Our national literature of lies

America is a nation of liars, and for that reason science fiction has a special claim to be our national literature, as the art form best adapted to telling the lies we like to hear and to pretend we believe.

–Thomas M. Disch, The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of (1998), p. 15


The irresponsible use of highly electric words is very strongly to be deprecated

Perhaps I ought to add a caution about words. I said that words were, metaphorically, fields of force. May I, in my metaphorical, poetical, and unscientific way, press this analogy a little further. It is as dangerous for people unaccustomed to handling words and unacquainted with their technique to tinker about with these heavily charged nuclei of emotional power as it would be for me to burst into a laboratory and play about with a powerful electromagnet or other machine highly charged with electrical force. By my clumsy and ignorant handling, I should probably, at the very least, contrive to damage either the machine or myself; at the worst I might blow up the whole place. Similarly, the irresponsible use of highly electric words is very strongly to be deprecated.

–Dorothy L. Sayers, “Creative Mind” (1942)

via Coming to Terms

Just a reminder, folks: we live in the future.

Physicists are excited by the discovery because it opens the door for telescopes that can “see” gravity.

At the press conference, Reitze said that the gravitational waves the scientists recorded from the colliding black holes “proves that binary black holes exist in the universe.” And that hasn’t been done before. “It’s the first time the universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves,” Reitze said. “We’re going to hear more of these things.”

–Brian Resnick, Scientists just detected gravitational waves. We’ve entered a whole new world for astronomy.

Sports: modernity’s nostrum for the missing moral certainty of a bygone age

The sports fan, however, is in an uncommonly powerless position: No fan can change the outcome of a game. So why devote so much attention and passion to a process whose outcome one cannot hope to influence? Such misplaced devotion can seem meaningless, or worse, a renunciation of the obligation to continuously better ourselves.

Furthermore, unlike a seventeenth-century Calvinist, we don’t think we face the ultimate possibilities of salvation and damnation. The outcomes of our pursuits in life are far less circumscribed. Instead, we grapple with many, smaller potential outcomes: that automation or government budget cuts might render our jobs obsolete or that nuclear terrorism could disrupt civilization as we know it. Life is in many ways easier today, but it is also much more uncertain.

Sports, on the other hand, offer a way to travel back to a bygone age. The Super Bowl allows me to adopt a standpoint of utter moral certainty, whereby the Panthers represent all that is good and virtuous and the opposing Denver Broncos are manifestations of evil. Sports are an arena in which I can take up this fantasy for a brief time and revel in the richness and completeness of the emotions that it brings. I’m also offered the benefit of knowing that the outcome of the contest won’t require me to analyze subtext or trace out extenuating circumstances; the game offers only the joy of victory or the agony of defeat.

Sports provide the rarest of experiences in modern society—an escape into clear-cut-ness. Contemporary life offers little in the way of the explicit contrast between two starkly opposing outcomes that predestination provided. We are tasked with building meaning in our own lives, but we lack the cultural tools to accomplish this. The dichotomies between good and evil, between honorable and shameful conduct, have eroded in the wake of our (legitimate) attention to context and circumstance in assessing other people and the world around us.

–Matthew Braswell, Why It’s Good to Love Football (Or Any Sport)

Fool me once, George Lucas…

if u donuts wanna start shipping new star wars characters then be my fucking guest but mama din’t raise no fool. im waitin til i know who related to who so i don’t have to spend the next ten years in the shower praying for forgiveness. fool me once, george lucas.

–indigo | cold mackerel

via johnthelutheran

“He didn’t name a condition, in other words. He created one.”

Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. Most great prose writers make the real world seem realer — it’s why we read great prose writers. But Wallace does something weirder, something more astounding: Even when you’re not reading him, he trains you to study the real world through the lens of his prose.

–Tom Bissell, Everything About Everything: David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ at 20


‘Tis a magical evening, without the bros, crowds, lines and parking fiascos!

Image by Sarah Turbin/Vox.

My non-observance has become my personal holiday. I’m something of a rare case. A Vox survey from this week estimates that two out of three Americans will tune in this weekend. I can’t speak for what the other one in three of us is up to (working the Sunday shift?), but for me, the details of my ritual vary from year to year. The theme is always the same, though: I’m not having fun in spite of being alone. I’m having fun because I am alone.

It is the one Sunday a year I’m free to enjoy all the trappings of Washington without the bros, crowds, lines, and parking fiascos I’d otherwise encounter in the precious final hours of the weekend. For me, Super Bowl Sunday isn’t quite a three-day weekend, but it’s more than the extra hour that comes with the return to standard time. It’s a magical evening where I’ve tricked the laws of time to my advantage.

–Laura McGann, I used to hate the Super Bowl. Then I turned it into my own holiday.

Besides the fact that I empathize so hard with this, I must also commend Sarah Turbin’s delightfully whimsical illustrations for the essay. My own plan for Super Bowl Sunday is to snag a choice spot by the fireplace in one (or more, if I migrate around!) of the local coffee shops. Then I will do much homework.


The dishonesties of false personalization

We hear a lot of talk about how our country “needs to have a conversation about” this or that issue or condition. But this way of talking about “conversation” is unhelpful, and not only because it is so often a disingenuous way of nudging an orthodoxy into being. It is unhelpful because it perpetuates an egregious category error, precisely by missing the special character of conversation. Most of the communications to which we are subjected, particularly through our electronic media, are of precisely the opposite character. Overlooking and overhearing are their stock in trade, since they are required, by their very nature as the output of mass media, to be devoid of all delicacies of context. Advertising, journalism, popular culture, political campaigning and speechifying: For better or worse, these things serve a public purpose, and can foster public forms of memory and understanding we badly need. They are at their worst, though, when they try to be something they are not, and fall into the dishonesties of false personalization. The intimacy of free and full conversation, which some of us consider the crowning glory of a civilized society, is the last thing they are capable of fostering.

— Wilfred M. McClay, Overheard and Overlooked

Libri periculosi

Two from Aeon:

Storytelling is inextricable from power: the act of reading is, for better or worse, an act of submission to an external force granted the privilege of language, of narrative organising. At its best, reading novels might be as salutary as recent studies allege. But at worst, novels – in all their dangerousness – can erode at our sense of self: a woman who reads Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748) could find herself accepting a world-narrative where rape is justifiable; a person of colour, growing up on Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), might internalise as normative a world of white power, just as Dorian Gray, through reading Huysmans, normalises the debauchery that is to come. […]

At its most fundamental level, to read is to put our selves at risk, to make ourselves vulnerable by welcoming the presence of an other into our psychic space. This can be a radically transformative experience, challenging us to reformulate our own self-understanding. But at worst, we become like the dinner-party guests in The Torture Garden or Don Juan ­– our ‘possession’ by a storyteller awakening our inner violence. Or else we become like Johannes’ Cordelia, the books we read reinforcing existing societal threats to our being. Either way, the act of reading is an act of acceptance of power: a power that, if not god-like, is nevertheless – within the sphere of the text – absolute.

— Tara Isabella Burton, Dark Books (7 January 2016)

Today, it is not puritanical religious moralists but undergraduate students who demand that Ovid’s poem should come with a trigger warning. For the first time in their career, my academic colleagues report that some of their students are asking for the right to opt out of reading texts that they find personally offensive or traumatising. This self-diagnosis of vulnerability is unlike the traditional call for a moral quarantine from above. Once upon a time, paternalistic censors infantilised the reading public by insisting that reading literature constitutes a serious risk to its health. Now young readers infantilise themselves by insisting that they and their peers should be shielded from the harm caused by distressing texts.

The campaign for trigger warnings represents its cause as an attempt to protect the vulnerable and the powerless from any potentially traumatic and harmful effects of reading. Those who are opposed or indifferent to the call for these warnings are condemned as accomplices in the marginalising of the powerless. Paradoxically, censorship, which once served as an instrument of domination by those in power is now recast as a weapon that can be wielded to protect the powerless from psychological harm. […]

There is one point on which the crusade for the imposition of trigger warnings is absolutely right. It is not for nothing that reading was always feared throughout history. It is indeed a risky activity: reading possesses the power to capture the imagination, create emotional upheaval and force people towards an existential crisis. Indeed, for many it is the excitement of embarking on a journey into the unknown that leads them to pick up a book in the first place.

— Frank Furedi, Books Are Dangerous (6 November 2015)