a break.
And this sets the standard by which it can be judged. I don’t think it can be judged on the basis of taste, it’s not just a question of whether I like it or not. It has the power to produce universality. It creates a potential virtual audience which goes far beyond this audience here. And I think the awareness that it goes beyond this, beyond my particular taste and reaction, is what makes good art.
WgK: Is art a benefit for society? Why does there have to be someone who does this dirty job?
Dolar: Well, I think that in the question with which I started, the question of drawing a line, making a cut in the continuity of our animal or social being, of our finite being, that this is what defines humanity. I’m not saying that art is the only way to do this. I think thought is something which does this also, it breaks with the conditions of its own production. This is the practice of philosophy. I think philosophy, similarly, but also very differently, makes a conceptual break in the continuity of particular received ways of thinking.
We have the definition of man as homo sapiens, the thinking animal, but the trouble is that thought is very rare. It’s not that men think all the time, it happens very rarely. There are very few occasions when thought happens and when it does, it seriously changes the very parameters of the ways we conceive the world, ourselves, whatever. There’s a handful of thinkers. This is a strange thing in the history of philosophy, there’s only a handful of thinkers with which we have to deal continually. But I don’t think – this is important – that thought is some sort of prerogative of philosophy, that philosophers are very special because they have this specialisation in thought. I don’t think that at all. I think thought can happen anywhere. In silence and…
WgK: Does it also happen in art?
Dolar: Oh yes. It does most definitely. It has a different way and the question of art working with the sensual, with sensuous material means is very important, this is a materialised thought. It’s the thought which works within the matter and shapes the matter. It is attached to matter, and matter thinks in art. This is very important, the materiality of thought. I think thought actually happens in a number of areas of human endeavour. And art is one of the most reflected.
WgK: Which are the others?
Dolar: Do you know the work of Alain Badiou? He has made a list of four truth procedures, four areas where truth emerges.
These are: Science, and above all the completely constructed science like mathematics. It doesn’t refer to anything in the world, it just creates its own entities, pure entities. Then: Poetry and art as such. Then politics. Politics not of opinions but politics of truth. There’s an opposition between the two. Democracy basically is a democracy of opinions. Anybody is free to hold any kind of opinion and then you count the votes. This is not a politics of truth. There is a sort of truth at stake in politics which has to do with justice and equality, it has to do with an idea. And then there is the question of love, which is the emergence of a truth event. A subjective truth event.
Badiou lists the four areas as the areas in which this break happens. I am not sure that this list is the best, exhaustive or conclusive. Maybe this list is too neat in some way. I think things are messier in life. In many everyday situations, even trivial ones, there may be a sudden and unexpected break, people show an inventive creativity and do something very unexpected, and actually change the parameters of the situation and their own lives and the lives of others. I would leave this field open.
WgK: I just had this spontaneous thought if humour might be one of those areas too?
Dolar: Well, you have an old suggestion which goes back to Aristotle, that the man is a laughing animal. You have various proposals for the definitions of man, one is the thinking animal, another one is the tool-making animal, which goes back to Benjamin Franklin. Marx takes this up that one can define the man through the tool which conditions his capacity for work. And then you have Aristotle’s suggestion: Man is a laughing animal. The only animal that can laugh – laugh at what? To laugh, precisely, at being able to produce a certain break. The break in meaning, in the very parameters of making sense. One way of describing this could be where I started – to make a break, to make a cut – which is also to make a break in meaning in order to produce sense, if I may use this Deleuzian opposition between meaning and sense. And sense is the sort of unexpected thing which emerges. In order to produce this you have to cut down the usual expectation of meaning. The very horizon of meaning in which you move, in which you live your life. And this is the capacity of art.
As far as humour is concerned, I would just point out that there’s a question of humour and there’s a question of ‘Witz’. Freud has written a book on ‘Witz’ and a different paper on humour and he says that those things are absolutely not to be confused. Additionally there’s a question of comedy and there’s a question of irony. So we have four different things which are not the same. We may laugh as a result, but there is laughter and laughter. Laughter itself does not have to be subversive. It can also be very conservative.
WgK: Who becomes an artist? What is it that makes people become artists?
Dolar: I don’t think there’s a rule. There is the capacity, well, the break-making capacity. The way that we relate to ourselves is always conditioned by a break, there is a question of redoubling. Culture is always a question of redoubling: it redoubles the ‘normal’ life. It reflects it into something else, but redoubling is always already there.
WgK: But still there are some people who don’t become artists or intellectuals.
Dolar: No, no, of course. I think the capacity is there, and it is a capacity which defines humanity and subjectivity. And… how the hell do you become an artist? What particular things have to come together? I think what makes the greatness of art is precisely its singularity. Which means that if you could establish this rule art would stop being art.
WgK: But couldn’t it be that there is some reason why people start to make art? Robert Pfaller once suggested that artists might have some traumatic experience that they – all their lives – try to handle by making art.
Dolar: Don’t we all have to handle some sort of traumatic experience? It’s very hard to say. I mean, the question has been asked many times, so you have art schools which precisely can teach you everything except what is essential.
WgK: Yeah, but art school starts at a moment where you already decided to go to art school. Who is likely to go to art school? So there are two aspects of this question. The one is: How do you become a good artist? The other question – which actually interests me – is: Why does someone want to become an artist? No matter if good or bad, if successful or not: What makes a person take up this way?
Dolar: If you want to become an artist, what do you want to become? If I take some of the greatest musicians of all times, like Bach and Mozart or Haydn. You can see what? Who was Haydn? He was hired by the Esterhazy family as a craftsman. I mean, did he want to become an artist? I don’t think he ever thought of himself in that way actually. He was a paid craftsman. And if you look at Mozart, he was all the time trying to get hired by some court or something. If you look at Bach, he was employed by the St. Thomas church in Leipzig to produce a piece of music for mass every week.
It was not a question of genius or inspiration. You were hired. Because this was another craft and I don’t think anybody would look at themselves this way today. If you want to become an artist you don’t want to become a craftsman. You see yourself as a person with a special vocation, which goes beyond all usual vocations. This is due to the romantic model of art and then to the modernist conceptions.
WgK: Let’s stick to today’s understanding of art: Do you think artists are narcissistic?
Dolar: The question of art and narcissism… I would say that on the one hand it’s profoundly narcissistic. It’s usually linked with a project of profound narcissism of self-expression and the precious treasure I have in me and want to disclose to the world.. But I don’t think that this is what makes art. As I said before: Art is not expression. It’s not an expression of yourself. People may want to do it to express themselves, but what makes the break and what makes the universal appeal, the claim of art, is not a question of whether they express themselves well or not. It’s just not the question by which art is ever judged. So on the one hand I’m sure that the motivation for doing this is in most cases narcissistic.
WgK: Did I understand you right when you say art is not an expression – could you say art is one of the ‘Prothesen’?
Dolar: Yes. Oh yes.
WgK: I really like this picture.
Dolar: The ‘Prothesengott’? Yes. But, well, Freud uses this in the context of technology and tool-making.
WgK: I have the feeling that it’s very good, maybe not only for tools.
Dolar: Yes. It’s a good thing. It’s not just a question of tool. A tool is never a tool. It’s a libidinally invested extension of the body.
WgK: So you could also say art is a libidinal extension of yourself. Of the body.
Dolar: Well, it has something to do with the libidinal extension. The way Freud introduces the notion of prosthesis, it has more to do with technology than with art. But I think it’s nevertheless a useful metaphor also to think about art.
WgK: Could you also call it objet a? Art as an extension towards objet a?
Dolar: Well, yes. I didn’t want to use the heavily technical Lacanian language for this. I mean this could be described in another language, but what Lacan calls objet a is precisely the object of transition between the interior and exterior, which doesn’t quite fall either into interior or the external world out there; the objective world. I mean it’s neither subjective nor objective. In this sense it’s always in this zone of indeterminacy, in the zone which opens in between. And which is the zone of ‘Prothesen’ if you want, I mean, the Prothesen always fill the zone: you put something between subjects and objects. You extend your body into the world, and at the same time the world extends into you. Still, what Lacan calls the object a doesn’t coincide with any existing object, it has no substance of its own, while art produces existing objects whose task is to evoke this impossible object. To evoke the impossible.
WgK: Would you agree that artists and philosophers share similarities in the realities they live in?
Dolar: Yes. I think there’s a lot of common ground. The tools with which they work are different, but I think they work on a common ground and that they can’t be neatly delineated. One way of differentiation – which I particularly dislike – is to say that artists have the passions and the feelings and they work with this and philosophers have the reason and understanding and they work with this. I don’t think this opposition is worth anything. It never works this way. I think that any human activity has both: indiscriminately passion and reason inscribed into it.
If you look at the history of philosophy – look at Plato, look at Spinoza, look at Augustine, look at Hegel, Marx, Kant, Wittgenstein – there is always a huge passion. This is terrible passion you have in this. They are all passion-driven. To describe this as works of mere intellect is completely misguided. This is the erroneous common conception of philosophy, rationality and concepts. If it doesn’t involve passionate attachment and passionate involvement, then it’s not philosophy. There is very, very serious passion at work in this. And at the opposite end I think there is very, very precise thinking involved in art. If it’s not, it’s just not good art.
*Image of Mladen Dolar via wiegehtkunst
For the Guardian, Maev Kennedy reports that England will stop offering A-level (or advanced placement) exams in art history, effective 2018. This comes as a continued assault of the arts after major Arts Council funding cuts in recent years. It remains to be seen what the UK arts landscape will look like years into new conservative Prime Minister Theresa May's reign. Read Kennedy in partial below, in full via the Guardian.
The last exam board in England offering art history A-level will drop the subject from 2018, marking the latest in a cull of perceived “soft” subjects following the curriculum changes begun by the former education secretary Michael Gove.
The exam board, AQA, which had described history of art as a subject leading students to “an appreciation of some significant themes, from classical Greece to the end of the 20th century” confirmed that students taking AS exams in the subject next year and A-levels in 2018 will be the last of their kind.
The Association of Art Historians called the decision a significant loss of access to a range of cultures, artefacts and ideas for young people.
It added: “Being able to signpost educational opportunities such as an A-level in art history to students who may never have considered this an opportunity, forms a significant part of our campaign work with partners across west Yorkshire, Bristol, Brighton and Sussex. The loss of that A-level means that for many prospective students of the subject that door will close and future opportunities [will be] lost.”
A spokeswoman from AQA said the decision to drop the subject had been difficult. “Our number one priority is making sure every student gets the result they deserve – and the complex and specialist nature of the exams in this subject creates too many risks on that front. That’s why we’ve taken the difficult decision not to continue our work creating a new AS and A-level.
“Our decision has nothing to do with the importance of the history of art, and it won’t stop students going on to do a degree in it as we’re not aware of any universities that require an A-level in the subject.”
Only 839 students sat the A-level exam this summer, and history of art is only offered in a handful of state schools, but she insisted the low numbers [and therefore high cost to AQA of setting the exam] were not the main reason for dropping it. “But it’s true to say that the small number of students combined with the way the subject has to be assessed [ie the large number of specialist options] is what creates the ‘risks’ we refer to in our response.”
In the Irish Times, Andrew Gallix reviews Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School by Stuart Jeffries, a book that goes behind the daunting intellectual facade of figures like Adorno, Marcuse, and Benjamin to explore their personal lives. As Gallix writes, one of the most refreshing aspects of Jeffries's book is the humor he finds in the idiosyncrasies and small hypocrisies of the uber-serious Frankfurt School men. Here's an excerpt from the review:
Humour (“to get dialectical for a moment”) is one of the most unexpected facets of this book devoted to hard-core German intellectuals. Benjamin’s somewhat ludicrous resemblance to Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin is remarked on, and a quotation from his Neapolitan peregrinations elicits the following gloss: “It’s hard to tell in this passage whether Walter Benjamin is being given directions or being propositioned. Either way, he seems to like it.” And Herbert Marcuse’s meeting with Jean-Paul Sartre (above) at La Coupole is recounted in hilarious detail.
His “group biography” is an intellectual saga. Readers looking for upskirt pictures of Hannah Arendt will be sorely disappointed: titillation in these rarefied climes is of a purely cerebral nature. The infamous Busenaktion of 1969,when Adorno was surrounded by three female students who “bared their breasts and scattered rose and tulip petals over him”, barely raises an eyebrow. A benign, possibly enviable form of protest to be faced with, in theory, but one that proved profoundly hurtful in praxis.
Commendably, Jeffries only ever adduces private matters to highlight glaring discrepancies between rhetoric and reality. A prime example is the highly conventional lifestyle led by Marcuse, despite publishing works “indicting bourgeois repression”.
The New Left darling’s fondness for a stuffed hippo is as close as we get to tittle-tattle. Yet even this cuddly-toy fetish proves significant, highlighting how some of the last century’s finest minds were also overgrown children. Incapable of making himself a cup of coffee, Benjamin was bankrolled by his parents until “well into his thirties”. Marcuse could neither cook nor drive. Adorno is described as a “child prodigy who never grew up (because he didn’t have to)”. Few of them did, given their wealthy backgrounds and the women – conspicuous by their absence at the Institute for Social Research, to give the Frankfurt School its proper name – who waited on them at home. Practice was never the school’s forte; nor, to be fair, was it ever meant to be.
Image: Theodor Adorno in Rome.
In Public Books, Stacey Balkan reviews The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh is best known as a novelist, but The Great Derangement is a nonfiction book that explores the convergence of the rise of literary realism in Europe, the spread of European imperialism, and the explosion in the carbon content in our atmosphere. As Balkan writes, Ghosh draws a crucial connection between Western empire-building and climate change that most commentators on the Anthropocene have failed to note. Here's an excerpt from the review:
We cannot ignore the coincidence of European imperialism and the so-called great acceleration in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. At the same time as Britain’s premier trading company acquired an exclusive writ of free trade for the purpose of growing and selling opium, Western imperialist projects became increasingly reliant on new modes of transport and production. This includes, of course, plantation agriculture. The cultivation of cotton, for example, would far outstrip the impact of poppy production: even beyond the American South, Manchester’s Cotton Supply Association was laying the groundwork for the horrors we are now witnessing in India’s cotton belt.6 Since 1998, approximately 250,000 Indian cotton farmers have committed suicide because of debt incurred from free trade policies between the Indian government and agricultural companies like Monsanto. It is worth mentioning that sugar would also play a critical role. Sidney Mintz’s 1985 Sweetness and Power offers a remarkable glimpse into its destructive path.
Ghosh argues, therefore, that we should expand our indictment of “capitalism”—a common protagonist “on which the narrative [of the Anthropocene] turns”—to include “an aspect of the Anthropocene that is of equal importance: empire and imperialism.” Indeed, he notes, the uneven effects of climate change are the “result of systems that were set up by brute force to ensure that poor nations remained always at a disadvantage in terms of both wealth and power.”
The burden of the book’s two shorter chapters, “History” and “Politics,” is to demonstrate just this. In “History,” Ghosh offers an exhaustive portrait of the material impact of our modern worldview. With a nod to his 2000 novel The Glass Palace, he begins with a critique of the petroleum industry, citing Burma (now Myanmar) and not Titusville, Pennsylvania, as the site of its prodigious birth. He then links the above-mentioned epistemological shifts to economic models that also emerged during the colonial era and that laid the groundwork for what former World Bank president Larry Summers would call an “impeccable economic logic.” In a shockingly explicit endorsement of accumulation by dispossession, Summers actually suggested that it made perfect economic sense to sacrifice the third world for the prosperity of the first. As if responding directly to Summers, Ghosh notes quite rightly that “the patterns of life that modernity engender[ed could] only be practiced by a small minority of the population.” He then cautions: if “every family in the world” acquired “two cars, a washing machine, and a refrigerator,” we’d all be asphyxiated.
Image: A man stands by the sea during the heavy rains that flooded Mumbai, 2013. Via Public Books.
In the wake of the shocking Brexit vote, some left-wing forces across continental Europe have called for a "re-democratization" of the European Union in order to avoid a similar outcome there. But as Frédéric Lordon argues at the Verso blog, it is impossible to re-democratize the EU because it was not designed to be democratic in the first place. Instead, it was a neoliberal project designed to concentrate financial and political power in the hands of certain transnational bodies and certain strong national governments, like German. If we want greater democracy in Europe, writes Lordon, the EU must be dismantled, not repaired. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
To repeat: if the alternative is ‘either we change Europe or it will die’, then it will die. A cut-price parody of democracy is not going to keep the EU alive for very long. So the question must shift terrain: it is no longer a question of the chimera of a ‘democratic European Union’ but of the best means of putting an end to the irremediable despotism of European neoliberalism.
Given how unable it is to transform itself, the European Union can now only choose by what means it will disappear: through obstinacy and a terminal explosion, or an ordered deconstruction process. And an ordered process means a mutually agreed path, a sort of cooperative dissolution agreement, coolly-made. We might mention in passing that if there is indeed a point of convergence that increasingly does look likely to emerge, it is that of everyone understanding that they have a common interest in cutting their losses.
Moreover, such a process could take on different forms: that of a simple return to the national level, which does not at all exclude the maintenance (or even deepening) of the varying degrees of cooperation that are already in place (in industry, in science, etc.), but without any formal integration. Or perhaps that of an open proposal for the reconstruction of ‘Europe’ – and I put ‘Europe’ in quote marks because its perimeter could not of course be the same as that of the defunct EU or its Eurozone. It would instead invite the states who want to (and some do not) gather around a real principle of democratically organising the various fields of integration. (And it is, we might note in passing, probable that they could not go as far as constituting a complete political community.) It is, in any case, in this sort of sense that Lexit takes on its full meaning. Indeed, whoever takes the trouble will notice that the word Lexit is not formed on the basis of a contraction of any country name - itself attesting to its consistency with a well-understood internationalism.
Through a cruel paradox, it increasingly seems that in the name of virtue ‘another Europe is possible’ is in fact involuntarily making things worse. Not through the project of ‘another European Union’, as such, but through its on-principle refusal to imagine the slightest form of rupture. This condemns it to non-existence on a spectrum of political supply that it is already difficult to enter onto. That is especially true when the popular resentment against the EU has – quite legitimately – broken through a critical threshold. Perhaps meaning that it has passed a point of no return.
Image of Frédéric Lordon via the Verso blog.
Nikil Saval waxes lyrical about the resurgence of interest in Brutalism in T Magazine. He notes that Brutalism--those post-war bunker-like cement buildings that often house civic institutions--has found a friend in the internet, as Tumblrs and other blogs dedicated to the architectural style abound. Saval writes about the rise and fall and subsequent rise of Brutalism. Read him in partial below, in full via T.
IN THE RANK OF UNFLATTERING monikers for an artistic style, “Brutalism” has got to score near the top. Like the much kinder-sounding “Fauvism” or “Impressionism,” it was a term of abuse for the work of architects whose buildings confronted their users — brutalized them — with hulking, piled-up slabs of raw, unfinished concrete. These same architects, centered on the British couple Alison and Peter Smithson, enthusiastically took up Brutalism as the name for their movement with a kind of pride, as if to say: That’s right, we are brutal. We do want to shove your face in cement. For a world still climbing gingerly out of the ruins of World War II, in need of plain dealing and powerful messages, this brand of architectural honesty was refreshing.
Despite a decade or so of unexpected popularity, at least among architects and planners, Brutalism went out of favor by the mid-’70s. Films such as “A Clockwork Orange” turned Brutalist masterpieces into symbols of future dystopia. Planning budgets were slashed, and the Brutalists lost their backers. Over the last three decades, the style’s many scattered examples have suffered from age and neglect, their walls crumbling and leaking, threatened everywhere with demolition. Tom Menino, the late former mayor of Boston, proposed to sell its city hall, one of the most famous American examples of Brutalism; and in 2013, despite a fervent preservation campaign, Bertrand Goldberg’s eerie, cloverleaf-shaped, alien-eyed Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago succumbed to the wrecking ball.
But now, like the chevron mustache, Brutalism is undergoing something of a revival. Despite two generations of abuse (and perhaps a little because of it), an enthusiasm for Brutalist buildings beyond the febrile, narrow precincts of architecture criticism has begun to take hold. Preservationists clamor for their survival, historians laud their ethical origins and an independent public has found beauty in their rawness. For an aesthetic once praised for its “ruthless logic” and “bloody-mindedness” — in the much-quoted phrasing of critic Reyner Banham — it is a surprising turn of events.
THERE’S NO QUESTION that Brutalism looks exceedingly cool. But its deeper appeal is moral. In the words of Reyner Banham, it was an attempt to create an architectural ethic, rather than an aesthetic. When the Smithsons called their work Brutalist or part of a New Brutalism, the brutality to which they referred had less to do with materials and more to do with honesty: an uncompromising desire to tell it like it is, architecturally speaking. The Modern movement in architecture had supposedly been predicated on truthfulness in materials and forms, as well. But as a dreary stroll down Park Avenue will remind you, Modernism swiftly became a gutless orthodoxy, its high ideals devolving into the rote features of the International Style, a repetitive and predictable series of gestures (curtain walls or ribbon windows, recessed plinths, decorative piloti, windswept plazas, ornamental lawns and flat shimmering pools).
What was and still is appealing about Brutalism is that it had a kind of purity to it. For their first large project, a school in Hunstanton, and in subsequent projects, such as the Economist building in central London, the Smithsons went back to the lessons of the modern masters, to Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier: to build transparently, cleanly and truthfully. “Whatever has been said about honest use of materials,” Banham wrote in a 1955 article, “most modern buildings appear to be made of whitewash or patent glazing, even when they are made of concrete or steel.” The Smithsons’ project at Hunstanton, by contrast, “appears to be made of glass, brick, steel and concrete, and is in fact made of glass, brick, steel and concrete.”
Honesty in materials was allied to the rough, prosaic goals of social democracy. Brutalism is, as the critic Michael J. Lewis has pointed out, the vernacular expression of the welfare state. From Latin America to Europe to South Asia, Brutalism became the style for governments committed to some kind of socialism, the image of “the common good.” When the most representative building of our era is 432 Park Avenue, Rafael Viñoly’s elegant middle finger of a luxury condo tower, the tallest in the world, looming ominously over Manhattan, it is bracing to revisit a period when planners sought out the best, most avant-garde-minded architects to build libraries, city halls and public housing.
*Image of Boston City Hall by Ezra Stoller via New York Times / ESTO
I first came across the 19th Century French painter Rosa Bonheur while preparing the exhibition I co-curated at Kunstverein München together with Judith Hopf. Bonheur is reputed to be the first female artist who managed to make a living from her work, and when I looked into her backstory I became particularly interested in how she, as a woman, managed to manoeuvre through the art world of her time and find a position for herself within it. I was curious to know what drove her to overcome obstacles set by a social construction dominated by male patriarchy. What qualities did she possess that made it possible to disestablish this power at the time and to use it in her own favour?
Crucial to this reading are several biographical texts on Bonheur, published both before as well as after her death in 1899. Moreover, it appears that during her lifetime Bonheur was fully aware of the power a biography could have upon an artist’s reception and exercised fastidious care over her own memoir. As such I would like to consider how her biographical portrayal – both by others and herself – has had subsequent influence upon how she, to this day, is seen as a pioneering figure for women in art. And in this respect, it is important to consider whether Bonheur’s legacy is based on her being first a painter and then a woman, or a woman first and then a painter.
The cult of personality intensified from the mid-19th Century onwards. While glorification and praise of certain figures was at the time nothing new, the accelerated machinery of print media brought facts and information about celebrated artists, writers, and political figures to wider public attention faster than ever before. A newly acquired position as a free market agent also increased competition between artists, which forced them to work on establishing and marketing their own persona. With trends shifting from academic Classicism to reactionary Realism, the artist was then seen as a passionate individual that used their skill to express emotion. The increasingly wealthy middle class had also started to spend money on artwork for their homes, and wanted to know more about an artist’s persona. This in turn established the artist’s biography as a way to decode their art, bringing the person behind the artwork to the fore. It is here that an economy around biographical details came into existence and with artists aware of this, they often adapted to it strategically.
Bonheur’s first biography Les Contemporains: Rosa Bonheur was written by Eugène de Mirecourt and published in 1856 shortly after her work gained recognition. She was however incredibly dissatisfied with the way in which de Mirecourt depicted her life, as he failed to describe the personal relationships she felt had so much influence on her persona. She spent endless time making corrections in the margins of his text and such was her annoyance the artist became obsessed with writing an autobiography that would do her own life justice as she saw fit. However because Bonheur did not consider herself good enough a writer, she searched instead for someone who could write it for her. It seemed almost a prerequisite that someone should be willing to enter into an intimate relationship with her in order to tell the artist’s story from her own position. Toward the end of her life she met the young American art student Anna Klumpke in whom she found the intimacy and devotion she had been looking for. Klumpke became her second partner and they set out writing her autobiography together. Klumpke ultimately completed the book after Bonheur’s death, writing part of it as if written directly by Bonheur herself, hence the title Rosa Bonheur: the Artist’s (Auto)biography.
This publication is the main source of interpretation when looking back on Bonheur’s life and, importantly, her work. While its narrative is personal and therefore emotionally driven throughout, her career and close analysis of Bonheur’s paintings while alluded to, nevertheless remain a subtext. Given this, I myself do not aspire to add yet another biographical strand to the artist’s past, however feel it necessary here to address certain notable facts about her life. A realist painter of animals, or animalière, it was the artist’s painting The Horse Fair (1852) that brought her recognition. First exhibited during the Paris Salon of 1853, Bonheur’s depiction of Percheron horses inspired by Delacroix and the Parthenon frieze was noticed by Empress Eugénie de Montijo, the wife of Napoleon III. The Percheron was well known to be the French royalty’s favourite breed of horses, and one can attribute Bonheur’s painting to her support from the royals; the Empress soon brought her influential friends to Bonheur’s studio. This led to Bonheur becoming the first woman to receive the Legion d’honneur in 1865, a civilian order of merit established by Napoleon Bonaparte at the beginning of the 19th century.
Bonheur’s naturalistic painting style coincided with a time when Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet’s banal Realist depictions of the everyday and the ordinary had a coarseness that was read as ironic, and thereby politically provocative. Realism however allowed her to paint scenes to her own liking because it made way for a movement away from Classicism’s worship of the past. By making animals the central and nearly sole subject of her paintings, Bonheur adopted a visual strategy that brought her an audience of established authority; firstly the French royals, and later the new rich of the American and British middle classes. Her chosen subject matter and highly decorative compositions were skilfully executed and thus accepted as works of art. Strategically using conservative imagery also suggests a careful political position of neutrality. At the same time, one can sense from her paintings that Bonheur felt at one with the animals she portrayed. Painting animals may have been a way to remove herself from any direct association with gender roles, yet as much as she professed to identify with animals, she portrayed them almost as human with a caring, ‘maternal’ eye. For example, numerous depictions of dogs remind of human portraiture. In the painting The Lion at Home (1881) she goes to great effort to show the paternal protection of a family of lions, while in her studies of herds of sheep – seemingly without any will of their own and driven around by shepherds in the Scottish Highlands – hint at an obedient compliance inherent to moving in crowds.
Large parts of the biographies written on Bonheur are devoted to her father, Raymond Bonheur, and his devout affiliation with Saint Simonianism that was to have so much effect on her upbringing and later attitude to life. The Simonianists were a social religious group that was structured along a similar hierarchical structure as that of Christian religion. The central principles of the movement are often presented as early forerunners of Socialism, with social regeneration through the privileged classes helping the working classes being their main ideology. Importantly, the Simonianists believed in a god that was both male and female, and a large part of their campaign was fighting for the equality between men and women. This was also expressed in part in their dress, which looked like equestrian apparel and included trousers for women. Bonheur’s father taught drawing and he stimulated his daughter’s career as an artist from an early age. In Rosa Bonheur: the artist’s (Auto)biography she muses on going to school together with boys, which wasn’t standard for the time, and how she always saw herself as an equal: ‘it emancipated me before I knew what emancipation meant.’
Bonheur’s special position as an artist and public figure is well illustrated by the fact that in a time when women were not permitted to freely wear trousers, she had a permit from governmental authorities allowing her to wear them. Although there is in the biographical texts a strong focus on what is referred to as Bonheur’s ‘mannish’ appearance and behaviour – emphasising her wearing of trousers and chain smoking – I see these at attempts at underlining her strength of character or labelling sexual orientation. After all, she lived in a period before any recognised women’s movements were officially labelled as feminism, and dressing like a man must have then created instant commotion. As always, but at the time even more explicitly so, rejecting art’s hierarchical structure was problematic for women, as it could affect their status as professionals. Purposely dressing ‘like a man’, one could say that Bonheur’s ‘masculinity’ was entrepreneurial as it played into the desire for personality, complaisantly affiliating with the machismo of the business she was in in order to infiltrate the maleness of the art world and gain equal footing in it. If this was to have been effective in any way, could her attire now be seen as a deliberate strategy?
A woman wearing trousers at that time would have suggested both the absence and the presence of masculinity, blurring fixed conceptions about how bodies were classified. Bonheur spoke about this topic in restrain, emphasising that she wore trousers for practical work purposes – for example, when she studied animals in slaughterhouses – rather than to look more ‘mannish’. Wearing trousers from an early age as part of the Simonianists’ attire, she would no doubt have been all too aware of the power anatomy has to shape experience. I don’t believe though that it was her objective to be in a position of power the same way that men are. From Bonheur’s perspective, which is also in relation to her upbringing, her style of dress was not a way of demonstrating that she was emancipated, but a way of being truly emancipated. Instead of seeking conformation from existing hierarchical structures, she showed that she would do whatever she wanted. In my opinion she seems to have consciously lived a life of revolt that was intuitively inspired and seemingly aimed at pursuing her one passion – the study and painting of animals. What might appear as strategy served the purpose of creating a bubble in which to work and live freely with a female partner in a cosmos of mutual care and balanced daily activities removed from the hierarchy that rules on the outside.
Seeing that there is generally not much analytical attention paid to the content of her painting means her emotional life takes the upper hand in Bonheur’s legacy, consequently underpinning the interpretation of her artworks. At the same time however, her work and life story are naturally and completely intertwined; her personality would not be of importance to us if her paintings weren’t there to carry it. However, I would state that it is for a large part due to the existence of biographical material that we still discuss this particular female artist’s relevance now, and that this literature was something she seemed self-aware of in her own lifetime. In conceptualising the show, perhaps Bonheur was a recurring figure of reference because of the position she holds as a female artist that worked her own way towards self-sufficiency in a time when female artists were not generally accepted and art made by women was seen as a very rare phenomenon. As such, Bonheur persistently worked her way past the seemingly indestructible obstacles she came across.
This text was originally commissioned by Kunstverein München in 2014 for the yet-to-be published catalogue of the project and exhibition "Door Between Either and Or" from 2013. It has been published in Mimi Magazine (a one-off self-published magazine by Anna-Sophie Berger, Marlie Mul, Anne Speier, Philipp Timischl and Min Yoon) in May 2016.
*Image above: Rosa Bonheur, "Lion At Rest" (c.1880). Image via arthistoryarchive.com
Writing in The Intercept, Ava Kofman tells the harrowing story of Steve Talley, who was mistaken for a man who robbed multiple banks in Colorado. Law-enforcement officials used facial recognition software to identify Talley, and even though he was eventually exonerated, he spent time in jail for the crimes. The startling story demonstrates that facial recognition software is far from a reliable tool, even as more and more law-enforcement agencies rely on it. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Scientists have only recently discovered that facial recognition ability exists along a spectrum. Just as there are people who are completely face blind, there are also individuals who wield exceptional, preternatural skill in recognizing faces. The London Metropolitan Police has administered tests to form a selective bureau of officers, the first of its kind, filled with these “super-recognizers.” Many super-recognizers display higher accuracy with images in varied conditions than even the most refined algorithms, and David White, the Australian scientist, has worked with several of them to gain insights into the nature of human recognition abilities. But it’s unclear if other departments will follow the Met’s lead in testing and trusting them.
The forensic comparison and video analysts who spoke with me emphasized the steps they took to guard against bias: limiting their knowledge of the case to only the relevant evidence at hand, securing the original format of the video, admitting when the evidence was insufficient.
“Bias can lead to error if you think you know the right answer and are supposed to know the right answer,” Jason Latham explained. He said that his clients sometimes get frustrated because he avoids hearing prejudicial information before conducting his analysis. In 2015 the National Commission on Forensic Science dictated that fingerprint analysts be provided with only the information necessary to their analysis, but such steps have only taken the form of recommendations for facial examiners. Meanwhile, the Organization of Scientific Area Committees for Forensic Science started work last year to update the Facial Identification Scientific Working Group guidelines and standards. The updated documents have not yet been released.
Image: A selection of photos is mapped with grid points by facial recognition software. Via The Intercept.
In the Boston Review, Max Holleran writes about Southern European countries like Malta that sell citizenship to wealthy foreign individuals. This practice of "citizenship-by-investment" has increased considerably since the 2008 financial collapse, as a means of raising revenue for stained state budgets. As Holleran points out, this treatment of foreigners seeking EU citizenship stands in stark contrast to the treatment of non-wealthy migrants and refugees who have been risking their lives to comes to Europe. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
As Southern Europe continues to have tense relations with wealthier EU nations over austerity, many politicians have been forced to cast a wider net to find allies and investors. Cyprus has drawn a large Russian population. China has invested in infrastructure and real estate in Greece and Spain. Portugal even saw the acquisition of a large national bank by its former colony, Angola. Compared to privatizing national industries or providing staging grounds for non-EU companies, selling passports is easy because it is geared toward mobility. It also reinforces the logic that small countries must constantly innovate in order to stay relevant to business opportunities and protect themselves from economic hardship. As Lino Bianco, a Maltese professor and the ambassador to Bulgaria, put it: “Maltese are survivors by circumstances. They turn failures into successes.” Using passports as an asset to be exchanged for cash seems reasonable given a dearth of economic options and a long history of trading, migration, and outside rule by regional powers. Unlike in larger countries, Maltese citizenship has always been negotiable and responsive to wider power struggles on the European continent. The most important thing for the Maltese was to get the best deal possible.
What differentiates citizenship-investors from those who go through a naturalization process is sweat equity. Citizenship-for-sale programs cynically reject the notion of national community, even at a time of rising xenophobia in Europe. Investors can experience citizenship—and all its attendant bonds, prejudices, and heart-stirring emotions—through a bank transfer and a paper booklet while the vast majority of those struggling to migrate must cross deserts, pack into dinghies, live in the shadows, struggle to maintain hope in detention centers, face deportation, study languages and history, and maybe, just maybe—only after many years—stand proudly among their friends and families with their hand on their heart.
Image via Boston Review.
Filmmaker Adam Curtis is at it again. His new film, "HyperNormalisation," will be released via BBC next month. Like his 2014 film "Oh Dear-ism and Non-Linear War," "HyperNormalisation" looks to confusing political meta-narratives as the filmmaker attempts to account for the increasingly paralyzing political situation we've found ourselves in today. Here's the BBC with a bit more about the film, in partial below and in full here.
HyperNormalisation tells the extraordinary story of how we got to this strange time of great uncertainty and confusion - where those who are supposed to be in power are paralysed - and have no idea what to do. And, where events keep happening that seem inexplicable and out of control - from Donald Trump to Brexit, the War in Syria, the endless migrant crisis, and random bomb attacks. It explains not only why these chaotic events are happening - but also why we, and our politicians, cannot understand them.
The film shows that what has happened is that all of us in the West - not just the politicians and the journalists and the experts, but we ourselves - have retreated into a simplified, and often completely fake version of the world. But because it is all around us, we accept it as normal.
HyperNormalisation has been made specifically for BBC iPlayer. It tells an epic narrative spanning 40 years, with an extraordinary cast of characters. They include the Assad dynasty, Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger, Patti Smith, the early performance artists in New York, President Putin, intelligent machines, Japanese gangsters, suicide bombers - and the extraordinary untold story of the rise, fall, rise again, and finally the assassination of Colonel Gaddafi.
All these stories are woven together to show how today’s fake and hollow world was created. Part of it was done by those in power - politicians, financiers and technological utopians. Rather than face up to the real complexities of the world, they retreated. And instead constructed a simpler version of the world in order to hang onto power.
But it wasn’t just those in power. The film shows how this strange world was built by all of us. We all went along with it because the simplicity was reassuring. And that included the left and the radicals who thought they were attacking the system. The film reveals how they too retreated into this make-believe world - which is why their opposition today has no effect, and nothing ever changes.
For The North Star, Chris Knight writes about Noam Chomsky--who he says he loves--and the curious "double life" that he has led as both an anarchist activist and military-sponsored scientist working at MIT. Read Knight in partial below, in full via The North Star.
I need to start by saying that I love Noam Chomsky. I have often watched television images of a US drone strike perpetrated on an Afghan wedding party, or perhaps by the Israeli state on a school in the occupied West Bank or Gaza. And then onto my screen comes Noam Chomsky, speaking loud and clear, in a monotone, absolutely steadfastly, telling it like it is. As his admirers say, ‘speaking truth to power’.
If politicians were honest, if they told the truth, if the mass media were not so mendacious, we would not need a Noam Chomsky. But, of course, as we know, politicians lie. The media is full of professional liars. So we do need a Noam Chomsky. If he did not exist we would have to invent him. What other academic who has something to lose says it like it is with such extraordinary tenacity and courage? He has been doing so since the 1960s and is still at it today, as lucid and effective as ever.
So what is my book, Decoding Chomsky – Science and revolutionary politics, all about? When people ask me, they usually want to know whose side I am on. Am I one of Noam’s fans, they ask, or a critic? I can never answer this question because it all depends on whether you mean Noam the activist, or Noam the scientist. You cannot give the same answer to both.
And it is not just me who says there are two Noam Chomskys. He says it himself. By way of explanation, he once suggested, with a bit of a smile, that if his brain is a computer, it is a special one with ‘buffers’ between its two separate parts. He flits between the half of his brain that covers science and the other half that does activism. ‘[I live a] sort of schizophrenic existence’, he elaborated on another occasion. An interviewer once asked him ‘What do [the two Chomskys] say to each other when they meet?’ Chomsky replied that there was ‘no connection’. So I am not the only one who says there are two Noam Chomskys.
The first Noam Chomsky is the one you most likely know about – the political activist who has spent his life denouncing the US military. But then there is this paradox: the man who made his reputation as the world’s most famous critic of the US military is also the man who has spent his whole working life in one of the world’s foremost research institutes specialising in weapons design. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been central to the development of all the most ingenious helicopter stabilisation machines, multiple weapons guidance systems and much of what made Ronald Reagan salivate over the prospect of Star Wars during the 1980s. Many of these inventions were incubated inside the laboratories that Chomsky spent his life working in. So there we have the Chomsky paradox. One of those two Chomskys has spent his life attacking the US military; the other has been developing linguistics in the employ of a Pentagon-funded military laboratory.
Let me begin by referring to a chapter near the middle of my book, entitled ‘The Cognitive Revolution’. I am always a bit surprised when I talk to Marxists, socialists, Jeremy Corbyn supporters, Occupy or Green activists about the cognitive revolution. Their eyes simply glaze over. So I tend not to start by talking about it. It is really strange that so many left activists show no interest in the cognitive revolution. It is as if they considered the biggest intellectual upheaval since Galileo’s discovery of a moving Earth to be unimportant.
The cognitive revolution is essentially the computer revolution. More accurately, it’s the effect of the invention of computers on how we think. From the early 1960s onwards, digital computation has been revolutionising the way that philosophers, cognitive scientists, psychologists – even archaeologists – think about what it means to be human. So let me just explain a little about this.
There is something about digital communication that is strange. As you know, if you have a vinyl disc and you make a pressing from it, and then make a pressing from the pressing, and so on, after a while you cannot hear the recording clearly – it degrades with each copy you make. It is the same with a photocopier – with successive copyings, eventually the pattern is lost. However, with a digital starting point you can make a million copies of copies and all of them in sequence will be perfect. That is because digital signals are either fully on or fully off and there is no intermediate position. Any digital piece of information is made up of lots of switches, each totally off or totally on, and therefore impossible to degrade.
Linked to that is the fact that when communication is digital it makes not a blind bit of difference what material you are using to encode the stream of signals. Whether you are sending your message using copper, fibre-glass optical cable, pigeons or whatever makes no difference at all. As long as the signal is either off or on and the receiver can tell the difference, a faithful copy of the message will be transmitted.
In other words, the information is autonomous with respect to the material in which it is encoded. Or you could say that information is now floating free of the composition of matter. When US philosophers discussed the implications of all this, they began to think that possibly it had solved the great problem that the ancient Greeks and Descartes faced long ago: how such an intangible thing as the soul can influence or be influenced by the material body. They imagined they now had the solution to the mystery: if mind can be seen as software and the body as hardware, all was now clear. It even meant that we might be able in the future to discard our hardware – our bodies – while remaining who we really are.
Take cognitive science’s Marvin Minsky – brilliant co-founder in 1958 of MIT’s artificial intelligence laboratory and described as the ‘father of artificial intelligence’. As I discuss in my book, Minsky’s main interest lay in building computer models capable of replicating the activities of human beings. Among other things, he was the scientist who advised Stanley Kubrick on the capabilities of the HAL computer in his 1968 film 2001: a Space Odyssey.
If the mind really is a digital computer, concluded Minsky, then our bodies no longer really matter. Our arms, legs and brain cells are all just imperfect and perishable hardware – essentially irrelevant to the weightless and immortal software, the information that constitutes who we really are.
At a public lecture delivered by Minsky in 1996 on the eve of the Fifth Conference on Artificial Life in Japan, Minsky argued that only since the advent of computer languages have we been able to properly describe human beings. ‘A person is not a head and arms and legs,’ he remarked. ‘That’s trivial. A person is a very large multiprocessor with a million times a million small parts, and these are arranged as a thousand computers.’
In Salvage magazine, Andrea Gibbons writes about Abdelhafid Khatib of the Algerian section of the Situationist International, who was one of the few people of color involved in the group. Not coincidentally, Khatib's written contributions to the SI canon—in particular, his work on race and psychogeography—were largely neglected by not only historians, but also by Debord and other dominant members of the SI. Gibbons suggests that this refusal to take Khatib seriously helps explain Situationism's glaring failure to confront race and colonialism:
I find no explanation of Khatib’s – or Dahou’s – absence from Debord’s elliptical and Vaneigem’s vituperous memoirs. Perhaps Khatib remains alive and remembered to Algerians. Perhaps he remains alive in Arabic, or in martyrdom, or in prisons. Perhaps there are more traces of him in French that have not yet been translated and through which I have not struggled: perhaps that explains his absence from the multitude of works available on the Situationist International.
Still, this all tastes to me of betrayal. It signifies an absence both of material solidarity and theoretical rigour. It represents a movement once again claiming such surety in what it was doing, and yet as desperately unengaged with the reality of the city as lived by migrants and workers as it was with the cataclysmic anticolonial struggles toppling government after government and bringing France to its knees. Its members closed their eyes to it.
This troubles me; but the ongoing and continuous nonchalant references to this closing of eyes, and this editorial note on police harassment, a continued inability to honour Khatib by intellectually grappling with the reality, troubles me even more. Especially given its contrast with the Situationists’ open and vocal defense of Trocchi, imprisoned for drugs in New York, rather than in Paris for his nationality and the colour of his skin while in pursuit of Situationist aims. Surely it must mean something that the principal documented attempt at psychogeography was cut short by a curfew and imprisonment of a comrade simply for being an Arab. Surely we must care, even if they didn’t.
I wish they had taken hold of the opportunity, bailed or broken Khatib out as comrades should do, and rethought what understanding psychogeography – in Khatib’s words ‘the study of the laws and precise effects of a consciously or unconsciously elaborated geographical environment acting directly on affective behavior’ – could be. Explored with more integrity ‘the science fiction of urbanism’, to understand a city in some ways multiplied and enriched, in others limited and controlled, through difference. Attempted to see through different eyes, understand what a different skin might experience. Above all, to understand that the built environment does not stand above these things, but is coconstitutive of them. With Lefebvre they edged towards this, but not in a way that held meaning to Abdelhafid Khatib’s experience. The point of it all was to understand the now, in order to build something new. How could they escape the oppressions of the old if they could not even see them?
Image: An illustration that accompanied Abdelhafid Khatib's "Descriptive Essay on the Psychogeography of Les Halles," published in Internationale Situationniste in 1958.
For Index on Censorship, Asena Günal writes about practicing as an artist today in Turkey amid a time of political unrest. She writes about president Erdoğan's oppression of protestors and academics, canceled exhibitions, rising political tensions, and the general suffocating feeling associated with making art against the backdrop of a comparatively urgent political situation. Read Günal in partial below, in full via Index here.
“Is it just me? I don’t think so, but these days I’m in a state where I don’t know what to hold on to, what to do. I push myself to continue my work. Should I continue with art, or should I channel myself to more urgent things; that’s how suffocated I feel,” Hale Tenger, a prominent contemporary artist from Turkey, said in a roundtable discussion published in the Istanbul Art News. This pessimism reflects the general mood of artists and many other intellectuals in Turkey, a country that has experienced incidents so numerous in the past year that they could fill decades.
Since July 2015, almost 300 people have been killed and thousands wounded in various attacks by IS and the Kurdistan Freedom Eagles (TAK). After the elections in June 2015, in which the Kurdish party passed the 10% threshold and AKP lost its single party position, president Erdoğan pushed for another election. In November 2015, the AKP won the election and ended the peace process with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The government put severe limitations on the Kurdish and pro-peace opposition. A total of 2,212 academics, who signed a petition to condemn the state violence in the southeast of Turkey, have been targeted by Erdoğan, received threats, have been faced with criminal and disciplinary investigations, and four of them were detained and jailed for about a month. A growing number of academics have been dismissed or suspended, some were forced to resign and had to leave the country. Almost two thousand lawsuits have been filed against people alleged to have insulted the president online or offline.
In January 2016, two members of the art community were arrested and then sued for participating in the peaceful demonstration “I am Walking for Peace” in Diyarbakır. The march was organised to protest state violence in the Kurdish region and ask for the restarting of the peace process. Artists Pınar Öğrenci and Atalay Yeni were arrested and then released conditionally. Their court cases still continue.
The impact of the recommencement of the war has made itself felt in various fields and ways. The cancellation of the exhibition “Post-Peace” in February 2016 shows the difficulty of expressing critical views on state policies. The exhibition curated by an Amsterdam-based curator Katia Krupennikova was cancelled by the institution Aksanat just five days before the opening, with the director citing the rising tension and the mourning after another bombing in Turkey as the reason. Given that other events went on as scheduled, many thought one of the video works in the exhibition, critical of the dirty war policies of the Turkish state against the Kurdish guerilla was considered risky by Aksanat. This was one of the incidents in which the state itself did not act, and actors in the artistic community took on this role. It created a discussion in the art scene about how to struggle in times of repression.
*Image: Yeni Bir Şarkı Söylemek Lazım, Video, 2016, Işıl Eğrikavuk
A renewed popular interest in identity politics has meant for many that institutional sexism and racism have never before been so widely discussed, yet who of us has stopped to think about the naming conventions of the very street on which you walk, or your neighborhood park, or the statues within it? Rebecca Solnit writes about the gendering of New York City, which is unsurprisingly largely named for aristocratic white men. What if we were to rename our parks, streets, buildings and monuments for the many historical women who haven't received their fair share of accolades? Read Solnit in partial below, in full with an interactive map via the New Yorker.
As the train rumbles south under Manhattan’s East Side, you might disembark at Hunter College, which, although originally a women’s college, was named after Thomas Hunter, or ride farther, to Astor Place, named after the plutocrat John Jacob Astor, near Washington Square, named, of course, after the President. Or you might go even farther, to Bleecker Street, named after Anthony Bleecker, who owned farmland there, and emerge on Lafayette Street, named after the Marquis de Lafayette. En route you would have passed the latitudes of Lincoln Center, Columbus Circle, Rockefeller Center, Bryant Park, Penn Station—all on the West Side.
A horde of dead men with live identities haunt New York City and almost every city in the Western world. Their names are on the streets, buildings, parks, squares, colleges, businesses, and banks, and their figures are on the monuments. For example, at Fifty-ninth and Grand Army Plaza, right by the Pulitzer Fountain (for the newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer), is a pair of golden figures: General William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback and a woman leading him, who appears to be Victory and also a nameless no one in particular. She is someone else’s victory.
The biggest statue in the city is a woman, who welcomes everyone and is no one: the Statue of Liberty, with that poem by Emma Lazarus at her feet, the one that few remember calls her “Mother of Exiles.” Statues of women are not uncommon, but they’re allegories and nobodies, mothers and muses and props but not Presidents. There are better temporary memorials, notably “Chalk,” the public art project that commemorates the anniversary of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which a hundred and forty-six young seamstresses, mostly immigrants, died. Every March 25th since 2004, Ruth Sergel has coördinated volunteers who fan out through the city to chalk the names of the victims in the places where they lived. But those memories are as frail and fleeting as chalk, not as lasting as street names, bronze statues, the Henry Hudson Bridge building, or the Frick mansion.
A recent essay by Allison Meier notes that there are only five statues of named women in New York City: Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Harriet Tubman, the last four added in the past third of a century. Until 1984, there was only one, the medieval Joan in Riverside Park, installed in 1915. Before that, only men were commemorated in the statuary of New York City. A few women have been memorialized in relatively recent street names: Cabrini Boulevard, after the canonized Italian-American nun; Szold Place, after the Jewish editor and activist Henrietta Szold; Margaret Corbin Drive, after the female Revolutionary War hero; Bethune Street, after the founder of the orphan asylum; and Margaret Sanger Square, after the patron saint of birth control. No woman’s name applies to a long boulevard like Nostrand Avenue, in Brooklyn, or Frederick Douglass Boulevard, in northern Manhattan, or Webster Avenue, in the Bronx. (Fulton Street, named after Robert Fulton, the steamboat inventor, is supposed to be co-named Harriet Ross Tubman Avenue for much of its length, but the name does not appear to be in common usage and is not recognized by Google Maps.) No woman is a bridge or a major building, though some may remember that Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney is the founder for whom the museum is named. New York City is, like most cities, a manscape.
*Image of Washington DC Rosa Parks statue via sojo.net
In an effort likely to shut down government policy scrutiny in the UK, academics and journalists will now have to submit their research to the British government for approval when pulling information from the Department of Education national pupil database. Any journalist or academic who wishes to publish an article with information from the national pupil database must give the government 48 hours to review their research. The government purports that this is to "ensure consistency," but critics maintain that this is purely a governmental attempt at suppressing criticism and information unfavorable to the government. Read John Dickens's report for Schools Week in partial below, or in full here.
Academics and journalists have been ordered to give civil servants two days to look over any research they plan to publish from the national pupil database in a move that some fear will shut down rapid scrutiny of government policy.
Researchers were informed yesterday that any analysis produced using statistics from the national pupil database (NPD) must be shared with department officials 48 hours before publication.
The department said the change would ensure policy officials and press officers are not “caught off guard” when data is published.
But the move has been criticised by academics and journalists who say it will shut down rapid scrutiny.
Publications by organisations like Education Datalab and the Education Policy Institute, quickly turned around after the government announced its intention to remove grammar schools, were awkward for the government as they cast doubt on claims the policy would improve social mobility.
Data analysis from both organisations were also particularly widely reported in the media and both made use of the national pupil database.
Professor Stephen Gorard, from the school of education at Durham University, also noted problems for academics who are not abreast of publication timeframes.
He said: “The idea I can give 48 hours’ notice is unworkable. It doesn’t fit in with academic publishing, where we genuinely don’t know 48 hours in advance is something is being published.
“I feel under pressure from this directive that if we don’t do what they say we won’t get it in the future, and I need this for my job.”
The NPD contains data from almost 20 million pupils and is accessible to businesses and researchers by request, though there are strict conditions on what is released to preserve anonymity.
The DfE, in an email to researchers yesterday, said the change will “ensure consistency across our user community”.
Earlier this year, after four years of complex negotiations, the Colombian government and FARC rebels agreed on a historic peace deal. The rebels would gradually hand over their weapons, and a judicial process would seek to hold accountable those on both sides who had committed human right abuses during the conflict. Then on October 2, the peace deal was put to Colombian voters in a referendum. To the surprise of many, the deal was narrowly rejected, although 63 percent of eligible voters abstained from voting at all. In the London Review of Books, Gwen Burnyeat attempts to explain this startling outcome, attributing it to the complexity of the peace deal and a bitterly divided Colombian population. Here's an excerpt:
So what is wrong with these accords that foresee almost every obstacle on the road to stability, and call for the truth commission’s report to be incorporated into the school curriculum as a lesson to future generations? The main sticking point is their complexity. Many – possibly most – Colombians didn’t entirely understand this legalistic text, which is 297 pages long. It was easy to misinterpret, and the No campaign did a lot of misinterpreting and outright lying, in pamphlets handed out at traffic lights, at public question-and-answer sessions, and, crucially, in posts on WhatsApp and Facebook. By contrast, when I talked to people face to face about the contents of the deal they were quick to see its strengths.
Many myths have been circulating. That Farc members would receive 1.8 million pesos – about £500 – per month to do nothing. In fact, they will receive 90 per cent of Colombia’s minimum wage, 620,000 pesos (about £170). That no one would be charged with crimes against humanity. In fact, the attorney general of the ICC commended the accords for not granting amnesties on crimes under international law. That Santos is leading the country towards a Castro-Chavista socialist state. That Santos is destroying the family by imposing homosexuality. This is a wild spin on the negotiators’ gender sub-commission, which looked at the differential impact of the conflict on women and the LGBTI community: a first in global conflict resolution. Conveniently, just before the No campaign was launched, a fake copy of an education ministry manual about gender discrimination, with images of a gay couple in bed inside it, did the rounds. In August 35,000 people joined a demonstration protesting that ‘gender ideology’ was going to ‘turn’ their children gay. Many of the same activists, often influenced by church leaders, joined the No campaign.
Other rumours: pensions to be docked by 7 per cent to pay for the Farc’s integration into society; an onerous peace tax; cuts in the military; capital flight. Above all, the electorate was promised that a No vote was still a vote for peace, pending a renegotiation of the points they did not like. But the deal hung on all six points being agreed: the government and the Farc could not cherry-pick. Both parties also stated plainly that a renegotiation was impossible. Post-referendum, it looks as though some kind of compromise will have to be made. Uribe’s objections were couched in rhetoric about the state not negotiating with terrorists, but his real aim is to sideline the political party that will replace the Farc. Uribe is seeking to regain power in the 2018 elections. He will try to renegotiate certain points, aiming to limit political participation for the Farc and to treat members who committed crimes less leniently. In these circumstances, the best outcome would be a compromise which allowed the No campaign to feel that its demands had been addressed: more severe treatment of the Farc’s crimes (‘No peace with impunity’ is the key refrain of the Nos), and fewer guarantees – for instance, the ten congressional seats – for the political party that succeeds it. But it’s not clear that this could happen without the deal falling apart.
Image: Colombian government officials and FARC rebels at the negotiating table.
In the Irish Times, short-story writer Joanna Walsh decries the blandly conventional form and subject matter of most contemporary English-language novels. Novelists today, she writes, tend to tell stories about and for a small subset of readers—namely, bourgeois white people. Their novels also tend to resemble other novels instead of the messy, jagged experience of modern life. Here's an excerpt from Walsh's takedown:
Though famous for their amorphous, expandable capacities, why is it that so many contemporary novels continue to be encumbered by the realist demands of plot, character, place? Why do they seem less able to make less room than poetry, or the essay, for the truly “novel” varieties of language and telling we encounter every day, at home, at work, online? Instead, what many a novel most closely resembles is… another novel.
The stereotype of the Anglo-American novel can be measured in inches. Its characters are rounded and so are its contours. It’s a paper brick that takes the novelist 10 years to write, an endurance test for both writer and reader. The best thing about it is not reading it, but being able to say you have read it.
Why does the novel continue so often to be an endlessly self-referential, and self-affirming form? Could it be because of how it is read? The novel, at least in its Anglo-American incarnation, is largely a liberal humanist construction, relying on certain ideas about people and society, the novel’s place within it, and its intentions towards its reader. The place of reading within these parameters is something that is turned to in private, an alternative to the outside world, a place for personal reflection, a refuge. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is not the only way to read. And why have only cosiness when we could also have play?
Why, instead of novels that attempt to construct something, not welcome novels that try to break something down; instead of novels about people, why not novels about objects; instead of “believable”, why not “unbelievable” scenarios; instead of narratives that desire the affirmation of ending, novels that examine this desire? Why strive for “consistent” characters rather than explore the inconsistencies of subjectivity? Instead of the great insert-country-here novel, why not the slim novel of the particular, the non-“universal”; rather than “10 novels everybody should read”, why not many novels, not all of which suit everyone; instead of novels that strive to create a world, why not novels that highlight their own artificiality, stretching the seams at which language is stitched to meaning, shuffling experience as it is shuffled in memory?
Image of Joanna Walsh via the Irish Times.
In May of this year, the sprawling refugee and migrant camp in Calais, on the French side of the tunnel between the UK and France, was raided by police, evicting over half of the estimated five thousand residents of the so-called "Jungle." Since then, walls and fences have been built to prevent migrants from resettling the camp. In Le Monde diplomatique, Peter Blodau, Sharif Fanselow, and Elle Kurancid have published a scathing and heartbreaking article on the human cost of this crack-down. They also highlight the rank hypocrisy of the West's stance on refugees, in which Western governments refuse to harbor migrants they themselves displaced through wars and economic conquest abroad. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
Such is the logic of today’s Fortress Europe; where, paying lip service to humanity — the endorsement of human rights and international community — whilst helping to squander it, in an effort to perpetuate a centuries-old tradition of global dominance, isn’t considered a brazen abuse of power. But the existence of the “Jungle” inside the Fortress presents a Karma trick, in that it threatens the French and British states’ immunity from the consequences of their colonial legacies, imperial wars and unfettered neoliberal policies.
“Since the start of [the refugee crisis] we have witnessed a hyperinflation in the language around refugees: they are invariably ‘waves’ or ‘floods,’ and they are ‘streaming’ into Europe,” wrote Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat in an op-ed for the Guardian last year. But beyond the fear-mongering rhetoric, Horvat argues, “[are] very concrete politics that can be traced back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
The “real cause of the current refugee crisis” is economic warfare, he wrote, criticising the Fortress and, in my estimation, the American war machine’s closest ally — the British government — in particular: “First you overthrow dictators. Then you destabilise countries, make the economy scream, steal resources (oil, public companies, etc), displace populations and militarise your own region. And then you sell it as a ‘natural disaster.’ Usually, this is called war.”
Image via Le Monde diplomatique.
At the Bookforum website, Fred Benenson reviews The Tetris Effect: The Game That Hypnotized the World by Dan Ackerman, which tells the surprising origin story of the first truly addictive video game. As Benenson writes, Tetris was invented in the mid-1980s by a Russian mathematician, but it failed to find a significant consumer market in the USSR. It then followed a circuitous underground route to the West, where it became a huge hit in the US, despite the Cold War tensions between the two countries. Here's an excerpt from Benenson's review:
The fact that Tetris raises mathematical questions is no accident. Bedridden for months with a leg injury at fifteen, Tetris inventor Alexey Pajitnov did math puzzles to ward off boredom. After recovering, he found that his passion for math and puzzles remained, and he eventually discovered a set of pentominoes. The five-unit shapes—similar to both the classic four-unit tetromino of Tetris and the well-known domino—can be combined into a mind-boggling array of configurations and designed into puzzles with thousands of solutions.
A decade later, while working as a computer scientist at the renowned Russian Academy of Sciences, Pajitnov spent his spare time experimenting with a pentomino-inspired game for the computer. Early prototypes were frustratingly banal. It took multiple iterations for Pajitnov to make the game actually fun. Along the way, he reduced the size of the blocks from five units to four, limited the board size to a narrow column, automatically removed “complete” rows, and dropped blocks from above. By constraining the degree of freedom in the game, Pajitnov expanded its immediacy and playability—a process familiar to creators working in all mediums.
Pajitnov’s first stable version of Tetris, reprogrammed for the IBM PC with the help of a local high schooler, was popular among computer scientists but had no immediate potential for financial return inside the Iron Curtain. “For all the unexpected success of the game,” Ackerman writes, “Pajitnov’s primary payoff was in the form of his name, with Vadim Gerasimov’s, on the title screen of the IBM-compatible version. Copies may have been traded for favors between friends or colleagues, but not a single one was sold, officially or otherwise, and not an extra ruble came into his pockets.” This, however, would change when licensors discovered copies of the game moving westward, through Hungary.
The St. Louis American reports that Jeffrey Uslip, chief curator of the Contemporary Arts Museum in St. Louis, has resigned from his post following widespread upset over the racially insensitive Kelley Walker exhibition he organized for the museum. He has reportedly been offered a position elsewhere.
In the controversial CAM exhibition, Walker, a white artist, appropriated images of police brutality from the Civil Rights era by printing them on canvas, juxtaposing them with "urban lifestyle magazine" centerfolds, and then splattering the composition with Ab-Ex style splooges of toothpaste and chocolate. While this work would be a bad idea anytime and anywhere, it seems like an especially bad idea in 2016 in St. Louis, where race relations are still so raw after the shooting of Michael Brown and the following Ferguson protests. In fact, it seems paramount for art museums and white artists and curators alike to actually showcase their solidarity for people of color.
Despite all of this, and several of her employees refusing to work their support roles for the Walker exhibition, CAM Executive Director Lisa Melandri has chosen to keep the exhibition up and running. Read the report from The St. Louis American in partial below, in full here.
The controversy began after a September 17 gallery talk with Walker, when community artists felt Walker and Uslip wouldn’t answer their questions. Artist and activist Damon Davis called for a boycott of the museum immediately after the talk.
When he heard Uslip resigned from CAM to take a position elsewhere, Davis posted one line on Facebook: “Jeffrey ran, just so we clear.”
Shortly after the controversy began, three African-American administrative employees wrote a letter to museum leaders calling for the exhibit’s removal and Uslip’s resignation. Employees Lyndon Barrois Jr., De Andrea Nichols and Victoria Donaldson, said they were not themselves resigning, but would not perform various professional duties in support of Walker’s exhibition.
Nichols said she learned about Uslip’s resignation at the same time as the public and she has been asked not to comment.
“I can express that, in tandem with things in the letter, I look forward to the work that is to come,” Nichols said. “I think we have the right people in staff and in the community to make sure the next steps are better that what has transpired over the past few weeks.”
Ahead of Uslip’s resignation, CAM Executive Director Lisa Melandri made it clear during a public discussion on October 7 that the museum will stand by Walker’s controversial work.
“It was a very thoughtful and thought-through decision to not remove the work,” Melandri said during the discussion. “I personally wish to let the artist that we choose to show here understand that we have chosen their works and we put them up on these walls and that we will honor that commitment to them.”
*Image: Kelley Walker, Black Star Press (rotated 90 degrees), 2006 via ArtNet.
In the Boston Review, Gregory Jones-Katz argues that despite its association with French theory—and with the towering figure of Jacques Derrida—deconstruction as a reading practice was developed and disseminated primarily in the United States. Discussing thinkers like Harold Bloom, Paul de Man, and Judith Butler, Jones-Katz suggests that while the French may have given birth to deconstruction, US academics cultivated and popularized it. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
With this one claim Derrida assimilated one of America’s founding texts into his philosophical project, locating the deconstructive stance and style of reading—ironic, reflexive, demanding, prescient, undermining dualisms and foundational truths—at the heart of the nation. If that were the case, could it really be true, as so many academics on the Left and the Right during the 1970s and ’80s claimed, that deconstruction was a destructive import from Paris’s Rive Gauche, one that threatened literature, history, perhaps even truth, justice, and the American way to boot?
Viewing deconstruction as a foreign mode of interpretation obscures the fertile soil in which it took root and flourished in the Untied States. Central to the story of deconstruction, but often neglected, are the various American contexts that cultivated and disseminated deconstructive undertakings. Even though the image—to some, the bogeyman—of the European theorist persists, the truth is that deconstructive literary theory was largely an indigenous creation. This change of perspective throws new light on the scapegoating of French Theory for the decline of the humanities. As it turns out, what began as a rarified method of reading literature practiced in seminar rooms and lecture halls has permeated many arenas of American life, including quite a few far beyond the academy.
Image: Harold Bloom.