Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World

How to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and MoreHow to See the World: An Introduction to Images, from Self-Portraits to Selfies, Maps to Movies, and More by Nicholas Mirzoeff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mirzoeff self-consciously updates the late John Berger’s Ways of Seeing with a new piece of popular Marxist pedagogy on how to read politics and history into images and how to change politics and history through images. Chapters situating the selfie in the democratizing history of self-portraiture, explaining the three phases of the modern city (imperial, divided, and global) through artistic representations thereof, elaborating the inextricable relation between railroad and cinema (the signal technologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively), and expounding on contemporary neuroscience to demonstrate that vision is a process involving the whole body and the whole polis are vertiginous mind-changing narratives in the manner of the best popular nonfiction; they justify Mirzoeff’s claims for the omni-relevance of “visual culture” as a discipline. On the other hand, chapters that range slightly further afield from visual culture as such (not that Mirzoeff would see anything in our represented world as outside its mandate), such as those on war and climate change, fit less readily into the overall narrative. Mirzoeff’s conclusion is also compromised: its almost kitschy “we are the 99%” progressive optimism about “visual activism” has been called into question by the political right’s own relatively successful entry into the digital culture war of images since the text’s 2015 publication. Finally, this book could also use color plates or else just instructions to google the pictures discussed, because its black-and-white and heavily miniaturized image reproductions are often too murky to contribute much to Mirzoeff’s compelling exegeses.

Mirzoeff’s “toolkit for thinking about visual culture” from the Introduction

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J. D. Bernal, The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry Into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational SoulThe World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry Into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul by J.D. Bernal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I saw Verso’s 2017 reissue of this 1929 book in the library, I picked it up because I vaguely recalled that it had informed Grant Morrison’s work around the turn of the millennium, such as The Invisibles, which I recently re-read. Unfortunately, I can’t find any evidence that this is true, but I read the Irish Marxist scientist Bernal’s brief, spirited utopian tract anyway.

Bernal fell into a disrepute as a thinker in the mid- to late-twentieth century not only because he was a Marxist, but because he was an outright defender of Stalinism, even after those breaking points of the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, this new edition of his first book features an introduction by McKenzie Wark (from which I derive the above information) defending its continuing relevance on the two grounds of the political left’s 1.) need to deal with science (and not just philosophy and art) in “the Anthropocene” and 2.) need to appeal to affects other than Adornian miserablism. I certainly sympathize with the latter goal, and was charmed by Wark’s linkage of Bernal not only to the socialist Shaw but to another Irish literary predecessor:

Bernal’s thinking in this era is, among other things, the aesthetics of Oscar Wilde expanded to a scale that imagines making over the cosmos itself as a work of art.

Bernal’s title refers to three areas of human existence that, he hopes, will come increasingly under rational control with the progress of science: the world is nature, the external environment; the flesh is the human body itself; and the devil is the psyche or human consciousness. In other words, as Bernal puts it, the physical, the physiological, and the psychological.

He imagines the future conquest of nature as a conquest of space: we will live, Bernal claims, in small globes among the planets, bounding through open space across low-gravity plains. As for the human body, it will extend its life as a brain in a cylinder connected to the world by various wired and wireless mechanisms; not only that, but it will join itself to collective brains, which will change our perception of what it is to have a self since they will persist in some ineffable quiddity even as constituent parts join up or die off.

Finally, Bernal relies on Freud for his psychology and imagines that as we distance ourselves further and further from nature, sublimation will play a greater and greater role in our experience: the energy that once went for biological reproduction will now go toward technological and social reproduction; Bernal, who uses the word “perversity” as an honorific description of evolution’s ingenuity, gives his latent aestheticism full rein:

The art of the future will, because of the very opportunities and materials it will have at its command, need an infinitely stronger formative impulse than it does now. The cardinal tendency of progress is the replacement of an indifferent chance environment by a deliberately created one. As time goes on, the acceptance, the appreciation, even the understanding of nature, will be less and less needed. In its place will come the need to determine the desirable form of the humanly-controlled universe which is nothing more nor less than art.

Again, I share Wark’s wonder that the left used to be able to strike this tone, before the defeat of its prophecies, at least in their orthodox form, turned it to the “ruthless criticism of everything existing” less as the negative moment in an ongoing dialectic than as an end in itself, whether exhibited by the grandeur of Adorno’s all-encompassing denunciations or by the anhedonic carping of social media.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to mistrust utopianism, from whatever ideological quarter. At the end of this short book, Bernal worries that psychoanalysis will actually make us happy by restoring us to the innocence of our animal desires and thereby turning us away from sublimation’s glorious goad to self-transcendence. The scientists, though, will never be appeased, Bernal speculates; in the evolving Soviet state he imagines that scientific bodies will actually be able to seize political control (“the scientific institutions would in fact gradually become the government, and a further stage of the Marxian hierarchy of domination would be reached”) and take to the stars, leaving psychoanalyzed bovine mankind to graze on the earth, itself now considered by the future star children as a “a human zoo, a zoo so intelligently managed that its inhabitants are not aware that they are there merely for the purposes of observation and experiment.”

Bernal signals by his title that his speculations are religion by other means (he inadvertently echoes Dante: “consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light”), but he often forgets to account for that as he elaborates his eschatologies. As for aestheticism, it is often misapplied when joined to politics, just as politics is often misapplied when joined to aesthetics: artists might provide hints to the multiple agencies who make the world, but in general no one party or guild—not even my own—should have total control, of this planet or any other. With these twentieth-century cautions in mind, though, maybe we can begin to think again about making a future that at least fascinates, if it does not offer salvation.


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Why Speech Is Not Violence

Psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett has written an article for the New York Times entitled “When Speech Is Violence.” It begins:

Imagine that a bully threatens to punch you in the face. A week later, he walks up to you and breaks your nose with his fist. Which is more harmful: the punch or the threat?

Barrett’s goal is to use findings in biology and medicine about the effects, supposedly tantamount to violence, of certain kind of language on the body to “provide empirical guidance for which kinds of controversial speech should and shouldn’t be acceptable on campus and in civil society.” Her conclusion is that “abusive” language should be unacceptable, while merely “offensive” language should be accepted and refuted rather than being somehow proscribed. Bracketing for the moment that there are no clear ways of differentiating between the two (and that the social justice movement in fact refuses such a distinction outright, which I will discuss below), her argument rests on the idea that abusive speech causes bodily harm by setting in motion stress reactions in the body:

Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence.

The chain of reasoning here is as follows: stress shortens life; certain forms of speech cause stress and so shorten life; therefore certain forms of speech should be impermissible in the university and civil society; abusive speech, such as identity-based hate speech, is such impermissible language.

You may notice two problems with this.

First, Barrett has smuggled into her thesis the unstated and unargued assumption that one mission of the university is the protection of students from medically-defined stressors. This theory has far-reaching implications I will discuss below, but suffice to say for now that any project of social formation, which university education is, will involve numerous stressors that are not extricable from the process of strengthening individuals by testing them.

Second, in an atmosphere where there is no common understanding of what constitutes hate speech, abusive speech, or offensive speech, Barrett has left the definition of a crucial term far too open—in practice, it will be seized upon by political actors of all sorts to claim that the speech they object to is an abusive life-shortening stressor and so in need of curtailment. This is not a negligible point. It is no longer 2014: Obama’s DOE is not the one making monitory recommendations to college and university administrators, and the cultural right in all its varieties has grown expert in repurposing leftish rhetoric against its devisers. Barrett shows an awareness of this problem when she tries to differentiate between “a campaign of abuse” (typified by Milo Yiannopoulos, whose speech should be proscribed as “a danger to a civil society (and to our health)”) and mistaken, offensive arguments couched in academic rhetoric (typified by Charles Murray, whose speech should be entertained and then refuted, and which entertainment and refutation is “the lifeblood of democracy”), but even here there are problems.

For one thing, Barrett must be very inexperienced in the realm of social justice activism if she thinks that its partisans will be willing to make this distinction. For them, an academic article or an online art installation are as capable of “literal violence” as explicitly abusive or insulting rhetoric, as the cases of Rebecca Tuvel and Vanessa Place, to name only two, should prove. And why not?—aren’t overt epithets lobbed by a flamboyant insult-artist actually much easier to brush off than the deeper and longer-lasting stress of a respectable and respected argument against one’s deepest convictions? If some speech is more stressful than a punch in the face, then perhaps the verbal equivalent of a punch in the face is less stressful than the slow erosion over time of one’s self-definition. So, using her own assumptions, I have reversed her argument with implications for her own academic identity and methodology, which she took great care to protect from social justice activism in the guise of supporting its cause. That is what the dreaded “SJW” will do with the ammunition she provides.

(Never mind that the application of Barrett’s anti-stress ideal to the arts is nightmarish to contemplate. What will the theater departments of the world do once we have defended our quaking telomeres against King Lear or—forget dead white men—feminist drama like Blasted, black drama like Joe Turner’s Come and Gone?)

At this late hour—after a spate of disciplinary actions or investigations against academics for their liberal or left “abusive speech,” some of which really is abusive by Barrett’s broad definition (e.g., Steven Salaita, George Ciccariello-Maher, Johnny Eric Williams, Tommy Curry, Dana Cloud, Lisa Durden)—Barrett should also be aware by now what the political right will do with her ideas. The right may claim that for Christian students to read the incendiary rhetoric of Nietzsche or perhaps even the calmly-stated claims of Darwin is an intolerable, insulting stressor that they should be protected from; the right may claim likewise that Jewish students should not subjected to the stressful speech of anti-Zionists, an abusive insult to their suffering European ancestors and their threatened Middle Eastern co-religionists; the right may repurpose feminist rhetoric, as they have been doing for a very long time, to object that certain “obscene” artworks are too stressful for students to endure; the right may even claim that the language of Frantz Fanon or Karl Marx are, in their threat or implication or incitement of physical violence toward European people or middle class people, abusive stressors that ought not to be tolerated while universities are publicly funded. (Don’t miss the last five words—they are important!)

Please remember that nothing in the above paragraph is ruled out by Barrett’s premises, which only include the arguments that some forms of speech cause stress and are therefore equivalent to violence, and that in conclusion such speech ought to be proscribed.

In contrast to Barrett, I contend that universities cannot be in the business of protecting people from stressors of all sorts. The traditional mission of the university—to produce a well-informed, well-rounded, and cultivated citizenry, especially one capable and competitive in labor—cannot survive such a definition. Especially in so far as a university education no longer guarantees accession to middle-class professions, it may be more urgent for students to become resilient toward the entire universe of non-respectable or -respectful speech they will encounter in the working and living world, much of which remains unpoliced by bureaucracies schooled in progressive thought as modified by psychiatry.

Finally, a word on the meanings of “violence.” Social and even natural scientists often use terms borrowed from the humanities without, understandably, always elaborating on their provenance or implications. The idea of “discursive violence” or “epistemic violence,” which quietly underlies Barrett’s use of “speech is violence,” is one such term. It has its origins in a Marxist-inflected post-structuralism: figures such as Derrida, Foucault, and Spivak claimed that violence was done in the discursive realm when the dominant discourses or languages of any given moment excluded certain other discourses or languages from being heard or, more importantly, from being intelligible if heard. (See here for a useful gloss on Spivak’s use of the term.) This epistemic violence was often enough accompanied by physical violence, from that of colonial occupation to that of incarceration in mental institutions, and that is what gives it force. It does not obviously follow that middle-class students at pricey institutions guarded by police forces and destined for positions of relative social power meet the description of the victims Foucault or Spivak had in mind—and I have to imagine that Spivak, at least, would be quite hostile to the appropriation of this sort of rhetoric by her students at Columbia; part of the point of her famous essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” was to inquire whether she, as a privileged and educated bourgeois cosmopolite, could understand or interpret the subaltern (those Indian women who had died by sati), not that she was one. In fact, I could go even further and say that the dominance of psychology or sociology as disciplines discrediting other ways of understanding psyche and society on models other than rationalization is closer to what post-structuralists meant by “epistemic violence” than something like hate speech as such—a theory that will probably stress out psychology professors!

I would not, however, suggest that we stop analogizing speech and violence totally. So many of our metaphors for non-bodily experience are drawn from bodily experience that it would be hard to do so. Even if I described Barrett’s article as an “irritating” one, that would be a bodily metaphor—as if sandpaper were abrading my skin. Some sentences really will land like blows to the face, even if they are less likely to be ones encountered in university classrooms and more like the following: “You’re fired,” “You have cancer,” “I no longer love you, I’m leaving,” “We did everything we could to save her.” But we should always remember that the metaphor is a metaphor, that the whole concept of education is premised upon the notion that we are not utterly exhausted by biological explanation (what, really, do I learn about myself as a subject and not as a body from contemplating telomeres?), and that we will become prey not only to well-meaning if ill-advised do-gooders but also to positively malign opportunists if we prioritize intellectual comfort over learning. And let us not forget moreover that we will become subjects of universal mockery should we, perched at the top of a world system of power and inequality maintained by very real material agencies, confuse emotional discomfort with physical devastation.


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Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Seven Brief Lessons on PhysicsSeven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now I am not going to go so far out of my depth—or so far off-brand—as to write at length about even a popular science book on theoretical physics, especially when this is the first such book I’ve read since I was puzzling over John Gribbin and Paul Davies in my teens. I took advanced physics in high school with the legendary David Spahr, who taught and graded like a college professor, yet in my day rarely had one word said against him, because we knew he was too good for us (I recall that he would recite passages from Milton or FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat to illustrate scientific points or, more remarkably, to use as the bases of word problems). I got terrible grades, of course. Even today, my own students will tell you they are always having to correct my grade breakdowns for my classes because I cannot add to a hundred! Pathologically innumerate, I was even worse in high school: my English and history teachers thought I was a savant, whereas my math and science teachers judged me an idiot. Nevertheless, the more philosophical aspects of physics always fascinated me even though my mathematical comprehension halts at (or long before) the frontier of calculus.

So I took up this brief, lyrical digest of modern physics by the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli (translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre). Written simply enough that it would not make a bad gift even for a middle-schooler, it is also a good book for readers primarily interested in arts and humanities, since Rovelli’s disquisitions on physics are philosophically informed. His commentaries on the implications of relativity theory, quantum mechanics, and the long attempt to reconcile the two bear on far more than technical scientific debate.

To wit: for many us who were reared within the civilizational matrix of print culture and its Enlightenment politics, the infinitude of subjective worlds erupting out of the Internet has been alarming. It is probably not wrong to be worried about some of the extremes of group-level relativism promoted by the identitarian politics of both left and right factions today. But what if group-level relativism is bad because it is not relative enough? What if the law of the universe is, paradoxically, more granularly anarchic than cultural relativism, because every interaction between any two forces is a variable singularity? “Reality,” Rovelli comments, “is only interaction.” He goes on:

A handful of types of elementary particles, which vibrate and fluctuate constantly between existence and nonexistence and swarm in space, even when it seems that there is nothing there, combine together to infinity like the letters of a cosmic alphabet to tell the immense history of galaxies…

Derogating “postmodernism” and preaching a restoration of “objective reality,” some contemporary thinkers call for a return to Gradgrindian fact. These thinkers often seem to be biologists or similar, but I recall learning in school that in the order of knowledge biology depends on chemistry, and chemistry depends in its turn on physics. When castigating the heirs of Nietzsche, our neo-Enlighteners might spare some venom to spit at the heirs of Heisenberg. For the physicist Rovelli, postmodernism errs only in maintaining the Kantian distinction between subjectivity and the truth that is out there, whereas it is the truth perceptible to science that itself renders even the outside or objective world a radically unstable, changeable quantity, continuously altering in interaction with its observers. It is not only the self that is decentered and unstable, but the entire cosmos, which may not even be there if one is not looking at it. What, for instance, are we to make of time as conceptually revised by the theory of loop quantum gravity?

Just as the idea of a continuous space that contains things disappears, so the idea of an elementary and primal “time” flowing regardless of things also vanishes. The equations describing grains of space and matter no longer contain the variable “time.” This doesn’t mean that everything is stationary unchanging. On the contrary, it means that change is ubiquitous—but elementary particles cannot be ordered in a common succession of “instants.” At the minute scale of the grains of space, the dance of nature does not take place to the rhythm of the baton of a single orchestral conductor, at a single tempo: every process dances independently with its neighbors, to its own rhythm. The passage of time is internal to the world, is born in the world itself in the relationship between quantum events that comprise the world and are themselves the source of time.

“The passage of time is internal to the world”: as a literary person, I am happy to know that cutting-edge physics beyond my ken confirms a lesson I learned long ago from Virginia Woolf.

Rovelli concludes his book with philosophical reflections on the nature of humanity and the universe. Rejecting German idealism’s anthropocentrism and its influence (he criticizes Kant, Schelling, and Heidegger by name), he takes his stand with Lucretius and Spinoza: our consciousness and our freedom are identical with the lawful, probabilistic surges of the matter and energy of which we are made, and our ever-shifting and ever-reflexive knowledge may, if we strive for it, as our ancestors strove to track their invisible prey by its visible tracks (Rovelli’s metaphor), come ever nearer to the truth. And the truth is that the universe is a rippling plane of variously interacting quantities, a wave of singular events. Left unexplained is the source of our drive to know; the analogy to paleolithic hunting is a weak reductionism. What does this universe need with our need to understand it, and why is Rovelli so certain that our need does not differentiate us from the placidity of the rocks and stones and trees? But here, admittedly, physics gives way to metaphysics.

In any case, Rovelli’s book, if it cannot provide the final answer to the fundamental questions, is highly useful in reminding this C-student in physics that the universe is almost unspeakably strange, and that appeals to “reality” may be less reassuring, though more poetically exciting, than they seem.

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