All Features

Concerning Technology

by Dominic Fox

The essential promise of ‘big data’ is that it may sometimes be possible to surface characteristics of the domain under analysis that we don’t initially know how to specify in detail: we can find things we we didn’t start out knowing how to look for. Bridle later quotes the researchers behind Tri Alpha, an approach to machine-enhanced investigation of the space of possible fusion reactor designs, who describe their system as ‘attempting to optimise a hidden utility model that human experts may not be able to express explicitly.’ There is something of the sublime in this: that which is ‘inexpressible’, for which we have no concept, can take form as a ‘model’ which then becomes a tool for further investigation and reflection. [read full essay]

‘The shimmering light of everything that surrounds us’: An interview with Samanta Schweblin

by Guadalupe Gerardi

Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin’s fascinating novel Fever Dream was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2017; her new book, Mouthful of Birds, is due for publication in English translation next year. I talked to Schweblin about her writing process, the ways in which her work opens up dialogues between different literary traditions, and the vexed question of what is gained and lost in translation. [read full interview]

Waiting for Sargon

by Peter Mitchell

To those outside of academia, it can be hard to convey the relentlessness and co-ordinated nature of the cultural attack on higher education. The lie that there is a crisis of free speech in universities seems to have become common wisdom, and liberal media outlets have been remarkably weak at countering it. In the past year, two successive Tory secretaries of state for higher education have made it a central focus of their public statements, starting in December, when Jo Johnson proposed an Office for Students which would have the power to fine universities for no-platforming speakers. This – as well as the OfS itself, the seriousness of whose conception was amply demonstrated by the proposed inclusion of Toby Young on its board – was obviously unworkable, but that was hardly the point: open season had been declared, and the culture war against higher education had moved from the op-ed page to the front bench. [read full essay]

Communism on the Second Floor

by Owen Hatherley

This is the authentic voice of post-1968 squatland, and it is not a shrill or hysterical one. It is found also in the famous Christiania in Copenhagen. A former barracks was occupied by young leftists, who then invited locals to come see 'the forbidden city' – and create it. Their manifesto called for 'a self-governing society whereby each and every individual holds themselves responsible for the well-being of the entire community. This society is to be economically self-sustaining, and its common aspiration is to be steadfast in the conviction that psychological and physical destitution can be averted'. This is not the same thing as squatting a row of bombed-out terraces, and different even to the CPGB's 1940 occupation of the Savoy. It was not intended to draw attention to housing poverty, but to something else – that 'psychological destitution', represented by the entire post-war world of 9-5 work, technocracy, full employment, Fordism, predictability, the nuclear family, advertising, property development and municipal housing. [read full essay]

Don’t Be a Patsy: An Open Letter to Jordan B. Peterson

by Neil Griffiths

Your success in turning around the lives of young men is admirable and should be encouraged. But there is something that worries me, and I think it runs deep in you. When it comes to any dissent, you are quick to anger, even a little bitter, as if you’re carrying a slight from long ago, an unhealable wound. Ironically, it is as if you’ve taken a moment of life’s unfairness personally and can’t let it go – it’s become sublimated and now manifests itself as a kind of victimhood. Except, following your own wisdom, you’re not allowing yourself to be weak or cowed, but stride meaningfully and with purpose into the suffering world. But it’s still audible in the almost shrill way you speak about ‘the post-modernists’, when you refuse to discuss ‘white privilege’, when talking more generally about women and gender politics. It’s visible in your face – you start to flush and vibrate. [read full essay]

Untroubled Times: David Stubbs in conversation with James Cook

by James Cook

I talked to journalist and author David Stubbs about his recent book, 1996 & the End of History, an examination of the year as it unfolded in the UK in politics, music, light entertainment and sport. We also discuss Memory Songs, my alternative history of the Brit-Pop moment, told through analysis of the music that informed the era, and recollections of my time as a songwriter during the 1990s. [read full interview]

Three's Company

by Leon Craig

Although forms of non-monogamy have been practised since time immemorial, both tacitly and openly (think of the maitresse-en-titre, the eromenos and the cicisbeo), it is only relatively recently in the history of the Judaeo-Christian West that women have been able to talk about wanting something other than monogamous marriage to a man without incurring considerable censure. People have become increasingly disinclined to enforce normative social mores upon others, and as a consequence it has become more acceptable to question what were once considered non-negotiable conditions of adulthood, such as chastity, monogamy or the necessity of having a partner at all. If the rules do not suit you, they can be ignored or rewritten. [read full essay]

Universities Back From the Dead?

by Tom Cutterham

One of the most remarkable things about the last few months of strike action by UCU members has been the support shown by most of our current students. They have spoken out, joined picket-lines, and gone into occupation across the country – generating imagery reminiscent of the ‘Millbank generation’ to which many of their younger lecturers (including me) belong. These students aren’t just out there to defend our pensions. They’re there for a bigger cause: the ideal of the university as a community of learning, not another neoliberal marketplace. [read full essay]

Winter’s Immutable Poetics

by Ed Simon

A certain slant of light remains at the centre for any poetics of winter. Whatever else literature of those dark months takes as its concern – the crunch of snow underfoot, the strange material effervescence of one’s breath, even the liturgy of Advent – all aesthetics of solstice ultimately is about the half-luminescence of the low winter sun. To sing a song of winter is to sing a dirge. Representations of the season must deal with the expiring embers of daylight, effervescence’s spindly dying glow as the year progresses, the subtle yet sublime awareness of the hazy light of the shortening day. Approaching whatever collapse awaits us, feeling the rising temperatures of a 21st-century December, or perhaps knowing the grey ashen chill of future nuclear winter, what is reassuringly uncontrollable is the predictable tilt of our planet’s axis. Our seasons remain a pagan liturgy, enthralled to the motion of the sun and moon, and our poetry is similarly moved. [read full essay]

That Lunatic Risk

by Peter Mitchell

Daniel Ellsberg’s book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is a curious book to bring out at such a time. Ellsberg is better known as the first great leaker of the secret state, a defence establishment defector who released the Pentagon Papers and found a long second life as a remarkably courageous and persistent activist against the military-industrial complex and the blind, futile violence of American foreign policy since the fifties. As he explains in The Doomsday Machine, though, he didn’t initially intend the Pentagon Papers to be his big gesture: he wanted to publish all the secrets he’d been accumulating about the US nuclear war apparatus and the grave danger he believed it posed to the world. [read full essay]