Press reader – The Backwaters Press http://thebackwaterspress.org/ Thu, 24 Nov 2022 01:30:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.9.3 https://thebackwaterspress.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/icon-34.png Press reader – The Backwaters Press http://thebackwaterspress.org/ 32 32 Tianxia: Notes on an imaginary game world (2082) https://thebackwaterspress.org/tianxia-notes-on-an-imaginary-game-world-2082/ Wed, 09 Nov 2022 11:22:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/tianxia-notes-on-an-imaginary-game-world-2082/ A story from Adrian Hon’s book “A New Story of the Future in 100 Objects” Image source: LB, via Unsplash BeeLine Reader uses subtle color gradients to help you read more effectively. In “A New Story of the Future in 100 Objects,” game designer and author Adrian Hon constructs a possible future by imagining the […]]]>

A story from Adrian Hon’s book “A New Story of the Future in 100 Objects”

Image source: LB, via Unsplash

In “A New Story of the Future in 100 Objects,” game designer and author Adrian Hon constructs a possible future by imagining the things it might leave in its wake. Writing in the voice of a curator in 2082, the narrator looks back to the 21st century, offering a history of the times through a series of objects and artifacts, people and events, which have transformed nearly every aspects of society. Many of these things are only an update or two away: improved ankle monitors, for example, and delivery people. Others may be the logical conclusions of current trends – “downvote” networks that identify and erase undesirables, for example, and a universal basic income system that values ​​idleness and connection over work. More benign are the concepts of Braid Collective, which provides financial support to artists, and recharted cities, which invite immigrants to revitalize urban areas hollowed out by demographic change. Throughout, the book offers a hopeful yet lucid view of how we might negotiate and design our way forward. In the following excerpt, our narrator of the future talks about Tianxia, ​​one of the most sophisticated and detailed simulations ever presented to the public.
—Editors


Shanghai, China, 2030

How far would you like to go back in time? To the ice age of 150,000 years ago to warm the world a few degrees and help hominids get by? Or maybe 65 million years, to nudge an asteroid’s trajectory so that it avoids Earth, preventing a mass extinction? How about 1.4 billion years, to fine-tune the balance of the planet’s atmosphere? Or 3 billion years, to modify the flows of magma under the surface and reshape the continents? Or even further, to change the atoms scattered by the supernovae that eventually merged into our world?

I hold a virtual world in my hands and I can modify it as I see fit. It was Tianxia.

From 2032 to 2034, Tianxia, ​​or “everything under the sky”, was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world, attracting 400 million players and 2 billion viewers. For a while, it even consumed more than 6% of the world’s total processing power. Tianxia was simultaneously hailed as a revolution in our understanding of planetary science, geology, and evolution, and condemned as distracting and insidious pseudoscience.

Tianxia was originally designed as an academic survey, free from controversy. In 2030, an expanded Shanghai Tech team consisting of Professor Ernest Han, three graduate students, and seven systems experts was analyzing data from the Zheng He Orbiting Telescope. The team wanted to understand how a collection of 65 Earth-like planets formed and whether they could harbor life. Their chosen strategy was simple: “go back in time” a few billion years and then simulate the physical and chemical processes that the planets would have undergone. To reduce the near-infinite set of simulations required to a more manageable number, Professor Han’s team planned to enlist hobbyists on the Zooniverse network to manipulate the simulations as they progress, regularly removing obviously “lifeless” planets.

While Professor Han’s team had created one of the most sophisticated and detailed simulations ever presented to the public, enthusiasts stayed away; the software was just too difficult to use. But when an enterprising fan forged the code, grafted on more explicit game mechanics and a vastly improved graphics engine, and renamed it “Tianxia”, interest skyrocketed.

To understand the importance of Tianxia, ​​I spoke to simulation historian Estelle Egan:

It may seem like a crude toy to us today, but in the 1930s Tianxia offered players the ability to create their own miniature worlds that could be rendered and examined in stunning detail, from orbit to rivers, trees and animals. It was perhaps the first game to fully deliver on the outlandish promise of previous games such as Spore and Worldcraft, a promise of total control over a living, breathing, highly complex world.

Unlike those previous games, players generally did not manage their creations in Tianxia. Most preferred to set their world’s initial starting conditions, then sit back and watch the simulation unfold, only occasionally interfering to guide the path of a wandering asteroid or prevent an ice age from killing off a favorite species. Top Tianxia players have attracted followers (and money) based on the “interest” of the worlds they have cured. For example, a barren and immutable rock was much less popular than a rock with a functional and stable ecosystem.

Successive Tianxia patches have seen additional detail added to the geological and environmental systems, perhaps the most popular being the “agent” simulation introduced in 2033, allowing the creation of base societies in the game. Run a Tianxia simulation long enough and your world could end up going to war with itself, or become so advanced that it could run its own primitive simulations.

Other fixes included unusual and fantasy planet styles such as ring worlds, orbitals, Dyson spheres, and adjustments to the speed of light or gravity. However, most players tended to stick closer to Earth-like planets in their games, captivated by the richness and complexity of the worlds created by themselves and their friends. Thousands of players have made a lot of money selling beautiful custom Tianxia worlds through branching and remixing. Needless to say, by this point, Tianxia had strayed from its original academic goals, and its original creator, Professor Han, refused to even acknowledge the game’s existence.

Why was Tianxia so popular and captivating, and how did it manage to stand out from the seemingly endless array of live action role-playing games that had dominated entertainment in recent years? Egan provides an overview:

Tianxia was the right game for the right time. Humanity was beginning to grasp the depth and meaning of its mastery over nature. We were on the cusp of groundbreaking geoengineering projects that we believed would repair the oceans and atmosphere, and we gazed upon thousands of worlds across the galaxy, believing we could capture their past and future. We felt like we understood the world because we could simulate it, visualize it, and model it.

But in truth, these simulations did not reflect reality, not on the scale they were intended. They only reflected our pride. We realized that pretty early on.

Yet for a brief moment before this calamity, the world relaxed. Four hundred million people remembered the words “in the beginning” and created their own heaven and earth.


Adrian Hon is CEO and founder of London-based game design company Six to Start. He is the author of “You’ve Been Played: How Corporations, Governments, and Schools Use Games to Control Us All” (Basic Books, 2022) and “A New History of the Future in 100 Objects”, of which this article is drawn. extract.

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When the elites tried to monopolize the hunt https://thebackwaterspress.org/when-the-elites-tried-to-monopolize-the-hunt/ Tue, 18 Oct 2022 10:20:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/when-the-elites-tried-to-monopolize-the-hunt/ A brief story. By: Jan E. Dizard and Mary Zeiss Stange BeeLine Reader uses subtle color gradients to help you read more effectively. It is difficult to say precisely when the elites – that small segment of the population of a state who lived off the labor of those who worked the soil, dug the […]]]>

A brief story.

By: Jan E. Dizard and Mary Zeiss Stange

It is difficult to say precisely when the elites – that small segment of the population of a state who lived off the labor of those who worked the soil, dug the irrigation canals and took care of the domestic animals – began to s arrogate exclusive hunting rights. . Yet we know from Greek, Roman and Hindu myths that hunting became a sign of status and power. (Recall Xenophon’s annual garden celebration of the goddess of the hunt.) And the monopolization of the hunt meant that the peasants would remain tied to plowing the fields and digging the irrigation canals. We cannot do justice to the great variations in hunting across cultures that arose with the spread of agriculture, let alone all the variations that took place during about 6000 BCE until the late 19th century, but we can briefly examine the core characteristics of how the rise of empires and eventually nation states shaped the hunt.

Hunting most likely became the first sport of kings. Historian Erich Hobusch’s survey of hunting history documents how kings and emperors carved out exclusive hunting grounds for themselves and were prepared to punish, sometimes harshly, intruders. Varying degrees of elite monopolization appear almost as soon as stable regimes emerge in the Middle East, Eurasia, South Asia and Europe. Unfortunately, the records of the ancient world are skewed in favor of these elites whose possessions, burial sites, palaces and temples are far more likely to have survived as evidence compared to the humble possessions of peasants. As a result, we cannot be sure of the extent of elite hunting dominance in early empires or how commoners hunted. Commoners must have hunted and at least occasionally risked hunting in private reserves. In some areas elite domination of hunting has become almost complete for periods of time. England was such an extreme example. In 1723, in response to an increase in poaching, the Black Act was passed, making poaching a capital crime. (The law was repealed in 1823.)

The ability of the elites to dominate the wildest beasts legitimized their domination over their subjects.

Another common feature of hunting in emerging empires was an emphasis on killing the best carnivores and other dangerous animals. The Assyrian King Tiglath-Pilser I (1112-1074 BC) boasted: “At the command of Ninurta, my patroness, I, with a brave heart, killed 120 lions in a terrible fight, facing animals on foot. I also killed 800 lions from my war chariot. Classical archaeologist Judith Barringer reports that confrontations with boar were common in depictions of the hunt in ancient Greece. The Romans notoriously did fight shows with lions. In India, elite hunters have a proven track record of killing tigers and leopards, especially in direct hand-to-hand combat. Dangerous animals provided a test of bravery and strength that granted elites an aura of invincibility as well as superhuman abilities. The ability of the elites to dominate the wildest beasts legitimized their domination over their subjects. It also underscored the claim that elites were able to protect the weak.

Piling up the carcasses of large dangerous animals must have been impressive. But that was not enough for some. The same king of Assyria who boasted of having killed hundreds of lions added, almost after the fact: “Every kind of game of the fields and fowl in the sky, I have made my career out of.” Over time, these royal hunts became increasingly elaborate, enlisting hundreds of peasants to drive game, large and small, to the waiting hunters. Meat distribution practices vary widely and details are scarce. This is admittedly a guess, but it seems likely that in the early stages of state formation, bounty sharing was probably common, but in mature states, where stratification was explicit and rigid, and where the royal family was surrounded by a great retinue of courtiers, little, if anything, would accrue to the peasantry.

The myths and trappings of elite hunting served the elites well, but they could not stifle criticism. Two examples will suffice to illustrate the long-term fragility of elite hunting; both involve Britain and its empire. Puritan and Quaker opposition to the Crown focused on the excesses of the elites, not the least of which were their extravagant hunts, which offended the sensibilities of Protestant sects for whom excess amounted to idolatry. When the dissidents founded the American colonies, they laid the foundations of what was to become, by turns, a model of democratic hunting, clearly juxtaposed with that of the elites.

A continent away in India, and a century and a half later, the British, who had by then responded to discontent at home by developing a hunting philosophy that became known as the “sport hunter”, celebrated hunting and rejected the goal of stacking mountains. of dead animals (or at least the celebration and public display of such achievements). But they caved in to local Indian elites, who depended on extravagant hunts to assert their status. When India gained independence in 1947, the new government essentially banned almost all hunting.

The legacy of centuries of elite hunting dominance has created three distinct hunting cultures. One, dominant in some former colonies, is a total ban on hunting; the second is an elite sporting tradition, followed in much of Europe and the British Isles; and third, a democratic hunting pattern that characterized North America.


Jean Dizard is the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor Emeritus of American Culture at Amherst College. He is the author of books and articles on the evolution of the family, race relations and, particularly relevant to hunting, articles on environmental policy, hunting ethics and wildlife.

Marie Zeiss Stange is Emeritus Professor of Women’s Studies and Religion at Skidmore College. She is internationally recognized as the authority on women and hunting, and specializes in writing and communicating about women, firearms, hunting and ecofeminism.

This article is excerpted from Dizard and Zeiss Stange’s book “Hunting: A Culture History”.

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When the elites tried to monopolize the hunt https://thebackwaterspress.org/when-the-elites-tried-to-monopolize-the-hunt-2/ Tue, 18 Oct 2022 07:00:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/when-the-elites-tried-to-monopolize-the-hunt-2/ A brief story. By: Jan E. Dizard and Mary Zeiss Stange BeeLine Reader uses subtle color gradients to help you read more effectively. It is difficult to say precisely when the elites – that small segment of the population of a state who lived off the labor of those who worked the soil, dug the […]]]>

A brief story.

By: Jan E. Dizard and Mary Zeiss Stange

It is difficult to say precisely when the elites – that small segment of the population of a state who lived off the labor of those who worked the soil, dug the irrigation canals and took care of the domestic animals – began to s arrogate exclusive hunting rights. . Yet we know from Greek, Roman and Hindu myths that hunting became a sign of status and power. (Recall Xenophon’s annual garden celebration of the goddess of the hunt.) And the monopolization of the hunt meant that the peasants would remain tied to plowing the fields and digging the irrigation canals. We cannot do justice to the great variations in hunting across cultures that arose with the spread of agriculture, let alone all the variations that took place during about 6000 BCE until the late 19th century, but we can briefly examine the core characteristics of how the rise of empires and eventually nation states shaped the hunt.

Hunting most likely became the first sport of kings. Historian Erich Hobusch’s survey of hunting history documents how kings and emperors carved out exclusive hunting grounds for themselves and were prepared to punish, sometimes harshly, intruders. Varying degrees of elite monopolization appear almost as soon as stable regimes emerge in the Middle East, Eurasia, South Asia and Europe. Unfortunately, the records of the ancient world are skewed in favor of these elites whose possessions, burial sites, palaces and temples are far more likely to have survived as evidence compared to the humble possessions of peasants. As a result, we cannot be sure of the extent of elite hunting dominance in early empires or how commoners hunted. Commoners must have hunted and at least occasionally risked hunting in private reserves. In some areas elite domination of hunting has become almost complete for periods of time. England was such an extreme example. In 1723, in response to an increase in poaching, the Black Act was passed, making poaching a capital crime. (The law was repealed in 1823.)

The ability of the elites to dominate the wildest beasts legitimized their domination over their subjects.

Another common feature of hunting in emerging empires was an emphasis on killing the best carnivores and other dangerous animals. The Assyrian King Tiglath-Pilser I (1112-1074 BC) boasted: “At the command of Ninurta, my patroness, I, with a brave heart, killed 120 lions in a terrible fight, facing animals on foot. I also killed 800 lions from my war chariot. Classical archaeologist Judith Barringer reports that confrontations with boar were common in depictions of the hunt in ancient Greece. The Romans notoriously did fight shows with lions. In India, elite hunters have a proven track record of killing tigers and leopards, especially in direct hand-to-hand combat. Dangerous animals provided a test of bravery and strength that granted elites an aura of invincibility as well as superhuman abilities. The ability of the elites to dominate the wildest beasts legitimized their domination over their subjects. It also underscored the claim that elites were able to protect the weak.

Piling up the carcasses of large dangerous animals must have been impressive. But that was not enough for some. The same king of Assyria who boasted of having killed hundreds of lions added, almost after the fact: “Every kind of game of the fields and fowl in the sky, I have made my career out of.” Over time, these royal hunts became increasingly elaborate, enlisting hundreds of peasants to drive game, large and small, to the waiting hunters. Meat distribution practices vary widely and details are scarce. This is admittedly a guess, but it seems likely that in the early stages of state formation, bounty sharing was probably common, but in mature states, where stratification was explicit and rigid, and where the royal family was surrounded by a great retinue of courtiers, little, if anything, would accrue to the peasantry.

The myths and trappings of elite hunting served the elites well, but they could not stifle criticism. Two examples will suffice to illustrate the long-term fragility of elite hunting; both involve Britain and its empire. Puritan and Quaker opposition to the Crown focused on the excesses of the elites, not the least of which were their extravagant hunts, which offended the sensibilities of Protestant sects for whom excess amounted to idolatry. When the dissidents founded the American colonies, they laid the foundations of what was to become, by turns, a model of democratic hunting, clearly juxtaposed with that of the elites.

A continent away in India, and a century and a half later, the British, who had by then responded to discontent at home by developing a hunting philosophy that became known as the “sport hunter”, celebrated hunting and rejected the goal of stacking mountains. of dead animals (or at least the celebration and public display of such achievements). But they caved in to local Indian elites, who depended on extravagant hunts to assert their status. When India gained independence in 1947, the new government essentially banned almost all hunting.

The legacy of centuries of elite hunting dominance has created three distinct hunting cultures. One, dominant in some former colonies, is a total ban on hunting; the second is an elite sporting tradition, followed in much of Europe and the British Isles; and third, a democratic hunting pattern that characterized North America.


Jean Dizard is the Charles Hamilton Houston Professor Emeritus of American Culture at Amherst College. He is the author of books and articles on the evolution of the family, race relations and, particularly relevant to hunting, articles on environmental policy, hunting ethics and wildlife.

Marie Zeiss Stange is Emeritus Professor of Women’s Studies and Religion at Skidmore College. She is internationally recognized as the authority on women and hunting, and specializes in writing and communicating about women, firearms, hunting and ecofeminism.

This article is excerpted from Dizard and Zeiss Stange’s book “Hunting: A Culture History”.

]]>
Nicola Sturgeon is booed, the press reader is ashamed https://thebackwaterspress.org/nicola-sturgeon-is-booed-the-press-reader-is-ashamed/ Tue, 04 Oct 2022 09:02:50 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/nicola-sturgeon-is-booed-the-press-reader-is-ashamed/ I am writing to say how disgusted I was to attend King Charles’ inaugural visit to the city today and to hear part of the crowd booing our Prime Minister. I am not a royalist but I wanted to welcome the confirmation of the finally official recognition of Dunfermline as a town. I don’t believe […]]]>

I am writing to say how disgusted I was to attend King Charles’ inaugural visit to the city today and to hear part of the crowd booing our Prime Minister.

I am not a royalist but I wanted to welcome the confirmation of the finally official recognition of Dunfermline as a town.

I don’t believe in an unelected elite, but I would never have considered disrespecting King Charles and Camilla the way some mob members did Nicola Sturgeon.

Don’t the people of Dunfermline know that local SNP councilors were heavily involved in applying for and obtaining township status?

Don’t the people of Dunfermline know that it is SNP policy to keep King Charles as head of state if Scotland becomes independent?

The Prime Minister has always shown respect to the royal family. Are the people of Dunfermline forgetting the work she has done during the Covid pandemic and the efforts she is making to mitigate the worst of Tory politics during the current cost of living disaster?

The boos were, of course, widely reported on both STV and the BBC to place a negative framing on his presence.

What should have been a day of celebration and congratulations was marred by the reactions of some in the crowd.

I have never been so ashamed of my hometown as I am today.

David and Linda Ferris

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The new art of making books https://thebackwaterspress.org/the-new-art-of-making-books/ Mon, 19 Sep 2022 10:25:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/the-new-art-of-making-books/ On the “books”. BeeLine Reader uses subtle color gradients to help you read more effectively. The ubiquity of the book as a marketable artifact led Mexican author and artist Ulises Carrión (1941-1989) to write rebelliously in 1975: “A book can be the accidental container of a text, whose structure has nothing to do with the […]]]>

On the “books”.

The ubiquity of the book as a marketable artifact led Mexican author and artist Ulises Carrión (1941-1989) to write rebelliously in 1975: “A book can be the accidental container of a text, whose structure has nothing to do with the book: these are the books of bookstores and libraries. We have to imagine a long pause where this colon articulates the sentence – a heavy one of sarcasm.

This article is excerpted from “The Book”, by Amaranth Borsuk

Carrión’s ironic investigation of the book as a commercial artifact reflects the separation of form and content he perceived in the writing and publishing of his time. Carrión was not completely opposed to bookstores and even founded one himself, Other Books and So, in Amsterdam the same year. Specializing in artists’ books and multiples, the shop was also an exhibition and event space run by artists who disseminated the kind of works he wanted to see more of in the world: books designed as a whole , rather than “texts” granted by the author to a publisher for distribution to a reading public. In an advertisement for space, he called them “non-books, anti-books, pseudo-books, quasi-books, concrete books, visual books, concept books, structural books, project books, statement books, instructions”, an evocative list of his controversial relationship with the market. Ultimately, he would coin a new term to describe the kind of artist publications he championed: works of books. In part, Carrión was a clear call for authors to be more mindful of the book’s materiality and impact on meaning, but it was also a demand for the collapse of the system that privileged writing as work. intellectual and denigrated the physicality of book production.

Carrión perceived a crisis in literature, and for him this crisis arose from his place in the editorial system.

Carrión perceived a crisis in literature, and for him this crisis arose from his place in the editorial system. He knew this system firsthand, having achieved early success by winning the State Prize for Short Stories in 1960, publishing work in periodicals, and eventually publishing two collections of success stories, in 1966 and 1970. Carrión had studied literature and philosophy at UNAM, and he achieved enough success to receive postgraduate scholarships in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. While in England, he began to consider a different approach to books and publishing, thanks to Mexican artists Felipe Ehrenberg and Martha Hellion, whose Beau Geste Press (founded in 1970) introduced him to books mimeographed by members of Fluxus, a free collective of artists interested in random operations, ephemeral performances, conceptual practice and participatory works that blur the line between art and life. When he moved to Amsterdam in 1972, Carrión began producing his own artists’ books, the first of which, “Sonnets”, provided 44 iterations of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Heart’s Compass”. Like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947), Carrión plays with his source text, rewriting it in different styles for amusing purposes. It was in this context of experimenting with poetry and moving from narrative to conceptual art that Carrión began to formulate the notion of the book.

Demanding that writers take a more active part in conceptualizing their books, he published “The New Art of Making Books” (1975), a manifesto whose polemical tone served as a provocation that still irritates some readers today. Originally written in Spanish and published in Plural, the magazine founded by Octavio Paz, it was aimed at a literary audience that Carrión felt the need for a boost. Disavowing the novel as “a book where nothing happens”, and proclaiming “there is not and will be no more new literature”, he clearly hoped to ruffle feathers. The novel, of course, is not dead, and it still serves an important expressive purpose, but Carrión’s reinterpretation of the book’s capabilities shows us much about how artists’ books have helped multiply its possibilities by dealing the book as an intermediate space. .

Like Stéphane Mallarmé before him, Carrión saw the spatial potential of the page. Its manifesto opens with “A book is a sequence of spaces”, a definition so porous that it allows for any number of objects or artefacts that we might think of as books: a bound codex, a set of cards or a series of coins. But his definition goes even further:

Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment – ​​a book is also a sequence of moments.

• • • •

A book is not a box of words, nor a bag of words, nor a carrier of words.

• • • •

… A book is a space-time sequence.

If a book is a space-time sequence, it is also a kind of film. It can be animated rather than static. At the time Carrión wrote this statement, the creators of flip-books and their precursor, the nickelodeon, had harnessed this aspect of the book’s sequential potential for just over a century (the flip-book having been patented in 1868 by John Barnes Linnett as the kineographer). This notion, however, that the page is more than just a “bag of words” suggests that writers need to stop treating language as transparent, utilitarian, and direct. It was only in ancient art that one could believe that “the meanings of words carry the intentions of the author”. Clearly, Carrión’s thought bears the hallmarks of poststructural theory, which at this stage had shaken the notions of meaning and authorship.

Instead of these “boring” books “of 500 pages, or 100, even 25 where all the pages are similar”, Carrión called for books “conceived as an expressive unit”, as he will write in a catalog exhibition of 1978. . Although calling pages of justified prose “boring” seems deliberately bombastic, we must consider the role that page numbers and reading heads play in making a work easier to read and revise. These panels help us navigate through text that looks the same from page to page, even though its words may vary. “In a book”, according to Carrión’s definition, “the message is the sum of all the material and formal elements”. The book thus engages in a critique of the book and an exploration of its affordances. He takes nothing at face value and asks the reader to remain attentive not only to the text but also to its physicality. As researcher Garrett Stewart writes, a book is “not for normal reading, but for thinking about.” It represents a conceptual approach to bookmaking, which relies on the viewer’s interaction with the object to provide meaning. For this reason, Carrión has called these works “anti-books” — because they deny the function of the book while questioning its form, separating the idea of ​​the book from the object.

Sounding the death knell for books that have since become a chorus, Carrión suggests that books take on more importance when the codex itself seems in jeopardy.

In a 1986 video recorded in Olympia, Washington, where Carrión was to speak at Evergreen State College, he professes a common perspective today: “I firmly believe that every book that exists now will eventually disappear. And true to form, he expresses little sadness over the loss: “And I see no reason to lament here. Like any other living organism, books grow, multiply, change color and eventually die. At present, the books represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books.

Sounding the death knell for books that have since become a chorus, Carrión suggests that books take on more importance when the codex itself seems in jeopardy. This is especially true today, when publishers are taking more and more risks with art publications and conceptually inventive books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s cut-to-shape erasure “Tree of Codes” (Visual Editions , 2010), Mark Danielewski’s intricate “House of Leaves” typography. (Pantheon, 2000), Anne Carson’s accordion “Nox” (New Directions, 2010), and Jen Bervin’s collection of envelope fragments by Emily Dickinson, “Gorgeous Nothings” (New Directions, 2013 ), a volume that resembles a coffee-table book. As the material form of the codex threatens to disintegrate into the digital, works highly sensitive to materiality give us the opportunity to think about and savor the physical artifact, precisely by asking us to ponder the very “idea”. immaterial of the book.


Amaranth Borsuk is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, where she also teaches MFA in creative and poetic writing. She is the author of “The Book”, from which this article is excerpted, “Between Page and Screen”, a digital pop-up poetry book, and other print/digital hybrid books.

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The new art of making books https://thebackwaterspress.org/the-new-art-of-making-books-2/ Mon, 19 Sep 2022 07:00:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/the-new-art-of-making-books-2/ On the “books”. BeeLine Reader uses subtle color gradients to help you read more effectively. The ubiquity of the book as a marketable artifact led Mexican author and artist Ulises Carrión (1941-1989) to write rebelliously in 1975: “A book can be the accidental container of a text, whose structure has nothing to do with the […]]]>

On the “books”.

The ubiquity of the book as a marketable artifact led Mexican author and artist Ulises Carrión (1941-1989) to write rebelliously in 1975: “A book can be the accidental container of a text, whose structure has nothing to do with the book: these are the books of bookstores and libraries. We have to imagine a long pause where this colon articulates the sentence – a heavy one of sarcasm.

This article is excerpted from “The Book”, by Amaranth Borsuk

Carrión’s ironic investigation of the book as a commercial artifact reflects the separation of form and content he perceived in the writing and publishing of his time. Carrión was not completely opposed to bookstores and even founded one himself, Other Books and So, in Amsterdam the same year. Specializing in artists’ books and multiples, the shop was also an exhibition and event space run by artists who disseminated the kind of works he wanted to see more of in the world: books designed as a whole , rather than “texts” granted by the author to a publisher for distribution to a reading public. In an advertisement for space, he called them “non-books, anti-books, pseudo-books, quasi-books, concrete books, visual books, concept books, structural books, project books, statement books, instructions”, an evocative list of his controversial relationship with the market. Ultimately, he would coin a new term to describe the kind of artist publications he championed: works of books. In part, Carrión was a clear call for authors to be more mindful of the book’s materiality and impact on meaning, but it was also a demand for the collapse of the system that privileged writing as work. intellectual and denigrated the physicality of book production.

Carrión perceived a crisis in literature, and for him this crisis arose from his place in the editorial system.

Carrión perceived a crisis in literature, and for him this crisis arose from his place in the editorial system. He knew this system firsthand, having achieved early success by winning the State Prize for Short Stories in 1960, publishing work in periodicals, and eventually publishing two collections of success stories, in 1966 and 1970. Carrión had studied literature and philosophy at UNAM, and he achieved enough success to receive postgraduate scholarships in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. While in England, he began to consider a different approach to books and publishing, thanks to Mexican artists Felipe Ehrenberg and Martha Hellion, whose Beau Geste Press (founded in 1970) introduced him to books mimeographed by members of Fluxus, a free collective of artists interested in random operations, ephemeral performances, conceptual practice and participatory works that blur the line between art and life. When he moved to Amsterdam in 1972, Carrión began producing his own artists’ books, the first of which, “Sonnets”, provided 44 iterations of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Heart’s Compass”. Like Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1947), Carrión plays with his source text, rewriting it in different styles for amusing purposes. It was in this context of experimenting with poetry and moving from narrative to conceptual art that Carrión began to formulate the notion of the book.

Demanding that writers take a more active part in conceptualizing their books, he published “The New Art of Making Books” (1975), a manifesto whose polemical tone served as a provocation that still irritates some readers today. Originally written in Spanish and published in Plural, the magazine founded by Octavio Paz, it was aimed at a literary audience that Carrión felt the need for a boost. Disavowing the novel as “a book where nothing happens”, and proclaiming “there is not and will be no more new literature”, he clearly hoped to ruffle feathers. The novel, of course, is not dead, and it still serves an important expressive purpose, but Carrión’s reinterpretation of the book’s capabilities shows us much about how artists’ books have helped multiply its possibilities by dealing the book as an intermediate space. .

Like Stéphane Mallarmé before him, Carrión saw the spatial potential of the page. Its manifesto opens with “A book is a sequence of spaces”, a definition so porous that it allows for any number of objects or artefacts that we might think of as books: a bound codex, a set of cards or a series of coins. But his definition goes even further:

Each of these spaces is perceived at a different moment – ​​a book is also a sequence of moments.

• • • •

A book is not a box of words, nor a bag of words, nor a carrier of words.

• • • •

… A book is a space-time sequence.

If a book is a space-time sequence, it is also a kind of film. It can be animated rather than static. At the time Carrión wrote this statement, the creators of flip-books and their precursor, the nickelodeon, had harnessed this aspect of the book’s sequential potential for just over a century (the flip-book having been patented in 1868 by John Barnes Linnett as the kineographer). This notion, however, that the page is more than just a “bag of words” suggests that writers need to stop treating language as transparent, utilitarian, and direct. It was only in ancient art that one could believe that “the meanings of words carry the intentions of the author”. Clearly, Carrión’s thought bears the hallmarks of poststructural theory, which at this stage had shaken the notions of meaning and authorship.

Instead of these “boring” books “of 500 pages, or 100, even 25 where all the pages are similar”, Carrión called for books “conceived as an expressive unit”, as he will write in a catalog exhibition of 1978. . Although calling pages of justified prose “boring” seems deliberately bombastic, we must consider the role that page numbers and reading heads play in making a work easier to read and revise. These panels help us navigate through text that looks the same from page to page, even though its words may vary. “In a book”, according to Carrión’s definition, “the message is the sum of all the material and formal elements”. The book thus engages in a critique of the book and an exploration of its affordances. He takes nothing at face value and asks the reader to remain attentive not only to the text but also to its physicality. As researcher Garrett Stewart writes, a book is “not for normal reading, but for thinking about.” It represents a conceptual approach to bookmaking, which relies on the viewer’s interaction with the object to provide meaning. For this reason, Carrión has called these works “anti-books”—because they deny the function of the book while questioning its form, separating the idea of ​​the book from the object.

Sounding the death knell for books that have since become a chorus, Carrión suggests that books take on more importance when the codex itself seems in jeopardy.

In a 1986 video recorded in Olympia, Washington, where Carrión was to speak at Evergreen State College, he professes a common perspective today: “I firmly believe that every book that exists now will eventually disappear. And true to form, he expresses little sadness over the loss: “And I see no reason to lament here. Like any other living organism, books grow, multiply, change color and eventually die. At present, the books represent the final phase of this irrevocable process. Libraries, museums, archives are the perfect cemeteries for books.

Sounding the death knell for books that have since become a chorus, Carrión suggests that books take on more importance when the codex itself seems in jeopardy. This is especially true today, when publishers are taking more and more risks with art publications and conceptually inventive books like Jonathan Safran Foer’s cut-to-shape erasure “Tree of Codes” (Visual Editions , 2010), Mark Danielewski’s intricate “House of Leaves” typography. (Pantheon, 2000), Anne Carson’s accordion “Nox” (New Directions, 2010), and Jen Bervin’s collection of envelope fragments by Emily Dickinson, “Gorgeous Nothings” (New Directions, 2013 ), a volume that resembles a coffee-table book. As the material form of the codex threatens to disintegrate into the digital, works highly sensitive to materiality give us the opportunity to think about and savor the physical artifact, precisely by asking us to ponder the very “idea”. immaterial of the book.


Amaranth Borsuk is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell, where she also teaches MFA in creative and poetic writing. She is the author of “The Book”, from which this article is excerpted, “Between Page and Screen”, a digital pop-up poetry book, and other print/digital hybrid books.

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A doctor’s lessons on vulnerability https://thebackwaterspress.org/a-doctors-lessons-on-vulnerability/ Mon, 12 Sep 2022 10:29:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/a-doctors-lessons-on-vulnerability/ There are times when the art of medicine and caring for others involves the practice of a singular kind of expertise – a will to be human. Image source: Jonathan Borba, via Unsplash BeeLine Reader uses subtle color gradients to help you read more effectively. My work as an emergency physician has always seemed to […]]]>

There are times when the art of medicine and caring for others involves the practice of a singular kind of expertise – a will to be human.

Image source: Jonathan Borba, via Unsplash

My work as an emergency physician has always seemed to me to be a fundamentally creative act. Caring for patients requires creativity as a clinical skill. This idea is neither revolutionary nor original. The medical encounter has been compared to improvisation for a reason: it’s unscripted and unpredictable, and requires thinking on our feet, curiosity, and following possible threads rather than closing them.

It is therefore not so surprising that the pandemic has been an eye opener for medical writers. Rare was the day, especially early in the crisis, when I did not read a powerful article or an op-ed written by a doctor capturing their harrowing experiences. However, many pieces soon began to blend into each other, striking familiar notes and describing similar experiences in similar ways. I felt like a terrible human being bored with another bit about the lack of personal protective equipment. Or worse, rush through another description of care for too many dying patients. Was it a manifestation of exhaustion on my part, or a desire to feel the burn more intensely?

The only thing I can say with certainty is that I felt needy, with a particular appetite for needs. What I was looking for and found missing in many of these otherwise expert stories was the vulnerability, the singular voice of another human who happens to be a doctor. Yet, paradoxically, I wondered if their expertise, the well-deserved banner that gives them authority, was part of the problem.

Tobias Wolff said, “When I sit down to write, I discover things that for some reason I haven’t admitted, seen, or given enough thought to.” During my career as an emergency physician, writer, and teacher, I have often wondered if the habits of mind that make excellent physicians in a healthcare system that values ​​safety, efficiency, and reproducibility might interfere with writing as a form of discovery. For example, medical training emphasizes data and evidence from population research. However, this tendency to favor objective statistical methods, to look outside oneself for greater clarity, can make doctors less prepared for this inner journey of discovery, which often lacks benchmarks or safeguards.

Accepting risk-taking as a necessary part of the creative process may seem unnatural and even irresponsible in the house of medicine, where risk is managed and minimized.

Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner said that the purpose of the narrative is not to solve problems but to find them, it is “deeply about the predicament, the road rather than the inn to which it leads”.

Accepting risk-taking and getting lost as a necessary part of the creative process can seem unnatural and even irresponsible in the house of medicine, where risk is managed and minimized. The reflex to drive with facts and data can be a compensatory response or a defense against the discomfort and insecurity one might feel in finding trouble. Putting language and form into unmeasurable, complicated and intensely personal emotional experiences is a challenge. But that’s what I was looking for.

As the pandemic gripped New York, writer and emergency physician Dr. Helen Ouyang gave a masterclass in a surprisingly original and honest article that took the reader on her journey as she dealt with the imbalance. Through a propulsive narrative structure, weaving world events into personal experiences and offering insight into what is and what could be, she wrote about her struggles to make sense of it all. And she ends with a kick: “The only thing I can do – what I think will matter most, in the end – is just to be a person first, for these patients and their families. .”

Let’s face it, confessing what you don’t know can be hard when you’re a doctor and people read you because you’re wearing the mantle of an expert.

I’ve learned over the years that understanding messy experiences isn’t easy or pretty, and trying to get close to that search on the page is surprisingly difficult. In my book “Tornado of Life”, I take readers through moments full of uncertainty, contradictions and doubts. I describe times in my work as an emergency physician where there was no fact map to help guide me through the experience of another human. Expertise meant learning the practice of not-knowing and sitting with the chaos of a patient’s life.

When faced with uncertainty and ambiguity, physicians are prone to search for abstract ideas or point to reams of evidence in the medical literature in search of an answer. What a strange instinct, I always thought: to seek solutions to confusing situations by flying higher and further instead of making the necessary downward movement and asking better questions.

The word “emergency” comes from the Latin word emergentia, which means “to bring to light”.

At the start of the pandemic, when personal protective equipment was scarce and our knowledge of SARS-CoV-2 was evolving, I explored why I felt safest working in the emergency room where I was most at risk of being infected. I wrote about waiting for the wave that was heading our way. I reflected on judging patients too quickly for behaviors perceived as irresponsible when in reality they frequently involved difficult choices, competing needs, and conflicting information regimes.

Anton Chekhov, arguably our most outstanding doctor-writer, wrote: “Only by being in trouble can people understand how far from easy it is to be the master of one’s feelings. and his thoughts. The word “emergency” comes from the Latin word emergence, which means “to bring to light”. There are times when we have no answers, when the art of medicine and of caring for others, patients and readers, involves the practice of a singular kind of expertise – a willingness to be a curious, imperfect and vulnerable human.


Jay Baruc is a practicing emergency physician, professor of emergency medicine at Alpert Medical School at Brown University, and author of, among other things, “Fourteen Stories: Doctors, Patients, and Other Strangers” and “Tornado of Life.”

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The civilization of laughter | The MIT Press Reader https://thebackwaterspress.org/the-civilization-of-laughter-the-mit-press-reader/ Thu, 25 Aug 2022 10:20:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/the-civilization-of-laughter-the-mit-press-reader/ Notes on Laurent Joubert’s “Treatise on Laughter”. Giambattista Della Porta, “De humana physiognomonia”, 1586. Huntington Library. “There’s nothing more stupid than an inane laugh,” Della Porta said. We are in 1579. After having kept the manuscript in a drawer for 20 years, Laurent Joubert publishes his “Treatise on laughter”. Its objective: “to leave nothing aside […]]]>

Notes on Laurent Joubert’s “Treatise on Laughter”.

Giambattista Della Porta, “De humana physiognomonia”, 1586. Huntington Library. “There’s nothing more stupid than an inane laugh,” Della Porta said.

We are in 1579. After having kept the manuscript in a drawer for 20 years, Laurent Joubert publishes his “Treatise on laughter”. Its objective: “to leave nothing aside on the unusual subject”.

The treatise is a modern encyclopedia of early laughter topics. Trained in the tradition of humanist medicine, Joubert begins by sketching a fictional contest between the parts of the human body. Which is more important? Which one can stand on its own? An obvious candidate claims the title: the hand. Joubert recognizes its merits but soon dismisses it. After all, the brain commands and the hand obeys. The brain takes the lead in the competition but does not reign for long. Another competitor appears and wins: the face.

Only man has a face; animals no. We carry it high, looking up to the sky, proud; the face is the mark of our verticality. It is the place of social interaction – face to face – and therefore cannot be covered by hair or clothing. It is the seat of beauty; art is content to represent the face as the mark of an individual. It is the mirror of the soul; passions are visible on the face; disease too. The kiss is of the face, and therefore of love. The face is particular but the face of Marguerite de Navarre, to whom Treaty is dedicated, is also, according to Joubert, the face of the French nation. But above all, what distinguishes the face is its status as the throne of laughter, and Joubert agrees with the premise that laughter makes us human; laughter is “the effect of the most human passion there is”. As such, laughter will be primordial in the modern history of the face, which one could say began with the help of Joubert. The face and laughter come to be defined: man is the only animal that has a face, that is why he laughs; and man is the only laughing animal, which correlates directly with his face.

What is laughter? Joubert’s catalog of definitions takes us back to a materialism long forgotten today. Laughter is “trembling and noise”; “a sound-producing movement”; “a movement that stretches the muscles of the face”; “the dilation of the parts of the mouth and face.” In laughter, “the chest quivers, the lungs produce an interrupted sound, the mouth opens and the lips fold”. To the question: What does laughter look like? Joubert gives a complex answer:

Everyone can clearly see that in laughter the face moves, the mouth widens, the eyes sparkle and cry, the cheeks flush, the chest heaves, the voice breaks off; and when it lasts a long time, the veins in the throat expand, the arms shake and the legs dance, the stomach contracts and feels considerable pain; we cough, we sweat, we pee, we get dirty from laughing, and sometimes we even faint because of it. It doesn’t need to be proven.

Laughter is a convulsion of the face. It involves a specific constellation of facial functions: mouth, eyes, cheeks, voice. When laughter becomes a matter not of a single burst but of a series of bursts (“when it lasts a long time”), it also involves the rest of the body – arms, legs, belly, chest, throat veins . The body laughs. Extreme physiological changes can occur, as one may feel pain, cough, sweat, pee, get dirty, pass out. The laughing body is a convulsive assembly, whose parts move and dance, refusing to form a whole. The laughing face bursts itself, his mouth suddenly stretches, his eyes sparkle, the color splashes his cheeks with shades of red.

Joubert further complicates the laughter scene:

Some men, when they laugh, sound like the whistles of geese, others like the grunts of goslings; some recall the sigh of forest pigeons or widowhood doves; others the owl; one an Indian rooster, the other a peacock; others pee-pee, like chicks; for others it is like the whinnying of a horse, or a haunting donkey, or a dog yelping or choking, some evoke the sound of carts with dry axles, others, gravel in a bucket , still others a pot of boiling cabbage; and some have still another resonance, apart from the gaze and the grimaces, so diversely diverse that nothing is parallel to it.

Laughter not only contorts the face into a grimace and convulsively shakes the body, but it also produces a certain sound that is difficult to define. Joubert describes the sound of laughter onomatopoeically; laughter sounds “like” the whistling of geese, the neighing of horses, the peep-peep of chicks or the hee-hawing of donkeys. Even when the laughter sounds like a pot of boiling cabbage or gravel in a bucket, the description speaks to Joubert’s reader’s ear; one is challenged to hear these sounds.

The choreography of the body in laughter is, however, only the outward manifestation of a passion. What hobby? The question seems simple, but it received a variety of answers, with a number of variables. For particular passions often coalesce into compounds, and particular chemistry is required to produce different compounds. Joubert offers a list: “The main ones are joy, pain, hope, fear, love, hatred, anger, pity, shame, impudence, zeal, envy or wickedness. They are also called passions, disorders or disturbances of the soul in that they come from an appetite which does not proceed from reason.

Among the passions on Joubert’s list, it is clear that laughter is a manifestation of joy. But things are not that simple. Like other early modern passion theorists, Joubert adds that the joy associated with laughter is of a special quality and is most often accompanied by other passions. For Joubert, laughter translates into a combination of joy and pain. The particular constellation of motion and sound we call laughter, that quivering noise and muscle movement, transcribes the workings of a mixture of joy and pain, expressing, in an Aristotelian vein, “a feeling for an ugly thing unworthy of pity”. Laughter marks the tension between joy and pain that we feel in the face of this ambivalent situation. The passions are located in the heart, which is why we say that we laugh “heartily” (he laughs heartily), but in Joubert’s account they are, or should be, governed by reason. That the human mind should be conceived as a republic and the republic as a human mind, Joubert knows from Plato’s “Republic”. Analogy is a commonplace in works on passions in the modern era. Reason must be sovereign in both; the prince must be an embodiment of reason, reigning over the passions of the people. The reverse is also true: the control of the passions gives political power.

Joubert tells us that there are two ways of governing: “one is as master, where one simply commands; the other is civil or political, where obligations are recalled with authority. Reason governs the heart in the second way when, with its counsels, it moves or calms the emotions, and if the heart resists the bit, reason has recourse to the first means, by which it can command the outer members to do what ‘she wants. In other words, reason first tries to calm the passions, to show them in which direction they should direct us. If the passions resist the authority of reason, reason resorts to another maneuver, ordering directly “outside”, the body and the face, not to follow the movement of a given passion. Joubert believes things stop there and there is no need for what Erasmus identified as the government’s last resort, censorship: covering your mouth with a towel or your hand.

Yet it seems that sovereign reason is often at a loss when faced with laughter:

These are among the great wonders of laughter, how it escapes so quickly that it seems to be coming without our knowing it, almost sneaking in, and how sometimes, letting the laughter wash over us, we can neither stop it nor delete it. For when we laugh until we part [nous rions à tout rompre]carried away by cachinnation [amportés du Cachin]it is not in our power to close our mouths or to breathe at will, so that, for lack of air, we sometimes almost choke.

Laughter seems to obey reason less than any other passion. Rebellious, he sneaks in and dominates reason. We can’t control our laughter, Joubert argues, just like we can’t control our bladder. Laughter “bursts” us, “breaks” us and “divides” us.

Not all laughter is the same, and not all pose the same threat to reason and its governance. What is needed is a typology of laughter, instrumental in the acquisition of “know how.” There are two basic types of laughter. The first is modest; it is small, natural and healthy. The second and problematic is cachinnation (the mess); it is bastard, illegitimate and unhealthy. Cachinnation is an umbrella term for “immodeous, excessive, insolent, and overlong” laughter. The mouth, which shows a medium opening in a modest laugh, gapes indecently. While chaste laughter is the laughter of the Aristotelian definition, cachinnation eludes it. In the latter case, the same constellation of movements and sounds occurring in modest laughter cannot be attributed to anything ugly or inappropriate but unworthy of compassion. Tickle laughter and baby laughter fall into this category. The so-called “dog laugh” (the rice-dog) belongs here too.

Cachinnation, Joubert argues, borders on madness. It can be caused by castration, poisonous bites or epilepsy.

Cachinnation, Joubert argues, borders on madness. It can be caused by castration, poisonous bites or epilepsy. Several epithets define unhealthy and bastard laughter: sardonian, canine, ajax, catonian, ionic, inept, tumultuous, asbestos. Modest and wholesome laughter needs no epithets, it is simply called laughter. The language slowly got rid of most of these epithets, as we slowly learned to laugh at our modest chuckles, which we came to call “laughing.” The very word “cachinnation”, widely used in the early modern period, is slowly fading away.

Modest laughter is to be encouraged, because it acquires therapeutic qualities. A long tradition in the history of medicine pursues this idea. Laughter is a cure for a variety of health issues, heart disease in particular. In fact, not laughing is worrying for Joubert. And there are people who are not laughing: “those who give themselves entirely to study and contemplation, or to some great enterprise, are almost all hard age, sad, rude, stern and frown. It is not difficult to discern here the figure of the philosopher with frowning eyebrows. At the other end of the spectrum, children and young people laugh more. Women too. While modest laughter has its obvious benefits, cachinnation is dangerous. It makes you effeminate. It makes you fat. It causes fainting, coughing and choking. You can even die laughing.


Anca Parvulescu is a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author, among other things, of “Laughs: notes on a passion”, from which this article is taken.

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The civilization of laughter | The MIT Press Reader https://thebackwaterspress.org/the-civilization-of-laughter-the-mit-press-reader-2/ Thu, 25 Aug 2022 07:00:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/the-civilization-of-laughter-the-mit-press-reader-2/ Notes on Laurent Joubert’s “Treatise on Laughter”. Giambattista Della Porta, “De humana physiognomonia”, 1586. Huntington Library. “There’s nothing more stupid than an inane laugh,” Della Porta said. BeeLine Reader uses subtle color gradients to help you read more effectively. We are in 1579. After having kept the manuscript in a drawer for 20 years, Laurent […]]]>

Notes on Laurent Joubert’s “Treatise on Laughter”.

Giambattista Della Porta, “De humana physiognomonia”, 1586. Huntington Library. “There’s nothing more stupid than an inane laugh,” Della Porta said.

We are in 1579. After having kept the manuscript in a drawer for 20 years, Laurent Joubert publishes his “Treatise on laughter”. Its objective: “to leave nothing aside on the unusual subject”.

The treatise is a modern encyclopedia of early laughter topics. Trained in the tradition of humanist medicine, Joubert begins by sketching a fictional contest between the parts of the human body. Which is more important? Which one can stand on its own? An obvious candidate claims the title: the hand. Joubert recognizes its merits but soon dismisses it. After all, the brain commands and the hand obeys. The brain takes the lead in the competition but does not reign for long. Another competitor appears and wins: the face.

Only man has a face; animals no. We carry it high, looking up to the sky, proud; the face is the mark of our verticality. It is the place of social interaction – face to face – and therefore cannot be covered by hair or clothing. It is the seat of beauty; art is content to represent the face as the mark of an individual. It is the mirror of the soul; passions are visible on the face; disease too. The kiss is of the face, and therefore of love. The face is particular but the face of Marguerite de Navarre, to whom Treaty is dedicated, is also, according to Joubert, the face of the French nation. But above all, what distinguishes the face is its status as the throne of laughter, and Joubert agrees with the premise that laughter makes us human; laughter is “the effect of the most human passion there is”. As such, laughter will be primordial in the modern history of the face, which one could say began with the help of Joubert. The face and laughter come to be defined: man is the only animal that has a face, that is why he laughs; and man is the only laughing animal, which correlates directly with his face.

What is laughter? Joubert’s catalog of definitions takes us back to a materialism long forgotten today. Laughter is “trembling and noise”; “a sound-producing movement”; “a movement that stretches the muscles of the face”; “the dilation of the parts of the mouth and face.” In laughter, “the chest quivers, the lungs produce an interrupted sound, the mouth opens and the lips fold”. To the question: What does laughter look like? Joubert gives a complex answer:

Everyone can clearly see that in laughter the face moves, the mouth widens, the eyes sparkle and cry, the cheeks flush, the chest heaves, the voice breaks off; and when it lasts a long time, the veins in the throat expand, the arms shake and the legs dance, the stomach contracts and feels considerable pain; we cough, we sweat, we pee, we get dirty from laughing, and sometimes we even faint because of it. It doesn’t need to be proven.

Laughter is a convulsion of the face. It involves a specific constellation of facial functions: mouth, eyes, cheeks, voice. When laughter becomes a matter not of a single burst but of a series of bursts (“when it lasts a long time”), it also involves the rest of the body – arms, legs, belly, chest, throat veins . The body laughs. Extreme physiological changes can occur, as one may feel pain, cough, sweat, pee, get dirty, pass out. The laughing body is a convulsive assembly, whose parts move and dance, refusing to form a whole. The laughing face bursts itself, his mouth suddenly stretches, his eyes sparkle, the color splashes his cheeks with shades of red.

Joubert further complicates the laughter scene:

Some men, when they laugh, sound like the whistles of geese, others like the grunts of goslings; some recall the sigh of forest pigeons or widowhood doves; others the owl; one an Indian rooster, the other a peacock; others pee-pee, like chicks; to others it is like the whinnying of a horse, or a haunting donkey, or a dog yelping or choking, some evoke the sound of carts with dry axles, others gravel in a bucket , still others a pot of boiling cabbage; and some have still another resonance, apart from the gaze and the grimaces, so diversely diverse that nothing is parallel to it.

Laughter not only contorts the face into a grimace and convulsively shakes the body, but it also produces a certain sound that is difficult to define. Joubert describes the sound of laughter onomatopoeically; laughter sounds “like” the whistling of geese, the neighing of horses, the peep-peep of chicks or the hee-hawing of donkeys. Even when the laughter sounds like a pot of boiling cabbage or gravel in a bucket, the description speaks to Joubert’s reader’s ear; one is challenged to hear these sounds.

The choreography of the body in laughter is, however, only the outward manifestation of a passion. What hobby? The question seems simple, but it received a variety of answers, with a number of variables. For particular passions often coalesce into compounds, and particular chemistry is required to produce different compounds. Joubert offers a list: “The main ones are joy, pain, hope, fear, love, hatred, anger, pity, shame, impudence, zeal, envy or wickedness. They are also called passions, disorders or disturbances of the soul in that they come from an appetite which does not proceed from reason.

Among the passions on Joubert’s list, it is clear that laughter is a manifestation of joy. But things are not that simple. Like other early modern passion theorists, Joubert adds that the joy associated with laughter is of a special quality and is most often accompanied by other passions. For Joubert, laughter translates into a combination of joy and pain. The particular constellation of motion and sound we call laughter, that quivering sound and muscle movement, transcribes the workings of a mixture of joy and pain, expressing, in an Aristotelian vein, “a feeling for an ugly thing unworthy of pity”. Laughter marks the tension between joy and pain that we feel in the face of this ambivalent situation. The passions are located in the heart, which is why we say that we laugh “heartily” (he laughs heartily), but in Joubert’s account they are, or should be, governed by reason. That the human mind should be conceived as a republic and the republic as a human mind, Joubert knows from Plato’s “Republic”. Analogy is a commonplace in works on passions in the modern era. Reason must be sovereign in both; the prince must be an embodiment of reason, reigning over the passions of the people. The reverse is also true: the control of the passions gives political power.

Joubert tells us that there are two ways of governing: “one is as master, where one simply commands; the other is civil or political, where obligations are recalled with authority. Reason governs the heart in the second way when, by its counsels, it moves or calms the emotions, and if the heart resists the bit, reason has recourse to the first means, by which it can command the outer members to do what ‘she wants. In other words, reason first tries to calm the passions, to show them in which direction they should direct us. If the passions resist the authority of reason, reason resorts to another maneuver, ordering directly “outside”, the body and the face, not to follow the movement of a given passion. Joubert believes things stop there and there is no need for what Erasmus identified as the government’s last resort, censorship: covering your mouth with a towel or your hand.

Yet it seems that sovereign reason is often at a loss when faced with laughter:

These are among the great wonders of laughter, how it escapes so quickly that it seems to be coming without our knowing it, almost sneaking in, and how sometimes, letting the laughter wash over us, we can neither stop it nor delete it. For when we laugh until we part [nous rions à tout rompre]carried away by cachinnation [amportés du Cachin]it is not in our power to close our mouths or to breathe at will, so that, for lack of air, we sometimes almost choke.

Laughter seems to obey reason less than any other passion. Rebellious, he sneaks in and dominates reason. We can’t control our laughter, Joubert argues, just like we can’t control our bladder. Laughter “bursts” us, “breaks” us and “divides” us.

Not all laughter is the same, and not all pose the same threat to reason and its governance. What is needed is a typology of laughter, instrumental in the acquisition of “know how.” There are two basic types of laughter. The first is modest; it is small, natural and healthy. The second and problematic is cachinnation (the mess); it is bastard, illegitimate and unhealthy. Cachinnation is an umbrella term for “immodeous, excessive, insolent, and overlong” laughter. The mouth, which shows a medium opening in a modest laugh, gapes indecently. While chaste laughter is the laughter of the Aristotelian definition, cachinnation eludes it. In the latter case, the same constellation of movements and sounds occurring in modest laughter cannot be attributed to anything ugly or inappropriate but unworthy of compassion. Tickle laughter and baby laughter fall into this category. The so-called “dog laugh” (the rice-dog) belongs here too.

Cachinnation, Joubert argues, borders on madness. It can be caused by castration, poisonous bites or epilepsy.

Cachinnation, Joubert argues, borders on madness. It can be caused by castration, poisonous bites or epilepsy. Several epithets define unhealthy and bastard laughter: sardonian, canine, ajax, catonian, ionic, inept, tumultuous, asbestos. Modest and wholesome laughter needs no epithets, it is simply called laughter. The language slowly got rid of most of these epithets, as we slowly learned to laugh at our modest chuckles, which we came to call “laughing.” The very word “cachinnation”, widely used in the early modern period, is slowly fading away.

Modest laughter is to be encouraged, because it acquires therapeutic qualities. A long tradition in the history of medicine pursues this idea. Laughter is a cure for a variety of health issues, heart disease in particular. In fact, not laughing is worrying for Joubert. And there are people who are not laughing: “those who give themselves entirely to study and contemplation, or to some great enterprise, are almost all hard age, sad, rude, stern and frown. It is not difficult to discern here the figure of the philosopher with frowning eyebrows. At the other end of the spectrum, children and young people laugh more. Women too. While modest laughter has its obvious benefits, cachinnation is dangerous. It makes you effeminate. It makes you fat. It causes fainting, coughing and choking. You can even die laughing.


Anca Parvulescu is a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author, among other things, of “Laughs: notes on a passion”, from which this article is taken.

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Daydreaming and Concentration: What Science Says https://thebackwaterspress.org/daydreaming-and-concentration-what-science-says/ Fri, 19 Aug 2022 10:35:00 +0000 https://thebackwaterspress.org/daydreaming-and-concentration-what-science-says/ Cognitive psychologist Stefan Van der Stigchel unpacks the myths and facts about mind wandering. Photo: joyflowerphotography, via Unsplash By: Stefan Van der Stigchel You’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of suddenly catching yourself dreaming while reading. Your eyes move back and forth across the text, but the information is not processed. Instead, you think about […]]]>

Cognitive psychologist Stefan Van der Stigchel unpacks the myths and facts about mind wandering.

Photo: joyflowerphotography, via Unsplash

By: Stefan Van der Stigchel

You’re probably familiar with the phenomenon of suddenly catching yourself dreaming while reading. Your eyes move back and forth across the text, but the information is not processed. Instead, you think about the vacation you planned or the argument you luckily resolved yesterday. Before you know it, you’ve reached the bottom of the page, but have no idea what you just read.

When you dream (or mental wandering, as it’s more accurately called in scientific circles), memories you thought were lost forever may resurface, or you may suddenly realize that you’ve forgotten someone’s birthday – the kind of thing that don’t happen when you’re deeply focused. The neural activity that can be observed when you dream is very similar to that found in the “default network”, a network of brain regions that are active during periods of rest. This is a brain state in which you are not actively performing any task; in other words, when your working memory is empty.

We actually spend more of our waking hours daydreaming than you might think — up to half of our day, according to at least one study. About a decade ago, Harvard scientists developed an app that asks test subjects what they are doing at a given time of day (a method called sampling experiment) and report their level of happiness at that moment. Scientists are still collecting more data, but they’ve already compiled a massive amount of it — around 250,000 measurements from more than 2,000 individuals were recorded in this first study alone.

Their results showed that participants spent 47% of their day daydreaming instead of working on the task they were supposed to accomplish. When test subjects indicated that they were thinking about something other than the intended task, they were asked whether they had happy, neutral, or unpleasant thoughts. When the study was published in Science magazine, the title, surprisingly enough, was, “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” Participants reported that they were significantly more unhappy when dreaming than when performing a certain activity.

It is quite possible that we are much happier when we are completely immersed in our work than when we are dreaming.

These findings have interesting implications for people who, in their quest for the perfect life, believe that never having to work a day again would make them happy. While this is highly open to interpretation — happiness is a relative concept and notoriously difficult to measure, and the sample taken was not entirely representative of the entire population — it is entirely possible that we are very much happier when we are fully immersed in our work than when we are dreaming. This idea is also found in many forms of relaxation therapy in which people are advised to focus on the activity that is currently occupying their mind (so that they can “be in the moment”), and the Harvard study is often cited in support of such techniques. As scientists themselves have so succinctly concluded, “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.”

There are significant differences between individuals in the amount of time we spend daydreaming. We all know the image of a child staring out of a classroom window. You may even be a dreamer yourself. In that case, you might not be surprised to learn that daydreaming can have a negative effect on your ability to perform a specific task. It may be surprising, however, that on average, people who are prone to dreaming a lot have lower working memory capacity and perform worse on IQ tests. That said, we must remember that we are talking about a correlation here and that does not necessarily mean that daydreaming leads to a lower level of intelligence, although there is a strong relationship between the two. And that makes sense – you need a good working memory to be able to maintain your focus, after all. Since you remove your default network when you focus, this automatically means that your default network reactivates when you suffer from a lack of focus and then start daydreaming. You could say that daydreaming is actually poor concentration.

In another excellent daydreaming experiment, test subjects were asked at random times during the performance of a task if their attention was actually focused on the task or if their mind was elsewhere entirely. The results showed, perhaps unsurprisingly, that periods of reduced attention were the times when the most errors were made, but they also offered a possible exit from the maze of daydreaming: the prospect of reward. . When test subjects knew they would receive a reward if they performed well, not only did their performance improve, but they were also less likely to dream. So the next time you want to focus intensely on your work and avoid daydreaming, you could try promising yourself a reward.

So is this bad news when it comes to daydreaming? Well, some scientists believe daydreaming serves important functions as well. For example, when you are less preoccupied with the world around you, it is easier to focus on yourself and make plans for the future. When people are asked what their daydreams are about, many say they are often about personal matters, otherwise known as autobiographical planning. These types of thoughts can serve important functions for our well-being, especially when the task you’re supposed to be focusing on isn’t particularly important or doesn’t require a lot of attention.

When test subjects knew they would receive a reward if they performed well, not only did their performance improve, but they were also less likely to dream.

Another benefit of daydreaming is that it can make a mind-numbing task more enjoyable. In one study, a team of cognitive neuroscientists found that after asking test subjects to perform a very tedious task for 45 minutes, they reported feeling less happy than before. However, the decline in happiness level was less pronounced in test subjects who reported dreaming during the task. A potential solution to boredom is often included in the list of possible functions of daydreaming. You could think of the brain as a machine that always has to do something. So when you kill time, you can let your thoughts take you briefly into an imaginary future.

One of the most important possible functions often attributed to daydreaming is the stimulation of creativity, the elaboration of new ideas and the taking of time to solve complicated problems – the power of the unconscious. Books on concentration and creativity often advise readers to dream and let ideas emerge on their own. The theory goes that when you dream, your subconscious is busy solving your problems for you. In fact, the argument goes, this sort of thing would be best left to your subconscious.

But this claim is worth investigating. There’s no doubt that taking a break from work so you can come back later and tackle a problem with a clear head is a good idea. It’s intuitive. But can unconscious processes really solve problems for you or unleash your creativity? This argument is based primarily on the findings of psychologist Ap Dijksterhuis, who has written a number of influential scientific books and articles on this topic. His findings are surprising, given what we already know about the human brain. Calculation and reasoning functions are in the domain of working memory and require concentration. Working memory is the place where all the information in the brain is gathered and where the tools we need to be able to consider this information are found. It is also the information we are aware of, and based on these definitions, there can be no “unconscious thought”. After all, that would mean that we also have an “unconscious” working memory that is just as powerful as our conscious working memory. In recent years, the findings of Dijksterhuis and his colleagues have come under increasing scrutiny. Turns out, there’s no clear evidence to suggest the brain can solve problems on its own while you’re taking a mental nap.

However, for many of us, a mental break can have a positive effect, hence the oft-heard suggestion to “sleep on it” when faced with an important decision. Shifting your attention to something else can give you the time you need to approach an issue from a different angle and perhaps even come to a different conclusion. After all, the brain can become exhausted from trying to ignore all the stimuli, both internal and external, with which it is constantly bombarded. So the next time you need a reset, get out there and let your mind wander. Who knows what might happen in your stream of consciousness.


Stefan Van der Stigchel is professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Utrecht and author of “Concentration: Staying focused in times of distraction”, from which this article is adapted.

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