In a review of Notes On The Death Of Culture, Anne Haverty writes: We may not be living in the worst of times, although a case might very well be made for it, but anyone with a thought in their head would be entitled to say that we’re living in the stupidest. Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, certainly believes we are. In this series of coruscating and passionate essays on the state of culture he argues that we have, en masse, capitulated to idiocy. And it is leading us to melancholy and despair.
This is a book of mourning. What Vargas Llosa writes is a lament for how things used to be and how they are now in all aspects of life from the political to the spiritual. Like TS Eliot in his essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, written in 1948, he takes the concept of culture in the general sense as a shared sensibility, a way of life.
Eliot too saw culture decaying around him and foresaw a time in which there would be no culture. This time, Vargas Llosa argues, is ours. Eliot has since been under attack for what his critics often describe as his elitist attitudes – as well as much else – and Vargas Llosa will probably also be tarred with the same brush for his pains.
But we must be grateful to him for describing in a relatively orderly manner the chaos of hypocrisy and emptiness into which our globalised culture has plunged and to which we seem to have little option but to subscribe.
It’s not easy, however, to be orderly on such an all-encompassing and sensitive subject as the way we live now. On some aspects, such as the art business, Vargas Llosa practically foams at the mouth. The art world is “rotten to the core”, a world in which artists cynically contrive “cheap stunts”. Stars like Damien Hirst are purveyors of “con-tricks”, and their “boring, farcical and bleak” productions are aided by “half-witted critics”.
We have abandoned the former minority culture, which was truth-seeking, profound, quiet and subtle, in favour of mainstream or mass entertainment, which has to be accessible – and how brave if foolhardy of anyone these days to cast aspersions on accessibility – as well as sensation-loving and frivolous.
Value-free, this kind of culture is essentially valueless. [Continue reading…]
Dan Kahan writes: It’s well established that there is no meaningful correlation between what a person says he or she “believes” about evolution and having the rudimentary understanding of natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance necessary to pass a high school biology exam (Bishop & Anderson 1990; Shtulman 2006).
There is a correlation between “belief” in evolution and possession of the kinds of substantive knowledge and reasoning skills essential to science comprehension generally.
But what the correlation is depends on religiosity: a relatively nonreligious person is more likely to say he or she “believes in” evolution, but a relatively religious person less likely to do so, as their science comprehension capacity goes up (Kahan 2015).
That’s what “belief in” evolution of the sort measured in a survey item signifies: who one is, not what one knows.
Americans don’t disagree about evolution because they have different understandings of or commitments to science. They disagree because they subscribe to competing cultural worldviews that invest positions on evolution with identity-expressive significance. [Continue reading…]
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write: Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law — or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia — and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Two terms have risen quickly from obscurity into common campus parlance. Microaggressions are small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless. For example, by some campus guidelines, it is a microaggression to ask an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” because this implies that he or she is not a real American. Trigger warnings are alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response. For example, some students have called for warnings that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart describes racial violence and that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby portrays misogyny and physical abuse, so that students who have been previously victimized by racism or domestic violence can choose to avoid these works, which they believe might “trigger” a recurrence of past trauma.
Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.” But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.” [Continue reading…]
Barbara J. King writes: The idea that our oceans teem with cultural animals — and have for millions of years — is the central conclusion of a new book by two whale scientists. And it’s a convincing one.
Whales and dolphins, as they forage for food and interact with each other in their social units, may learn specific ways of doing things from their mothers or their pod-mates.
Certain killer whales (orcas), for example, learn to hunt communally with such precision that they cause waves to wash seals — of only certain species, because other seals are rejected as prey — off their ice floes and into the sea. And the complex patterned songs of humpback whales evolve so quickly over time and space that only learning can explain it.
“The song being sung at any location can change dramatically into an entirely new form, with new units, new phrases, and new themes within less than a year,” write authors Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell in their book The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins. “A revolution, rather than an evolution.”
The two scientists, who have been studying sperm whales for a collective half century, offer this working definition of culture: Behavior that is shared by some identifiable group such as a family, community or population, and that is acquired by learning from others.
In order for culture to be ruled in as the primary explanation for some behavior, then, genetics and features of the habitat in which the marine mammals live should be ruled out. [Continue reading…]
Matthew Battles writes: In ancient Greece, writing arose among traders and artisans doing business in the markets with foreigners and visitors from other cities. Their alphabet emerged not in scribal colleges or the king’s halls, nor was it brought by conquerors, but instead came ashore in the freewheeling, acquisitive, materialistic atmosphere of the agora, the Greek marketplace that also birthed democracy and the public sphere.
The Phoenician letters, transformed by Greeks into the alphabet, share an origin with the Hebrew characters. They crossed the Aegean Sea with trade that flourished between the Greek peninsula and the Canaanite mainland in the ninth century BC. The first alphabetic inscriptions in Greek appear on goods—keepsake vases, containers for oil and olives. The likely earliest such inscription extant, the “Dipylon inscription,” is on a wine jug; it reads something like this: “Whichever dancer dances most fleetly, he shall get me [this vessel]” — a trophy cup. The so-called Cup of Nestor, a clay vessel dating from the eighth century BC, bears an inscription that begins “Nestor’s cup am I, good to drink from.” For the next couple of centuries, Greek letters are used mostly to inscribe dedications — indexing acquisition and ownership in a society where property was the basis of participation in the lettered public sphere.
This was a society of freeborn traders and artisans, a culture that prized beauty, expressiveness, and originality — the perfect environment for the kind of flourishing public space writing seems everywhere to wish to build. And yet the magisterium of writing grows slowly in ancient Greece. Centuries pass before the first texts appear. [Continue reading…]
Bloomberg reports: The Whatsapp message appeared on his iPhone: photos of an ancient Mesopotamian vase worth $250,000, part of a highly-valued set that is waiting to be extracted.
The recipient, Amr Al Azm, replied that he was interested. How to proceed? A message from a different account followed. The vase could be smuggled through Lebanon.
Al Azm, an anthropology professor in Ohio, was faking it, as he does when photos of looted antiquities are sent to him in the belief that he is a collector or dealer. He is a detective – – self-appointed — hoping to save some of mankind’s rarest and most vulnerable artifacts by tracking the burgeoning antiquities trade of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. [Continue reading…]
Sebastian Junger writes: In two American studies of middle-class families during the 1980s, 85 percent of young children slept alone — a figure that rose to 95 percent among families considered “well-educated.” Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to trigger fears that make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.
More broadly, in most human societies, almost nobody sleeps alone. Sleeping in family groups of one sort or another has been the norm throughout human history and is still commonplace in most of the world. Again, Northern European societies are among the few where people sleep alone or with a partner in a private room. When I was with American soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, we slept in narrow plywood huts where I could reach out and touch three other men from where I slept. They snored, they talked, they got up in the middle of the night to use the piss tubes, but we felt safe because we were in a group. The Taliban attacked the position regularly, and the most determined attacks often came at dawn. Another unit in a nearby valley was almost overrun and took 50 percent casualties in just such an attack. And yet I slept better surrounded by those noisy, snoring men than I ever did camping alone in the woods of New England.
Many soldiers will tell you that one of the hardest things about coming home is learning to sleep without the security of a group of heavily armed men around them. In that sense, being in a war zone with your platoon feels safer than being in an American suburb by yourself. I know a vet who felt so threatened at home that he would get up in the middle of the night to build fighting positions out of the living-room furniture. This is a radically different experience from what warriors in other societies go through, such as the Yanomami, of the Orinoco and Amazon Basins, who go to war with their entire age cohort and return to face, together, whatever the psychological consequences may be. As one anthropologist pointed out to me, trauma is usually a group experience, so trauma recovery should be a group experience as well. But in our society it’s not.
“Our whole approach to mental health has been hijacked by pharmaceutical logic,” I was told by Gary Barker, an anthropologist whose group, Promundo, is dedicated to understanding and preventing violence. “PTSD is a crisis of connection and disruption, not an illness that you carry within you.”
This individualizing of mental health is not just an American problem, or a veteran problem; it affects everybody. A British anthropologist named Bill West told me that the extreme poverty of the 1930s and the collective trauma of the Blitz served to unify an entire generation of English people. “I link the experience of the Blitz to voting in the Labour Party in 1945, and the establishing of the National Health Service and a strong welfare state,” he said. “Those policies were supported well into the 60s by all political parties. That kind of cultural cohesiveness, along with Christianity, was very helpful after the war. It’s an open question whether people’s problems are located in the individual. If enough people in society are sick, you have to wonder whether it isn’t actually society that’s sick.”
Ideally, we would compare hunter-gatherer society to post-industrial society to see which one copes better with PTSD. When the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters returned to their camps after annihilating Custer and his regiment at Little Bighorn, for example, were they traumatized and alienated by the experience — or did they fit right back into society? There is no way to know for sure, but less direct comparisons can still illuminate how cohesiveness affects trauma. In experiments with lab rats, for example, a subject that is traumatized — but not injured — after an attack by a larger rat usually recovers within 48 hours unless it is kept in isolation, according to data published in 2005 in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews. The ones that are kept apart from other rats are the only ones that develop long-term traumatic symptoms. And a study of risk factors for PTSD in humans closely mirrored those results. In a 2000 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, “lack of social support” was found to be around two times more reliable at predicting who got PTSD and who didn’t than the severity of the trauma itself. You could be mildly traumatized, in other words—on a par with, say, an ordinary rear-base deployment to Afghanistan — and experience long-term PTSD simply because of a lack of social support back home.
Anthropologist and psychiatrist Brandon Kohrt found a similar phenomenon in the villages of southern Nepal, where a civil war has been rumbling for years. Kohrt explained to me that there are two kinds of villages there: exclusively Hindu ones, which are extremely stratified, and mixed Buddhist/Hindu ones, which are far more open and cohesive. He said that child soldiers, both male and female, who go back to Hindu villages can remain traumatized for years, while those from mixed-religion villages tended to recover very quickly. “PTSD is a disorder of recovery, and if treatment only focuses on identifying symptoms, it pathologizes and alienates vets,” according to Kohrt. “But if the focus is on family and community, it puts them in a situation of collective healing.” [Continue reading…]
Carl Zimmer writes: For centuries, archaeologists have reconstructed the early history of Europe by digging up ancient settlements and examining the items that their inhabitants left behind. More recently, researchers have been scrutinizing something even more revealing than pots, chariots and swords: DNA.
On Wednesday in the journal Nature, two teams of scientists — one based at the University of Copenhagen and one based at Harvard University — presented the largest studies to date of ancient European DNA, extracted from 170 skeletons found in countries from Spain to Russia. Both studies indicate that today’s Europeans descend from three groups who moved into Europe at different stages of history.
The first were hunter-gatherers who arrived some 45,000 years ago in Europe. Then came farmers who arrived from the Near East about 8,000 years ago.
Finally, a group of nomadic sheepherders from western Russia called the Yamnaya arrived about 4,500 years ago. The authors of the new studies also suggest that the Yamnaya language may have given rise to many of the languages spoken in Europe today. [Continue reading…]
Akbar Ahmed writes: One of the right-wing tropes about Islam in Europe, which is making alarming inroads into the mainstream, is that it represents a “culture of backwardness, of retardedness, of barbarism” and has made no contribution to Western civilization. Islam provides an easy target considering that some 3,000 or more Europeans are estimated to have left for the Middle East in order to fight alongside the Islamic State. The savage beheadings and disgusting treatment of women and minorities confirm in the minds of many that Islam is incompatible with Western civilization. This has become a widely known, and even unthinkingly accepted, proposition. But is it correct?
Let us look at European history for answers. At least 10 things will surprise you: [Continue reading…]
Gideon Lewis-Kraus writes: One Enlightenment aspiration that the science-fiction industry has long taken for granted, as a necessary intergalactic conceit, is the universal translator. In a 1967 episode of “Star Trek,” Mr. Spock assembles such a device from spare parts lying around the ship. An elongated chrome cylinder with blinking red-and-green indicator lights, it resembles a retracted light saber; Captain Kirk explains how it works with an off-the-cuff disquisition on the principles of Chomsky’s “universal grammar,” and they walk outside to the desert-island planet of Gamma Canaris N, where they’re being held hostage by an alien. The alien, whom they call The Companion, materializes as a fraction of sparkling cloud. It looks like an orange Christmas tree made of vaporized mortadella. Kirk grips the translator and addresses their kidnapper in a slow, patronizing, put-down-the-gun tone. The all-powerful Companion is astonished.
“My thoughts,” she says with some confusion, “you can hear them.”
The exchange emphasizes the utopian ambition that has long motivated universal translation. The Companion might be an ion fog with coruscating globules of viscera, a cluster of chunky meat-parts suspended in aspic, but once Kirk has established communication, the first thing he does is teach her to understand love. It is a dream that harks back to Genesis, of a common tongue that perfectly maps thought to world. In Scripture, this allowed for a humanity so well coordinated, so alike in its understanding, that all the world’s subcontractors could agree on a time to build a tower to the heavens. Since Babel, though, even the smallest construction projects are plagued by terrible delays. [Continue reading…]
Andrew Simms writes: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality,” wrote Bertolt Brecht, ”but a hammer with which to shape it.” His view was clearly shared by the judges of Anglian Ruskin University’s recent sustainable art prize. The winning piece was a large tombstone themed on climate change, blackened by oil and carrying the words “Lest we forget those who denied.”
The fact that there were also the names of six prominent climate sceptics on the tombstone led the Telegraph newspaper to denounce it as “tasteless” and “obnoxious”, and for one of those named, Christopher Monckton, to claim the artwork constituted a death threat.
From Goya, who darkly interpreted the horrors of Europe at war, to the romantics who conjured the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution, art has always explored and assimilated the experience of upheaval. More than that, from Milton’s pamphleteering, to the British artists and writers who fought in the Spanish civil war against Franco’s fascism, art has put itself at the service of explicitly political campaigns throughout history.
It is only odd, perhaps, that it has taken climate change so long to become a significant and controversial theme for the arts. The relative absence from daily political and cultural life of something as fundamental as a threat to a climate stable for humanity, has been weird. There will always be those who argue that didactic art is bad art. But equally, art that doesn’t notice, or remains unaffected by, epochal shifts in the world it inhabits, is variously asleep, suffocatingly self-absorbed or simply not looking.
If anything, the willingness to accept high-profile sponsorship from fossil fuel companies suggests that the art establishment has been worse than indifferent, and actively obstructive to the challenge of tackling climate upheaval. The social licence to operate, and normalisation that such cultural relationships gift to oil companies, can dissipate the urgency for action and sponsorship can seek to directly influence the climate debate.
That is all now changing. [Continue reading…]
Rick Paulas writes: Comedian Eddie Pepitone once said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that there are no great neighborhoods in Los Angeles, only great blocks. The stretch of Echo Park on Sunset Boulevard between Glendale and Logan is one. The establishments on that short stretch include an upscale wine bar, a hipster concert venue, a vegan restaurant, a deep dish pizza place, cheap thrift stores, not-so-cheap “vintage” stores selling roughly the same stuff, a check-cashing joint, a few fast food chains, and even a supermarket for time travelers.
While it’s not the most diverse cross-section you’ll find in the city, the block can be used as a social barometer when brought up in conversations. Mention the stretch, and whatever landmark the other person’s familiar with tells the tale of the socioeconomic sphere they inhabit; the landmark that puts a gleam of recognition in the other person’s eye says everything about their story.
Blocks and neighborhoods aren’t concrete concepts that mean the same thing to everyone, unlike, say, things like “apple” or “sky.” Points of reference shift depending on the person that’s using that reference, so blocks/neighborhoods are more like alternate realities laid atop one another, like plastic sheets on an overhead projector. There’s even a phrase for the study of this murky concept: mental maps. They can help us understand why some neighborhoods thrive, others die, and how changes are made.
The theory of mental (or cognitive) maps was first developed in 1960 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kevin Lynch in his book The Image of the City. Rather than relying on how cartographers saw a city, Lynch asked residents to draw a map, from memory, depicting how their city was arranged. He found that five elements compose a person’s understanding of where they are: landmarks, paths, edges, districts, and nodes. Landmarks are reference points, paths connect them, edges mark boundaries, and the other elements define larger areas that contain some combination of each of those designations.
Neuroscience backs up Lynch’s findings. In 1971, Jon O’Keefe discovered “place cells” in the hippocampus, neurons that activate when an animal enters an environment. The neurons calculate a current location based on what the animal can see, as well as through “dead reckoning” — that is, accounting based on subconscious calculations using previous positions in the recent past and how quickly it traveled over a stretch of time. In 2005, husband-and-wife team Edvard and May-Britt Moser discovered “grid cells,” neurons that fire in a grid-like pattern to measure distances and direction. O’Keefe and the Mosers all won Nobel Prizes in 2014 for their discoveries. [Continue reading…]
Yuval Noah Harari writes: Over the last decade, I have been writing a history of humankind, tracking down the transformation of our species from an insignificant African ape into the master of the planet. It was not easy to understand what turned Homo sapiens into an ecological serial killer; why men dominated women in most human societies; or why capitalism became the most successful religion ever. It wasn’t easy to address such questions because scholars have offered so many different and conflicting answers. In contrast, when it came to assessing the bottom line – whether thousands of years of inventions and discoveries have made us happier – it was surprising to realise that scholars have neglected even to ask the question. This is the largest lacuna in our understanding of history.
Though few scholars have studied the long-term history of happiness, almost everybody has some idea about it. One common preconception – often termed “the Whig view of history” – sees history as the triumphal march of progress. Each passing millennium witnessed new discoveries: agriculture, the wheel, writing, print, steam engines, antibiotics. Humans generally use newly found powers to alleviate miseries and fulfil aspirations. It follows that the exponential growth in human power must have resulted in an exponential growth in happiness. Modern people are happier than medieval people, and medieval people were happier than stone age people.
But this progressive view is highly controversial. Though few would dispute the fact that human power has been growing since the dawn of history, it is far less clear that power correlates with happiness. The advent of agriculture, for example, increased the collective power of humankind by several orders of magnitude. Yet it did not necessarily improve the lot of the individual. For millions of years, human bodies and minds were adapted to running after gazelles, climbing trees to pick apples, and sniffing here and there in search of mushrooms. Peasant life, in contrast, included long hours of agricultural drudgery: ploughing, weeding, harvesting and carrying water buckets from the river. Such a lifestyle was harmful to human backs, knees and joints, and numbing to the human mind.
In return for all this hard work, peasants usually had a worse diet than hunter-gatherers, and suffered more from malnutrition and starvation. Their crowded settlements became hotbeds for new infectious diseases, most of which originated in domesticated farm animals. Agriculture also opened the way for social stratification, exploitation and possibly patriarchy. From the viewpoint of individual happiness, the “agricultural revolution” was, in the words of the scientist Jared Diamond, “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”.
The case of the agricultural revolution is not a single aberration, however. Themarch of progress from the first Sumerian city-states to the empires of Assyria and Babylonia was accompanied by a steady deterioration in the social status and economic freedom of women. The European Renaissance, for all its marvellous discoveries and inventions, benefited few people outside the circle of male elites. The spread of European empires fostered the exchange of technologies, ideas and products, yet this was hardly good news for millions of Native Americans, Africans and Aboriginal Australians.
The point need not be elaborated further. Scholars have thrashed the Whig view of history so thoroughly, that the only question left is: why do so many people still believe in it? [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Islamic State militants swept into the desert city of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday, and by evening were in control of it, residents and Syrian state news media said, a victory that gives them another strategically important prize five days after the group seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi.
Palmyra has extra resonance, with its grand complex of 2,000-year-old colonnades and tombs, one of the world’s most magnificent remnants of antiquity, as well as the grimmer modern landmark of Tadmur Prison, where Syrian dissidents have languished over the decades.
But for the fighters on the ground, the city of 50,000 people is significant because it sits among gas fields and astride a network of roads across the country’s central desert. Palmyra’s vast unexcavated antiquities could also provide significant revenue through illegal trafficking.
Control of Palmyra gives the Islamic State command of roads leading from its strongholds in eastern Syria to Damascus and the other major cities of the populated west, as well as new links to western Iraq, the other half of its self-declared caliphate.
The advance, in which residents described soldiers and the police fleeing, wounded civilians unable to reach hospitals and museum workers hurrying to pack up antiquities, comes even as the United States is scrambling to come up with a response to the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar Province.
The two successes, at opposite ends of a battlefield sprawling across two countries, showed the Islamic State’s ability to shake off setbacks and advance on multiple fronts, less than two months after it was driven from the Iraqi city of Tikrit — erasing any notion that the group had suffered a game-changing blow. [Continue reading…]
Prof Kevin Butcher writes: From modest beginnings in the 1st Century BC, Palmyra gradually rose to prominence under the aegis of Rome until, during the 3rd Century AD, the city’s rulers challenged Roman power and created an empire of their own that stretched from Turkey to Egypt.
The story of its Queen Zenobia, who fought against the Roman Emperor Aurelian, is well known; but it is less well-known that Palmyra also fought another empire: that of the Sasanian Persians.
In the middle of the third century, when the Sasanians invaded the Roman Empire and captured the Emperor Valerian, it was the Palmyrenes who defeated them and drove them back across the Euphrates.
For several decades Rome had to rely on Palmyrene power to prop up its declining influence in the east.
Palmyra was a great Middle Eastern achievement, and was unlike any other city of the Roman Empire.
It was quite unique, culturally and artistically. In other cities the landed elites normally controlled affairs, whereas in Palmyra a merchant class dominated the political life, and the Palmyrenes specialised in protecting merchant caravans crossing the desert. [Continue reading…]