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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 »

Big, Bent Ears, Chapter 5: Alien Observers

June 4, 2015 | by

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Liz Harris of Grouper. Photo: Richard Rothman

The fifth chapter of “Big, Bent Ears,” Sam Stephenson and Ivan Weiss’s “Serial in Documentary Uncertainty,” features the work of Richard Rothman, a photographer whose work demonstrates “depth, dedication, and skill in evoking the enigmatic relationship between natural and built environments.” Around the time of the Big Ears Festival, Rothman spent weeks exploring Knoxville and the surrounding Smoky Mountains for twelve to fifteen hours a day; the results are astonishing. He also went to the festival itself, where he photographed Liz Harris, who performs as Grouper. He says of her performance:

It was as though she had placed a veil between herself and the audience, but one that only served to draw them in and give her a heightened level of attention. The lyrics she offered up were as illegible as tombstones polished by time and the elements. The words, or what could be made of them, seemed to be shrouded in shadows—just as she was—while filmy guitar loops decayed into richly modulated, shifting patterns that oscillated between the technological and the human.

Read the latest chapter here, and catch up on the rest of the series:

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review.

Big, Bent Ears, Chapter 4: In Search of Lost Time in Knoxville

May 13, 2015 | by

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Michael Gira and his band, Swans, sound check before their Big Ears set. From a video by Mika Chance

The fourth chapter of Big, Bent Ears, Sam Stephenson and Ivan Weiss’s “Serial in Documentary Uncertainty,” pulls back the curtain on the art of documentary, and on one facet of that art in particular: chaos. As Weiss tells it, their attempts to capture Knoxville’s Big Ears festival were impeded at nearly every turn: interview subjects went AWOL, keys failed to open doors, and a search for an errant projector cord culminated in a late blitz to Walmart. Fortunately, at the end of the week the Rock Fish Stew team had documented a lot of great musicians; that’s here, too, including footage of Swans, the Kronos Quartet, and Holly Herndon, among others.

Read the latest chapter here, and catch up on the rest of the series:

Dan Piepenbring is the web editor of The Paris Review

Vancouver in Neon, and Other News

May 14, 2014 | by

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Photo: Vancouver Public Library

  • “University presses don’t just publish books: they keep books in print and rescue out-of-print books from obscurity … But the digital age complicates and threatens the mission of the country’s approximately 100 university presses. Ellen Faran, who has an MBA from Harvard and is the director of MIT Press, recently told Harvard Magazine: ‘I like doing things that are impossible, and there’s nothing more impossible than university-press publishing.’”
  • Almost every book set in Africa seems to have the same cover art: “an acacia tree, an orange sunset over the veld, or both … the covers of most novels ‘about Africa’ seem to have been designed by someone whose principal idea of the continent comes from The Lion King.” (Plug: Norman Rush’s Whites, Mating, and Mortals, all set in Botswana and all excellent, have acacia-free covers.)
  • Why have we ceased to eat swans? “Often served at feasts, roast swan was a favored dish in the courts of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, particularly when skinned and redressed in its feathers and served with a yellow pepper sauce.”
  • Midcentury Vancouver “had the second-most neon signs per capita on the globe, after Shanghai … neon signs fell victim to a ‘visual purity crusade’ in the 1960s. Critics thought that the neon cheapened the look of the streets, and obscured Vancouver’s natural beauty. (‘We’re being led by the nose into a hideous jungle of signs,’ wrote a critic in the Vancouver Sun—a newspaper whose headquarters was prominently bedecked in neon—in 1966. ‘They’re outsized, outlandish, and outrageous.’)”
  • Remembering the artist Richard Hamilton: “One evening, Hamilton told me he had developed a method for photographing the toaster prints, so as not to interrupt the surface with his own reflection: he would move his tripod off to one side to take the picture, later returning each image to its original orientation using Photoshop. Today, when I think of Hamilton, I think of that illusive process: the mirrored surface, the lens’s sidelong glance, the almost complete disappearance of the artist from the work—like a hotel lobby that someone has just walked out of.”

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