Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Winter 2009

Volume 35 Issue 2
    • 197Dipesh Chakrabarty
    • The current planetary crisis of climate change or global warming elicits a variety of responses in individuals, groups, and governments, ranging from denial, disconnect, and indifference to a spirit of engagement and activism of varying kinds and degrees. These responses saturate our sense of the now. Alan Weisman's best-selling book The World without Us suggests a thought experiment as a way of experiencing our present: “Suppose that the worst has happened. Human extinction is a fait accompli…. Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished…. Might we have left some faint, enduring mark on the universe?… Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?”1 I am drawn to Weisman's experiment as it tellingly demonstrates how the current crisis can precipitate a sense of the present that disconnects the future from the past by putting such a future beyond the grasp of historical sensibility. The discipline of history exists on the assumption that our past, present, and future are connected by a certain continuity of human experience. We normally envisage the future with the help of the same faculty that allows us to picture the past. Weisman's thought experiment illustrates the historicist paradox that inhabits contemporary moods of anxiety and concern about the finitude of humanity. To go along with Weisman's experiment, we have to insert ourselves into a future “without us” in order to be able to visualize it. Thus, our usual historical practices for visualizing times, past and future, times inaccessible to us personally—the exercise of historical understanding—are thrown into a deep contradiction and confusion. Weisman's experiment indicates how such confusion follows from our contemporary sense of the present insofar as that present gives rise to concerns about our future. Our historical sense of the present, in Weisman's version, has thus become deeply destructive of our general sense of history.

      1. Alan Weisman, The World without Us (New York, 2007), pp. 3–5.

      Dipesh Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History and South Asian Studies at the University of Chicago and a professorial fellow at the Research School of Humanities at the Australian National University.

      See also: Dipesh Chakrabarty, Literature and the Politics of Identity in Bengal  ·  Fabien Locher and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, Modernity's Frail Climate: A Climate History of Environmental Reflexivity

    • 223Robert B. Pippin
    • Actions are purposive deeds, and we understand an action by understanding the intention avowed or manifested by an agent. Or at least we start there. We must also be able to understand something of the reasons that led an agent to the formation of such an intention. If we ask someone why he is methodically killing his relatives and he says, “I am killing them so that I might eat them and prevent the appearance of the angels,” we would have literally understood his intention but not in a way that would render his action intelligible. So our attempt at understanding is always rationalizing, holistic, and psychological in this sense. The great problems occur when intentions do not match deeds and when the question of what exactly was done becomes quite complicated and contested. That is our problem here.

      Robert B. Pippin is the Evelyn Stefansson Nef Distinguished Service Professor in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought, the Department of Philosophy, and the College at the University of Chicago. He is the author of several books on German idealism, including Hegel's Idealism: The Satisfactions of Self-Consciousness and Modernism as a Philosophical Problem. His recent books are Henry James and Modern Moral Life; a collection of his essays in German, Die Verwirklichung der Freiheit; The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath; and a volume of his 2004 lectures at the Collège de France, Nietzsche, moraliste français. His latest book, published in 2008, is Hegel's Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life. He is a winner of the Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award in the Humanities, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and was recently a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.

      See also: Robert Pippin, Agency and Fate in Orson Welles's The Lady from Shanghai  ·  Robert Pippin, Vernacular Metaphysics: On Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line

    • 255Ambrosio Fornet
    • As regards the concepts of freedom and democracy, those like myself allude to a set of attributes that refer, in turn, to a social model in which all rights—both political and social—form a single, indivisible unit. Upon discovering that such a model is not a given but that it must be constructed through practice, through a process encumbered by tensions and contradictions, we are automatically confronted with the dilemma of priorities. We choose as our utmost priority the principle of justice: the principle affirming that without social justice—justice for all—there can be neither freedom nor democracy. For in the absence of justice all politics is mere manipulation, a ritual that serves only to perpetuate the privileges of a minority. Those aspirations to freedom and democracy are not vague desires but inalienable needs that require specific settings and agents in order to develop and consolidate through practice. Hence, within our island, forever threatened by a powerful enemy, we insist upon maintaining unity in diversity. Thus we continue to chart out the nation upon a specific territory, imagining nationality as the emotional attachment to a culture, as that sense of belonging that constitutes the subjective dimension of each citizen, including the possible emigrant, in relation to the motherland, the homeland.

      Ambrosio Fornet is a Cuban scholar, literary critic, and screenwriter who lives in Havana. He is the author of several collections of essays and editor of a number of anthologies of Cuban literature. His most recent books include Carpentier, o, La ética de la escritura (2006), and Las trampas del oficio (2007).

      See also: These Are the Times We Have to Live in: An Interview with Roberto Fernández Retamar  ·  W. J. T. Mitchell, Havana Diary: Cuba's Blue Period

    • 270Nancy Bentley
    • Almost unwittingly, then, the novel can be enlisted for an epistemology of the outside, registering the divided, incommensurable knowledge that is gained from inhabiting a position off of the dominant epistemic grid that defines kinship. Some of the most illuminating sites for understanding kinlessness are therefore sites of novelistic departure or mutation, formal spaces that recognize and express meanings that exceed the constricted familism of the genre. In the examples to which I now turn, these revisions enact startling inversions of the novel form that are necessary for critically representing kinlessness as a historical human condition. It was not an accident that these novels appeared in the wake of the failure of Reconstruction, at a moment when it became clear that legal emancipation would not bring social or political parity. At this historical juncture the intention to represent racial being as human being would require a new novelistic space––W. E. B. Du Bois will call it a “fourth dimension”––to give expression to the forms of personhood and affiliation of an unwritten kin world. Through this mutation of representational space these novels perform what Susan Stewart has described as a primary function of art, “to testify that we are living forms occupying space.”19

      19. Susan Stewart, “On the Art of the Future,” The Open Studio: Essays on Art and Aesthetics (Chicago, 2005), p. 21.

      Nancy Bentley is associate professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book is Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture, 1870–1920 (forthcoming). She is currently working on a monograph, New World Kinship and the American Novel.

      See also: Rob Nixon, Caribbean and African Appropriations of "The Tempest"  ·  Daniel Hack, The African Americanization of Bleak House  ·  Karen C. C. Dalton and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., African American Dance Seen through Parisian Eyes

    • 293Sean Shesgreen
    • In November of 1962, when Samuel Monk of the University of Minnesota received the first check for his labors as a period editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature (NAEL), he could not contain his glee. “I was and am stunned,” he wrote the general editor, M. H. Abrams. “I CANT believe that, with the melon sliced so many ways, my check should be so large. I have written to remind the company that I owe them $1000 in advances: advances that I asked for as a cushion against the chance of a big check, though I never dreamed of such Brobdignagggian (I went wrong there!) size. If, indeed, they DID deduct the $1000, then some sort of miracle has happened. Needless to say, I am grateful to you for cutting me in on the game.”1 E. Talbot Donaldson of Yale's English department, when his check arrived, was only a little less effusive: “I am delighted that the anthology is doing so well, and can scarcely contain my greed. It's my intention to spend every cent on immediate pleasures and then go to jail in lieu of income tax.”2

      · 1. Samuel Holt Monk, letter to Meyer Howard Abrams, 11 Nov. 1962. In his excitement, Monk twice misspelled Brobdingnagian but managed to only correct one of the typos.

      2. E. Talbot Donaldson, letter to Abrams, 13 Nov. 1962.

      Sean Shesgreen is a professor of English at Northern Illinois University. He has written on popular graphic art in England, the illustrated children's book, William Hogarth, and Jonathan Swift. His most recent book is Images of the Outcast: The Urban Poor in the Cries of London (2002).

      See also: Richard Ohmann, The Shaping of a Canon: U.S. Fiction, 1960-1975  ·  Frank Davey, Canadian Canons

    • 319Lev Manovich
    • The explosion of user-created media content on the web (dating from, say, 2005) has unleashed a new media universe. (Other terms often used to refer to this phenomenon include social media and user-generated content.) On a practical level, this universe was made possible by free web platforms and inexpensive software tools that enable people to share their media and easily access media produced by others, cheaper prices for professional-quality devices such as HD video cameras, and the addition of cameras and video capture to mobile phones. What is important, however, is that this new universe is not simply a scaled-up version of twentieth-century media culture. Instead, we have moved from media to social media.1 What does this shift mean for how media functions and for the terms we use to talk about media? What do trends in web use mean for culture in general and for professional art in particular? These are the questions this essay will engage with.

      1. See Adrian Chan, “Social Media: Paradigm Shift?”

      Lev Manovich is a professor in the Visual Arts Department at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of Black Box–White Cube (2005), Soft Cinema (2005), The Language of New Media (2001), and Metamediji (2001), and coeditor of Tekstura: Russian Essays on Visual Culture (1993).

      See also: Gertrud Koch, Carnivore or Chameleon: The Fate of Cinema Studies  ·  Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory

    • 332Sophia Roosth
    • This essay will analyze how sonification constitutes scientific objects and how scientists use sound to represent these scientific objects as subjects. While subjectivity implies the ability to speak to one's conditions it also suggests that actors' utterances are conditioned by epistemic and ideological regimes. Sonocytology renders ambiguous the distinction between cells speaking and cells being spoken for. Specifically, I will attend to how raw sound is transformed into signals—that is, how scientists convert inchoate cellular vibrations into meaningful scientific data. In order to answer the question of how sound might alter the way in which scientists perceive and understand cellular activity, I will first describe how sonocytology developed and how scientists and popular media have turned to metaphor in order to make sense of cellular noise. I will then focus on two epistemological effects of using sound scientifically to explore otherwise inaccessible spaces. The first concerns the ways we think of organisms in their environment and in relation to other organisms, and the second bears on the question of how we think about the interiority of an organism as a stage on which dynamic biological processes are performed.

      Sophia Roosth is a doctoral candidate in the programs of History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

      See also: Stefan Helmreich, What Was Life? Answers from Three Limit Biologies  ·  Hannah Landecker, Cellular Features: Microcinematography and Film Theory

    • 351Charles Bernstein
    • I was wrong, I apologize, I recant. I altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the center of the world and immovable, and that the earth is not the center of the world, and moves. I must not hold, defend, or teach in any way whatsoever, verbally or in writing, the said false doctrine.

      Charles Bernstein is Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. His books include Blind Witness: Three American Operas (2008); Girly Man (2006); Shadowtime (2005); Republics of Reality: 1975–1995 (2000); Content's Dream: Essays, 1975–1984 (1986); and Controlling Interests (1980).

      See also: Charles Bernstein, Optimism and Critical Excess (Process)  ·  Charles Bernstein, Disfiguring Abstraction

    • 361Jerome McGann
    • Do you think that one schooled for eight years in the insidious ways of Jesuitical discourse would be deceived by this deceptive text? Not likely. Midrash indeed! We know the literary heritage on which St. Ignatius and his warriors erected their rhetorical skills. Unam, sanctam, catholicam. A.M.D.G.