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Grain Vapor Ray

We have entered the Anthropocene era—a geological age of our own making, in which what we have understood to be nature is made by man. We need a new way to understand the dynamics of a new epoch. These volumes offer writings that approach the Anthropocene through the perspectives of grain, vapor, and ray—the particulate, the volatile, and the radiant. The first three volumes—each devoted to one of the three textures—offer a series of paired texts, with contemporary writers responding to historic writings. A fourth volume offers a guide to the project as a whole.

Grain: Granular materials add up to concrete forms; insignificant specks accumulate into complex entities. The texts in this volume narrate some of the fundamental qualities of the granular. In one pairing of texts, Robert Smithson compares the accumulation of thoughts to the aggregation of sediment, and an environmental historian writes about the stakes for earthly knowledge today. Other authors include Alfred Russel Wallace, Denis Diderot, and Georges Bataille.

Vapor: The vaporous represents matter’s transformations. In this volume, a political scientist compares Kafka’s haunting “Odradek” to “vibrant matter”; a media theorist responds to poems and diagrams by Buckminster Fuller; and more, including texts by Hippocrates, Italo Calvino, and James Clerk Maxwell.

Ray: A ray is an act of propagation and diffusion, encompassing a chain of interdependencies between energy and matter. This volume includes texts by Spinoza (with a reconceptualization by a contemporary philosopher), Jacques Lacan (followed by an anthropologist’s reflections on temporality), Thomas Pynchon (accompanied by an interpretation of Pynchon’s “electro-mysticism”), and others.

These volumes constitute a unique experiment in design and composition as well as content. The mingling of texts and the juxtaposition of different areas of knowledge represented in a variety of forms express the dynamics of a world in change.

The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben has always been an original reader of texts, understanding their many rich historical, aesthetic, and political meanings and effects. In Profanations, Agamben has assembled for the first time some of his most pivotal essays on photography, the novel, and film. A meditation on memory and oblivion, on what is lost and what remains, Profanations proves yet again that Agamben is one of the most provocative writers of our time. In ten essays, Agamben ponders a series of literary and philosophical problems: the relation among genius, ego, and theories of subjectivity; the problem of messianic time as explicated in both images and lived experience; parody as a literary paradigm; and the potential of magic to provide an ethical canon.

The range of topics and themes addressed here attest to the creativity of Agamben’s singular mode of thought and his persistent concern with the act of witnessing, sometimes futile, sometimes earth-shattering. “In Praise of Profanity,” the central essay of this short but dense book, confronts the question of profanity as the crucial political task of the moment. An act of resistance to every form of separation, the concept of profanation reorients perceptions of how power, consumption, and use interweave to produce an urgent political modality and desire: to profane the unprofanable. Agamben not only provides a new and potent theoretical model but describes it with a writerly style that itself forges inescapable links among literature, politics, and philosophy.

Neoliberalism's Stealth Revolution

Neoliberal rationality—ubiquitous today in statecraft and the workplace, in jurisprudence, education, and culture—remakes everything and everyone in the image of homo oeconomicus. What happens when this rationality transposes the constituent elements of democracy into an economic register? In Undoing the Demos, Wendy Brown explains how democracy itself is imperiled. The demos disintegrates into bits of human capital; concerns with justice bow to the mandates of growth rates, credit ratings, and investment climates; liberty submits to the imperative of human capital appreciation; equality dissolves into market competition; and popular sovereignty grows incoherent. Liberal democratic practices may not survive these transformations. Radical democratic dreams may not either.

In an original and compelling argument, Brown explains how and why neoliberal reason undoes the political form and political imaginary it falsely promises to secure and reinvigorate. Through meticulous analyses of neoliberalized law, political practices, governance, and education, she charts the new common sense. Undoing the Demos makes clear that for democracy to have a future, it must become an object of struggle and rethinking.

The Neuroscience of Aesthetic Experience

In Feeling Beauty, G. Gabrielle Starr argues that understanding the neural underpinnings of aesthetic experience can reshape our conceptions of aesthetics and the arts. Drawing on the tools of both cognitive neuroscience and traditional humanist inquiry, Starr shows that neuroaesthetics offers a new model for understanding the dynamic and changing features of aesthetic life, the relationships among the arts, and how individual differences in aesthetic judgment shape the varieties of aesthetic experience.

Starr, a scholar of the humanities and a researcher in the neuroscience of aesthetics, proposes that aesthetic experience relies on a distributed neural architecture—a set of brain areas involved in emotion, perception, imagery, memory, and language. More important, it emerges from networked interactions, intricately connected and coordinated brain systems that together form a flexible architecture enabling us to develop new arts and to see the world around us differently. Focusing on the "sister arts" of poetry, painting, and music, Starr builds and tests a neural model of aesthetic experience valid across all the arts. Asking why works that address different senses using different means seem to produce the same set of feelings, she examines particular works of art in a range of media, including a poem by Keats, a painting by van Gogh, a sculpture by Bernini, and Beethoven's Diabelli Variations. Starr's innovative, interdisciplinary analysis is true to the complexities of both the physical instantiation of aesthetics and the realities of artistic representation.

The mechanized assembly line was invented in 1913 and has been in continuous operation ever since. It is the most familiar form of mass production. Both praised as a boon to workers and condemned for exploiting them, it has been celebrated and satirized. (We can still picture Chaplin’s little tramp trying to keep up with a factory conveyor belt.) In America’s Assembly Line, David Nye examines the industrial innovation that made the United States productive and wealthy in the twentieth century.

The assembly line—developed at the Ford Motor Company in 1913 for the mass production of Model Ts—first created and then served an expanding mass market. It also transformed industrial labor. By 1980, Japan had reinvented the assembly line as a system of “lean manufacturing”; American industry reluctantly adopted the new approach. Nye describes this evolution and the new global landscape of increasingly automated factories, with fewer industrial jobs in America and questionable working conditions in developing countries. A century after Ford’s pioneering innovation, the assembly line continues to evolve toward more sustainable manufacturing.

A Useless Guide

Of all the French cultural exports over the last 150 years or so, ‘pataphysics--the science of imaginary solutions and the laws governing exceptions--has proven to be one of the most durable. Originating in the wild imagination of French poet and playwright Alfred Jarry and his schoolmates, resisting clear definition, purposefully useless, and almost impossible to understand, ‘pataphysics nevertheless lies around the roots of Absurdism, Dada, futurism, surrealism, situationism, and other key cultural developments of the twentieth century. In this account of the evolution and influence of ‘pataphysics, Andrew Hugill offers an informed exposition of a rich and difficult territory, staying aloft on a tightrope stretched between the twin dangers of oversimplifying a serious subject and taking a joke too seriously.

Drawing on more than twenty-five years’ research, Hugill maps the ‘pataphysical presence (partly conscious and acknowledged but largely unconscious and unacknowledged) in literature, theater, music, the visual arts, and the culture at large, and even detects ‘pataphysical influence in the social sciences and the sciences. He offers many substantial excerpts (in English translation) from primary sources, intercalated with a thorough explication of key themes and events of ‘pataphysical history. In a Jarryesque touch, he provides these in reverse chronological order, beginning with a survey of ‘pataphysics in the digital age and working backward to Jarry and beyond. He looks specifically at the work of Jean Baudrillard, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino, J. G. Ballard, Asger Jorn, Gilles Deleuze, Roger Shattuck, Jacques Prévert, Antonin Artaud, René Clair, the Marx Brothers, Joan Miró, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, Raymond Roussel, Jean-Pierre Brisset, and many others.

Sylvie wanted to believe that misery could simply be replaced with happiness. Time was a straight line, stretching out before you. If you could create a golden kind of time and lay it right beside the other time, the time of horror, Bad History could just recede into the distance without ever having to be resolved.
—from Torpor

Set at the dawn of the New World Order, Chris Kraus’s third novel, Torpor loops back to the beginning of the decade that was the basis of I Love Dick, her pseudo-confessional cult-classic debut. It’s summer, 1991, post-MTV, pre-AOL. Jerome Shafir and Sylvie Green, two former New Yorkers who can no longer afford an East Village apartment, set off on a journey across the entire former Soviet Bloc with the specious aim of adopting a Romanian orphan. Nirvana’s on the radio everywhere, and wars are erupting across Yugoslavia.

Unhappily married to Jerome, a 53-year-old Columbia University professor who loathes academe, Sylvie thinks only of happiness. There are only two things, Sylvie thinks, that will save them: a child of their own, and the success of The Anthropology of Unhappiness, her husband’s long-postponed book on the Holocaust. But as they move forward toward impoverished Romania, Jerome’s memories of his father’s extermination at Auschwitz and his own childhood survival impede them. Savagely ironic and deeply lyrical, Torpor is Kraus’s most personal novel to date.

The Rehumanization of Art and Literature

The human figure made a spectacular return in visual art and literature in the 1920s. Following modernism’s withdrawal, nonobjective painting gave way to realistic depictions of the body and experimental literary techniques were abandoned for novels with powerfully individuated characters. But the celebrated return of the human in the interwar years was not as straightforward as it may seem. In Realism after Modernism, Devin Fore challenges the widely accepted view that this period represented a return to traditional realist representation and its humanist postulates. Interwar realism, he argues, did not reinstate its nineteenth-century predecessor but invoked realism as a strategy of mimicry that anticipates postmodernist pastiche.

Through close readings of a series of works by German artists and writers of the period, Fore investigates five artistic devices that were central to interwar realism. He analyzes Bauhaus polymath László Moholy-Nagy’s use of linear perspective; three industrial novels riven by the conflict between the temporality of capital and that of labor; Brecht’s socialist realist plays, which explore new dramaturgical principles for depicting a collective subject; a memoir by Carl Einstein that oscillates between recollection and self-erasure; and the idiom of physiognomy in the photomontages of John Heartfield.

Fore’s readings reveal that each of these “rehumanized” works in fact calls into question the very categories of the human upon which realist figuration is based. Paradoxically, even as the human seemed to make a triumphal return in the culture of the interwar period, the definition of the human and the integrity of the body were becoming more tenuous than ever before. Interwar realism did not hearken back to earlier artistic modes but posited new and unfamiliar syntaxes of aesthetic encounter, revealing the emergence of a human subject quite unlike anything that had come before.

Work and the Burden of Risk in Innovative Industries

In the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, employees of Internet startups took risks--left well-paying jobs for the chance of striking it rich through stock options (only to end up unemployed a year later), relocated to areas that were epicenters of a booming industry (that shortly went bust), chose the opportunity to be creative over the stability of a set schedule. In Venture Labor, Gina Neff investigates choices like these made by high-tech workers in New York City’s “Silicon Alley” in the 1990s. Why did these workers exhibit entrepreneurial behavior in their jobs--investing time, energy, and other personal resources that Neff terms “venture labor”--when they themselves were employees and not entrepreneurs?

Neff argues that this behavior was part of a broader shift in society in which economic risk shifted away from collective responsibility toward individual responsibility. In the new economy, risk and reward took the place of job loyalty, and the dot-com boom helped glorify risks. Company flexibility was gained at the expense of employee security. Through extensive interviews, Neff finds not the triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit but a mixture of motivations and strategies, informed variously by bravado, naïveté, and cold calculation. She connects these individual choices with larger social and economic structures, making it clear that understanding venture labor is of paramount importance for encouraging innovation and, even more important, for creating sustainable work environments that support workers.

An Introduction to Neuroanthropology

The brain and the nervous system are our most cultural organs. Our nervous system is especially immature at birth, our brain disproportionately small in relation to its adult size and open to cultural sculpting at multiple levels. Recognizing this, the new field of neuroanthropology places the brain at the center of discussions about human nature and culture. Anthropology offers brain science more robust accounts of enculturation to explain observable difference in brain function; neuroscience offers anthropology evidence of neuroplasticity's role in social and cultural dynamics. This book provides a foundational text for neuroanthropology, offering basic concepts and case studies at the intersection of brain and culture.

After an overview of the field and background information on recent research in biology, a series of case studies demonstrate neuroanthropology in practice. Contributors first focus on capabilities and skills—including memory in medical practice, skill acquisition in martial arts, and the role of humor in coping with breast cancer treatment and recovery—then report on problems and pathologies that range from post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans to smoking as a part of college social life.

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