In late January of 2015, a tree stood wavering on the edge of Detroit’s burnt-out Grixdale neighborhood. A loud, old engine revved. A 100-foot rope tightened. A car strained forward. The tree followed, snapping and dropping into the overgrown yard of an abandoned house. A group of bearded men looked on from the front yard of a fire-ravaged structure across the street. Satisfaction and relief filled them as the final rays of sunlight scattered into the gray horizon. They had lost two ropes and a chainsaw in bringing down the tree, but they comforted themselves with the thought that the abandoned house and the surrounding telephone lines stood unharmed.
They were pretty far from Detroit’s refurbished downtown. Years ago, this neighborhood had succumbed to the rot brought on by the crack wars. Inhabitants fled, homes were torched, and the long blocks, once designed for cars, were left sparsely populated. In 2015, it remained largely abandoned. Sometimes, there were residual flare-ups of violence and theft. Some ways down the road, there remained a crack house. In this quiet, largely forgotten place, however, adjacent to the vistas of empty lots, under the canopy of old-growth trees, there was a new community growing. They lived amongst the neglected red brick houses and chose to call themselves Fireweed, after the pioneer plant species that takes over the landscape after a forest fire. More… “Why Does a Tree Fall in Detroit?”
The most significant movement in philosophy and social thought during my lifetime has been the demolition job. And it’s been going on for roughly 40 years. Judging by the growing pile of rubble, the wrecking crew has kept very busy.
I’m talking about the dismantling of the big theories. In an earlier day, a major thinker was expected to offer a system, but over the course of the 1970s and 1980s something changed in the prevailing intellectual currents. The emerging trend embraced the debunkers of systems. The very same large-scale unified theories that delighted academics in the 1940s and 1950s each got discarded by the baby boomers as they came of age, dismissed as vehemently as they had once been embraced. Under the new regime, any all-encompassing system was, at best, a dead end, and at worst a prop to discredited power structures.
Many across the political spectrum assert that the American Dream is endangered. No American politician would dare to question that the American Dream must be preserved. But what exactly is the American Dream?
In his 1931 book The Epic of America, the historian James Truslow Adams popularized the term, defining the American Dream as “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” In the two clauses of his sentence, Adams combines two different, and not necessarily compatible definitions of the American Dream. More… “Which American Dream?”
The Whitney Biennial, which was inaugurated in 1932, once again works by promising us what is new, challenging, and — with luck — of lasting interest. The promise involves finding the right frame and purpose, such as scientists find in the use of a cross-section. Slice into contemporary art and lay out what most rivets, without fear or favor, label it, study its energies, and try to bear accurate account of what it’s made of. Then it’s reviewed and talked about and disputed — a cross section of a cross section. A two-year survey of what is an impossibly various assortment of works and practitioners of the visual and plastic arts, from the jackanapes to the genius, from the ravishing object to the puzzling proposal. It can’t be taken in; it will be taken in.
This year’s version runs from mid-March to June 11th. Delayed a year and a half because of the opening of the museum’s downtown building, this biennial starts a new run, lulling us into memories of the previous shows and yet promising a new place where the art is somehow still aborning. Recovering from this small interruption of its run of 73 yearly or bi-yearly shows, the Whitney looks to make the 2017 issue an especially memorable one. As Jason Farago put it in The New York Times:
In a generational shift, the Whitney has chosen two young curators for this always anticipated exhibition: Christopher Y. Lew, 36, and Mia Locks, 34. It’s also the first time that the biennial’s curators are both people of color. After months on the road, they have boiled down the art of the last few years into a survey that, for all its energy, doesn’t overwhelm the museum.
Although it’s the men of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn we associate with the magical order, specifically the great poet and mystic W.B. Yeats and the sociopath and con man Aleister Crowley, women were fundamental to its running from the very beginning. Unlike the Christian churches they mostly came from, either Catholic or Protestant, women were allowed to be priestesses, allowed to write doctrine, allowed to design ceremonies. Not only allowed, but simply did. For these independent-minded late-19th-century and early-20th-century women, moving from the dominant religion to a religion of the occult and mystical moved them from subordination into power.
The rise of the Golden Dawn, and Spiritualism in the United States, came at a troubled time. There was widespread poverty, a rigid patriarchal system, disease, and high mortality rates in children. With so much instability, it was difficult for many to simply live their lives with dignity. Alcohol consumption was high, domestic violence was treated casually, and many died young. In such times, it can be difficult to imagine how to get through tomorrow, let alone how to envision a better future. More… “The Feminine Mystic”
In some cases, the sufferer’s cheeks, ears, or neck grow red. Other people’s entire faces burn, or the heat washes over their head like a wave. A person who blushes feels stripped bare, even when fully clothed. A blush can be triggered by shame, guilt, joy, excitement, or irritation, and can strike when we are alone or in the company of others. But it is never under our control. It can happen when we are praised, criticized, or caught off guard. A blush can be a sign of attraction or of “hot” thoughts. Or a person may blush because she realizes she is unprepared for an important discussion or presentation – or at least feels that way. Sometimes it’s enough to drive you crazy, but blushing also has a positive side.
Blushing is just one possible reaction to feelings of shame, which in turn arise under very different circumstances in different people. Some people never blush in embarrassing situations: instead, they may grin, laugh, or involuntarily alter the timbre of their voices. “Social” blushing is also distinct from hot flashes, stage fright, skin diseases, or the reddening of the skin as a result of physical effort, happiness, or alcohol consumption. More… “Better Red”
Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.
I’m at Atlanta-Hartsfield on a busy Thursday evening, and my goal is to walk a few dozen yards from Simply Books across the “A” concourse’s main hallway to the Chick-Fil-A. It’s a short but not a trivial journey — the wide hallway is packed from edge to edge with a swiftly moving river of thousands of travelers headed both left and right. It reminds me of that chaotic moment between classes in high school when everyone rushing to get to their next class before the bell rings, although with less flirting and more grim expressions.
Closest to me a thick stream of people is headed to the right, toward Gate 34, and beyond that a counterstream has set up headed in the opposite direction toward Gate 1. Drawing on experience in whitewater kayaking, I ease into the flow moving to my right and ferry across the current, crossing diagonally as… More…
“But it is pretty to see what money will do.” So says London diarist Samuel Pepys in his March 21 1666, entry. And he’s right. Money can “answereth all things” according to Ecclesiastes; it “doesn’t talk, it swears” according to Bob Dylan; it’s “good for bribing yourself through the inconveniences of life” according to Gottfried Reinhardt; it’s that “clinking, clanking sound” that makes the world go round” according to the Cabaret emcee; “it’s better than poverty, if only for financial reasons” according to Woody Allen. Money can even purchase the wherewithal for a personal credo: “I believe in meditating in the tub with some very nice bath products,” Oprah declares. “Origins Ginger Bath is one I use a lot.” Well, I suppose meditating is a fine and centering thing, as long as one meditates with rather than on… More…
There comes in the life of every city an era of unsurpassed greatness. Whether it’s an aligning of the stars or simply a convergence of social pressures, cultural influences, history, and politics, the city bursts forth with great innovation, creative outpouring, and a lively sense of community. They are exciting times to live through, if you happen to be lucky enough to be there. Suddenly the world opens up and you are a part of something bigger than your own daily life. You can talk of revolution without having to use air quotes or a sarcastic tone, and riots can start over a jarring new form of music. Cities such as Bohemian New York, Weimar Berlin, Paris between the wars, pre-Revolutionary Moscow and Saint Petersburg, and pretty much every major Western city in 1968 brought into life new music, architecture, visual art, scientific advancement, and social structure. Residents watched as… More…
In 1909, E.M. Forster published his short story “The Machine Stops” as an antidote to H.G. Wells’ optimistic tales of the future. Set in a world where The Machine (read: the Internet) controls all aspects of life, and a person can communicate with friends through “Plates” (read: Skype) or push a button (read: e-mail) and have their work sent in, there was never any reason to walk the surface of Earth ever again. All a person could need was in his room, where he wasted away, pale and untouched, like Vashti, the story’s subject.
Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age by Maggie Jackson. 327 pages. Prometheus Books. $25.98. A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. 320 pages. Granta Books.
“There were buttons and switches everywhere — buttons to call for food, for music, for clothing…. More…