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Posts Tagged ‘Slavoj Zizek’

The “Splendidly Cranky” Utopian: An Interview with Curtis White

December 3, 2015 | by

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Curtis White first came to public attention as a culture critic with his best-selling The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003). Dubbed “splendidly cranky” by Molly Ivins and “absolutely indispensible” by Slavoj Zizek, The Middle Mind showed White’s ability to speak to a broad readership about the themes that run through all of his books—cultural skepticism, intellectual freedom, and the utopian function of the imagination. White’s “imagination” is the kind with an adjective in front of it: the political imagination, the social imagination, the scientific imagination. To say the political imagination rather than simply politics is to take the conceptual leap that White’s work insists upon, whereby we are reminded not only that we invent the rules of “politics” but that we reinvent and reaffirm them every day.

White grew up in postwar suburban California. He studied literature with John Barth and philosophy with Gayatri Spivak and spent his entire professional career at Illinois State University in Normal, where he eventually became a Distinguished Professor, before retiring in 2009. He now spends his time training for triathlons and writing books, most recently The Science Delusion (2013) and We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data, which was published last month.

I corresponded by e-mail with White over a few weeks last summer about Reason, Romanticism, and the benefit of heartbreak.

We, Robots strikes me as a companion volume to The Science Delusion—two complementary ways of approaching the same problem. What do you see as the books’ common ground?

Amused indignation? All of my recent nonfictions, going back to The Middle Mind, are, finally, ideology critiques. The last two aren’t so much about science and robots as they are about the stories we’re told about science and the dawning age of “intelligent machines.” As with all ideology, we’re told these stories in order to gain our consent to a social reality that is unjust, unequal, and—here’s where I come in—dishonest. I’m indignant about the dishonesty of “science communicators” like Richard Dawkins or the economist Tyler Cowen. Dawkins and his cohort Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens speak as if science were the only legitimate source of “truth,” while the humanities, art, and religion are disciplines for the undisciplined. Cowen is a machine-age entrepreneur who glosses over the most egregious social consequences of living through machines, wholly lacking the imagination to understand how others might look at his robot utopia. For him, this future is inevitable anyway, and criticism of it is merely “standing in the way of progress.”

These are very narrow, bigoted men. They have no respect for anything other than their own empirical, technological dogmas. The worrisome thing is that we don’t see more prominent objections to their thinking, other than a few heroic figures like Chris Hedges. But I may have answered my own question there—if you have strong objections to what is inevitable, you will not be “prominent.” You will not be taken seriously. As much as possible, you will not be seen. Read More »

Staff Picks: Conspiracy, Camaraderie, Catsup

November 20, 2015 | by

From the cover of The Mark and the Void.

Two days ago I gathered up a big stack of submissions to read over lunch … but I also took our brand-new office copy of Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Just in case I ran out of stuff to read, was my ridiculous thinking. The next time I looked up, an hour later, I was late for a meeting and deep in the heart of the Catiline conspiracy, and hadn’t even asked for the check, or looked at a single short story. I’ve promised myself I won’t open the book again until Thanksgiving. —Lorin Stein

In 1917, a Yale professor of public speaking named Grenville Kleiser published Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases: A Practical Handbook of Pertinent Expressions, Striking Similes, Literary, Commercial, Conversational, and Oratorical Terms, for the Embellishment of Speech and Literature, and the Improvement of the Vocabulary of Those Persons Who Read, Write, and Speak English. I’m about two thousand useful phrases in, and let me tell you, this thing moves. It reads like an epic poem written in concert at the stuffiest dinner party in New Haven history. Of especial utility is section seven, on “Literary Expressions,” full of well-wrought piffle fit for the impending holiday-party season. You’ll want to commit “A campaign of unbridled ferocity” to memory. And “The nameless and inexpressible fascination of midnight music.” And “She bandies adjectives with the best.” And “A shadow of melancholy touched her lithe fancies, as a cloud dims the waving of golden grain”—plenty of occasions to put that one to good use. And (last one, I promise, though I’m going to have to devote a whole post to these some day) “The multiplicity of odors competing for your attention.” With these and roughly 14,995 other phrases at your disposal, you’ll be able to aggravate and annoy even your closest friends. —Dan Piepenbring Read More »

Dissolution

May 15, 2015 | by

Notes on becoming dust.

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Mihály Munkácsy, Dusty Country Road II, 1883.

Since he applied paint thickly, and then repeatedly scratched it off the canvas as his work proceeded, the floor was covered with a largely hardened and encrusted deposit of droppings, mixed with coal dust, several centimeters thick at the center and thinning out towards the outer edges, in places resembling the flow of lava. This, said Ferber, was the true product of his continuing endeavors and the most palpable proof of his failure. It had always been of the greatest importance to him, Ferber once remarked casually, that nothing should change at his place of work, that everything should remain as it was, as he had arranged it, and that nothing further should be added but the debris generated by painting and the dust that continuously fell and which, as he was coming to realize, he loved more than anything else in the world. He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness. —W. G. Sebald (trans. Michael Hulse), The Emigrants

Before my godfather and great-uncle Julio became dust, he was a troublemaking, cheating, charming man. When he was a teenager, he stole a closetful of my grandmother’s summer clothes, sold them, and spent the money on prostitutes. When I was three, he got into a gorilla suit and popped out at me, making me cry. Not long before he died, during our final game of Scrabble, he played the word enzapment and maintained that it was real. It’s like entrapment, he said, but with a zap. I acquiesced and tallied his fifty-plus points. When he died, his wife, Maria Cristina, had his body cremated and put into a basketball-size, biodegradable clamshell urn.

I’d be lying if I said casting his ashes was traumatic. The truth is, it was one of the most cathartic and satisfying experiences of my life. Read More »

The Mall Is Dead, Long Live the Mall, and Other News

April 4, 2014 | by

abandoned mall

Photo: Facebook, UrbanExplorationUS, via architecturalafterlife.com

 

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Unlikely Aphrodisiacs, and Other News

April 26, 2013 | by

Grand Tetons

  • “The girls adored him and crowded out the benches, lying on the boards at his feet as there was no room to sit. He got them excited and, it was said, your best chance of seducing one was the afternoon of a Lewis lecture on medieval romance, the subject of his most famous academic work, The Allegory of Love.” C. S. Lewis, unlikely wingman. 
  • Nude tree-climbing and fruit flies: peculiar practices of great writers.
  • George R. R. Martin unleashes his wrath on the New York Jets.
  • Don DeLillo has won the first Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.
  • Win a Žižek tote bag!
     
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    What We’re Loving: Captain Kentucky, John Henry, Plagues

    December 7, 2012 | by

    I picked up Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead when it was first reissued in 2010 but then had to put it aside. I began it again—and finished it—last week, and I’m so glad I did. The novel, originally published in England in 1954, concerns the Willoweed family and their reactions to an outbreak of madness and suicide in their small village. Its humor is by turns black and light, its characters morbid and delightful. An aberrant pastoral as smart as this one could only come from someone with a biography as nutty and wonderful as Comyns’s. A painter by training—she exhibited with the London Group—Comyns married and had two children. To support them, “she dealt in antiques and vintage cars, renovated apartments, and bred poodles. She later lived in Spain for eighteen years.” —Nicole Rudick

    Brain still humming with Elaine Blair’s brilliant essay on David Foster Wallace, I read his own long 1990 review of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, now reprinted in Both Flesh and Not. So much has been written about Infinite Jest, but for me these two essays together do the best job of describing what’s at stake in that novel—morally, philosophically, artistically. Among other things, Wallace reveals his debt to Stanley Cavell (a teacher whose influence he later played down) and his raw-nerved engagement with feminist criticism. At times, too, “The Empty Plenum” reads like a sort of preemptive rebuttal to Jonathan Franzen’s elegy in The New Yorker. Wallace may not have been the sage we wished for, but as Blair writes, he “worked a reverse-Promethean theft, taking our humble spoken idioms and delivering them to the gods.” —Lorin Stein

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