The Rise and Fall of Western Empires Visualized Through the Artful Metaphor of Cell Division

We can hardly understand how the modern world arrived at its current shape without understanding the history of colonial empire. But how best to understand the history of colonial empire? In animation above, visualization designers Pedro M. Cruz and Penousal Machado portray it through a biological lens, rendering the four most powerful empires in the Western world of the 18th and 19th centuries as cells. The years pass, and at first these four cells grow in size, but we all know the story must end with their division into dozens and dozens of the countries we see on the world map today — a geopolitical process for which mitosis provides an effective visual analogy.

Cruz and Machado happen to hail from Portugal, a nation that commanded one of those four empires and, in Aeon's words, "controlled vast territories across the globe through a combination of seapower, economic control and brute force." We may now regard Portugal as a small and pleasant European country, but it once held territory all around the world, from Mozambique to Macau to the somewhat larger land known as Brazil.




And the other three empires, French, Spanish, and British, grow even larger in their respective heydays. That's especially true of the British Empire, whose dominance in cell form becomes starkly obvious by the time the animation reaches the 1840s, even though the United States of America has at that point long since drifted beyond its walls and floated away.

Wouldn't the U.S. now be the biggest cell of all? Not under the strict definition of empire used a few centuries ago, when one country taking over and directly ruling over a remote land was considered standard operating procedure (and even, in some quarters, a glorious and necessary mission). But attempts have also been made to more clearly understand international relations in the late 20th and early 21st centuries by redefining the very term "empire" to include the kind of influence the U.S. exerts all around the world. It makes a kind of sense to do that, but as Cruz and Machado's animation may remind us, we also still live very much in the cultural, linguistic, political, and economic world — or rather, petri dish — that those four mighty empires created.

via Aeon

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Steven Pinker & Rebecca Goldstein Debate the Value of Reason in an Animated Socratic Dialogue

Academic power couple Steven Pinker and Rebecca Newberger Goldstein probably need no introduction to Open Culture readers, but if so, their lengthy and impressive CVs are only a search and click away. The Harvard cognitive psychologist and novelist and philosopher, respectively, are secular humanist heroes of a sort—public intellectuals who have dedicated their lives to defending science and classical logic and reasoning. So, what do two such people talk about when they go out to dinner?

The TED-Ed video above depicts a date night scenario, with dialogue recorded live at TED in 2012 and edited into an “animated Socratic dialogue." The first scene begins with a defensive Goldstein holding forth on the decline of reason in political discourse and popular culture. “People who think too well are often accused of elitism,” says Goldstein, while she and Pinker's animated avatars stroll under a Star Trek billboard featuring Spock giving the Vulcan salute, just one of many clever details inserted by animation studio Cognitive.




Pinker narrows the debate to a dilemma—a Spockean dilemma, if you will—between the head and heart. “Perhaps reason is overrated,” he ventures (articulating a position he may not actually hold): “Many pundits have argued that a good heart and steadfast moral clarity are superior to the triangulations of over-educated policy wonks.” The cowboy with a six-shooter and a heart of gold depicted in the animation bests the stereotypical eggheads in every Hollywood production.

The “best and brightest” of the eggheads, after all, says Pinker, “dragged us into the quagmire in Vietnam.” Other quagmires advocated by other policy wonks might come to mind (as might the unreasoning cowboys who made the big decisions.) Reason, says Pinker, gave us environmental despoliation and weapons of mass destruction. He sets up a dichotomy between “character & conscience” on the one side and “cold-hearted calculation” on the other. “My fellow psychologists have shown that we are led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact.”

Goldstein counters, “how could a reasoned argument entail the ineffectiveness of reasoned arguments?” (Visual learners may remember the image of a person blithely sawing off the branch on which they sit.) “By the very act of trying to reason us into your position, you’re conceding reason’s potency.” One might object that stating a scientific theory—such as the theory that sensation and emotion come before reasoning—is not the same as making an Aristotelian argument.

But this is a 15-minute debate, not a philosophical treatise. There will, by nature of the forum and the editing process, be elisions and some slippery uses of terminology. Still, when Goldstein dismisses the critique of “logocentrism” as an allegation of “the crime of letting logic dominate our thinking,” some philosophers may grind their teeth. The problem of logocentrism is not “too much logic” but the underlying influence of Platonic idealism and the so-called “metaphysics of presence” on Western thinking.

Without the critique of logocentrism, argues philosopher Peter Gratton, “there is no 20th-century continental philosophy.” Handwaving away an entire body of thought seems rather hasty. Outside of specific contexts, idealized abstractions like “reason” and “progress” may mean little to nothing at all in the messy reality of human affairs. This is the problem Pinker alludes to in asking whether reason can have moral ends if it is mainly a tool we use to satisfy short-term biological and emotional needs and desires.

By the time the check arrives, Pinker has been persuaded by Goldstein’s argument that in the course of time, maybe a long time, reason is the key driver of moral progress, provided that certain conditions are met: that reasoners care about their well-being and that they belong to a community of other reasoners who hold each other accountable and produce better outcomes than individuals can alone. Drop your assumptions, watch their stimulating animated dinner and see if, by the final course, you are persuaded too.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated History of Dogs, Inspired by Keith Haring

That quivering teacup Chihuahua…

The long-suffering Labrador whose child-friendly reputation has led to a lifetime of ear tugging and tail pulling…

The wheezing French bulldog, whose owner has outfitted with a full wardrobe of hoodies, tutus, rain slickers, and pajamas

All descended from wolves.

As anthropologist and science educator David Ian Howe explains in the animated TED-Ed lesson, A Brief History of Dogs, above, at first glance, canis lupus seemed an unlikely choice for man’s best friend.




For one thing, the two were in direct competition for elk, reindeer, bison, and other tasty prey wandering Eurasia during the Pleistocene Epoch.

Though both hunted in groups, running their prey to the point of exhaustion, only one roasted their kills, creating tantalizing aromas that drew bolder wolves ever-closer to the human camps.

The ones who willingly dialed down their wolfishness, making themselves useful as companions, security guards and hunting buddies, were rewarded come suppertime. Eventually, this mutually beneficial tail wagging became full on domestication, the first such animal to come under the human yoke.

The intense focus on purebreds didn't really become a thing until the Victorians began hosting dog shows. The push to identify and promote breed-specific characteristics often came at a cost to the animals’ wellbeing, as Neil Pemberton and Michael Worboys point out in BBC History Magazine:

…the improvement of breeds towards ‘perfection’ was controversial. While there was approval for the greater regularity of type, many fanciers complained that standards were being set on arbitrary, largely aesthetic grounds by enthusiasts in specialist clubs, without concern for utility or the health of the animal. This meant that breeds were changing, and not always for the better. For example, the modern St Bernard was said to be a beautiful animal, but would be useless in Alpine rescue work.

Cat-fanciers, rest assured that the opposition received fair and equal coverage in a feline-centric TED-Ed lesson, published earlier this year.

And while we applaud TED-Ed for sparking our curiosity with its “Brief History of” series, covering topics as far ranging as cheese, numerical systems, goths, video games, and tea, surely we are not the only ones wondering why the late artist Keith Haring isn’t thanked or name checked in the credits?

Every canine-shaped image in this animation is clearly descended from his iconic barking dog.

While we can’t explain the omission, we can direct readers toward Jon Nelson’s great analysis of Haring’s relationship with dogs in Get Leashed:

They’re symbolic of unanswered questions, prevalent in the 80s: “Can I do this?” “Is this right?” “What are you doing?” “What is happening?” Dogs stand by people, barking or dancing along, sometimes in precarious scenarios, even involved in some of Haring’s explicitly sexual work. Dogs are neither approving nor disapproving of what people do in the images; their mouth angle is neutral or even happy. In some cases, human bodies wear a dog’s head, possibly stating that we know only our own enjoyment, unaware, like a dog, of life’s next stage or the consequences of our actions.

Visit Ethnocynology, David Ian Howe’s Instagram page about the ancient relationship between humans and dogs.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City April 15 for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch Seder-Masochism, Nina Paley’s Animated, Feminist Take on the Passover Holiday: The Animated Feature Film Is Free and in the Public Domain

Seder-Masochism, copyright abolitionist Nina Paley’s latest animated release, is guaranteed to ruffle feathers in certain quarters, though the last laugh belongs to this trickster artist, who shares writing credit with ”God, Moses or a series of patriarchal males, depending on who you ask.”

Bypassing a commercial release in favor of the public domain goes a long way toward inoculating the film and its creator against expensive rights issues that could arise from the star-studded soundtrack.

It also lets the air out of any affronted parties’ campaigns for mass box office boycotts.




“The criticism seems equally divided between people that say I’m a Zionist and people that say I’m an anti-Zionist,” Paley says of This Land Is Mine, below, a stunning sequence of tribal and inter-tribal carnage, memorably set to Ernest Gold’s theme for the 1960 epic Paul Newman vehicle, Exodus.

Released as a stand-alone short, This Land Is Mine has become the most viewed of Paley’s works. She finds the opposing camps’ equal outcry encouraging, proof that she’s doing “something right.”

More bothersome has been University of Illinois Associate Professor of Gender Studies Mimi Thi Nguyen’s social media push to brand the filmmaker as transphobic. (Paley, no fan of identity politics, states that her “crime was, months earlier, sharing on Facebook the following lyric: 'If a person has a penis he’s a man.'”) Nguyen’s actions resulted in the feminist film’s ouster from several venues and festivals, including Ebertfest in Paley’s hometown and a women’s film festival in Belgium.

What would the ancient fertility goddesses populating both art history and Seder-Masochism have to say about that development?

In Seder-Masochism, these goddess figures, whom Paley earlier transformed into a series of free downloadable GIFs, offer a mostly silent rebuke to those who refuse to acknowledge any conception of the divine existing outside patriarchal tradition.

In the case of Assistant Professor Nguyen, perhaps the goddesses would err on the side of diplomacy (and the First Amendment), framing the dust-up as just one more reason the public should be glad the project's lodged in the public domain. Anyone with access to the Internet and a desire to see the film will have the opportunity to do so. Called out, maybe. Shut down, never.

The goddesses supply a depth of meaning to this largely comic undertaking. Their ample curves inform many of the patterns that give motion to the animated cutouts.

Paley also gets a lot of mileage from replicating supernumerary characters until they march with ant-like purpose or bedazzle in Busby Berkeley-style spectacles. Not since Paul Mazursky’s Tempest have goats loomed so large in cinematic choreography…

Paley’s use of music is another source of abiding pleasure. She casts a wide net—punk, disco, Bulgarian folk, the Beatles, Free to Be You and Me—again, framing her choices as parody. "Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here" accompanies the seventh plague of Egypt (don’t bother looking it up. It’s hail.) Ringo Starr’s famous "Helter Skelter" aside (“I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”) boils down to an apt choice for plague number six. (If you have to think about it…)

The elements of the Seder plate are listed to the strains of "Tijuana Taxi" because… well, who doesn’t love Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass?

Paley’s own religious background is of obvious interest here, and as with her previous feature, Sita Sings the Blues—also in the public domain—the autobiographical element is irresistible. A 2011 audio recording provides the excuse to portray her father, Hiram, who died the year after the interview was conducted, as a Monty Python-esque God. The senior Paley was raised in an observant Jewish household, but lost faith as a young man. An atheist who wanted his children to know something of their heritage, Passover was the one Jewish holiday he continued to celebrate. (He also forbade the kids from participating in any sort of secular Christmas activities.)

A wistful God with the complexion of a dollar bill, Hiram is at times surrounded by putti, in the form of his parents, his contentious Uncle Herschel, and his own sweet younger self.

For these scenes, Paley portrays herself as a spirited “sacrificial goat.” This character finds an echo at film’s end, when “Chad Gadya,” the traditional Passover tune that brings the annual seder to a rollicking conclusion, is brought to life using embroidermation, a form Paley may or may not have invented.

Perhaps Paley’s most subversive joke is choosing Jesus, as depicted in Juan de Juanes’ 1652 painting, The Last Supper, to deliver an educational blow-by-blow of Passover ritual.

Actually, much like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story, Jesus was ghost-voiced by another performer—Barry Gray, narrator of the midcentury educational recording The Moishe Oysher Seder.

As you may have gleaned, Paley, despite the clean elegance of her animated line, is a maximalist. There’s something for everyone (excepting, of course, Mimi Thi Nguyen)—a gleaming golden idol, a ball bouncing above hieroglyphic lyrics, actual footage of atrocities committed in a state of religious fervor, Moses’ brother Aaron—a figure who’s often shoved to the sidelines, if not left outright on the cutting room floor.

We leave you with Paley’s prayer to her Muse, found freely shared on her website:

Our Idea

Which art in the Ether

That cannot be named;

Thy Vision come

Thy Will be done

On Earth, as it is in Abstraction.

Give us this day our daily Spark

And forgive us our criticisms

As we forgive those who critique against us;

And lead us not into stagnation

But deliver us from Ego;

For Thine is the Vision

And the Power

And the Glory forever.

Amen.

Watch Seder-Masochism in its entirety up top, or download it here. Purchase the companion book here.

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Introduction to the Old Testament: A Free Yale Course 

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Archive of Animations/Cartoons of Ancient Greece & Rome: From the 1920s Through Today

Ancient Greece and Rome have provided fertile hunting grounds for animated subject matter since the very inception of the form.

So what if the results wind up doing little more than frolic in the pastoral setting? Witness 1930’s Playful Pan, above, which can basically be summed up as Silly Symphony in a toga (with a cute bear cub who looks a lot like Mickey Mouse and some flame play that prefigures The Sorcerer’s Apprentice…)

Others are packed with history, mythic narrative, and period details, though be forewarned that not all are as visually appealing as Steve Simons’ Hoplites! Greeks at War, part of the Panoply Vase Animation Project.




Some series, such as the Asterix movies and Aesop and Sona staple of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show from 1959 to 1962have been the gateways through which many history lovers’ curiosity was first roused.

(Russian animator Anatoly Petrov’s erotic shorts for Soyuzmultfilm may rouse other, er, curiosities, and are definitely NSFW.)

And then there are instant classics like 2004’s It's All Greek to Scooby in which “Shaggy's purchase of a mysterious amulet only serves to cause a pestering archaeologist and centaur to chase him.”  (Ye gods…)

Senior Lecturer of Classical and Mediterranean Studies at Vanderbilt, Chiara Sulprizio, has collected all of these and more on her blog, Animated Antiquity.

Beginning with the 2-minute fragment that’s all we have left of Winsor McCay’s 1921 The Centaurs, Sulprizio shares some of her favorite cartoon representations of ancient Greece, Rome, and beyond. Her areas of professional specializationgender and sexuality, Greek comedy, and Roman satireare well suited to her chosen hobby, and her commentary doubles down on historical context to include the history of animation.

The appearance of cartoon stars like Daffy Duck, Tom and Jerry, and Popeye further demonstrates this antique subject matter’s sturdiness. TED-Ed and the BBC may view the genre as an excellent teaching tool, but there’s nothing stopping the animator from shoehorning some fabrications in amongst the buxom nymphs and buff gladiators.

(Raise your hand if your mother ever sacrificed you on the altar to Spinachia, goddess of spinach, in hopes that she might unleash a mushroom cloud of super-atomic power in your puny bicep.)

You’ll find a number of entries featuring the work of Japanese and Russian animators, including Thermae Romae, part of the juggernaut that’s sprung from Mari Yamazaki’s popular graphic novel series and Icarus and the Wise Men from the legendary Fyodor Khitruk, whose retelling of the myth sent a message about freedom from the Soviet Union, circa 1976.

Begin your decade-by-decade explorations of Chiara Sulprizio’s animated antiquities here or suggest that a missing favorite be added to the collection. (We vote for this one!)

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in New York City for the next installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain, this April. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Mythos: An Animation Retells Timeless Greek Myths with Abstract Modern Designs

Designer Stephen Kelleher and animator Chris Guyot present "Mythos," an animation that tells timeless stories--Greek myths--with simple abstract designs. Here's how they describe this project where the ancient unexpectedly meets the modern:

For centuries the Greek Myths have been used as cautionary tales and teaching tools for people both young and old. These stories convey deep wisdom about the human condition which continue to resonate with us. I wanted to honor these ancient stories by interpreting them in the age of the pixel and gif.

The challenge was to communicate these complex stories in the most minimal way possible while retaining their essence. By having each vignette loop seamlessly, the timeless and perennial nature of these stories are reinforced. Ultimately these animations serve as visual shorthand for ancient truths which are as relevant today as they were when first told.

Sisyphus:

After numerous transgressions, Zeus decided to punish the deceitful king Sisyphus once and for all by forcing him to push a huge enchanted boulder up a steep hill. As soon as he reached the top, the boulder would roll back down to the base of the hill, condemning Sisyphus to an eternity of frustrated labor.

Icarus:

King Minos imprisoned Icarus in a tower alongside his father, the master craftsman Daedalus. As a means of escape Daedalus created a set of wings made of feathers and wax for his son but warned him not to fly too close to the sun. Icarus did not however heed his father’s advice. His wings dissolved and Icarus fell into the sea below and drowned.

Persephone:

The daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Persephone was abducted by the god of the underworld Hades. Although Zeus intervened and brought her back to the land of the living, Persephone was bound to Hades for four months of each year. In her grief, Demeter would make the soils barren thereby creating winter while Persephone’s return would mark the start of the spring.

Narcissus:

As punishment for mortal Narcissus’ cruel treatment of the nymph Echo, he was cursed by Nemesis, the goddess of revenge. She led him to a pool where upon seeing his own reflection, he became besotted with his image and was unable to leave. Fixated, starving and in despair, he fell into the pool and drowned.

Midas:

Having done a great service for the god Dionysus, King Midas was granted one wish of his choosing. He wished that everything he touched would turn to gold. Upon turning food, water and even his own daughter to gold however, he soon realized his foolishness and prayed to Dionysus to undo his wish. Dionysus took pity on King Midas and duly undid the wish.

Theseus:

A Greek hero of many adventures, Theseus is best known for his defeat of the Minotaur. Under the decree of King Minos, every year fourteen young Atheneans were sacrificed to the Minotaur - a monstrous half bull, half man who resided deep within the Labyrinth. Not only was Theseus able to slay the Minotaur but he also successfully escaped the complex Labyrinth, solidifying his legend.

Enjoy...

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via Aeon

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An Animated Introduction to the Famous Thought Experiment, the “Trolley Problem,” Narrated by Harry Shearer

You don't have to get too deep into the study of ethics before you run across the trolley problem. It comes up so readily that it hardly needs an introduction: a runaway train is on course to collide with and kill five people working on the tracks, but you can pull a lever that will switch it to another section of track on which stands only one person. Do you pull it? According to a purely utilitarian interpretation, you should, since one life lost surely beats five lives lost. But faced with the decision, real individuals tend to struggle: not pulling the lever feels like letting five people die, but pulling it feels like murdering one.

What if you could stop the train by pushing one especially large individual off a bridge into the train's path, stopping it but killing him? Few say, or at least admit, that they would do it. But why not? The Harry Shearer-narrated animation above, a part of BBC Radio 4 and The Open University's series on the history of ideas, considers what our responses reveal about how we think ethically.




"What the trolley problem examines is whether moral decisions are simply about outcomes, or about the manner in which you achieve them," says Shearer. "Lots of people say they would switch the points, but they wouldn't push the man off the bridge. Are they simply inconsistent... or are they on to something?

The TED-Ed video just above, written by educator Eleanor Nelsen, gets deeper into what they might be on to. "The dilemma in its many variations reveals that what we think is right or wrong depends on factors other than a logical weighing of the pros and cons," says Nelsen. "For example, men are more likely than women to say it's okay to push the man over the bridge. So are people who watch a comedy clip before doing the thought experiment. And in one virtual reality study, people were more willing to sacrifice men than women." The study of "Trolleyology," a subject since Philippa Foot first articulated the problem in 1967, now finds "researchers who study autonomous systems" collaborating with philosophers "to address the complex problem of programming ethics into machines." Alternatively, of course, they could just put the question to the nearest two-year-old.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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