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Wordly Treasures


The colonized owe nothing, not even words, to their colonizers.

Language Matters, a new documentary by David Grubin that considers the mass extinction of small languages, is like a clear, well-formed declarative sentence. It is a thoughtful 110-minute call to heed to the global crisis of “language death,” featuring engaging interviews and pleasant aerial shots of northern Australia, Hawai’i’s Big Island, and Wales. Poet Bob Holman and his film crew follow the now-standard language documentary hero’s journey, visiting various communities of endangered language speakers, considering each community’s specific struggles as well as expounding on generalizable characteristics of language loss. Historic atrocities are solemnly recognized, while contemporary resilience and self-organization are emphasized and lauded. The film features speakers, activists, poets, scientists, and schoolchildren. The result, a linguist might say, is felicitous.

The greatest problem of well-formed sentences like these is that they tend to be a little boring. Across disciplinary fields in language research, transparently understood sentences are kept around as canonical exemplars, that, while true and good and useful, do not inspire much either in the way of generating abstract theory or more concrete passions. Luckily, Language Matters shares another trait with unequivocal declarations: the message it bears is very often necessary and worth repeating. The film is generally a success, and in parts, heartening. Its subject matter couldn’t be richer: human language and language death are, in themselves, fascinating phenomena of immense intellectual weight.

The human capacity for language is a startling outlier on the spectrum of animal communication, and contemporary societies are experiencing a mass linguistic extinction event unparalleled in recorded history. If Language Matters struggles to convey the magnitude of these stakes, the problem might not lie strictly with the film, but with the contemporary cynicism that greets each new metric of extinction with a dismissive “Yes, we know, we know.” Attention to the unthinkable magnitude of loss paradoxically inures well-intentioned bystanders to the urgency of action. But cynicism aside, the problem may be that there truly are no words, no utterance in human speech large enough to convey the tragedy and horror of what is occurring. In the last 50 years, more than two dozen language families—groups of genetically related languages—have gone dormant, with projections estimating 50-90 percent of the world’s languages disappearing from human communities by the century’s end.

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Panpsychism’s Labyrinth


Steven Shaviro’s new book teaches us how to navigate in a world where objects are peers

I stole the October 2014 issue of Science magazine from my therapist’s waiting room. The cover of the magazine is arresting. It features a photograph of robotics engineer Hiroshi Ishiguro holding the head of his mechanical dopplegänger (“Geminoid”) directly under his own face, in the manner of Scooby-Doo cast members when they peek their heads around a dark corner. Ishiguro and “Geminoid” look identical, but eerily so. The photograph demonstrates the phenomenon that neuroscientists call the “uncanny valley,” what the futurist author Ray Kurzweil describes as “an artificial agent’s drop in likeability when it becomes too humanlike.”

Midway between the two Ishiguros, the cover of Science announces: “Special Issue: The social life of robots: From Automatons to co-workers and companions.” Flipping to Richard Stone and Marc Lavine’s story, we learn:

Most of the robots we know today—unglamorous devices like robotic welders on car assembly lines and the Roomba vacuum cleaner—fall short of those in science fiction. But our relationship with robots is about to become far more intimate. Would you be comfortable with a robot butler, or a self-driving car? How about a robo-scientist toiling away next to you at the bench, not only pipetting but also formulating hypotheses and designing experiments? As robots become more sophisticated, psychological paradoxes are coming into sharper relief. Robots that look human strike many of us as downright creepy… while robots that act human—when they are programmed, for example, to cheat at cards—somehow put us at ease. And no matter how uncannily lifelike some of today’s robots may seem, the resemblance is skin-deep.

It is this Jetsonian shop floor—and the dilemmas it elicits—that the philosopher and critic Steven Shaviro addresses in his marvelous new book The Universe of Things. Why do we so often seek to blot out the technological beings that sit beside us on the figurative workbench, grasping eyedroppers and dropping liquids into beakers? Why is it so disturbing when that work of blotting-out fails us?

These experiences can be as humble as momentarily losing an Internet connection while leaving a comment at a blog, waiting for the “beach-ball of death” to finish its rotations on the computer screen (in the old days, watching grains of sand fall through an animated hourglass), or sliding a broken hotel key card into the slot above the doorknob, only to see the red rather than a green light blink. More sentimentally, I am reminded of a friendship I developed with a spiny anteater named Pango, a character in the Nintendo Wii game Animal Crossing: City Folk. The Pango with whom I became friendly was flamboyant, opinionated, vain, and kind. She brought me a cake on my birthday. On an appointed day, several years ago, Pango left the little town I had built, as creatures such as she are programmed to do. I have never quite gotten over it.

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Cartooning the Body

torchper-383 The rise of cartoon imagery in contemporary art mirrors the ways capitalism has made us all malleable

Animation — which was considered the pinnacle of early cinematic innovation — has continued to be associated with juvenility. Though September 2014 marked the last airing of Saturday morning cartoons on U.S. network television (a reflection of digital distribution’s impact), cartoons are still widely associated with what children watch or with the perpetual adolescence embodied by “adult” cartoons such as South Park, Beavis and Butt-head, and The Simpsons.

Because they evoke a child’s supposedly passive consumption of whatever content is aimed at them, cartoons trace a political horizon defined by the profound absence of alternative possibilities. Within the globalized consumer culture, the persistent popularity of cartoons reflects the erosion of political participation in favor of a virtualized and atomized space of consumption. Many cartoons are defined by an affect of inertia and slackerdom, immersing viewers in adolescent fantasy spaces that would seem to refute any sense of personal transformation or wider political possibility. Where South Park is marked by the curious discrepancy between its adult audience and its toilet-humor-obsessed eight-year-old protagonists, Beavis and Butt-head‘s experiences are centered on the couch from which its two protagonists consume entertainment, weed, and junk food.

The deviant attitudes of cartoon slacker culture reflect an apathy stemming from the precariousness of basic economic and civil liberties that nurture the feeling of having some control over our futures. Amid the moral bankruptcy of Wall Street, an ever-encroaching surveillance state, massive violence abroad and at home, and the constant hypocrisy of politicians and the media, the rise of slacker culture and its passive consumables from the early 1990s onward represents a recognition and reaction to emergent global economic conditions.

In puddle, pothole, portal, a recent Sculpture Center exhibition of 23 artists including Jamian Juliano-Villani, Marky Leckey, Win McCarthy, Danny McDonald, Saul Steinberg, and Jordan Wolfson, the cartoon is taken to represent the mixture of affects deemed “nonproductive,” including violence, deviancy, adolescence, and laziness. Juliano-Villani, for instance, who lifts cartoons from a variety of contexts to create works laden with symbols of dramatized sexuality, told ArtNews in a recent interview, “My paintings are meant to function like TV, in a way. The viewer is supposed to become passive. Instead of alluding or whispering, like a lot of art does, this is art that tells you what’s up. It kind of does the work for you, like TV does.”

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Adventures in Candyland


Tom McCarthy’s new novel is attentive to the fibers of our social networks, but forgetful of its fleshy reader

Tom McCarthy, in his capacity as General Secretary of the semi-ironic art organization the International Necronautical Society, delivered a set of austere, art-serious dictums as part of their “Statement of Inauthenticity” in 2007. In these remarks, he riffs off of Rilke’s suggestion in Dunio Elegy Nine that:

Are we here, perhaps, for saying: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit-tree, window –
at most: column, tower……but for saying, realize,
oh, for a saying such as the things themselves would never
have profoundly said.

McCarthy and Co. sub in “cigarette…fruitbat…sponge,” repeating the last item twice more in the ordered style of a treatise, “(7.3) Sponge. (7.4) Sponge.”

He speaks for the sponge. But while Rilke wanted to put us in conversation with these objects to bring us into relation with the world, McCarthy just wants to put us in conversation with objects. “How do we let matter matter?” the manifesto asks.

In the work he has produced over the last decade, McCarthy has committed himself to the idea of fiction not as a sponge, but as a form of radio: something communicated, recirculated, in direct opposition to the romantic vision of it being inspired, proposed out of nothing and, at its best, set up in opposition to its culture. In his new novel Satin Island, McCarthy creates fiction that is so fluid that it’s hard to figure where the work ends and the culture it depicts begins.

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Scary Negroes with Guns


The imaginary guns that white people perceive in black hands reveal a longstanding fear of black resistance

On a recent road trip we made a stop at gun range in Austin, Texas. I posted a picture on Instagram of myself aiming a Beretta pistol down the range, and a white friend posted a comment that read, “You’re scaring us.” The picture had no menacing intent; I felt it joined many images of men, women, children and even blind people with guns. This Instagram comment may have come from a sincere place. But it made me think about how guns are viewed in black hands.

Imagine a sweaty muscular white man kicking a door off its hinges with two machine guns in his hands. He pulls the triggers, massacring everyone in the room. Out of context, this moment is psychotic and disturbing. But reflected off many faces, premiered on televisions and smartphone screens, appearing in countless action movies, thrillers or even comedies, this Hollywood scene is a reflection of a nation with around 270 to 310 million civilian firearms. That’s the most in the industrialized world. It’s inevitable for children to look up at adults and want to gesture guns with their fingers, or play with water guns, paintball and laser-tag. In Cleveland, Ohio, police responding to a 911 call found Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, playing with an empty BB gun. He was shot and killed two seconds after the police arrived.

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