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Posts Tagged ‘culture

“A unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”*…

 

meme

Is there any way to intervene usefully or meaningfully in public debate, in what the extremely online Twitter users are with gleeful irony calling the “discourse” of the present moment?

It has come to seem to me recently that this present moment must be to language something like what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles. A writer who works on the old system of production can spend days crafting a sentence, putting what feels like a worthy idea into language, only to find, once finished, that the internet has already produced countless sentences that are more or less just like it, even if these lack the same artisanal origin story that we imagine gives writing its soul. There is, it seems to me, no more place for writers and thinkers in our future than, since the nineteenth century, there has been for weavers.

This predicament is not confined to politics, and in fact engulfs all domains of human social existence…

Justin E. H. Smith rages against the machine.  Come for the righteous indictment of algorithmic culture; stay for the oddly redeeming conclusion: “It’s All Over.” [TotH @vgr]

But we might recall that Socrates (as reported in Plato’s Phaedrus) railed against the new technology of his time– writing– and its corrosive effect on memory.  Several readers of Smith’s essay have suggested that it is similarly “conservative.”  Smith engages those criticism here.

Pair with “The Age of Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture.”

[image above: source]

definition of a “meme” in Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene (1976)

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As we muse on meaning, we might send epistolary birthday greetings to Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné; she was born on this date in 1626.  A French aristocrat, she is the most celebrated letter writer in French literary history.  Those letters– over 1,100 survive– as celebrated for their vivid descriptiveness and their wit.  Mme de Sévigné’s letters play an important role in the novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, where they figure as the favorite reading of the narrator’s grandmother, and, following her death, his mother.

Check them out at the Internet Archive.

200px-Marquise_de_Sévigné source

 

Written by LW

February 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Time moves in one direction, memory in another”*…

 

lennon

A few years ago a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab. Hidalgo was listening to music and asked the student if she recognized the song. She wasn’t sure. “Is it Coldplay?” she asked. It was “Imagine” by John Lennon. Hidalgo took it in stride that his student didn’t recognize the song. As he explains in our interview below, he realized the song wasn’t from her generation. What struck Hidalgo, though, was the incident echoed a question that had long intrigued him, which was how music and movies and all the other things that once shone in popular culture faded like evening from public memory.

Hidalgo is among the premier data miners of the world’s collective history. With his MIT colleagues, he developed Pantheon, a dataset that ranks historical figures by popularity from 4000 B.C. to 2010. Aristotle and Plato snag the top spots. Jesus is third…

Last month Hidalgo and colleagues published a Nature paper that put his crafty data-mining talents to work on another question: How do people and products drift out of the cultural picture?…

Hidalgo explains the two ways that people and events drop from our collective memories at “How We’ll Forget John Lennon.”  Explore Pantheon here.

* William Gibson

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As we muse on memory, we might recall that it was on this date in 1885 that LaMarcus Adna Thompson received the first patent for a true “switchback railroad”– or , as we know it, a roller coaster.  Thompson has designed the ride in 1881, and opened it on Coney Island in 1884.  (The “hot dog” had been invented, also at Coney Island, in 1867, so was available to trouble the stomachs of the very first coaster riders.)

Thompson’s original Switchback Railway at Coney Island

source

 

“What, me worry?”*…

 

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When Tales Calculated to Drive You MAD—Humor in a Jugular Vein first appeared in 1952, it was like nothing ever seen before. The comic book parodied comic books, which were then under assault as purveyors of violence and degeneracy that contributed to delinquency, homosexuality, and, of course, the spread of communism. Mad made fun of all that, too.

Within three years, the publication became Mad Magazine, a name change that allowed it to flaunt the prohibitions of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was an industry effort to tone down comics and hold state censorship at bay. Soon television, movies, advertising, and politics all joined comics as fodder for Mad’s mordant humor. Indeed, the takeaway of Mad was that all of the above were forms of advertising.

Nathan Abrams argues that Mad’s non-partisan critique of Cold War America had more effect than the more famous New York intellectuals working for DissentCommentary, and Partisan Review… No icon was safe: Mickey Mouse, Khrushchev, Joe McCarthy, Superman, George Washington, Norman Rockwell, Madison Avenue, and psychoanalysis all become grist for the writers and artists working in the gap-toothed Alfred E. Neuman’s mill…

How Mad Magazine Informed America’s Cultural Critique

* Alfred E. Newman

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As we honor our elders, we might recall that it was on this date in 1939 that one of Mad‘s targets– Superman– went wide into the culture: the daily Superman comic strip premiered. (Superman, the character, had debuted in the comic Action #1 the prior year.)  The strips ran continuously until May 1966; at their peak they were run in over 300 daily newspapers and 90 Sunday papers, with a readership of over 20 million.

superman source

 

Written by LW

January 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The darkest thing about Africa has always been our ignorance of it”*…

african philosophy

 

Aristotle held that philosophising begins with wonder. The African philosopher Jonathan Chimakonam suggested that, while wonder might have instigated Western philosophy, it was frustration that spurred African philosophy, with the emergence of radically Afrocentric nationalist philosophers such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire and Kwame Nkrumah who saw in philosophy an ideological weapon for attacking those who sought to denigrate and subjugate Africans culturally and politically. What is needed now is a 21st-century African synthesis that can help to resolve this struggle. ‘Consolation philosophy’ – spurred by both wonder and frustration – attempts to do just that.

The idea of ‘consolation’ philosophy does not imply an attempt to comfort philosophers. Rather, it suggests a philosophy of life, a project similar to the human-centred philosophical projects of Western existentialists such as Martin Heidegger, Jean-Paul Sartre, Friedrich Nietzsche, Gabriel Marcel, Søren Kierkegaard, Miguel de Unamuno, Emmanuel Levinas and German idealists such as Arthur Schopenhauer. Here I offer a brief presentation of this African philosophical synthesis, which I hope will help to resolve the dilemma eloquently put forward in 1997 by professor of philosophy at Penn State University Robert Bernasconi: ‘Either African philosophy is so similar to Western philosophy that it makes no distinctive contribution and effectively disappears; or it is so different that its credentials to be genuine philosophy will always be in doubt.’…

“Consolation philosophy” understands the human being as a unity of feeling and reason, in a cosmos rich with primal emotion.  The provocative– and timely–  essay in full at “A truly African philosophy.”

See also “Philosophy is the new battleground in South Africa’s fight against colonialism.”

[Image above: source]

* Geographer George Kimble

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As we take our wisdom where we find it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1899 that the Boer regime in (what we now call) South Africa issued an ultimatum to the British government, declaring that a state of war would exist between Britain and the two Boer republics if the British did not remove their troops from along the border.

The British had challenged the Dutch settlers for a variety of reasons, probably main among them for control of the gold deposits in the region. It was the largest gold-mining complex in the world at a time when the world’s monetary systems, preeminently the British, were increasingly dependent upon gold.

The British ignored the ultimatum, and what we now call the Boer War (actually the second Boer War, as there has been an earlier skirmish) broke out.  The two colonialists slugged it out until 1902, when the British took control.

boer war

Boer and British troops at the battle of Belmont, Nov. 23, 1899

source

 

Written by LW

October 9, 2018 at 1:01 am

“To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete”*…

 

science

There is remarkably little reflection taking place about the state of science today, despite significant challenges, rooted in globalization, the digitization of knowledge, and the growing number of scientists.

At first glance, all of these seem to be positive trends. Globalization connects scientists worldwide, enabling them to avoid duplication and facilitating the development of universal standards and best practices. The creation of digital databases allows for systematic mining of scientific output and offers a broader foundation for new investigations. And the rising number of scientists means that more science is being conducted, accelerating progress.

But these trends are Janus-faced…

Jeremy Baumberg argues that we live in an age of hyper-competitive, trend-driven, and herd-like approach to scientific research: “What Is Threatening Science?

* Buckminster Fuller

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As we rethink research, we might spare a thought for Paul Erdős; he died on this date in 1996.  One of the most prolific mathematicians of the 20th century (he published around 1,500 mathematical papers during his lifetime, a figure that remains unsurpassed), he is remembered both for his “social practice” of mathematics (he engaged more than 500 collaborators) and for his eccentric lifestyle (he spent his waking hours virtually entirely on math; he would typically show up at a colleague’s doorstep and announce “my brain is open”, staying long enough to collaborate on a few papers before moving on a few days later).

Erdős’s prolific output with co-authors prompted the creation of the Erdős number, the number of steps in the shortest path between a mathematician and Erdős in terms of co-authorships.  Low numbers are a badge of pride– and a usual marker of accomplishment: as of 2016, all Fields Medalists have a finite Erdős number, with values that range between 2 and 6, and a median of 3.  Physics Nobelists Einstein and Sheldon Glashow have an Erdős number of 2.   Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron can be considered to have an Erdős number of 1 because they both autographed the same baseball (for number theorist Carl Pomerance).  Natalie Portman’s undergraduate collaboration with a Harvard professor earned her an Erdős number of 5; Danica McKellar (“Winnie Cooper” in The Wonder Years) has an Erdős number of 4, for a mathematics paper coauthored while an undergraduate at UCLA.

 source

 

Written by LW

September 20, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Take a sad song and make it better”*…

 

A rehearsal of the musical <i>Hair</i> at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, September 1968

A rehearsal of Hair.  Premiered in late 1967; photo taken, 1968

 

Certain years acquire an almost numinous quality in collective memory—1789, 1861, 1914. One of the more recent additions to the list is 1968. Its fiftieth anniversary has brought a flood of attempts to recapture it—local, national, and transnational histories, anthologies, memoirs, even performance art and musical theater. Immersion in this literature soon produces a feeling of déjà vu, particularly if one was politically conscious at the time (as I was).

Up to a point, repetition is inevitable. Certain public figures and events are inescapable: the tormented Lyndon Johnson, enmeshed in an unpopular, unwinnable war and choosing to withdraw from the presidential stage; the antiwar candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy; the intensifying moral challenges posed by Martin Luther King; the assassinations of King and Kennedy; the racially charged violence in most major cities; the police riot against antiwar protesters (and anyone else who got in their way) at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago; the emergence of right-wing candidates—George Wallace, Richard Nixon—appealing to a “silent majority” whose silence was somehow construed as civic virtue. And the anticlimactic election: the narrow defeat of Hubert Humphrey by Nixon, who promised to “bring us together” without specifying how.

What togetherness turned out to mean was an excruciating prolongation of the war in Vietnam, accompanied by an accelerating animosity toward dissent. The effort to satisfy the silent majority by exorcising the demons of 1968 would eventually lead to the resurgence of an interventionist military policy, the dismantling of what passed for a welfare state, and the prosecution of a “war on drugs” that would imprison more Americans than had ever been behind bars before.

Revisiting this story is important and necessary. But difficulties arise when one tries to identify who those demons actually were…

Rutgers professor Jackson Lear considers several attempts to distill the lessons of the late 60s: “Aquarius Rising.”

Special bonus: film critic J. Hoberman on why, in 1968, an especially rich year for cinema, Night of the Living Dead was his pick for best movie.

* The Beatles, “Hey Jude”

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As we Let The Sunshine In, we might recall that on this date in 1968, our post’s title source, “Hey Jude,” sat at #2 on the pop chart– just ahead of “1,2,3, Redlight” by the 1910 Fruitgum Co. at #3 and The Rascals’ “People Got To Be Free” at #4… and just behind that week’s #1, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” by Jeannie C. Riley.

jeannie-c-riley-harper-valley-pta-1968-a source

 

Written by LW

September 14, 2018 at 1:01 am

“I went to the bank and asked to borrow a cup of money. They said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’m going to buy some sugar.”*…

 

 

sugartown_final_lw_smaller.0

Sugar is sprinkled everywhere in our language. When children are good and happy, they are cutie pies. Cool stuff can be “sweet, man.” Our crush is a sweetheart, and our sweetheart might be our honey. “A spoonful of sugar,” as Mary Poppins croons, is a bribe, something to help “the medicine go down.” Sugar is leisure and celebration — what British birthday would be complete without the stickiness of cake frosting on fingers? It is, according to Roland Barthes, an attitude — as integral to the concept of Americanness as wine is to Frenchness. In the 1958 hit song “Sugartime,” to which Barthes was referring, the sunny, smiling McGuire Sisters harmonize sweetly, filling their mouths with honey: “Sugar in the mornin’ / Sugar in the evenin’ / Sugar at suppertime / Be my little sugar / And love me all the time.”

And like anything pleasurable, sugar is often characterized as a vice. The flood of industrial sugar into packaged food has real public health consequences, but predictably, the backlash has taken on a puritanical zeal far beyond reasonable concerns. Sugar is “America’s drug of choice,” one headline claimed. “Is sugar the world’s most popular drug?” wondered another. Even those selling sugary food winkingly parrot the language of addiction — consider Milk Bar’s notoriously sticky, seductively sweet Crack Pie. A drug that decimated predominantly poor, black American communities is now a punchline for middle-class white indulgence.

For black Americans, sweetness was an essential ingredient in Jim Crow-era stereotypes designed to keep newly emancipated people from their rights. Those stereotypes persist — and even generate profit — today…

Sugar is survival. It is a respite for palates swept clean of childish joy for too long. It is sexual desire and pleasure, and also temptation and sin. And it is a commodity, one historically produced with some of the most brutal labor practices on the planet. In the Western imagination, sugar is pleasure, temptation, and vice — and in modern history, it is original sin…

How a taste for sweetness, developed for survival, became a stand-in for everything good — and evil — about our culture: “Sugartime.”

* Steven Wright

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As turn to the tart, we might send bodacious birthday greetings to that most fabulous of flappers, Betty Boop; she made her first appearance on this date in 1930.  The creation of animator Max Fleischer, she debuted in “Dizzy Dishes” (in which, still unevolved as a character, she is drawn as an anthropomorphic female dog).

 

Written by LW

August 9, 2018 at 1:01 am

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