Thursday, July 09, 2009

Our Neanderthal Neighbors

Svante Pääbo, "Mapping the Neanderthal Genome":

One thing that we're beginning to see is that we are extremely closely related to the Neanderthals. They're our relatives. In a way, they're like a human ancestor 300,000 years ago. Which is something that leads you to think: what about the Neanderthals? What if they had survived a little longer and were with us today? After all, they disappeared only around 30,000 years ago, or, 2,000 generations ago. Had they survived, where would they be today? Would they be in a zoo? Or would they live in suburbia?...

For example, if the Neanderthals were here today, they would certainly be different from us. Would we experience racism against Neanderthals much worse than the racism we experience today amongst ourselves? What if they were only a bit different from us, but similar in many ways — in terms of language, technology, social groups? Would we still have this enormous division that we make today between humans and non-humans? Between animals and ourselves? Would we still have distanced ourselves from animals and made this dichotomy that is so strong in our thinking today? These things we will never know, right? But they are fascinating things to thnk about.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The New Liberal Arts: Photography

New Liberal Arts, a Snarkmarket/Revelator collaboration, is available for sale today. It's 80pp and costs $8.95. Robin reports that after five hours, half of the initial print run of 200 copies has already been sold.

I have three short pieces in the book. I co-wrote what I hope is a cogent Introduction with Robin Sloan and what I know is an absolutely whiz-bang take on Journalism with Matt Thompson. I also wrote a solo essay on Photography, which I really do think is the new liberal art par excellence, the technology that changes the whole meaning of both science and the humanities.

We're going to be doing a lot to promote this book, which I'm sure is going to sell out soon. When it does, it'll be available for everyone has a freely downloadable PDF. (There are plans for Kindle and MobiPocket versions, too.) So when you buy one, you're helping to unlock it for everyone else. Since the logic of freeriding doesn't seem to deter digital humanists, I hope this is seen as a boon and not a rip.

But now I just want to give you an idea of the sort of things we're thinking about. This is what I had to say about "Photography."


Apart from the exact sciences, nothing has transformed the idea of the liberal arts as profoundly as PHOTOGRAPHY -- which enables not only the recording of still and moving images, but their reproduction, transmission, and projection onto a page or screen.

The classical liberal arts are arts of the word, products of the book, the letter, the lecture. The Renaissance added the plastic arts of painting and sculpture, and modernity those of the laboratory. The new liberal arts are overwhelmingly arts of the DOCUMENT, and the photograph is the document par excellence.

Like the exact sciences, photographic arts are industrial, blurring the line between knowledge and technology. (The earliest photographers were chemists.) Like painting and sculpture, they are visual, aesthetic, based in both intuition and craft. Like writing, photography is both an action and an object: writing makes writing and photography makes photography. And like writing, photographic images have their own version of the trivium -- a logic, grammar, and rhetoric.

We don't only SEE pictures; we LEARN how they're structured and how they become meaningful. Some of our learning is intuitive, gathered from the ways our eyes and brains make sense of the visual world. We have an habitual sense of how photographic meaning is created, taken from our experience watching movies or taking our own photographs. But we also have a critical sense of it, taken from our aesthetic responses to photographs and cinema, and our awareness of how both are edited, enhanced, and manipulated. Photography is the art and science of the real, but also of the fake; of the depth and the surface, and the authentic as well as the inauthentic or nonauthentic appearances of the world.

Rather than "pictures," "film," or even images, PHOTOGRAPHY, the recording of light, is the term to bet on: It's the only category that can describe pictures on metal, glass, paper, celluloid, or flash memory -- whether still or moving, analog or digital, recorded or broadcast, in color or black and white, representative or abstract. It is essential to examine equally the transmission and consumption of photography as well as its production: still images, cinema, television, digital video, and animation all belong to you, as well as photoreproduction, photomontage, image databases, and any possible combination where the still or moving image appears. Even the optical cables that have transmitted this data to you several times over communicate through pulses of light. Photography is the science of the interrelation and specificity of all of these forms, as well as their reproduction, recontextualization, and redefinition. Photography is a comprehensive science; photography is a comparative literature.

It took universities CENTURIES to answer the demand posed by the exact sciences to liberal education -- it is your task to pose -- and to answer -- the demand photography makes of us now.

The Ripped Veneer Of Inhumanity


For Andrew Sullivan, AIDS explains why 1990 was the year American attitudes towards gays changed:

Remember: most of these deaths were of young men. If you think that the Vietnam war took around 60,000 young American lives randomly over a decade or more, then imagine the psychic and social impact of 300,000 young Americans dying in a few years. Imagine a Vietnam Memorial five times the size. The victims were from every state and city and town and village. They were part of millions and millions of families. Suddenly, gay men were visible in ways we had never been before. And our humanity - revealed by the awful, terrifying, gruesome deaths of those in the first years of the plague - ripped off the veneer of stereotype and demonization and made us seem as human as we are. More, actually: part of our families.

I think that horrifying period made the difference. It also galvanized gay men and lesbians into fighting more passionately than ever - because our very lives were at stake. There were different strategies - from Act-Up actions to Log Cabin conventions. But more and more of us learned self-respect and refused to tolerate the condescension, double standards, discrimination and violence so many still endured. We were deadly serious. And we fight on in part because of those we had lost. At least I know I do.
See also this appreciation of Bayard Rustin, who wrote "The New Niggers Are Gays" and "From Montgomery to Stonewall" in 1986:
Today, blacks are no longer the litmus paper or the barometer of social change. Blacks are in every segment of society and there are laws that help to protect them from racial discrimination. The new “niggers” are gays. … It is in this sense that gay people are the new barometer for social change. … The question of social change should be framed with the most vulnerable group in mind: gay people. [Rustin, as quoted by Rev. Sekou.]
When you think about Rustin -- who as an openly gay black civil rights activist, pacifist, and former Communist was about as vulnerable as you could get in the confluence of sexual, racial, and political paranoia of the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s - and also Sullivan's account of the "homocons," I think there was a sense by the end of the 80s, with the decline of communism and the relative achievements of civil rights legislation, that a certain kind of culture war had run its course, and that the time for legal protection and activism for gays had finally come. AIDS gave it an existential urgency, but the shifting politics of "pink" had finally made it possible.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Hallucinating Sovereignty

Chris Bray:

In the first volume of his biography of Andrew Jackson, Robert Remini neatly captures the strangeness of state sovereignty. It happens in a single quiet paragraph that describes the ceremony on the morning of July 17, 1821, in which Spain relinquished its claim to the Floridas. Jackson handed the Spanish governor "the instruments of his authority to take possession of the territory," and Governor José Callava responded by giving Jackson control of his keys and his archives. Then, finally, having surrendered the symbols of power, Callava "released the inhabitants of West Florida from their allegiance to Spain." The paragraph ends with members of the Spanish crowd -- suddenly finding themselves members of an American crowd -- bursting into tears...

For historians, state power rests on very thin crust. State actors manage imagined communities with invented traditions, but only for as long as the ritual works. States are ephemeral; sovereignty grows out of statements on paper and the performance of symbolic acts -- here are the keys, General Jackson -- and the tenuousness of that recurring project means that it keeps crashing and burning. States disappear, and take the massively powerful apparatus of the state with them; the Stasi archives seem quaint. Floridians were Spanish until some guy read a sentence from a piece of paper that said they weren't.

But how do we bridge that view of the state with the bizarre reality of this thing that owns all the gravity and subsumes everything -- General Motors, AIG, Iraq, the financial industry, and, coming soon, entire broad swaths of the energy and health care fields, and etcetera -- so entirely that we can sit inside its orbit and casually talk about our affairs like Iraq and Lebanon?

I think of the state as a consensual hallucination, and yet somehow the American model turns out to run much of the world like personal property. I don't understand how we get from there to here. The "state" is a guy who shows up with some pieces of paper -- the "instruments of his authority to take possession" -- and then really takes possession.

(From Cliopatria/History News Network.)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Erving Is Always On

Miriam Burstein:

Many years ago, I heard a sociologist tell an anecdote about being the only undergraduate at a faculty party.  After a short while, he realized that somebody was watching him from a distance.  Worse still, wherever he went, there his mysterious observer followed.  Understandably anxious, he finally cornered one of his professors to find out what on earth was going on.  "Oh, that's Erving," his professor sighed.  "He's always on." The Erving in question was Erving Goffman, the author of The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). 

Everyone I know who ever encountered Erving Goffmann has a similar story. The one I've heard most often is that he would arrange for his students (at UPenn, natch) to meet for class outside on the lawn in front of the library, then hide and watch, laughing at how they reacted when he didn't show.

(From The Little Professor.)