Tag Archives: philosophy

I Think, Therefore I Am Getting the Goddamned Epidural

Illustration by Annelise Capossela

Rebecca Schuman | Longreads | November 2017 | 16 minutes (3989 words)

Until I was 34 weeks pregnant, I only considered the act of childbirth in blurred, vague terms, and this meant I was unusually impressionable. Hence, the entrée in week 35 of one Ina May Gaskin, legendary midwife, and successful deliverer of eleventy-dillion babies at what definitely didn’t seem like a very creepy commune in the middle of Tennessee. “You must read Ina May,” explained my friend Charlotte (not her real name), who’d recently driven 80 miles across state lines to push out her second child in a midwifery center. “She will make you SO CONFIDENT about what your body can do,” all caps in original. I was intrigued — and, a few hundred pages deep into Spiritual Midwifery and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, equal parts tentative and enamored.

Both books consisted primarily of first-person accounts of sublime natural birthing. “The ecstasy of birth was so wonderful,” wrote one mother, named Kim, after her daughter simply “slipped out.” Another went for a two-hour hike in the middle of labor. “I could feel my baby move me open, and when the intensity of the rushes increased, I just leaned on a tree.” First-time mother Celeste, furthermore, wouldn’t call labor painful — she’d call it “INTENSELY NATURAL,” all caps, once again, in the original. Then there was my favorite, Mary, who “visualized [her] yoni as a big, open cave beneath the surface of the ocean,” and “surrendered over and over to the great, oceanic, engulfing waves. It was really delightful — very orgasmic and invigorating.”

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Screw You, and the Icelandic Pony You Rode In On

black and white photo of icelandic ponies
No Icelandic ponies were harmed in the writing of this post, or Zink's essay. (Photo by john.purvis, CC BY-ND 2.0)

Novelist Nell Zink, in n+1, takes readers on a rambling but sharp journey through writers and novels of the 20th century in the name of exploring realism, compassion, and justice in fiction. Midway through the piece she introduces writer Halldor Laxness; if Icelandic fiction is low on your to-be-read list, get ready to fall into a Google abyss thanks to Zink’s description.

Take Halldor Laxness’s stupendous magnum opus Independent People, surely a gem among novels. It will make you want to strangle your landlord and the Icelandic pony he rode in on, and that’s a fine thing; a shift of power to a larger class of people can transform society in positive ways. But it’s just a story. The 20th-century intellectual project mentioned above doesn’t happen to Laxness. He’s all about injustice. His is not an exhaustive analysis of life, just a political one, and it seems accurate mostly because (face it) you know nothing about Iceland in 1900. I mean, by age 15 you could dismiss Gone with the Wind as bullshit, but Independent People will remain plausible to you forever because it’s about farmers in Iceland, the fishing and banking nation that put “ice” in its name as a warning to would-be farmers. There’s not going to be a meta moment when Laxness asks why you bought a long novel about starving children just so you could watch them starve.

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A New Era of Unreality: Stop Making Sense, or How to Write in the Age of Trump

Image by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In the Village Voice, Aleksandar Hemon explores the “unreality” of a Trump presidency, likening this era of American history to the start of the war in Bosnia in 1992, and calling for new literature that doesn’t shy away from the conflicts and destruction ahead.

There is a certain kind of abdominal pain felt only when a catastrophe appears at the door of the world you know and proceeds to bang on it. The sensation could be likened to a steel ball grinding your intestines. There is nothing like it: There were times when I thought I could hear it revolve. The feeling is simultaneously familiar and totally unfamiliar; it is unquestionably familiar as boilerplate fear, intensified though it may be, but it is also unfamiliar in its specificity: It is the fear of an unimaginable future as seen from this particular terrifying moment. This is the feeling that possessed me during the time my daughter Isabel was sick and then died.

This is the kind of fear that woke up, stretched and elbowed for more room in my stomach on November 8, 2016, as it became increasingly clear that Donald fucking Trump would win the presidential election.

The morning of November 9 I woke up, after a short night of unsettling dreams, in a revengeful country of disgruntled racists, who elected the worst person in America as a gleeful punishment for whatever white grudges had been accumulated during the Obama years, or even during the decades before.

We become of two minds, which cannot agree on what is real. The world looks strange and unreliable, fragile and dangerous. It is itself and not itself. I am myself and someone else.

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What Does ‘Shareholder Value’ Really Mean?

James Post and others argue that a well-run company can—and should—be managed in a way that benefits not just the investors who own its stock, but a wide range of constituents. As opposed to “shareholders,” they call these people “stakeholders”: a group that includes employees, customers, suppliers, and creditors, as well as the broader community in which the company operates, and even the country that it calls home. According to that view, Market Basket’s employees and customers are essential to the firm’s success and, thus, rightful beneficiaries of its prosperity.

Importantly, it’s not just antimarket leftists who are making this point: It’s pro-business thinkers who want to see a more competitive future for American corporations. Critics like Post argue that the singleminded emphasis on profits and shareholder value—which took hold in the corporate world during the 1980s—has actually hurt corporations in a number of ways, giving their leaders the wrong kinds of incentives, gutting their future in pursuit of short-term profits, and often draining them of their real value and putting them at odds with their communities.

Leon Neyfakh, in the Boston Globe, on the case against “shareholder value” as the lone measure of business success.

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Photo: walmartcorporate, Flickr

The Difficulties with Dirty Words

There are a number of difficulties with dirty words, the first of which is that there aren’t nearly enough of them; the second is that the people who use them are normally numskulls and prudes; the third is that in general they’re not at all sexy, and the main reason for this is that no one loves them enough….

Thin in content, few in number, constantly abused: what chance do the unspeakables have? Change is resisted fiercely, additions are denied. I have introduced ‘squeer,’ ‘crott,’ ‘kotswinkling,’ and ‘papdapper,’ with no success. Sometimes obvious substitutes, like ‘socksucker,’ catch on, but not for long. What we need, of course, is a language which will allow us to distinguish the normal or routine fuck from the glorious, the rare, or the lousy one—a fack from a fick, a fick from a fock—but we have more names for parts of horses than we have for kinds of kisses, and our earthy words are all . . . well . . . ‘dirty.’ It says something dirty about us, no doubt, because in a society which had a mind for the body and other similarly vital things, there would be a word for coming down, or going up, words for nibbles on the bias, earlobe loving, and every variety of tongue track. After all, how many kinds of birds do we distinguish?

From On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry by William H. Gass

The Book That Inspired Your Favorite Twitter Bots

After graduating from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Kazemi entered the world of video game development, building programs that could systematically test new games for bugs. Kazemi also designed his own games—like many game designers, he considered games an art form as much as a technical accomplishment—until one day in 2012, he decided that the medium was holding him back from what he really wanted to express. It was around this time that Kazemi read a book of philosophy called “Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing” by Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In the book, Bogost advanced a concept that greatly appealed to Kazemi: that it was possible to be a philosopher who didn’t write down ideas, but instead made objects that embodied them.

The “objects” Kazemi was moved to make after reading Bogost’s book were Twitter bots, a class of digital beings typically associated with irritating spam accounts that automatically send advertising messages to any Twitter user who mentions a particular word or brand name. Kazemi was hardly the first person to realize the potential in programming conceptually interesting Twitter bots—for example, Adam Parrish had already made the popular @everyword, which has been working its way alphabetically through the English language, tweeting one word every 30 minutes, since 2007. But Kazemi quickly became one of the medium’s most inventive practitioners.

Leon Neyfakh, in the Boston Globe, on the work of Darius Kazemi. Read more from Ian Bogost’s book, and from the Longreads Archive.

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Photo: Flickr

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There Is Just One Problem with Feeling Alive

imgsophies world3

“Sophie stood on the gravel path, thinking. She tried to think extra hard about being alive so as to forget that she would not be alive forever. But it was impossible. As soon as she concentrated on being alive now, the thought of dying also came into her mind. The same thing happened the other way around: only by conjuring up an intense feeling of one day being dead could she appreciate how terribly good it was to be alive. It was like two sides of a coin that she kept turning over and over. And the bigger and clearer one side of the coin became, the bigger and clearer the other side became too.

“You can’t experience being alive without realizing that you have to die, she thought. But it’s just as impossible to realize you have to die without thinking how incredibly amazing it is to be alive.”

Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder, which follows Sophie Amundsen, a teenager living in Norway, as she begins to open her mind to philosophy and the history of the world’s most famous thinkers. Read more fiction in the Longreads Archive.

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