Artist is Creating a Parthenon Made of 100,000 Banned Books: A Monument to Democracy & Intellectual Freedom

With the rise of Far Right candidates in Europe and in America, along with creeping dictatorship in Turkey and authoritarianism in the Philippines, the idea of democracy and freedom of speech feels under threat more than ever. While we don’t talk about political solutions here on Open Culture, we do believe in the power of art to illuminate.

Argentine artist Marta Minujín is creating a large-scale artwork called The Parthenon of Books that will be constructed on Friedrichsplatz in Kassel, Germany, and will be constructed from as many as 100,000 banned books from all over the world.

The location has been chosen for its historical importance. In 1933, the Nazis burned two-thousand books there during the so-called “Aktion wider den undeutschen Geist” (Campaign against the Un-German Spirit), destroying books by Communists, Jews, and pacifists, along with any others deemed un-German.

Minujín chose the Parthenon—one of the great structures of Ancient Greece—for its continuing symbolism of the enduring power of democracy throughout the ages.

When it comes to materials, she using a list of 100,000 books that have been, or still are, banned in countries across the world, going all the way back to the year 1500. You can browse that list here, but for less eye-strain, try this shorter list of 170 or so titles. New titles can be suggested for the project here.

Some of the books that have been banned over the years include Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (banned in Argentina), Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (banned in China), and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead (banned in Canada).

Minujín constructed a similar Parthenon in 1983 after the fall of her country’s dictatorship. The original El Partenón de libros featured the books that the former government had banned, and, at the end of the installation, Minujín let the public take what they wanted home. (She will be allowing the same thing to happen this time.)

Her people, as she says in the video above, didn’t know what democracy was after years of military rule. We might be on the opposite side of the spectrum: we won’t know what democracy is until we lose it.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

Harvard Students Launch a Free Course on How to Resist Trump: Now You Can Watch the Lectures

NOTE: As of July 22, we updated this post to include the videos from the class sessions. Watch the playlist of lectures above.

I have my doubts about whether we should call regular acts of civic duty “resistance,” rather than Constitutionally-protected democratic freedoms.  Yesterday we remembered Martin Luther King, Jr. on the 49th anniversary of his assassination (and the 50th anniversary of his speech opposing the Vietnam War). As King and countless other civil rights and anti-war campaigners have demonstrated---some at the cost of their lives---civil disobedience is very often required and morally justified when legal appeals for justice fail. But for better or worse, “The Resistance” has become a catch-all media term for a loose and very often fractious collection of mainstream Democrats, progressives, and radicals of all stripes, whose tactics range from polite phone lobbying to brawling with white supremacists in the streets.

Millions of people who formerly had little to no involvement in politics have thrown themselves into activism, and veteran organizers have been overwhelmed with new recruits. Just as quickly, those organizers have met the challenge by disseminating guides for lobbying representativesrunning for office, and participating in more direct forms of action.

James Patterson Teaches You To Writer A Bestseller. Learn More.

Every movement has its resident scholars and educators, whether they be erudite laypeople, professional academics, or enterprising college students. A group from the latter category, “progressive students,” writes CNN, from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, begin today what they’re calling “Resistance School,” a “4-week course in anti-Trump activism… open to people across the country and the world.” (You can watch the video from the course above.)

At their site, the students bill “Resistance School” as a series of “practical skills for taking back America” and open their online syllabus with a quote spuriously attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” It’s possible that whoever said it had bloodier things in mind. Resistance School sticks to peaceful means, with four sessions that teach, in order, “How to Communicate our Values in Political Advocacy,” “How to Mobilize and Organize our Communities,” “How to Structure and Build Capacity for Action,” and “How to Sustain the Resistance Long-Term.” Instructors are drawn from the ranks of academia, labor organizing, and the Obama administration, and you can stream the sessions on the school’s site or on Facebook, or attend in person.

The Resistance School is sure to attract criticism, not only from the expected sources but from more anti-establishment factions on the left. But that may be unlikely to deter the more than 10,000 people who have registered for the first class. Organizers have encouraged people to attend in groups, and currently have about 3,000 groups enrolled. “Some are coming with groups of 700 people,” says co-founder Shanoor Seervai, “some are smaller groups, potlucks, gathering in people’s kitchens.”

Servaai and fellow Kennedy School students have been taken aback and are now, writes CNN, “grappling with questions of scale.” How, they wonder, will such large numbers of people coordinate; how to measure the impact of the program?.... questions, perhaps, they will resolve by the fourth session, “How to Sustain the Resistance Long-Term.” But they’re certainly not alone in trying to steer a massive surge of new interest in activism and electoral politics. As the millions now planning and participating in civil actions across the country attest, people have begun to take to heart sentiments recently expressed by organizer Alice Marshall: “If we wait for some great leader to save us we are lost. We have to save ourselves.”

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

An Animated Introduction to Roland Barthes’s Mythologies and How He Used Semiotics to Decode Popular Culture

In 1979, French theorist Jean-François Lyotard declared the end of all “grand narratives”—every “theory or intellectual system,” as Blackwell’s dictionary defines the term, “which attempts to provide a comprehensive explanation of human experience and knowledge.” The announcement arrived with all the rhetorical bombast of Nietzsche’s “God is Dead,” sweeping not only theology into the dustbin but also overarching scientific theories, Freudian psychology, Marxism, and every other “totalizing” explanation. But as Lyotard himself explained in his book The Postmodern Condition, the loss of universal coherence—or the illusion of coherence—had taken decades, a “transition,” he wrote, “under way since at least the end of the 1950s.”

We might date the onset of Postmodernism and the end of “master narratives” even earlier—to the devastation at the end of World War II and the appearance of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and of Roland Barthes’ slim volume Mythologies, a collection of essays written between 1954 and 56 in which the French literary theorist and cultural critic put to work his understanding of Ferdinand de Saussure’s semiotics.

As a result of reading the Swiss linguist, Barthes wrote in a preface to the 1970 edition of his book, he had “acquired the conviction that by treating ‘collective representations’ as a sign-systems, one might hope to go further than the pious show of unmasking them and account in detail for the mystification which transforms petit-bourgeois culture into a universal nature.”

While generally lumped into the category of “structuralist” thinkers, as opposed to “post-structuralists” like Lyotard, Barthes nonetheless paved the way for a particularly French mistrust of “petit-bourgeois culture” and its populist spectacles and all-knowing talking heads. He was an opponent of totalizing narratives just as he was “an unrelenting opponent of French imperialism,” writes Richard Brody at The New Yorker. Like Adorno and many other post-war European intellectuals, Barthes riffed on Marx’s notion of “false consciousness”—the mental fog produced by dogmatic education, mass media, and popular culture—and applied the idea relentlessly to his analysis of the post-industrial West.

“Barthes’s work on myths,” writes Andrew Robinson at Ceasefire Magazine, “prefigures discourse-analysis in media studies.” He directed his focus to “certain insidious myths… particularly typical of right-wing populism and of the tabloid press." Barthes though of populist mythology as a "metalanguage” that “removes history from language,” making “particular signs appear natural, eternal, absolute, or frozen” and transforming “history into nature.” Through its normalization, we lose sight of the artifice of cable news, for example, and take for granted its formatting as a universal standard for high seriousness and credibility (as in the portentous signification of "Breaking News"), even when we know we’re being lied to.

The Al Jazeera video at the top of the post asks us to consider the “rhetorical motifs” of such media, which construct “the biggest myth of all: that what we are watching is unmediated reality.” The observation may seem elementary, but Barthes sought to go further than “the pious show of unmasking,” as he wrote. He “would have seen,” the video’s narrator says, “the TV screen as a cultural text, and he would have unveiled its myths,” as he did the myths proffered by wrestling, advertising, popular film and novels, tourism, photography, dining, and other seemingly mundane popular phenomena.

The video above from educational company Macat offers a more formal summary of Barthes’ Mythologies. The French critic and semiotician made significant contributions to literary and critical theory, demonstrating---with the wide-ranging wit and erudition of his humanist countryman Michel de Montaigne---how “dominant ideologies successfully present themselves as simply the way the world should be.” Looking back on his book over twenty years later, after the events in Paris of May 1968, Barthes remarked that the need for “ideological criticism” had been “again made brutally evident.” Indeed, we have ample reason to think that, over sixty years since Barthes published his classic analysis, the need for a rigorously critical view of mass media, advertising, and political spectacle has become more pressing than ever.

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Animated Introductions to Edward Said’s Groundbreaking Book Orientalism

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

Animated Introductions to Edward Said’s Groundbreaking Book Orientalism

For a few years, many people---those who might these days be called a “self-satisfied liberal elite” (or something like that)---believed that the arguments in Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism were becoming generally accepted. Put broadly, Said argued that our conceptions of cultural and historical differences between “the West” and “the East” are produced by European intellectual and literary traditions that have exaggerated and distorted such differences, creating a narrative in which “the West” is civilized, disciplined,  industrious, and enlightened and “the East” is exotic, backward, sensualist, lazy, passive, dangerous, irrational....

The tradition of Orientalism---which stretches back into the middle ages---came to justify colonialism, land and resource theft, slavery, and imperial aggression in the name of civilization and salvation, Even where European Orientalist scholars and writers had a nuanced understanding of other cultures, such nuance was lost in the popularizing and instrumental use of their ideas.

Said’s theoretical intervention into Orientalist discourse showed us how the “clash of civilizations” trope that pervades hundreds of years of interactions between “the west and the rest” of the world itself has a history---as a rationalization for dominance and exploitation. The short animated Al Jazeera video above neatly summarizes Said’s major arguments in the book, and asks us to “unlearn the myth.”

Casting West and East as two distinct civilizations makes little common sense on its face. Christianity, one key supposed bedrock  of Western Civilization, is an Eastern religion. Aristotle, a foundation of Western thought, was preserved for many years by Islamic scholars, who were in frequent dialogue with Greek thinkers, who were themselves in frequent dialogue with North Africans…. the interrelationships and correspondences between continents and cultures are innumerable, the boundaries between the categories highly permeable. But with the rise of what we’re calling “populism” in the past decade or so, the nuances of intellectual history have been lost. Old false dichotomies, always haunting the margins, have once again moved firmly to the center.

In the realm of cable news punditry, corporate security conferences, and congressional committees not only do we rarely see actual scholars represented, but we almost never see scholars like Edward Said, a Palestinian intellectual who spoke and wrote critically as a person from the Middle East with expertise in Western literature and history. This fact is itself central to the construction of Orientalist discourse, as Said wrote in 1978:

The Orient and Islam have a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was to represent itself.

We can accept nothing about “the East,” in other words, unless it is first filtered through the lenses of Euro-American administrative “experts," who often have extremist views, very little scholarly expertise, and whose ideas often still come directly from Orientalist novels and philosophies.

Said’s theories in Orientalism have received ample criticism from across the political spectrum. He’s been cast by the right as a kind of reverse racist against “Caucasians,” an anti-intellectual accusation that distorts his views and makes ad hominem attacks. Said traced Euro-American colonial history with a level of depth that demonstrated the remarkable continuity in the way major European colonial powers and the U.S.---their successor by the late 20th century---constructed ideologies of exceptionalism and superiority through very similar rhetoric.

For a slightly drier overview of Said’s Orientalism, watch the short video above from educational company Macat, a self-described “global leader in critical thinking.” Neither of these explainers can substitute for actually engaging with the arguments in Said's book. His history of Orientalist fables is itself an adventurous tale. As a literary product, “the Orient was almost a European invention,” he writes in his Introduction, yet as a region, it “is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.” There is no one without the other.

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

I’m Just a Pill: A Schoolhouse Rock Classic Gets Reimagined to Defend Reproductive Rights in 2017

Like many American children of the 70s and 80s, my understanding of how our government is supposed to function was shaped by Schoolhouse Rock.

Immigration, separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers and of course, the promise of the Constitution (“a list of principles for keepin’ people free”) were just a few of the topics the animated musical series covered with clarity and wit.

The new world order in which we’ve recently found ourselves suggests that 2017 would be a grand year to start rolling out more such videos.

The Lady Parts Justice League, a self-declared “cabal of comics and writers exposing creeps hellbent on destroying access to birth control and abortion” leads the charge with the above homage to Schoolhouse Rock's 1976 hit, “I’m Just a Bill,” recasting the original’s glum aspirant law as a feisty Plan B contraceptive pill. The red haired boy who kept the bill company on the steps of the Capital is now a teenage girl, confused as to how any legal, over-the-counter method for reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancy could have so many enemies.

As with the original series, the prime objective is to educate, and comic Lea DeLaria’s Pill happily obliges, explaining that while people may disagree as to when “life” begins, it’s a scientific fact that pregnancy begins when a fertilized egg lodges itself in the uterus. (DeLaria plays Big Boo on Orange is the New Black, by the way.) That process takes a while---72 hours to be exact. Plenty of time for the participants to scuttle off to the drugstore for emergency contraception, aka Plan B, the so called "morning-after" pill.

As per the drug’s website, if taken within 72 hours after unprotected sex, Plan B  can reduce the risk of pregnancy by up to 89%. Taken within 24 hours, it is about 95% effective.

And yes, teenagers can legally purchase it, though Teen Vogue has reported on numerous stores who’ve made it difficult, if not impossible, for shoppers to gain access to the pill.

(The Reproductive Justice Project encourages consumers to help them collect data on whether Plan B is correctly displayed on the shelves as available for sale to any woman of childbearing age.)

There’s a helpful football analogy for those who may be a bit slow in understanding that Plan B is indeed a bonafide contraceptive, and not the abortifacient some mistakenly make it out to be. It’s NSFW, but only just, as a team of cartoon penis-outlines push down the field toward the uterine wall in the end zone.

The other bills who once stood in line awaiting the president’s signature have been reimagined as sperm, while songwriter Holly Miranda pays tribute to Dave Frishberg’s lyrics with a pizzazz worthy of the original:

I’m just a pill

A helpful birth control pill

No matter what they say on Capital Hill

So now you know my truth

I’m all about prevention

If your condom breaks

I’m here for intervention

Join me take a stand today

I really hope and pray that you will

Drop some facts

Tell the world

I’m a pill.

Let's hope the resistance yields more catchy, educational animations!

And here, for comparison's sake, is the magnificent original:

Via BUST Magazine

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

David Foster Wallace on What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: A Video Essay

"We live in a nightmare that David Foster Wallace had in 1994," said a tweet that put me in stitches last summer, but I have a sense that we've only sunk deeper into that hyperverbal, media-obsessed, and deeply fearful novelist's bad dreams since then. "The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality," Philip Roth argued 55 years ago. "The actuality is continually outdoing our talents." Now, at the beginning of the 21st, that actuality outdoes not just what the comparatively traditional Roth could come up with, but even anything imaginable by Wallace's heirs in the form-breaking, extremity-oriented realm of "postmodernism."

But did Wallace consider himself postmodernist? Asked by Charlie Rose in a 1997 interview what "postmodernism means in literature," he at first replied only that it means "after modernism." But soon he got into the broader cultural critique for which he's now remembered: "Postmodernism has, to a large extent, run its course," despite having made the considerable innovation of presenting "the first text that was highly self-conscious, self-conscious of itself as text, self-conscious of the writer as persona, self-conscious about the effects that narrative had on readers and the fact that the readers probably knew that." Decades later, Wallace saw that "a lot of the schticks of post-modernism — irony, cynicism, irreverence — are now part of whatever it is that's enervating in the culture itself."

"The Problem with Irony," Will Schoder's video essay above, draws on Wallace's interview with Rose and much other televisual material besides. That focus may seem slightly quaint in the internet age, but Wallace, a self-confessed television addict who wrote a thousand-page novel about a videotape so entertaining that it kills, looked into the screen and saw a real and powerful threat. "Irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture (of which cutting-edge fiction is a part) that enjoy any significant relation to the television whose weird pretty hand has my generation by the throat," he wrote in the 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram," blaming those qualities for "a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture."

Even as "a certain subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction, written mostly by young Americans, has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal, and television [ ... ] televisual culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault." But as that culture moved on from the likes of David Letterman (to Wallace's mind, "the ironic eighties' true Angel of Death") and Seinfeld to those of Jon Stewart and Community, Scholder argues, its attitudes de-ironized somewhat: "The best shows of our age aren't finding humor in the gaps that have developed between people. They find humor in the absurd and awkward attempts by people trying to bridge those gaps. They want to show us that humans can have real connections and sincerity for each other."

And yet humanity's passivity remains worrisome. "Today, the average weekly screen time for an American adult – brace yourself; this is not a typo – is 74 hours (and still going up)," writes Andrew Postman, son of media theorist and Amusing Ourselves to Death author Neil Postman, in a Guardian piece just last week. "We watch when we want, not when anyone tells us, and usually alone, and often while doing several other things. The soundbite has been replaced by virality, meme, hot take, tweet." Postman includes Wallace with his father in the group of observers who "warned of what was coming": a time when few can be shocked by, among other current phenomena, "the rise of a reality TV star, a man given to loud, inflammatory statements, many of which are spectacularly untrue but virtually all of which make for what used to be called 'good television.'" Stay tuned, if you must.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How to Respond to the Challenges of Our Time?: Jazz Legends Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter Give 10 Pieces of Advice to Young Artists, and Everyone Else

Some moments in history strike us as dramatic ruptures. Certainties are superseded, thrown into chaos by a seismic event, and we find ourselves adrift and anxious. What are artists to do? Gripped by the same fears as everyone else, the same sense of urgency, writers, musicians, filmmakers, painters, etc. may find themselves unable to “breathe with unconditional breath / the unconditioned air,” as Wendell Berry once described the creative process.

We might remember the radical break with tradition when the shocking carnage of World War I sent poets and painters into frightening places they had previously left unexplored. Virginia Woolf summed up the situation in her essay The Leaning Tower: “suddenly like a chasm in a smooth road, the [Great] war came.” Shattered as they were, her generation overcame their paralysis. Modernists of the early 20th century were able to speak to their broken age in ways that continue to speak to ours.

But we should temper our belief that bad times make good art by noting that the most visionary creative minds are not simply reactive, responding to tragedy like reporters on a crime scene. As Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock--- two of the 20th century’s most consistently innovative musicians---suggest, artists at all times need a set of guiding principles. (See the two play "Memory of Enchantment" above in 2002.) There is always a lot of personal work to do. And in “turbulent and unpredictable times,” the two jazz greats advise, “the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you.”

A platitude, perhaps, but one they illustrated nearly a year ago in an open letter at Nest HQ with some profound, if challenging, prescriptions for our present cultural illnesses. Shorter and Hancock’s counsel is not a reaction to the rupture of the presidential election, but a response to the events that preceded it, “the horror at the Bataclan… the upheaval in Syria and the senseless bloodshed in San Bernardino.” Not passively waiting to find out where the past few years’ violence and unrest would lead, the two have made ethical, philosophical, and spiritual interventions, presenting their philosophy and ethics through jazz, Buddhism, science, art, and literature.

Below, you can read their ten pieces of advice “to the next generation of artists,” or at least excerpts thereof. They begin with a reassuring preface: “As an artist, creator and dreamer of this world, we ask you not to be discouraged by what you see but to use your own lives, and by extension your art, as vehicles for the construction of peace…. You matter, your actions matter, your art matters.” That said, they also want to assure readers that “these thoughts transcend professional boundaries and apply to all people, regardless of profession.”

First, awaken to your humanity

You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet.

Embrace and conquer the road less traveled

Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers.

Welcome to the Unknown

Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.

Understand the True Nature of Obstacles

We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon.

Don’t Be Afraid to Interact with Those Who Are Different from You

The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common…. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts.

Strive to Create Agenda-Free Dialogue

Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool… we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all.

Be Wary of Ego

Creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.

Work Towards a Business without Borders

The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones.

Appreciate the Generation that Walked Before You

Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom…. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes.

Lastly, We Hope that You Live in a State of Constant Wonder

As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away.

Whether you’re a jazz fan, musician, artist, writer, accountant, cashier, trucker, teacher, or whatever, I can’t think of a wiser set of guidelines with which to confront the suffocating epidemic of cynicism, delusional thinking, rampant bigotry, hatred, and self-absorption of our time. Read Shorter and Hancock’s full open letter at Nest HQ.

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

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