Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry


    • Louis Sass
    • It might seem that the study of human experience, of the very nature of consciousness and our subjective lives, would necessarily lie at the heart of both psychology and psychiatry. What, after all, could be of greater interest and relevance, for us, than the question of what it is like to be us? How could one hope to grasp human differences—whether of culture, personality, or mental disorder—if one had no real sense of what it must be like to be that kind of person, or to see things as they do? How is it possible to recognize another human being as a human being, apart from recognizing his or her presence as another subjective center, embodied and embedded, yet somehow glowing with a comparable self-awareness and awareness of the world?

    • Evan Kindley
    • In 1950, Hugh Kenner, then a graduate student at Yale University, received a letter from his mentor Marshall McLuhan regarding a proposal for a project called Network. Kenner and McLuhan had met in 1946 at the University of Toronto, where McLuhan was a professor of English and Kenner had recently finished his M.A. The two shared an interest in literary modernism: indeed, Kenner would credit McLuhan with introducing him to the work of many of the writers on whom he would later become a leading authority, including Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis. For a while McLuhan and Kenner planned to collaborate on a book of critical essays about the modernists, to be titled “The New American Vortex,” and it was McLuhan who had recommended Kenner for a spot in the Ph.D. program at Yale, where he was writing a dissertation on Joyce directed by McLuhan’s friend, the American New Critic Cleanth Brooks.

    • Marjorie Garber
    • In the course of his career Paul Robeson was celebrated as a singer, a political activist, a public speaker, an international a star of stage and screen, an anticolonial champion of African states and of workers’ rights, and the originator of memorable roles from Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones to Show Boat’s stevedore Joe. But it was his identification with the role of Othello that generated the most striking political commentary and crossover, both during his lifetime and after his death.

    • Josh Ellenbogen and Adam Jolles
    • In the decade and a half after 1960, the photographic milieu of Rochester, New York established some of the most vital currents for the medium’s future history. While scholars have acknowledged this state of affairs—one historian has recently argued for a Rochester group of photographic artists and curators, united by contesting the conventions of straight photography—they have largely neglected the institutional framework that made the city so vital. In this essay, we propose to give a fuller account of the key individual, and above all institutional, agents that constituted the Rochester milieu, studying how forms of speech circulated amongst them: the ways of speaking that helped frame their thinking on photography, as well as the vast fertility of photographic practices and exhibitions to which the city played host. The interplay between Nathan Lyons, curator at the George Eastman House (GEH); John L. Debes III, educational consultant for the Kodak Company; and Minor White, editor of the photography journal Aperture, becomes crucial to this account. We seek to show how this interaction established discursive and practical possibilities for photographers, curators, and photo critics of the day, the scope of whose operations went well beyond Rochester.

    • Lydia H. Liu
    • “Can a machine have toothache?”

      There are some questions we should never put to Siri and other talking chatbots, or we will come away feeling underwhelmed by the machine’s much-touted intelligence. This could be one of them. The machine will not understand the question—at least, not in the foreseeable future—although humans would not fare much better trying to make sense of it either. The question bears the hallmarks of philosophical surrealism that identify the author as Ludwig Wittgenstein. It is as if the philosopher had anticipated Alan Turing’s classic provocation “Can machines think?” and decided to parody him.

    • Joshua Kotin
    • How do you start a revolution? In November 1965, Amiri Baraka (known then as LeRoi Jones) wrote a poem. “Black Art” opens with an attack on poetry: “Poems are bullshit unless they are / teeth or trees or lemons piled / on a step."

    • Robert Hullot-Kentor
    • An artwork is a set of instructions for breaking a promise. The exact same instructions must no less stipulate this promise. Yet its desideratum, its claim to reality—all that in art makes a promise a promise in the first place—is measured as being other than spurious exclusively in its violation. The work must succumb to itself or fail. Thus Eugene Istomin, the pianist, remarked that "there is a lot of Beethoven that demands more from the instruments than they can give," not to propose that an extra keyboard octave, for instance, is just what is missing from Ludwig van Beethoven's late sonatas, but to insist that the instrument's restrictions "certainly delighted the composer."

    • Mingyi Yu
    • The word “algorithm” has become the default descriptor for anything vaguely computational to the extent that it appears synonymous with computing itself. It has come to be the master signifier under which a spectrum of sense is subsumed, less a well-defined and stable expression than the vehicle through which innumerable concerns are projected. Commenting on this nebulous quality, historian of science Massimo Mazzotti has dubbed the term “a site of semantic confusion.” Yet, rather than “engaging in a taxonomic exercise to norm the usage of the word,” Mazzotti proposes that a more generative approach would “consider its flexible, ill-defined, and often inconsistent meanings as a resource: a messy map of our increasingly algorithmic life”––that is, he attempts to take “the omnipresent figure of the algorithm as an object that refracts collective expectations and anxieties.”