Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry


    • Wendy Hui Kyong Chun
    • Documenting the actions of conservatives to misrepresent the scientific consensus regarding global warming and creating coalitions between scientists and science studies are important, and who can be against caring for and protecting the planet? This essay, however, revisits and reformulates some of the fundamental assumptions driving the debate over global climate change in order to help pave other paths forward. Accepting the debate as one of science versus politics ignores the fact that both sides claim that they are scientific and the other is political. Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have shown, the “merchants of doubt” have been so successful because they themselves are—or have been—scientists. This framing also glosses over questions raised by global climate change about the assumed causal relationships between evidence and reality, reality and truth. These questions not only trouble the separation of science from politics, model from evidence but also, and more importantly, the normal and normative relationship between understanding and agency. To return to the poll numbers cited earlier, it is fascinating that, whether or not people think that human-caused global warming is true, a vast majority believe that the world is getting warmer, and an even greater majority believe that the EPA should regulate greenhouse gas emissions. (It is also telling that global climate change—science—is something to be believed in rather than known.) Instead of action following certainty, action seems to precede it; further, truth—causality—does not seem to be necessary for certainty. The Enlightenment model, which framed good action as stemming from correct knowledge and experience, no longer holds (if it ever did). Big data algorithms, which trumpet correlation over causality and which reveal the increasing divide between what is empirically observed (real) and what is true, further demote the place of causality. Given that almost any correlation can now be divined, how do we know which correlations are essential and which are accidental? Does causality even matter if supplemental correlations are better predictors and amplifiers of action? Further, what knowledge inspires action? Given this troubling of causal inference, the pressing questions in terms of combatting global climate change are: How can we understand and use this loosening of correlation and causality to register the impacts of global climate change? And how can we act on this desire for regulation rather than prolong inaction by engaging in possibly endless debates about the reasons for inaction?

    • Samuel R. Delany
    • I don’t know the source of this insight, but I first heard it at Cornell University during a conference on modern opera in 1986 or thereabouts. Someone giving a paper on Claude Debussy’s Pelle ́as et Me made the point that many works of modernism retell one of two tales, the story of Oedipus or the story of Parsifal—and sometimes both. In this young music scholar’s characterization, Oedipus (“the lamed man”) is the smart bastard who, when he meets the riddling sphinx, seems to know all the answers. Parsifal (“the pure fool”) is the dumb bastard (in the sense of unable to speak), who, when he first observes the ceremony of the Grail, doesn’t know the questions to ask; he must go away, learn what they are, then return to try again. (I wish I remembered the man’s name so I could credit him for the observation.)

      It’s fairly easy to map Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady (1923) onto the Parsifal story—or, to make it even easier, onto the fragmented version of it in T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (1922). Eliot’s poem had been published and becomean instant literary cause ce ́le`bre a year before Cather’s elegant and novella—or long short story—appeared in its own volume from Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. It can bear either genre mark as easily as novel.

    • Frances Ferguson
    • We all know the experience: we turn on our computers and encounter a suggestive series of questions. Would we like a hotel room in New York on 5 May, a rental car at Newark Liberty Airport on 5 May, a good price on a hot water heater? Search engines are, even as we speak, officiously enlisting more supports for our actions. They don’t appear simply as versions of some eager servant—like the Jeeves once revived for an advice-gathering website that has now died the death or changed its name. They know what we like, and they know where we live. All the tracks of what we have seen, of what we have done, constitute our signatures, our profiles. D. H. Lawrence called such collections of preferences and tastes evidence of our “personalities” and contemptuously described the world in which people recognize that they have congruent preferences and tastes as one in which they imagine themselves to be in love—are in love—because they are“‘thrilled’” with one another’s “personalities.”

      Hailing—I here cite a very few instances out of an infinite number of possibilities—takes place constantly. It can sometimes seem that magazine subscription agencies, political parties, charities, universities, car dealerships, online travel sales, and car rentals call us by name more frequently than do the people we see face to face. Friendly rather than accusatory, helpful rather than testing, the greetings that arrive in mail both slow and etherized may make us notice the culture of universal surveillance that allows an airline or a politician to know more about us than our mothers or our lovers do. What I hope to do in the discussion that follows is not merely to register the ironies of recognition or lament the surveillance of daily life that accompanies even and especially routine communications, communications that present messages from strangers in tones of greatest intimacy. I also want to use this intimacy-through-algorithm to address the problem of literary understanding and how a text or a film that is written or made by some person or persons finds its way to another person or persons, how it greets them and is greeted by them.

    • Diana Garvin
    • Taylorist breastfeeding constitutes a distinctly Italian phenomenon. The ideal rationalist clinics staged in the propaganda film Alle madri d’Italia (To the Mothers of Italy) serve to naturalize a factory-like vision of women’s healthcare by casting breastfeeding and childbirth as forms of mass production belonging to the state. At this nexus of medical and design history, state imperatives combined pieces of preexisting gender roles from mass media, the Catholic Church, and medical literature to create a new model for industrial motherhood. In doing so, however, the regime implicitly endorsed women’s labor in the public sphere, which had the ultimate effect of undermining its own promotion of socially conservative gender roles.

    • Steve Hindle
    • It is late in the afternoon on a warm July day in 1744. A gentry family sits at ease on the terrace of their country house, the husband and wife looking devotedly at each other. The face of their sister-in-law is, however, turned instead toward the viewer, a guest who stands—probably—at a first-floor window of their mansion. All three patrician figures have their backs to the estate, but their gestures invite the observer, perhaps by practicing the magnifying, mechanical gaze made possible by the telescope on the landlord’s desk, to join him in surveying it. The prospect is an attractive one, especially in the sultry early summer haze, and it calls attention not only to the picturesque features of the managed landscape, with its rectangular ponds, its neatly sculpted shrubs and its trimmed lawns, but also to the distant presence of an agricultural workforce busy at the hay harvest. The vista juxtaposes wholesome toil with well-earned rest, the leisure of the gentry throwing into even greater relief the arduousness of the plebeian task of raking hay.

    • Hagi Kenaan
    • Triggered by a photograph. That’s one way to put it.

      The question that I wish to discuss here, a methodological question about how to articulate the ontological specificity of the photographic image or about how a philosophy of the image can contribute to an understanding of the particularity of photography, emerged while spending time looking at Karen Knorr’s The Pencil of Nature (1994). Knorr’s photograph is part of her Academies series and was taken in a corridor of the Swedish Royal Academy of Arts in Stockholm. In between a large neoclassical statue of a standing nude man, on a pedestal, whose head cannot be seen and a medallion relief depicting a man’s head in profile (hanging on the wall and seen through a glass partition), the photograph presents a staged scene that evokes an anecdote or myth, which is immediately familiar to the art historian. At the very center of the picture, two women are intensely engaged in a mutual endeavor, one tracing the shadow of the other’s face that falls against a wall.

    • Mahmood Mamdani
    • For students of settler colonialism in the modern era, Africa and America represent two polar opposites. Africa is the continent where settler colonialism has been defeated; America is where settler colonialism triumphed. My interest in this essay is the American discourse on the making of America. My ambition is to do this from an African vantage point.

      Europeans who came to the New World were preoccupied with the ways in which it was not like Europe. Over the centuries that followed, there developed a body of work known as American exceptionalism. The benchmark text for this scholarship is the mid-nineteenth-century reflection on America by Alexis de Tocqueville. Democracy in America remains required reading in most programs in political theory or American politics. Among the arguments Tocqueville advanced in Democracy in America was that the key feature distinguishing America from Europe was the absence of feudalism; not tied down by the baggage of feudal tradition, America could enjoy the benefits of revolutionary change without having to pay its price. My concern here is less with Tocqueville than with how the Tocquevillians understood him.