Muddled Histories, Unknown Selves

L. Rhodes

The Cyclorama was a mainstay of public school field trips growing up, but I never realized its contested history before reading this NYT piece on its most recent restoration. Though it originally depicted a Union victory at the Battle of Atlanta, the buyer who brought it to Atlanta had the uniforms repainted so that the football-length panarama instead depicted an ahistorical Confederate victory. The original polarity has since been restored, though that hardly kept partisans of the "Lost Cause" from claiming it as their own.

I'll probably have more to say about this in a future post on Agora & Polis, but for now I did want to acknowedge that a recent article on NYRB has significantly enhanced my understanding of France's Yellow Vest (gilets jaunes) protest movement. There, James McAuley, normally the Paris correspondent for the Washington Post, characterizes it as

a modern-day jacquerie, an emotional wildfire stoked in the provinces and directed against Paris and, most of all, the elite. French history since 1789 can be seen as a sequence of anti-elite movements, yet the gilets jaunes have no real precedent. Unlike the Paris Commune of 1871, this is a proletarian struggle devoid of utopian aspirations. Unlike the Poujadist movement of the mid-1950s — a confederation of shopkeepers likewise opposed to the "Americanization" of a "thieving and inhuman" state and similarly attracted to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — the gilets jaunes include shopkeepers seemingly content to destroy shop windows. There is an aspect of carnival here: a delight in the subversion of norms, a deliberate embrace of the grotesque.

This explanation comes to me roughly midway through a reading of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution of France, and the points of convergence are striking, to say the least. In particular, McAuley's description of the Yellow Vests chimes with Burke's warnings about the elevation of provincial, middle class professionals to the Tiers Etat of the National Assembly. Reflections is regarded as one of the ideological keystones of modern coversatism, but despite the no doubt dim view that Burke would take of the Yellow Vests, they seem drawn (almost against their will) toward certain characteristically conservative positions.

Danny Crichton of TechCrunch recently had a informative chat with Ohio State law professor Dennis Hirsch about the use of algorithms to build complex conjectures based on large sets of data, aka predictive analytics. The techniques can be used to derive medical diagnoses from data human doctors might treat as noise, but it's also been to advertise consumer products on the assumption of future need, as in the notorius case where retail stores hypothesized a woman's pregnancy before she did. Ethical and legal problems arise when, as Crichton puts it, "the scale of those predictions completely undermines notice and consent." Hirsch is looking for regulatory solutions that preserve the potential benefits while still providing a bulwark for individual privacy.

There's an ongoing debate in philosophical circles over how the qualitative differences between pleasure and pain are constituted. To get a sense of the territory involved, check out this paper at Philosophical Studies, objecting to so-called "attitudinal theories," which you could summarize by saying "for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." The author, one suspects, is a Joy Division fan…

Since a large percentage of my online reading (and, consequently, the links on this blog) comes to me via RSS, I'm constantly on the lookout for interesting feeds to add to my reader. Last week, it struck me to look for academic journals that provide dedicated feeds for their Open Access articles. After mentioning the new additions on Mastodon, one of my followers requested that I share a downloadable version of the list, so I've made it available as an OPML file that can be imported into most news reader apps. The sources are largely centered around the humanities — philosophy, history, anthropology, etc. — so if any of those topics are of interest to you, feel free to add these to your media diet.

Finally, in related news, the University of California has cancelled negotiations with Elsevier, in no small part over the powerful publisher's resistence to Open Access.