IN OUR AGE of the selfie and instant upload, the self-portrait has far different cultural and aesthetic values than it had in the past. It thus seems only appropriate that the National Gallery of Victoria, in Melbourne, Australia, should exploit this aesthetic form in the work of the two artists featured in their current exhibition, Andy Warhol|Ai Weiwei (AW|AW). The exhibition, which opened on December 11 and runs until April 24, pairs the work of an iconic American pop artist with that of a contemporary Chinese artist and political activist, and the result is fascinating.
Before Challenger's final mission - listed as 51-L - it was known that the O-ring seals on a previous flight - 51-C - had eroded to a depth of one-third of their radius. Instead of regarding this little-understood problem as an unacceptable risk, it was interpreted as a "a safety factor of three." Should the interpretation have been more pessimistic?
Today, a handful of people, Bleecker included, are wondering whether they can forge a deeper connection between science fiction and real-life science, one in which the emotional and imaginative power of sci-fi stories leads engineers and scientists to a fuller understanding of the contours of the future they are working toward.
Twenty-five years after leaving the virtual reality lab, Bleecker articulated his ideas in “Design Fiction: A short essay on design, science, fact and fiction,” which is really a 97-page pamphlet exploring the relationship between science fiction, particularly the 2002 movie “Minority Report,” and technological progress.
David Foster Wallace understood the paradox of attempting to write fiction that spoke to posterity and a contemporary audience simultaneously, with equal force. In an essay written while he was at work on “Infinite Jest,” Wallace referred to the “oracular foresight” of writers such as Don DeLillo, whose best novels — “White Noise,” “Libra,” “Underworld” — address their contemporary audience like a shouting desert prophet while laying out for posterity the coldly amused analysis of some long-dead professor emeritus. Wallace felt that the “mimetic deployment of pop culture icons” by writers who lacked DeLillo’s observational powers “compromises fiction’s seriousness by dating it out of the Platonic Always where it ought to reside.” Yet “Infinite Jest” rarely seems as though it resides within this Platonic Always, which Wallace rejected in any event. (As with many of Wallace’s more manifesto-ish proclamations, he was not planting a flag so much as secretly burning one.) We are now at least half a decade beyond the years Wallace intended his novel’s subsidized time schema — Year of the Whopper, Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment — to represent. Read today, the book’s intellectually slapstick vision of corporatism run amok embeds it within the early to mid-1990s as firmly and emblematically as “The Simpsons” and grunge music. It is very much a novel of its time.
How is it, then, that “Infinite Jest” still feels so transcendentally, electrically alive?
Jo Morgan’s new collection requires and rewards repeated attention. Rereading poetry goes with the territory: a poem you do not want to reread is unlikely to be up to much. But this book is especially challenging. Each time you read – like rubbing a brass or watching mist lift or solving a clue – it becomes clearer, more striking, new things come to light. It is a work to be caught in snatches, in flashes, by stealth, as life itself sometimes is.
If the id had an id, and it wrote poetry, the results might sound like “Widening Income Inequality” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), Frederick Seidel’s sixteenth collection. The title borrows a current meme, while also suggesting Yeats’s apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming” (“Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer”). Seidel’s satanic refinement is expressed in poems at once suave and vengeful, their garish pleasures linked to the many splendid goods—Ducati motorcycles, bespoke suits, Italian shoes—that they describe. To encounter a poem by Seidel is therefore to be co-opted into his Ricardo Montalban aesthetic of creepy luxury. American poets like to think of their art as open, democratic, all-embracing; few aside from Seidel have imagined the lyric poem to be an exclusive haunt of self-flattering, hedonistic élites. Seidel is securely on the winner’s side of the widening wealth gap; the implication, if we’re reading him, is that so are we. He is the Phi Beta Kappa poet of doomsday, happily escorting the world’s fortunate to a well-appointed abyss, then cannonballing in alongside us.
It is disturbing, at first, to read an autobiographical book in which the author knows he is dying and you know that he will be dead by the end of it. But Kalanithi writes very well, in a plain and matter-of-fact way, without a trace of self-pity, and you are immediately gripped and carried along. The fact that I use the present tense in writing about him shows that the book has taken on a life of its own, as Kalanithi clearly hoped it would. It’s a remarkable book, for many reasons, especially for his description of his transition from all-powerful doctor to anxious patient, and of how he was “so authoritative in a surgeon’s coat but so meek in a patient’s gown”.
The days of the all-powerful critic are over. But that figure — high priest or petty dictator, destroying and consecrating reputations with the stroke of a pen — was always a bit of a myth, an allegorical monster conjured up by timid artists and their insecure admirers. Criticism has always been a fundamentally democratic undertaking. It is an endless conversation, rather than a series of pronouncements. It is the debate that begins when you walk out of the theater or the museum, either with your friends or in the private chat room of your own head. It’s not me telling you what to think; it’s you and me talking. That was true before the Internet, but the rise of social media has had the thrilling, confusing effect of making the conversation literal.
Recently, a young man walked into the bar where I was working, sat down, and told me that I was pretty. It just flew out of his mouth by accident; he’d obviously had a few. His vibe wasn’t slimy or aggressive. He just seemed excited to discover that a woman he found attractive would be opening his next beer. Convention suggests that the most normal and appropriate response from me would be a display of gratitude, but I wasn’t thankful. I just felt instantly beleaguered in a very familiar way.