• March 01, 2017

    End of an Era

    The era of Obama is over. Now the majority of Americans may see it clearly for the first time. Over the past eight years, it has become apparent that President Obama’s presence in office was a distortion. His calm demeanor and steady optimism seduced liberals into thinking that they were living in good—if occasionally dull—days, at war with an intransigent Congressional GOP, but blind to the breadth and power of the reaction brewing below. Liberals were often frustrated by the slow progress under Obama, even offended by the indifference and injustice that persisted in the practice of American

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  • December 13, 2016

    Shock Waves: A Syllabus for the End Times

    I’D LIKE TO START WITH A SIMPLE BUT EXPANSIVE ASSERTION: The fundamental epistemological problem of recent intellectual history has been the privileging of contradiction over contrariety.

    To put it simply, contradiction is an opposition between “this” and “not-this.” Only one of the two can obtain at once; only one half of a contradiction can be true at once. A contrariety, on the other hand, is an opposition between two poles that describe a spectrum or difference of degrees. A single entity—your body, say—can be a little of both at once. “True”/“false” is an example of a contradiction. “

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  • November 23, 2016

    Reading for the Next Four Years

    It is still unclear exactly what America under the presidency of Donald J. Trump will look like. But if we believe his campaign promises—deporting of millions of people, registering Muslims, gutting the Affordable Care Act—it’s apparent that sustained political resistance will be necessary. Already, protestors have taken to the streets of cities like New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, Portland, and in many other places.

    In bookstores, it is heartening to see that works by authors such as Angela Davis, Walter Benjamin, Arundhati Roy, bell hooks, George Orwell, and Ta-Nehisi

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  • October 06, 2016

    After Attica

    Last month marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the Attica prison revolt. At the outset of the four-day takeover, the prisoners released a list of practical proposals, the first of which read: "Apply the New York State minimum wage law to all state institutions. STOP SLAVE LABOR." The all-caps demand asserted a continuity between slavery and incarceration established by the Thirteenth Amendment: While abolishing slavery, the amendment also allows for its continuance, provided that the individual in question is being punished for a crime.

    Today, the notion that mass incarceration amounts to

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  • August 03, 2016

    Reforming the Racist Criminal Justice System

    Throughout the Democratic primaries, police brutality and systematic discrimination in the criminal justice system have become critical campaign issues, due in large part to the unrelenting pressure placed on candidates by activists involved in Black Lives Matter and other social movements. Criminal-justice reform, with an emphasis on abolishing racial inequality, now occupies a central place in the 2016 Democratic Party Platform.

    The party’s criminal-justice-reform agenda is outlined under a section of the platform entitled "Bring Americans Together and Remove Barriers to Opportunity" and

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  • May 26, 2016

    Fame's Growing Pains

    Consider the following simile: Growing up is like getting famous. The confusing internal and external changes, the influx of sexual attention, with its addictive qualities, and the magnified sense of shame. There’s a reason Disney Channel shows have found coming-of-fame to be such a useful narrative tool. While the coming-of-age novel often employs supernatural metaphors to explain puberty and its burdens—vampires or werewolves as an allegory of otherness, adult responsibility, and animal desire—burgeoning fame may offer a way to understand adolescence that’s closer to home, even as it remains

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  • February 22, 2016

    Machine Learning

    “Machine Learning” is a catchall term for software that improves computers’ ability to recognize patterns and solve problems through examples and feedback. Deep Learning is based on similar methods, but increases efficiency by mimicking the gang mentality of neurons, creating convolutional neural nets similar to the human mind, allowing computers to grasp abstract meaning with less guidance. The combination of these two learning approaches has put humanity on a rapid course toward creating sophisticated (and ubiquitous) artificial intelligence. The gold standard of AI has been a machine that

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  • January 29, 2016

    Selling Citizenship

    The idea of buying citizenship tends to invoke Bond villains or the louche drifters in Graham Greene’s novels. But it’s also a very real practice that offends nationalists, rankles politicians, and incites populist rage. It hints at a breakdown of the social contract, a “marketization” of everyday life that was practically unimaginable just ten years ago, and perhaps even the creeping obsolescence of the nation-state itself.

    Since the mid-2000s, citizenship has become a legitimate, above-board industry, one of the high-end services that bankers, lawyers, consultants, and accountants come

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  • November 23, 2015

    Southern Comedy

    When it comes to literature, the word southern practically begs for the follow-up gothic. A certain set of tropes spring to mind when you mention the South: alligators and frosted julep cups, hypocritical preachers and Civil War widows, decaying mansions and petit fours. With all the antebellum remnants to contend with, you don’t expect anyone to be very funny.

    But what I found when I worked on my book South Toward Home was that, too often, people are missing the humor in southern literature, the comic asides in the tales of deep-fried grotesque. Just listen to Flannery O’Connor read “A Good

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  • November 12, 2015

    Thought Laid Bare: Notebooks by Artists and Writers

    Looking through the notebook of an artist or writer is a revelatory experience: To enter their laboratory, where they are free of the weight of expectation, is to witness the unpredictable process in which ideas, materials, forms are first conceived and tested, discarded or developed. Notebooks are mysteriously alive—thought laid bare. Notes, sketches, and collaged scraps reveal the strange and compelling metamorphoses that result when writers and artists experiment and play, opening the field of possibilities. What notebooks have—in comparison with more finely wrought, finished works—are

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  • September 11, 2015

    Sex and Hysteria in the 1980s

    In the 1980s, an idea took hold throughout the US that very young children existed in a near-constant state of sexual danger. A moral panic ensued, in which many day-care workers were wrongly accused of committing awful, elaborate, sometimes satanic crimes against the children in their care. Some version of that fear remains a largely unquestioned feature of contemporary American life—see the persistent myth of a trenchcoat-clad predator stalking the playground—and its sources are extraordinarily varied. While working over the last few years on my book, We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic

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  • July 28, 2015

    Feminism, Dominance, and Submission

    It can seem a tall order to find literature about BDSM (Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadomasochism) that is both erotic and cerebral, and that can depict a woman playing the submissive role without appearing to demean her. Several years ago, Katie Roiphe and other journalists seized on the popularity of E. L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey series to suggest that women who enjoy the bottom role in kink do so because their increasing economic and political power have begun to feel like too much of a chore. But it should be obvious that power willingly surrendered as part of

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