ESSAY Feeling Comes First

by Aaron Penczu

Neuroscience so confidently identifies consciousness with the cerebral cortex — the densely-folded, outer layer of grey matter in mammal brains — that surgeons sometimes question whether children born without one require anaesthetics at all. Yet these children cry, laugh, play, and distinguish familiar from unfamiliar stimuli — behaviours difficult to imagine alongside the total absence of experience. Animals whose cortex has been surgically removed continue to navigate mazes, eat, procreate, and nurse their young; if anything they are more active, and more emotional, than their normal peers. [read full essay]

ESSAY On the Buses

by Claire Thomson

Today, taking public transport often feels like taking a calculated risk. A risk that is continuing to shut many people living with disabilities or health conditions out of swathes of public life. The windows of Glasgow’s buses have little stickers on them declaring that, in order to allow for proper ventilation on the bus, they do not close fully. Glasgow’s passengers have proven these stickers wrong. Over the months, perhaps because of the cold or a lack of conviction in the importance of ventilation to prevent transmission of COVID-19, many of these windows have been forced closed. If I am feeling brave, I pull the windows open. Sometimes others close them. [read full essay]

It Will Soon Pass

Albert Camus, trans. Laura Marris, The Plague

reviewed by Luke Warde

Albert Camus’ The Plague was initially interpreted as an allegory for the cataclysm that had just preceded its publication: the Nazi occupation of France, resistance to which the author had famously contributed. This reading, which Camus was loath to deny, struck many as dubious: Roland Barthes and Simone de Beauvoir, among others, highlighted the danger of suggesting that Nazism was akin to a ‘natural’ phenomenon such as an epidemic, rather than a product of human relations, however... [read more]

A New Form of Being Human

Andrew Hussey, Speaking East: The Strange and Enchanted Life of Isidore Isou

reviewed by Douglas Field

In 1945, the Romanian poet Isidore Isou wrote an open letter to Parisian publishers. Although he had recently arrived in the French capital, the 22-year-old writer was incensed that major publishing houses had yet to take note of his brilliance: ‘I’m warning you now that my friends and I will come and smash your faces in if you don’t publish my work which will great create upheavals.’ Isou’s threats to the ‘old bastards’ of the post-war Parisian literary establishment were not... [read more]
 

A Multi-faceted Thing

Hannah Dawson (ed.), The Penguin Book of Feminist Writing

reviewed by Jennifer Thomson

It seems the perfect time to be a feminist. We’re everywhere — in the boardroom with Sheryl Sandberg, leaning in to our corporate power; shaking our tail feather on stage with Beyonce; speaking with Emma Watson at the UN, immaculately coiffed and styled. Feminism is no longer the dreaded ‘f-word’; no longer the butt of bad jokes about unshaved armpits and never getting a man — it is positively to be celebrated. Enter any high street store that aims itself even vaguely at the... [read more]

Against Compromise

Rachel Greenwald Smith, On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal

reviewed by Ruby Hamilton

Compromise is an often-understated term in the late Lauren Berlant’s writing about ‘cruel optimism’, defined in their words as ‘a relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility whose realization is discovered either to be impossible, sheer fantasy, or too possible, and toxic’. Indeed, compromise is cruel optimism rendered as an agreement: it means accepting, even desiring, something that is, by definition, a diminished version of what you want. So why are we drawn... [read more]
 

Not Dead but Livid

Venetia Welby, Dreamtime

reviewed by Devin Welch

Speculative fiction is a literature of ideas. Fahrenheit 451 pondered a tyranny of censorship, Neuromancer considered the lines between consciousness and computer, and The Handmaid’s Tale simulated an extraction of human rights. Speculative fiction is timely; a window with slight reflection. The genre blends what is and what could be by asking, what if? Venetia Welby’s second novel, Dreamtime, is a Zoom call to the not-so-distant future. One where the lack of human reconciliation for the... [read more]

Larger than Life

Isabel Waidner, Sterling Karat Gold

reviewed by Tobias Carroll

Fiction that successfully moves between trenchant political concerns and unabated dreamlike logic and imagery is a rare thing to come across. Flann O’Brien’s works, at once madcap and tragic, come to mind; so too does Norman Lock’s fiction, which has a penchant for blending historical resonance with dream logic. And the short fiction that first put George Saunders on the map also unites politically conscious themes with frenetic imagery. Isabel Waider’s work likewise exists in a... [read more]
 

A Living, Breathing Work

Selma James, Our Time Is Now: Sex, Race, Class, and Caring for People and Planet

reviewed by Frith Taylor

Selma James is a writer and activist who has written extensively on the interrelated issues that affect women's liberation. Her book Sex, Race and Class (1974) is regarded by many as a classic of early Marxist feminism. This new anthology of her writing begins in 1977 with the Wages for Housework campaign for which she is best known, and concludes in 2020 with James advocating a care income in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Along the way she looks at a number of revolutionary... [read more]

No Torches, No Pitchforks

Sarah Moss, The Fell

reviewed by Gary Kaill

There is a scene quite early in Sarah Moss’s 2009 debut novel Cold Earth that works as a telling moment — as a clue to the motivations of the narrator at that point, Ruth, but also, perhaps more importantly, as to the emerging and eventual moral design of Moss’s work. Ruth, along with a group of five other archaeologists, is excavating a remote Viking settlement. A parallel narrative, which gradually reveals the horrors that caused those original inhabitants to leave their homes, unseats... [read more]
 

Re-cultured Lines

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles, trans. Kristine Ong Muslim, Three Books

reviewed by Liam Bishop

Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles’s Three Books are poems derived from source ‘texts’ written and restructured as poems. Kristine Ong Muslim, the translator of Three Books, calls the poems works of ‘systematic erasure’, and while this might sound like an overly technological, even 'hip' way to describe his craft, Arguelles asks important questions about the overlooked tactile nature of the creative process. Take the first book, ‘Antares’, where Arguelles creates a series of short... [read more]

Jungle Juice

Adam Zmith, Deep Sniff: A History of Poppers and Queer Futures

reviewed by Charlie Pullen

Halfway through Alan Hollinghurst’s 1998 novel The Spell, a group of gay Londoners descend on a cottage in rural Dorset for a party. ‘So you’re bussing in a whole crowd of dizzy disco bunnies and letting them loose in the beautiful English countryside,’ one character remarks to the host, whose friends and casual lovers are hooked on the heady pleasures of the capital’s nightlife. ‘They may not be able to breathe the country air’, he warns: ‘You’ll need respirators of poppers... [read more]