I am quite late with these this week, but hey. The weekend got away from me. It’s a pretty long list this time, though, with three good reads, some crazy pictures of bugs, and then some new music.
Article: “Crimes Against Humanities” by Leon Wielseltier
I have to admit, when I saw the title of this piece, my first reaction was an exhausted sigh. I am more than tired of the whole “two cultures” business; that science and the humanities have different, unique, and complementary contributions to make to human life and human knowledge seems to me, at this point, like something we should be able to take for granted. That we are still arguing about it, ever, makes me want to scream. That said, if, as it seems, we still need that point made to us, this piece does the job admirably. The first paragraph is one of the clearest and most effective statements of the position I have read:
The question of the place of science in knowledge, and in society, and in life, is not a scientific question. Science confers no special authority, it confers no authority at all, for the attempt to answer a nonscientific question. It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art. Those are philosophical matters, and science is not philosophy, even if philosophy has since its beginnings been receptive to science. Nor does science confer any license to extend its categories and its methods beyond its own realms, whose contours are of course a matter of debate. The credibility of physicists and biologists and economists on the subject of the meaning of life—what used to be called the ultimate verities, secularly or religiously constructed—cannot be owed to their work in physics and biology and economics, however distinguished it is. The extrapolation of larger ideas about life from the procedures and the conclusions of various sciences is quite common, but it is not in itself justified; and its justification cannot be made on internally scientific grounds, at least if the intellectual situation is not to be rigged.
Wielseltier goes on to spend some time arguing against Steven Pinker, who he argues is purporting to honor the role of the humanities while actually reducing them to an adjunct to science’s rules of procedure. I have not read the Pinker piece that he is responding to, so I won’t say anything about that; I’ll just reiterate that while this is an argument we shouldn’t need to have any more, I am glad that at least somebody is doing it justice.
Article: “Some Thoughts for Jennifer Weiner about the Times Book Review” by Christopher Beha
If you pay attention to this sort of thing, you will remember when, a couple of years or so ago, Jennifer Weiner issued a public complaint about the lack of fiction by women in the New York Times Book Review, arguing that while the Review is willing to feature genre fiction if it is the kind of genre typically written and read by men (e.g., thrillers, sci-fi), they ignore genre/commercial fiction of the kind that is more often written by (and markets to) women— work like Weiner’s own. This caused a lot of noise, not least because Weiner’s claim tends to conflate the gender issues with the question of what counts as “literary” fiction, and sort of tacitly assume they are the same question. This piece not only does a very good job of parsing that out, but it makes a larger, and smarter point as well: the purpose of a review like the TBR (to adopt Beha’s usage) is to an interesting thing to read in itself&mdash to provide a forum for literary criticism, which is a genre unto itself. The job of the review is not simply to recommend books or tell you whether something is “good” or not (there are publications that do exactly that, but this is not one of them). With that in mind, they should be reviewing books that are interesting to write and to read about (what Beha calls “Holy Crap” books). That automatically excludes a lot of genre/commercial fiction, not because those books aren’t good or worth reading, and not because they can’t be done well or badly. It’s just that, unless they do something unexpected or unique or strange (i.e., unless they violate, in some way, the expectations of the genre they are a part of), they will likely not be all that interesting to read about in an extended format. A publication like the TBR should focus on books, of whatever type or genre, that can provide a basis for interesting critical writing. Beha isn’t necessarily saying that the TBR is actually doing that, necessarily; his point is that Weiner may or may not be wrong about how the editors of the review feel about “women’s fiction,” but she is wrong about what the TBR is for in the first place. It’s an interesting and complicated argument, and I am not doing it justice here, but I hope it will turn this debate in a new direction, away from carping about what counts as “literary.”
Article: “T. Rex Might Be the Thing with Feathers” by Brian Switek
This article is framed in terms of the way the fame of a few specific dinosaur species has distorted popular perception of dinosaurs as a group, which is interesting enough, but what I like about it is that it is also a brief history of the consensus view on these animals and the ways that view has evolved over time. It’s about the relationship between scientific evidence and popular perception— the way that scientific discovery filters down, or not, to the rest of us, and how it gets distorted along the way. It is also about dinosaurs, which should really be reason enough to read it on its own.
Photos: “A Beautiful Collection of Insects” by the USGS Native Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program, collected by The Atlantic’s In Focus blog.
Very big, VERY close-up photos of insects. Startling, perhaps a bit disgusting, and totally fascinating. One of my favorites is below, but you should really check them all out.
Song: “Lessons” by SOHN
This is the guy who produced “Waiting Game,” by Banks, which I posted last week and which has not left my head for days. He has a lot of stuff up on his sound cloud page, and so I will be spending some time there very soon.
Via Disco Naïvete
Video: “Design” by Glasser
I don’t actually love the video, but this is another good song from Glasser’s forthcoming album, out on October 8.
Song: “Team” by Lorde
I’m late to the party with Lorde, having not heard her big hit “Royals” until very recently. But this is just a good, solid pop song that’s catchy without making you feel like the people who made it think you are stupid.. You can stream her Love Club EP, which includes “Royals,” here.