This list will be updated every few months.
Fraternally Yours, Chris: On Christopher Hitchens. "Depending on where along the political spectrum power is situated, apostates almost always make their corrective leap in that direction, discovering the virtues of the status quo," writes Norman Finkelstein. "If apostasy weren't conditioned by power considerations, one would anticipate roughly equal movements in both directions. But that's never been the case. The would-be apostate almost always pulls towards power's magnetic field, rarely away. However elaborate the testimonials on how one came to 'see the light,' the impetus behind political apostasy is -- pardon my cynicism -- a fairly straightforward, uncomplicated affair: to cash in, or keep cashing in, on earthly pleasures."
Enough Already. "What is it with bores?" Mark Edmundson writes. "I mean the sort of people who always have to hold the floor. They talk constantly at you, hurling their words like spears...They take no interest in you or anything about you; at best, you're a stage prop in the one-person drama that they compose, produce, and star in."
The Nihilism Of Electronic Media. The images that flutter across big and small screens have no staying power, notes the cultural critic Sylvere Lotringer. Images are constantly being substituted and replaced, and instead of bringing us knowledge, "the speed with which they circulate produces an instant cancellation and forgetting."
Humanity used to be defined "historically, geographically, linguistically, and culturally," Lotringer notes. "Now, who we are is much less clear, because everyone is exposed to the same images. We are unified, but only unified to the benefit of the medium itself...It is not who you are that is important, but where you belong in society as determined by the numbers that you leave everywhere."
"Love On Campus." "The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind," notes William Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale. "I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul."
This dynamic, Deresiewicz notes, is one that contemporary culture doesn't understand and often distorts in novels and films. "What attracts professors to students, then, is not their bodies but their souls. Young people are still curious about ideas, still believe in them -- in their importance, their redemptive power. Socrates says in the Symposium that the hardest thing about being ignorant is that you’re content with yourself, but for many kids when they get to college, this is not yet true. They recognize themselves as incomplete, and they recognize, if only intuitively, that completion comes through eros. So they seek out professors with whom to have relationships, and we seek them out in turn."
"What Am I Going To Do With The Rest Of My Life?" "The limits of time," notes the psychologist Lillian Rubin, "are both a blessing and a curse: a blessing when I experience the relief that it will soon be over, that I can give up the struggle to make meaning of these years and just go to sleep, even that permanent sleep we call death; a curse because then I remember that when I die, I’ll never again hear my daughter’s 'Hi, Mom' on the phone, never see my adorable four-year-old great-grandson grow up, never laugh or cry with a friend again, never see another sunset, never read another book, never write another line, never paint another picture, never wander through the galleries of the Met, never taste another hot fudge sundae. Never: a cold and lonely word.
"It’s not just the realization that we’re close to the end that makes this time so difficult. For the pleasure in our newfound freedom to 'just be' comes with the understanding that it’s possible only because we’ve become superfluous, because we’ve lost our place in the world, because our presence is no longer needed, and that in addition to being unnecessary -- or perhaps because of it -- we’ve also become invisible, just another one of the old people, featureless and indistinguishable from one another, who take up space on the bus..."
"Beautiful Necessities: American Beauty And The Idea Of Freedom." An interesting and convincing reading of the Academy-Award-winning film American Beauty. Writing in the Journal of Religion and Film, David Smith notes, "history fails as a realm of freedom or source of meaning for any of the characters. It is rather a system of strict cause and effect, a karmic wheel, in which doing what one wants is equivalent to bondage under the iron law of one’s conditioning. What hope is there, then, for freedom?...If meaning is not to be found through emancipatory projects, then where is it to be found? If freedom does not consist in doing what one wants, then what is it?"
"Scientists On Religion." "If God created the universe," Carl Sagan once asked, "why did he leave the evidence so scant? He might have embedded Maxwell's equations in Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Ten Commandments might have been engraved on the moon. Or why not a hundred-kilometer crucifix in Earth orbit?...Why should God be so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?"
(But why, if indeed God does exist, should he bear any resemblance at all to the God of the Bible, or for that matter, of any other sacred text? Why must God have humanoid characteristics, or be the least bit concerned about satisfying the curiosity of doubters? Why should anyone think that the Being presumed to be the most inscrutable and complex could ever be outed by smart-alecky humans? -- ed.)
"On the Poverty of Student Life." This pamphlet, written in November 1966 by the Situationist International and the Students of Strasbourg, offers a candid if bleak assessment of student life in a late-capitalist, technocratic world.
"Once upon a time the universities had a certain prestige; the student persists in the belief that he is lucky to be there," the authors write. "But he came too late. His mechanical, specialized education is as profoundly degraded...as his own intellectual level, because the modern economic system requires a mass production of uneducated students who have been rendered incapable of thinking. The university has become an institutional organization of ignorance. 'High culture' is being degraded in the assembly-line production of professors, all of whom are cretins and most of whom would be jeered by any audience of highschoolers. But the student, in his mental menopause, is unaware of all this; he continues to listen respectfully to his masters, conscientiously suppressing all critical spirit so as to immerse himself in the mystical illusion of being a 'student' -- someone seriously devoted to learning serious things -- in the hope that his professors will ultimately impart to him the ultimate truths of the world. The future revolutionary society will condemn all the noise of the lecture halls and classrooms as nothing but verbal pollution. The student is already a very bad joke."
"The Numbing of the American Mind: Culture As Anesthetic," by Thomas de Zengotita. Originally appeared in Harper's for April 2002. "Fill the pages, fill the time slots, fill the channels, the websites, the roadsides, the building facades, the fronts and backs of shirts and caps, everything, everything must be saying something, every minute," de Zengotita writes. "But what? What's left to say? It doesn't matter. Cut to the response.
"Zap. Whimper. Flinch. Cringe. Melt. Assert! Exult! Weep. Subside. Ahhh ...
"Eventually we can just wire our glands directly to a console of sensation buttons, platform to platform, and be done with this tiresome content altogether. Call it P2P communication. Talk about interactive. Thus will the human soul be compensated for the despair of finitude."
"The Wisdom of Saint Marshall, the Holy Fool." The name Marshall McLuhan, like the name George Santayana, can no sooner be uttered than an association is made: "McLuhan = the medium is the message"; "Santayana = those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Neither is read much anymore, though both ought to be, for quite different reasons: Santayana for his searing criticism and insights into our moral universe; McLuhan for his prescient understanding of our electronic media age.
The link above is especially useful for those who haven't yet read McLuhan. Published in Wired in 1996, the article offers both a summary of his teaching and tells us things about the man we're not likely already to know: for instance, that he was a devout Catholic and conservative, but one who often resisted the temptation to moralize ("value judgments create smog in our culture and distract attention from processes," he once said); that early on he believed electronic civilization might redound to a more spiritual world, but that later he considered it to be "a blatant manifestation of the Anti-Christ"; that he was not an influential teacher or scholar (respectable academics didn't take him seriously) but rather an eccentric, often misunderstood, generalist.
Transparency: A website edited by Ken Sanes. A site "based on the idea that all media, politics, and popular culture -- and ultimately all aspects of personality -- can be opened up to our view and understanding." The articles are intelligent and well written, the work of someone eager to understand the complexities of his world. Top picks from this site:
1. "Truman As Archetype" -- An essay exploring the parallels between our media world and the film "The Truman Show."
2. The Deconstruction of Reality -- A good overview of the philosophy of modernism and its offshoot, postmodernism.
PBS' Frontline: "The Merchants Of Cool." Everyone knows what coolness is: it's a style that is fashionable; it's a personality that is magnetic, charismatic; it's "what's happening" or "where the action is." But might it also be a psychic opium distributed to youth by multimedia conglomerates? A slick, foolproof way to perpetuate lifelong consumptive habits? A bleach that blots out individualism and turns human beings into marketing agents? Three years ago, Frontline explored these questions in a disturbing yet fascinating documentary.
Neil Postman: Writings On The Web. Professor Postman died in the fall of 2003. He was chair of the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University and the author of Amusing Ourselves To Death: Public Discourse In The Age Of Show Business.
Lewis Lapham On Civic Discourse, Intellectual Life And Cultural Asphyxiation In A TV Nation. According to Lapham, the editor of Harper's, "The camera has shaped all of our sensibilities. Sympathetic to a pagan rather than a Christian appreciation of the world, the camera sees but doesn't think; it cares only for the sensation of the moment, for any tide of emotion strong enough to draw a paying crowd. A plane crash in the mountains of Peru commands the same slack-jawed respect as Mick Jagger in a divorce court, Monica Lewinsky eating Belgian chocolate, cruise missiles falling on Baghdad, Cameron Diaz in gold lame."