From the monthly archives:

August 2016

Caricature and Kierkegaard

by John Holbo on August 10, 2016

I wrote a survey article on “Caricature and Comics” for The Routledge Companion To Comics. (I’m sorry to say that the volume is currently very overpriced, although I trust in a few years they will release a more modestly-priced paperpack version, and the Kindle version price shall descend from the heavens, where it dwells.) However, Routledge allows authors to self-archive, so I did. Abstract:

Caricature and comics are elastic categories. This essay treats caricature not as a type or aspect of comics but as a window through which we can view comics in relation to the broader European visual art tradition. Caricature is exaggeration. But all art exaggerates, insofar as it stylizes. Is all art caricature, since all has ‘style’? Ernst Gombrich’s classic Art and Illusion comes close to arguing so. This article conjoins critical reflections on Gombrich’s discussion of ‘the experiment of caricature’ with a survey of art historical paradigm cases. It makes sense for comics to emerge from this mix.

And this seems like a nice occasion to showcase the newest addition to my small, but growing set of philosophical caricatures. Soren Kierkegaard!

kierkegaard
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The lost world of Albert Kahn

by Chris Bertram on August 10, 2016

There’s nothing like a few unexpected days at home to allow you to discover new things, and the great find of the past few days — thanks to a tweet from Fernando Sdrigotti @f_sd — has been to watch (via Youtube, start [here](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vpijOSSlZCI) five programmes in all) some BBC documentaries about Albert Kahn and his Archives of the Planet, now preserved at the [Musée Albert Kahn](http://albert-kahn.hauts-de-seine.fr/) outside Paris. Born in Alsace, Kahn was displaced by the Prussian seizure of the territory in 1871 and became immensely rich though banking and investing in diamonds. But he was also an idealist, convinced that if the various tribes of humanity only knew one another better they would empathize more and would be less likely to go to war. In pursuit of this hope, and taking advantage of the Lumière Brothers’ [Autochrome](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autochrome_Lumi%C3%A8re) colour process, he sent teams of photographers to all parts of the globe and, before the First World War, caught many forms of life on the edge of being swept away by globalisation, war and revolution. (There’s quite a good selection [here](http://www.afar.com/magazine/a-trip-through-time) but google away.) Pictures taken around the Balkans, for example, depict the immense variety of different cultures living side-by-side at the time and then later we see the sad stream of refugees from the second Balkan War as they head from Salonika towards Turkey. Kahn’s operative document rural life in Galway, harsh penal regimes in Mongolia, elite life in Japan and a tranquil Rio de Janeiro with little traffic and few people.

Kahn’s hope for a peaceful world was lost in 1914, but we owe to his project many images of wartime France, particularly the life of ordinary people behind the lines. Postwar, Kahn was a great supporter of the League of Nations and, again, his operatives were on hand to document many of the upheavals of the inter-war years, such as the burning of Smyrna in 1922 (as Izmir, the city is once again crowded with refugees today) and the abortive attempt to found the Rhenish Republic in 1923. Many of the photographs are included in a book by David Okuefuna, *The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age* (BBC Books, 2008). Sadly, Kahn was ruined by the Great Depression and died in Paris shorly after the Germans invaded in 1940. He seems little-known today, but there’s a lot of material out there that’s worth your time.

Nauru, Australia’s shame

by Chris Bertram on August 10, 2016

The Guardian today [publishes a vast number of leaked reports from Nauru](https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/aug/10/the-nauru-files-2000-leaked-reports-reveal-scale-of-abuse-of-children-in-australian-offshore-detention), one of Australia’s offshore processing sites for asylum-seekers (in reality, a camp for the indefinite detention of asylum-seekers). The reports, or “unconfirmed allegations” as the Australian government would have it, are a harrowing catalogue of physical and sexual abuse, and of consequences for mental and bodily well-being, often suffered by children. These places exist to appease an Australian citizenry hostile to the arrival of “boat people” who believe that such people — even those determined to be refugees by Convention criteria — are not their problem. Though Nauru is a particularly vile example, it would be wrong to think that Australians are alone in their attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers. Other Western governments are happy to do deals with other states beyond their borders to ensure that the wretched of the earth are out of sight, where they can exist as an abstraction, not disturbing the conscience of their own citizens. Human rights, together with other liberal principles like the rule of law, have become, for many liberal democratic states, the exclusive right of the native-born citizen or, at best, someone else’s problem, somewhere else.

I’d be interested to learn from people in Australia now, how much traction this latest leak is getting in the Australian media. A surf to the websites of the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald suggests not much.

Last night, I had a bout of insomnia. So I picked up the latest issue of Vanity Fair, and after reading a rather desultory piece by Robert Gottlieb on his experiences editing Lauren Bacall (who I’m distantly related to), Irene Selznick, and Katharine Hepburn (boy, did he not like Hepburn!), I settled down with a long piece by Sam Tanenhaus on William Styron and his Confessions of Nat Turner.

A confession of my own first: I read Confessions sometime in graduate school. I loved it. Probably my favorite work by Styron, much more so than Sophie’s Choice or even Darkness Visible. I say “confession” because it’s a book that has had an enormously controversial afterlife, which Tanenhaus discusses with great sensitivity, even poignancy.

Anyway, I recommend Tanenhaus’s article for a variety of reasons: great narrative pace, with that perfect balance of distance and engagement; it blows hot and cold exactly where and when you need it to; and it moves with an almost symphonic sense of time, back and forth across the decades and centuries.

But here are three things I wanted to comment on. [click to continue…]

My old poker buddy Eric Schwitzgebel has, for some time, been soliciting Top-10 lists from folks who teach SF and philosophy. So I finally got around to contributing. Tell me I’m wrong!

Eric has busted into sf authorship himself since our grad school days. Here’s one of his in Clarkesworld, “Fishdance”. “The two most addictive ideas in history, religion and video-gaming, would finally become one.” It’s good!

One thing I’m going to talk about this semester is the domestication of experience machines. In genre terms, The Matrix is a bit played out. Inception. Been there, done that. Can we agree about that? Also, video games just get normaler and normaler. Yesterday I looked around on the train and I was, literally, the only person NOT playing “Pokemon Go”. True story! It felt a bit weird. They were all off together in an alternate version of the city. I was alone in the real one, with only my headphones and music to keep me warm – like some savage. There are two obvious ways to make virtual life, as an alternative to real life, appealing: make the world really messed up. Make the virtual world nice. Maybe the people behind the scenes don’t need to be Agent Smith-style jerks. The first film to play it this way, in a nice way, is Avalon. But no one saw it. Good film. More recently you get the likes of Ready Player One and Off To Be The Wizard, in which players of games – and games within games, and games within games within games – are increasingly comfortable with the whole biz. Not that there’s no lingering anxiety about the appropriateness of this life strategy! I like to think that one of my all time faves, The Glass Bead Game, is an honored ancestor. Homo Ludens. What’s Latin for ‘man, the player of virtual reality games’?

Of course, I think of myself as more of a cartoonist than an sf author. Since I’m on the subject, here are a couple graphics I whipped up for my module last time, which amused me – although I did it all fast-and-sketchy. I’d really like to remake them carefully, in a Norman Saunders-y style.

The idea is to make fake pulp covers for classic scientific and philosophical thought-experiments. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: hospital

by Chris Bertram on August 7, 2016

Outside the Children's Hospital

This week’s picture is quite an old one, of the sculpture outside the then-new Bristol Children’s Hospital which is directly adjacent to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where I spent a good past of the last week following an acute gallstone attack (with associated pancreatitis) last weekend. On the Thursday I had my gall bladder removed (which turned out to be slightly more complicated than anticipated) and by Friday I was home. I’m now resting and recuperating, but basically feeling fine. Some reflections on the experience below the fold.
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Book report

by John Quiggin on August 7, 2016

I’ve been getting lots of free books lately, and the implied contract is that I should write about at least some of them. So, here are my quick reactions to some books CT readers might find interesting. They are

The Great Leveler: Capitalism and Competition in the Court of Law by Brett Christophers

The Rise and Fall of American Growth:
The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War
by Robert J. Gordon

The Sharing Economy:The End of Employment and the Rise of Crowd-Based Capitalism by Arun Sundararajan

Econobabble: How to Decode Political Spin and Economic Nonsense by Richard Denniss

Generation Less: How Australia is Cheating the Young by Jennifer Rayner

I’ll be on a panel discussing the last two of these at the Brisbane Writers Festival, Sep 11-16.

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The Kith of the Elf-Folk – Unberufen?

by John Holbo on August 6, 2016

As I believe I have mentioned, I’m teaching Kierkegaard. K is an excellently – some say inordinately – literary-aesthetical sort of fellow, so we want to welcome that quality, when we invite him to come give a talk to our class. But there comes a stage in man’s life when he wearies of undergraduates writing yet another paper about Fight Club and/or The Matrix, or even “The Grand Inquisitor” from Dostoyevsky. More broadly, there is an academic convention – who knows when it got started? – of nudging the young into equating a work of philosophy to a work of literature/art, i.e. pretending the latter is likely to be, let alone was intended to be, a vehicle for the expression of the former. And so it turns out Hamlet was Shakespeare’s ham-handed attempt to write an essay on Freud, or what have you. These attempted equations invite minor (or major) fraud. (Not that I think this is a major social problem. Mostly it’s just silly and strained.) And for what? You can fit things to things without exaggerating the degree of fit. (Kierkegaard was a weirdo. What are the odds any literary figure, who wasn’t K, ever produced a Kierkegaardian work of literary fiction? Hell, even K had to pretend he wasn’t himself, half the time, to keep from falling into error about his author’s meaning.)

I’m thinking of assigning a few short works that are, to my eye, not Kierkegaardian. But one can make connections, draw lines. For example, Lord Dunsany’s “The Kith of the Elf-Folk”. Here we have spheres of existence, I guess you could say: aesthetic, religious – ethical? (Now we are pushing it.) And there is a nice question, twinkling in the author’s eye: which is higher? How could one be in a position to say? And there is an implied indictment of modern society (who could wish for less?) And there is a lyrical seriousness, yet ironic playfulness. So the question I’m going to ask the kids is: suppose you had to rewrite “The Kith of the Elf-Folk” to be a parable of Kierkegaard’s stages – which it plainly is not. What changes would you have to make? Defend your adaptive edits!

Or maybe that’s a really, really bad question that will produce bad results in my classroom.

But my question for you is a bit different. How great is this story? Pretty great, right? [click to continue…]

Second thoughts

by John Quiggin on August 5, 2016

In a recent post, I remarked on the fact that hardly any self-described climate sceptics had revised their views in response to the recent years of record-breaking global temperatures. Defending his fellow “sceptics”, commenter Cassander wrote

When’s the last time you changed your mind as a result of the evidence? It’s not something people do very often.

I’m tempted by the one-word response “Derp“. But the dangers of holding to a position regardless of the evidence are particularly severe for academics approaching emeritus age[1]. So, I gave the question a bit of thought.

Here are three issues on which I’ve changed my mind over different periods

* Central planning
* War and the use of violence in politics
* The best response to climate change
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More On Gaus’ The Tyranny of the Ideal

by John Holbo on August 4, 2016

Having posted about Gaus’ new book, let me link to Will Wilkinson’s review essay at Vox. Will is more enthused about the conclusions than I am, although I agree it’s a great read. I’ve been trying to work out my own thoughts in the same vicinity and, for post purposes, I’ll just sketch a thumbnail argument that seems to me the right Gaus-style indictment of Rawls, using a modified version of his mountain metaphor. [click to continue…]

It seems Gary Johnson/Bill Weld have been disappointing to conservatives and right-leaning libertarians (fusionists), looking for an alternative to Trump. For example, Ilya Shapiro, in “Is Johnson-Weld a Libertarian Ticket?”
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[UPDATE March 21, 2021]: Looking for the latest On Beyond Zarathustra? It’s here. I’m updating old posts with outdated links.

Home again, home again, jiggety-jig. Although jetlag is is the the more pressing concern.

Now I can get back to drawing Zarathustra! Which reminds me: a few pages went up a few days ago, yet I didn’t flog them here at CT. So: here! [click to continue…]

Trump’s Indecent Proposal

by Corey Robin on August 2, 2016

One of the most storied, Aaron Sorkin-esque moments in American history—making the rounds this weekend after Donald Trump’s indecent comment on Khizr Khan’s speech at the DNC—is Joseph Welch’s famous confrontation with Joe McCarthy. The date was June 9, 1954; the setting, the Army-McCarthy hearings.

It was then and there that Welch exploded:

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

People love this moment. It’s when the party of the good and the great finally stared down the forces of the bad and the worse, affirming that this country was in fact good, if not great, rather than bad, if not worse. Within six months, McCarthy would be censured by the Senate. Within three years, he’d be dead.

Citing the Welch precedent for the Trump case, Politico perfectly captures the conventional wisdom about the confrontation:

For the first time, the bully had been called out in public by someone with no skeletons in his proverbial closet, whose integrity was unquestionable, and whose motives were purely patriotic. The audience in the senate chamber burst into applause.

 

But there are two little known elements about this famous confrontation that call that fairy tale into question. [click to continue…]

Demography and irreligion, one year on

by John Quiggin on August 1, 2016

Almost exactly a year ago, I posted about a Pew study predicting that the proportion of the world population without a religious affiliation would decline sharply by 2050. The basic argument sounds plausible: an increase in the unaffiliated proportion of the population within countries will be more than offset by faster population growth in countries with higher rates of affiliation. But a closer look revealed a surprising prediction for the US, the projection that Christians would decline from 78.3 per cent of the US population in 2010 to 66.4 per cent in 2050 (emphasis added), while the unaffiliated would rise from 16 to 26 per cent. Given that more than 30 per cent of Millennials are already unaffiliated, that seemed like a surprisingly slow rate of change. However, judging by the comments threads, a lot of readers seemed to find the Pew projections fairly plausible.

A year on, Pew has undertaken a new survey focused on the US election. The headline results are for registered voters, but the results turn out to be the same as for the full sample. The big news: “The non-religious are now the country’s largest religious voting bloc, at 21 per cent of registered voters. The Christian groups reported by Pew add up to 66.7 per cent of the population (my calculation, and emphasis added). Other religions account for 11 per cent (according to the WP) leaving a small residual (maybe “declined to say”).

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