Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

12 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Democracy & Despotism: 1940s Encyclopedia Britannica Films

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Vintage lessons in civic harmony, or how small-scale common courtesy paves the way for large-scale peace.

In 1945 and 1946, immediately following the end of World War II, Encyclopedia Britannica’s films division produced two educational short films, one on democracy and one on despotism, exploring how societies and nations rank on the spectrum from democracy to despotism by measuring the degree to which power is concentrated and respect for individuals restricted. More than half a century later, these analyses remain a compelling metric of social harmony and discord, in an era when we’re still struggling to understand the psychology of riots in a global political climate where the tension between despotism and democracy is in sharper focus than ever.

A community is low on a respect scale if common courtesy is withheld from large groups of people on account of their political attitudes, if people are rude to others because they think their wealth and position gives them that right, or because they don’t like a man’s race or his religion. Equal opportunity for all citizens to develop equal skills is one basis for rating a community on a respect scale.”

Sharing respect means that each shares the respect of all, not because of his wealth or his religion or his color, but because each is a human being and makes his own contribution to the community — from healing its sick to collecting its garbage, from managing its railroads to running its trains.”

You might recognize footage from the films, which are both in the public domain, from Temujin Doran’s provocative observations on the distortions of democracy in Market Maketh Man, highly recommended if you haven’t already seen it.

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08 SEPTEMBER, 2011

A Brief Visual History of Robots in a Matrix of Creepiness & Intelligence

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What Louis XV has to do with H.G. Wells and the hazards of mechanical animation.

Ed.: The lovely and talented Michelle Legro is an associate editor of the history and ideas magazine Lapham’s Quarterly. In her inaugural piece for Brain Pickings, she offers an exclusive snippet of LQ’s forthcoming Fall issue, which explores the future, comes out on September 15, and is an absolute treat of curiosity and fascination — get your hands on it by subscribing today. It’ll be your finest gift to yourself in a long while, we promise.

Talos, the automaton forged for King Minos to protect his kingdom from pirates and invaders, may have been the first robot in recorded literature — made of metal, its veins flowed with ichor, the divine blood of the gods. The Golem of Prague was brought to life to protect the city’s Jews, but it was rendered lifeless when it threatened innocent lives. These proto-robots provided an assurance that one day in the future, statues would move—whether they would protect us or rise against us, it was hard to tell.

“The Future” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly collects more than eight-thousand centuries of forward-looking thought, thanks to the inclusion of both Aeschylus Cassandra and H.G Wells‘ time traveler. Also from the issue, this matrix of historical robots organized by their relative intelligence and creepiness.

You’ll also find two automatons from eighteenth century Europe: the Digesting Duck, which ate and then defecated its meal, and the Chess-Playing Turk, which once played a game with Napoleon. These mechanical parlor tricks captivated court life and inspired writers with uncanny nightmares of moving statues. (Think of the mechanical beauty Olympia from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s early-nineteenth-century horror story “The Sandman.”)

One robot unfortunately not included on the matrix was Louis XV‘s special likeness of his mistress Madame du Barry by wax sculptor Philippe Curtius, better known as the teacher of young Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud. The wax figure is the oldest in the collection of Tussaud’s London museum, surviving both the French Revolution and a devastating 1925 fire. Laid out on a divan, du Barry appears in the throes of a ravishing dream, her eyes are closed but her chest heaves up and down thanks to a mechanical engine devised by Curtius.

This simple device imparted a serene animation to the lifelike wax, an impression not lost on Louis’s courtiers, who called the sculpture “The Sleeping Beauty.” While her wax-figure has slept quietly for over three hundred years, du Barry herself came to a less quiet end. After her banishment from the court of her lover’s grandson Louis XVI, she was captured by the Jacobins and dragged kicking and screaming to the guillotine.

For a complete history of robots, automatons, and moving statues there is no better book than Gaby Wood’s Edison’s Eve: A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life.

Michelle Legro is an associate editor at Lapham’s Quarterly. You can find her on Twitter.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Believing Is Seeing: Errol Morris Unravels the Greatest Mysteries of Photojournalism

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What Susan Sontag has to do with Twitter hoaxes and the untold stories of WPA propaganda.

Besides being an Academy-Award-winning filmmaker and a MacArthur “Genius,” Errol Morris is also one of the keenest observers of contemporary culture and human nature. Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography), out today, brings together his great gifts in an extraordinary effort to untangle the mysteries behind some of the world’s most iconic documentary photographs, inviting you on “an excursion into the labyrinth of the past and into the fabric of reality.”

The title of the book comes from Morris’s 2008 New York Times story, in which he first took a close look at the history and future of doctored photographs in the digital age.

From the Civil War to Abu Ghraib to WPA-era propaganda, Morris approached each photograph like a mystery story and went to remarkable lengths to get to its bottom. More than a mere curiosity-tickler for history buffs, his findings and insights are both timeless and timelier than ever when the same issues — manipulation, censorship, authenticity, journalistic ethics — ebb to the forefront of our collective conscience in an age when photojournalism is both more accessible and messier than ever before.

Susan Sontag famously accused Roger Fenton of staging the cannonballs in The Valley of the Shadow of Death, his iconic photograph of the Crimean War. In the age of Photoshop, even staging is too big a bother — all it takes are a few clicks of the mouse, or maybe just a misleading tweet. (Thousands of people duped by faux Irene shark photo last weekend, I’m looking at you.)

Kathryn Schulz has a fantastic, thoughtful review in The New York Times — highly recommended.

A feat of investigative inquiry woven together by Morris’s delicate but cunning threads of cultural criticism, Believing Is Seeing is an absolute masterpiece of rigorous nonfiction that pulls you in like the best of mystery fiction.

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01 SEPTEMBER, 2011

Arnold Schoenberg’s Music Notation Based on Tennis: A Tribute to George Gershwin

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What the U.S. Open has to do with atonality and one of the great losses of twentieth-century music.

Austrian-American composer Arnold Schoenberg is best-known as the inventor of the twelve-tone technique and a pioneer of atonality, but he was also a man of many curiosities and passions. A lover of tennis, which he famously played with his tennis partner George Gershwin, Schoenberg channeled his enthusiasm for the sport into a new system of music notation, based on a transcription of the events in a tennis match — one of the many gems in the phenomenal anthology of innovation in notation systems, Notations 21.

In 1937, mere months before his tragic death at the unfair age of 38, Gershwin shot this home movie on his tennis court at Roxbury Drive, Beverly Hills, featuring Schoenberg and his wife Gertrud, along with some brief glimpses of Gershwin himself. The film is scored with Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 4 Op.37, written in 1936 and recorded in 1937 by the Kolisch Quartet, which was sponsored by Gershwin. The video ends with a photograph of Gershwin painting his famous portrait of Schoenberg mashed up with audio of Schoenberg’s moving tribute to Gershwin, recorded on July 12th, 1937, the day after Gershwin’s death.

George Gershwin was one of these rare kind of musicians to whom music is not a matter of more or less ability. Music, to him, was the air he breathed, the food which nourished him, the drink that refreshed him. Music was what made him feel and music was the feeling he expressed. Directness of this kind is given only to great men. And there is no doubt that he was a great composer. What he has achieved was not only to the benefit of a national American music but also a contribution to the music of the whole world. In this meaning I want to express the deepest grief for the deplorable loss to music. But may I mention that I lose also a friend whose amiable personality was very dear to me.” ~ Arnold Schoenberg

Thanks, Ruth

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