Should Literature Be Political? A Glimpse into Sartre by The Partially Examined Life

Image by Solomon Gundry

Jean-Paul Sartre produced plays and novels like The Respectful Prostitute (1946), which explored racism in the American South. These works were criticized as too polemical to count as good literature. What might in the present day culminate only in a Twitter fight led Sartre to publish a whole book defending his practices, called What Is Literature? (1946).

In the clip below, Mark Linsenmayer from the Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast explains Sartre's view, outlining both how strange it is and why you might want to take it seriously anyway. In short, Sartre sees the act of writing fiction as an ethical appeal to his reader's freedom. The reader is challenged to hear the truths the work expresses, to understand and take action on them. More directly, the reader is challenged to read the work, which involves a demand on the reader's attention and imagination to "flesh out" the situations the book describes. The reader takes an active role in completing the work, and this role can be abandoned freely at any time. If a writer creates an escapist fantasy, the reader is invited to escape. If the writer produces a piece of lying propaganda, then the reader is being invited to collaborate in that fundamentally corrupt work.

So if writing is always an ethical, political act, then Sartre shouldn't be blamed for producing overtly political work. In fact, writers who deny that their work is political are dodging their own responsibility for playing haphazardly with this potentially dangerous tool. Their work will produce political effects whether they like it or not.

The Partially Examined Life episode 212 (Sartre on Literature) is a two-part treatment of the first two chapters of this text, weighing Sartre's words to try to understand them and determine whether they ultimately make sense. Listen to the full episode below or go subscribe to The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast at

Part 1:

Part 2:

Mark Linsenmayer is the host of The Partially Examined Life and Nakedly Examined Music podcasts. 

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The Big Pond: Stream 50 Audio Stories from the Goethe-Institut, Available Free Online


Who doesn’t love a good podcast? Don’t tell me you’ve never binged Serial or laughed out loud with Marc Maron. Over the last few years, podcasts have become a cultural phenomenon–they help us endure our daily commutes and then lull us back to sleep at night. Listening culture isn’t new, though–talk radio has been filling the silence with anecdotes, news, and drama since the early 1900s. The Goethe-Institut’s new radio and podcast series THE BIG POND. A US-German Listening Series is a perfect marriage of these two audible storytelling formats.

The Goethe-Institut, a German cultural center with its North American headquarters in Washington, has partnered with the Public Radio Exchange (PRX), the RIAS Berlin Kommission, KCRW Berlin, and other public radio stations and producers in Germany and the US to bring you THE BIG POND, a collection of 50 unique audio pieces released on a weekly basis. From pretzels and beer to the Berlin Wall, from motorcycles to recycling, THE BIG POND offers a fresh perspective on just how much these two countries share while celebrating podcasting, broadcasting, and “Wunderbar Together” – the German-American Year of Friendship.

Don’t worry, the radio features are all in English! Episodes are available for free via PRX, iTunes, Spotify, and THE BIG POND’s website as podcasts and for broadcast by public radio stations in the United States. This carefully curated library of audio productions covers all things German-American: German motorcycle tourists in Utah, a young German journalist’s mythical day with John Lennon, German-style apprenticeships in the US, an American opera singer’s life in Berlin, New York City beer gardens, and much more. THE BIG POND is home to features from up-and-coming producers as well as industry greats like Katie Davis, a contributor to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “This American Life”, and the Kitchen Sisters (Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva), producers of the award-winning NPR series “Hidden Kitchens”.

"When an editor asks me to do a radio story, it usually comes with lots of directions,” said radio producer Katie Davis. “When the team at THE BIG POND talked to me about a story for this series, everything was wide open. No rules, requirements; just a wide open canvas with space for original stories.”

Provided with the necessary freedom to tell their transatlantic tales, THE BIG POND producers have developed pieces that resonate with audiences of all backgrounds on both sides of the big pond, conveying a balanced and modern image of Germany and the US. THE BIG POND isn’t a collection of puff pieces about Germany–it’s a well-researched narrative of German and American life and culture. Close cooperation with German and American journalists gives an authentic voice to Germany, the US, and their many subcultures while building up the transatlantic radio network.

Anyone interested in the series can download episodes free of charge for individual use or broadcasting at PRX, iTunes, Spotify, or by visiting THE BIG POND’s website. Check and the Goethe-Institut Washington’s social media channels for transcripts and behind-the-scenes content.

For the project’s press release and other press materials, please visit:

Savannah Beck is the Online Editor at the Goethe-Institut Washington.

“Stay Free: The Story of the Clash” Narrated by Public Enemy’s Chuck D: A New Spotify Podcast

FYI: Spotify, in partnership with the BBC, has launched “Stay Free: The Story of the Clash," an eight-part podcast on the iconic punk band, narrated by Public Enemy front man, Chuck D. It might seem like an unexpected pairing. And yet Spotify explains: "Like The Clash, Public Enemy openly challenged the status quo in a completely original way—this parallel and Chuck D’s personal experiences bring a surprising new dimension to the story of The Clash." Reviewing the production in The New Yorker, Sarah Larson adds:

In [“Stay Free: The Story of the Clash"], we learn that Chuck D, a radio d.j. at the time, co-founded Public Enemy after a conversation, in 1986, with a friend at Def Jam, who wanted him to become “the hip-hop version of Joe Strummer,” of the Clash—to make music with “intellectual heft” that could also “rock the party.” And reader, he did. His presence as narrator adds appealing perspective and gravitas to the podcast, which begins with the story of the Clash’s origins, in a West London riot in 1976. With a skillfully layered presentation of punk music, seventies-London audio, and interview clips, the podcast so far thrills me the way that “Mogul,” the Spotify-Gimlet podcast about the late hip-hop mogul Chris Lighty, did; I’m eager to hear the rest.

Watch the podcast trailer above. Stream the podcast episodes--or at least the four released so far--on Spotify here. Also the related playlist of music. And remember folks, The Clash, they're still the only band that matters...

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Actress Lucy Lawless Performs the Proto-Feminist Comedy “Lysistrata” for The Partially Examined Life Podcast

Remember Lucy, aka Xena the Warrior Princess, perhaps better known to younger folks as Ron Swanson's (eventual) wife on Parks and Recreation? Before her career re-launched via major roles on Spartacus, Salem, and Ash vs. Evil Dead, she took some time off to study philosophy and so got involved with The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, which is coming up on its 10th birthday and has now been downloaded more than 25 million times.

She has now joined the gang for cold-read on-air performances with discussions of Sartre's No Exit, Sophocles's Antigone, and most recently Aristophanes's still-funny proto-feminist comedy Lysistrata. For the discussion of this last, she was joined by fellow cast member Emily Perkins (she played the little girl on the 1990 TV version of Stephen King's "IT") to hash through whether this story of stopping war through a sex-strike is actually feminist or not, and how it relates to modern politics. (For another take on this, see Spike Lee's 2015 adaptation of the story for the film Chi-Raq.)

And as a present to bring you into the New Year, she provided lead vocals on a new song by PEL host Mark Linsenmayer about the funky ways women can be put on a pedestal, projected upon, unloaded upon, and otherwise not treated as quite human despite the intention to provide affection. Stream it right below. And read the lyrics and get more information on

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Malcolm Gladwell and Rick Rubin Launch a New Music Podcast, Broken Record: Listen Online

This past month, Malcolm Gladwell (author), Rick Rubin (record producer), and Bruce Headlam (media desk editor of the New York Times) teamed up to launch Broken Record. It's a music podcast that doubles as "liner notes for the digital age." Or, as Gladwell tells Rolling Stone, it's "a kind of musical variety show." Some episodes offer an in-depth narrative. Others feature mini performances and interviews with musicians--plus an assortment of "digressions, arguments, back-stories, and random things to disagree with about music."

The episodes released so far can be streamed online here. For new episodes, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes or Spotify. The latest episode with Niles Rodgers and Chic appears below:

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

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Ditching the Lecture Hall for the Recording Studio: One Historian Is Using the Power of Podcasting to Inspire a Whole New Audience

History is dying at U.S. colleges and universities.  Enrollment in undergraduate history courses is way down since 2010, and the number of history degrees awarded annually has likewise been falling faster and faster.  The most recent data show a 9% nationwide drop in history degrees awarded in 2014 compared to 2013, with an even sharper 13% decline at the nation’s top universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Stanford. (1,2,3,4)  So, is history just getting old?

On the contrary.  At least outside of academia, history has never been more popular.  Cultural icons including Barack Obama and Bill Gates have cited history books such as Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress as among their favorite books of all time.  The History Channel has enjoyed a resurgence in viewership since 2013, and judging by the reception of more epic productions, from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie Lincoln in 2012 to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit musical Hamilton in 2015, it’s clear that public hunger for history is only growing.  What, then, accounts for lackluster lecture hall attendance?

“Part of the problem is that much of academic history has become too esoteric,” says podcaster Brad Harris, who holds a PhD from Stanford in the history of science and technology.  “Course content has been shifting away from big ideas like the rise of modern science and democracy to narrower studies of things like the politics of emotion and cultural constructions, which many students find less relevant to their interests.”  Moreover, Harris contends that college history courses have never been more cynical.  “Too many professors dwell on what humanity has done wrong–who we’ve oppressed, what we’ve destroyed–and not enough on what humanity has done right–who we’ve liberated, what we’ve invented.  Where’s the inspiration?  It’s no wonder people are ditching history lectures.”  And now, so has Brad Harris.

Since leaving academia in 2015, Harris has been working full-time to offer an attractive alternative for people who want to learn history, providing content that is as informative as a college lecture but as entertaining as a cinematic production: a podcast called How It Began: A History of the Modern World.  Available everywhere podcasts are found, and also from his website,, How It Began interprets a broad array of the most important scientific, technological, and cultural advancements in history, from dog domestication to the Scientific Revolution.  Here is an excerpt from the show's introductory episode:

In each episode, we will fly through the centuries to follow the seeds of an innovation or discovery as it blossoms into one of the many fruits of modernity.  Far from a catalog of dead men and dates, How It Began offers a cinematic-like immersion into the stories behind some of our species’ greatest achievements.  The overall theme?  Celebration!  We are fortunate to be descended from men and women who dared to dream big and even die for the cause of progress.  Their work is unfinished, and some parts of modernity are even worse than before.  But most are better, much better.  And we have more tools than ever to fix what’s still broken.  

Brad Harris hopes his show’s focus on modern progress will captivate people who crave more inspiring explorations of history, and judging by How It Began's reception so far, he seems well on his way to achieving exactly that.  

Episodes are between 30 and 60 minutes long and released every month or so.  The podcast explores a wide range of topics, from the rise of modern surgery and computers to the development of the English language and the theory of evolution.  "Wolves to Dogs: The Origin of our Alliance" was one of the most popular episodes of Season One.   In a more recent episode, Harris reveals the surprising correlations between the spread of coffee consumption and the establishment of modern institutions:

1. "New Data Show Large Drop in History Bachelor's Degrees," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, March 2016:
2. "Survey Finds Fewer Students Enrolling in College History Courses," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, September 2016:
3. "The Rise and Decline of History Specializations over the Past 40 Years," Perspectives on History, American Historical Association, December 2015:
4. "The Decline and Fall of History," Niall Ferguson, published by The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, October 2016:


This is a guest post by Morgan Stewart, an educational consultant and founder of Within Reach Educational Consultants.

“The Couch to 80k” Writing Boot Camp: Take a Free 8-Week Podcast Course to Start Writing Fiction, or Even Finish a Novel

Image by Book Mama via Flickr Commons

We've all read fiction, but how to go about writing it? Nobody has the definitive answer, and there, in the multiplicity of possible approaches, methods, and frames of mind, lies both the challenge and the fascination of the craft. The English writer Tim Clare, who before reaching forty years of age has published poetry, a memoir, and a novel as well as hosted a television series called How to Get a Book Deal, seems to know that full well. Hence the variety of challenges he'll put you through in "The Couch to 80k" (80,000 words being the industry-standard length of a novel), his free eight-week fiction-writing "boot camp" available for anyone to take free online.

Produced as a part of Clare's writing-advice podcast Death of 1000 Cuts, the mini-series consists of 48 episodes, each of which, he says, "teaches you new writing skills through a 10 minute exercise – it even times you while you do the exercise, so once the podcast finishes, you’re done for the day. No homework!"

You need only "something to listen to them on, and a pen and notebook or a laptop, so you can write. The whole idea is to give you something low commitment but intense, packing in everything you’d learn on a Fiction MA and more, so every day you’re doing focused exercises that build upon your previous work and rapidly build your imaginative muscles."

Clare's jokey, conversational tone makes the course entertaining even if you don't actually want to write fiction, though Clare himself, in the very first episode (above), cautions strongly against listening unless you're ready to put pen to paper — and ready to consign everything you've written on that paper, through all eight weeks, straight to the recycle bin. Some of the challenges Clare throws down may seem silly, but they do get you writing, and he undergirds the series with forays into more technical matters like the "mathsy business of sentence composition" as well. Reviewing his novel Honours, the Guardian's Sarah Perry called Clare "a storyteller who knows what his reader wants, and isn’t shy of giving plenty of it." As this boot camp reveals, he's also a teacher who knows what his students need.

Enter the "The Couch to 80k" bootcamp here. And if you follow it through to completion, "you’ll have the knowledge and the motivation to finish a novel."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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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