Philosopher Bertrand Russell Talks About the Time When His Grandfather Met Napoleon

Maybe our generational enmity has grown too great these days, but once upon a time, primary school teachers would ask students to interview an elder as an eyewitness to history. Most of our elders didn’t participate in History, big H. Few of them were (or stood adjacent to) world leaders. But in some way or another, they experienced events most of us only see in photographs and film: the Vietnam War, segregation and the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War and its end…. It’s not hard to see how this relatively recent history has shaped the world we live in.

Hearing from people who lived through such world-historical events can give us needed perspective, if they’re still living and willing to talk. It offers a sense that the apocalyptic dread we often feel in the face of our own crises – climate, virus, war, the seeming end of democratic institutions – was also acutely felt, and often with as much good reason, by those who lived a generation or two before us. And yet, they survived — or did so long enough to make children and grandchildren. They saw global catastrophes pass and change and sometimes witnessed turns of fortune that brought empires to their knees.

Indeed, when we step back just a generation or two before the oft-maligned boomers, we find people whose elders lived through the event that has come to stand for the hubristic fall of empires — Napoleon’s defeat and capture at Waterloo on March, 20, 1815. The philosopher, writer, social critic, and public figure Bertrand Russell was such a person. Both of Russell’s parents died when he was very young, and his grandparents raised him. In the restored, colorized and “speech adjusted” 1952 interview just above, you can hear Russell reminisce about his grandfather, the 1st Earl Russell, who was born in 1792.

Russell’s grandfather was a world leader. He served as prime minister between 1846 and 1856 and again from 1865 to 1866. Or as Russell puts it to his American interviewer, “He was prime minister during your Mexican War, during the Revolutions of 1848. I remember him quite well. But as you can see, he belonged to an age that now seems rather removed.” A time when one man could and did, in just a few years time, place nearly all of Europe under his direct control or the control of his subordinates; before modern warfare, guerrilla warfare, cyber and drone war….

Earl Russell not only met Napoleon, but became a late ally. After a 90-minute meeting with Bonaparte during the self-proclaimed Emperor’s exile, “Russell denounced the Bourbon Restoration and Britain’s declaration of war against the recently-returned Napoleon,” notes the video’s poster, “by arguing in the House of Commons that foreign powers had no right to dictate France’s form of government.” The younger Russell, himself born in 1872, also saw history swept away. He lived in “a world where all kinds of things that have now disappeared were thought to be going to last forever,” he says.

One may be reminded of the Communist Manifesto’s “all that is solid melts into air.” Russell gives no indication that his grandfather, a contemporary of that world-historical document’s author, ever interacted with Karl Marx. But Russell himself met an imposing historical figure who looms just as large in world history. Hear him above, in 1961, describe how he met Vladimir Lenin in 1920.

via @TamasGorbe

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

Self-Encounter: The 10-Episode TV Show That Introduced Existentialism to Americans in 1961

“Existentialism is both a philosophy and a mood,” says Hazel Barnes by way of opening the television series Self-Encounter: A Study in Existentialism. “As a mood, I think we could say that it is the mood of the twentieth century — or, at least, of those people in the twentieth century who are discontent with things as they are. It expresses the feeling that, somehow or other, all of those systems — whether they be social, psychological, or scientific — which have attempted to define and explain and determine man, have somehow missed the living individual person.”

Existentialism was on the rise in 1961, when Barnes spoke those words, and the subsequent six decades have arguably done little to assuage its discontent. By the time of Self-Encounter‘s broadcast in ’61, Barnes was already well-known in philosophical circles for her English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. When she took on that job, with what she later described as “three years of badly taught high school French and one yearlong course in college, and a bare minimum of background in philosophy,” she couldn’t have known that it would set her on the road to becoming the most famous popularizer of existentialism in America.

Five years after the publication of Barnes’ Sartre translation, along came the opportunity to host a ten-part series on National Public Educational Television (a predecessor of PBS) explaining Sartre’s thought as well as that of other writers like Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and Richard Wright, between dramatizations of scenes drawn from existentialist literature. Self-Encounter was once “thought to be entirely lost, the original tapes having been reported recorded over,” writes Nick Nielsen. But after the series’ unexpected rediscovery in 2017, all of its episodes gradually made their way to the web. You can watch all ten of them straight through in the nearly five-hour video at the top of the post, or view them one-by-one at the American Archive of Public Broadcasting.

Self Encounter was produced in 1961 and first broadcast in 1962,” Nielsen writes. “I cannot help but note that Route 66 aired from 1960 to 1964, The Outer Limits aired from 1963 to 1965, Rawhide aired from 1959 to 1965, and Perry Mason aired from 1957 to 1966″ — not to mention The Twilight Zone, from 1959 to 1964. “It would be difficult to name another television milieu of comparable depth. Our mental image of this period of American history as being one of stifling conformity is belied by these dark perspectives on human nature.” And as for the social, psychological, scientific, and of course technological systems in effect today, the existentialists would surely take a dim view of their potential to liberate us from conformity — or any other aspect of the human condition.

Related content:

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The Philosophy of Kierkegaard, the First Existentialist Philosopher, Revisited in 1984 Documentary

An Animated Introduction to the Existentialist Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre… and How It Can Open Our Eyes to Life’s Possibilities

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Aldous Huxley Predicts in 1950 What the World Will Look Like in the Year 2000

I’ve been thinking lately about how and why utopian fiction shades into dystopian. Though we sometimes imagine the two modes as inversions of each other, perhaps they lie instead on a continuum, one along which all societies slide, from functional to dysfunctional. The central problem seems to be this: Utopian thought relies on putting the complications of human behavior on the shelf to make a maximally efficient social order—or of finding some convenient way to dispense with those complications. But it is precisely with this latter move that the trouble begins. How to make the mass of people compliant and pacific? Mass media and consumerism? Forced collectivization? Drugs?

Readers of dystopian fiction will recognize these as some of the design flaws in Aldous Huxley’s utopian/dystopian society of Brave New World, a novel that asks us to wrestle with the philosophical problem of whether we can create a fully functional society without robbing people of their agency and independence. Doesn’t every utopia, after all, imagine a world of strict hierarchies and controls? The original—Thomas More’s Utopia—gave us a patriarchal slave society (as did Plato’s Republic). Huxley’s Brave New World similarly situates humanity in a caste system, subordinated to technology and subdued with medication.

While Huxley’s utopia has eradicated the nuclear family and natural human reproduction—thus solving a population crisis—it is still a society ruled by the ideas of founding fathers: Henry Ford, H.G. Wells, Freud, Pavlov, Shakespeare, Thomas Robert Malthus. If you wanted to know, in the early 20th century, what the future would be like, you’d typically ask a famous man of ideas. Redbook magazine did just that in 1950, writes Matt Novak at Paleofuture; they “asked four experts—curiously all men, given that Redbook was and is a magazine aimed at women—about what the world may look like fifty years hence.”

One of those men was Huxley, and in his answers, he draws on at least two of Brave New World’s intellectual founders, Ford and Malthus, in predictions about population growth and the nature of work. In addition to the ever-present threats of war, Huxley first turns to the Malthusian problems of overpopulation and scarce resources.

During the next fifty years mankind will face three great problems: the problem of avoiding war; the problem of feeding and clothing a population of two and a quarter billions which, by 2000 A.D., will have grown to upward of three billions, and the problem of supplying these billions without ruining the planet’s irreplaceable resources.

As Novak points out, Huxley’s estimation is “less than half of the 6.1 billion that would prove to be a reality by 2000.” In order to address the problem of feeding, housing, and clothing all of those people, Huxley must make an “unhappily… large assumption—that the nations can agree to live in peace. In this event mankind will be free to devote all its energy and skill to the solution of its other major problems.”

“Huxley’s predictions for food production in the year 2000,” writes Novak, “are largely a call for the conservation of resources. He correctly points out that meat production can be far less efficient than using agricultural lands for crops.” Huxley recommends sustainable farming methods and the development of “new types of synthetic building materials and new sources for paper” in order to curb the destruction of the world’s forests. What he doesn’t account for is the degree to which the overwhelming greed of a powerful few would drive the exploitation of finite resources and hold back efforts at sustainable design, agriculture, and energy—a situation that some might consider an act of war.

But Huxley’s utopian predictions depend upon putting aside these complications. Like many mid-century futurists, he imagined a world of increased leisure and greater human fulfillment, but he “sees that potential for better working conditions and increased standards of living as obtainable only through a sustained peace.” When it comes to work, Huxley’s forecasts are partly Fordist: Advances in technology are one thing, but “work is work,” he writes, “and what matters to the worker is neither the product nor the technical process, but the pay, the hours, the attitude of the boss, the physical environment.”

To most office and factory workers in 2000 the application of nuclear fission to industry will mean very little. What they will care about is what their fathers and mothers care about today—improvement in the conditions of labor. Given peace, it should be possible, within the next fifty years, to improve working conditions very considerably. Better equipped, workers will produce more and therefore earn more.

Unfortunately, Novak points out, “perhaps Huxley’s most inaccurate prediction is his assumption that an increase in productivity will mean an increase in wages for the average worker.” Despite rising profits and efficiency, this has proven untrue. In a Freudian turn, Huxley also predicts the decentralization of industry into “small country communities, where life is cheaper, pleasanter and more genuinely human than in those breeding-grounds of mass neurosis…. Decentralization may help to check that march toward the asylum, which is a threat to our civilization hardly less grave than that of erosion and A-bomb.”

While technological improvements in materials may not fundamentally change the concerns of workers, improvements in robotics and computerization may abolish many of their jobs, leaving increasing numbers of people without any means of subsistence. So we’re told again and again. But this was not yet the pressing concern in 2000 that it is for futurists just a few years later. Perhaps one of Huxley’s most prescient statements takes head-on the issue facing our current society—an aging population in which “there will be more elderly people in the world than at any previous time. In many countries the citizens of sixty-five and over will outnumber the boys and girls of fifteen and under.”

Pensions and a pointless leisure offer no solution to the problems of an aging population. In 2000 the younger readers of this article, who will then be in their seventies, will probably be inhabiting a world in which the old are provided with opportunities for using their experience and remaining strength in ways satisfactory to themselves, and valuable to the community.

Given the decrease in wages, rising inequality, and loss of home values and retirement plans, more and more of the people Huxley imagined are instead working well into their seventies. But while Huxley failed to foresee the profoundly destructive force of unchecked greed—and had to assume a perhaps unobtainable world peace—he did accurately identify many of the most pressing problems of the 21st century. Eight years after the Redbook essay, Huxley was called on again to predict the future in a television interview with Mike Wallace. You can watch it in full at the top of the post.

Wallace begins in a McCarthyite vein, asking Huxley to name “the enemies of freedom in the United States.” Huxley instead discusses “impersonal forces,” returning to the problem of overpopulation and other concerns he addressed in Brave New World, such as the threat of an overly bureaucratic, technocratic society too heavily dependent on technology. Four years after this interview, Huxley published his final book, the philosophical novel Island, in which, writes Velma Lush, the evils he had warned us about, “over-population, coercive politics, militarism, mechanization, the destruction of the environment and the worship of science will find their opposites in the gentle and doomed Utopia of Pala.”

The utopia of IslandHuxley’s wife Laura told Alan Watts—is “possible and actual… Island is really visionary common sense.” But it is also a society, Huxley tragically recognized, made fragile by its unwillingness to control human behavior and prepare for war.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2016.

via Paleofuture

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


John Locke’s Personal Pancake Recipe: “This Is the Right Way” to Make the Classic Breakfast Treat

No student of Western political philosophy can ignore John Locke, whose work defined the concepts of governance we now know as liberalism. By the same token, no student of Western cuisine can ignore pancakes, a canonical element of what we now know as breakfast. The oldest pancake recipe we’ve featured here on Open Culture dates to 1585. Ernest Hemingway had his own preferred pancake-making method; so do Simon and Garfunkel, though theirs are of the potato variety.

Locke, as you might imagine, opted for a more traditionally English recipe. Three centuries on, how well his vision of liberalism has held up remains a matter of active debate. As for his pancakes, Marissa Nicosia at Cooking in the Archives put them to the test just last year. “When David Armitage posted this recipe for pancakes in the Bodleian collection on Twitter, I knew that I wanted to try it,” Nicosia writes. Her transcription is as follows:

Take sweet cream 3/4 + pint. Flower a
quarter of a pound. Eggs four 7 leave out two 4 of
the whites. Beat the Eggs very well. Then put in
the flower, beat it a quarter of an hower. Then
put in six spoonfulls of the Cream, beat it a litle
Take new sweet butter half a pound. Melt it to oyle, &
take off the skum, power in all the clear by degrees
beating it all the time. Then put in the rest of
your cream. beat it well. Half a grated nutmeg
& litle orangeflower water. Frie it without butter.
This is the right way

“From the start, I was intrigued by the cross-outs and other notes in the recipe. It appears that it was first drafted (or prepared) using significantly fewer eggs.” As meticulous in his cooking as in his philosophy, Locke clearly paid close attention to “the details of separating and whisking eggs as well as adding just the right amount of orange blossom water (‘litle’) and nutmeg (‘Half a grated nutmeg’) — an exceptional, expensive amount.”

Drawing on her significant experience with early modern pancakes, Nicosia describes Locke’s version as “a bit fluffier and fattier than a classic French crêpe,” though with “far less rise than my favorite American breakfast version”; her husband places them “somewhere between a classic English pancake and a Scotch pancake.” Perhaps that somewhat northerly taste and texture stands to reason, in light of the considerable influence Locke’s non-pancake-related work would later have on the Scottish Enlightenment.

The final line of Locke’s recipe, “This is the right way,” may sound a bit stern in context today. But whether you work straight from his original or from the updated version Nicosia provides in her post, you should end up with “pancakes made for a decadent breakfast.” Locke’s inclusion of an extravagant amount of nutmeg and splash of orange-blossom water “elevates this specific pancake recipe to a special treat.” Nicosia includes a picture of her own honey-drizzled Lockean breakfast with the a copy of Two Treatises of Government and a cup of coffee — the latter being an especially ideal accompaniment to pancakes, and one that also comes thoroughly philosopher-endorsed.

via Rare Cooking

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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.

Martin Heidegger Talks Philosophy with a Buddhist Monk on German TV (1963)

Martin Heidegger is often called the most important philosopher of the 20th century. I’m not in a position to evaluate this claim, but his influence on contemporary and successive European and American thinkers is considerable. That influence spread all the way to Thailand, where Buddhist monk and university professor Bhikku Maha Mani came to think of Heidegger as “the German philosopher.” (A conception, writes Otto Poggeler in an essay on Heidegger and Eastern thought, that may have “perverted the monk’s wanting to talk” to the philosopher, “since philosophy never lets itself be embodied in an idol.”) The Buddhist monk, also a radio presenter who later left his order to work for American television, met the German philosopher in 1963 for an interview on German TV station SWR. Maha Mani asks his questions in English, Heidegger responds in German. See the first part of the interview above, the second below.

This was not at all the first time the German philosopher had dialogued with an East Asian thinker. In a study on the Buddhist and Taoist influences on Heidegger’s work, Reinhold May writes that Heidegger’s “direct contact with East Asian thought dates back at least as far as 1922” when he began conversations with several major Japanese thinkers. Nonetheless, Heidegger apparently had little to say on the correspondences between his ideas and those of Eastern philosophers until the 1950s, and the little that he did say seems marginal at best to his main body of work.

May’s claims of “hidden influence” may be highly exaggerated, yet Heidegger was familiar with Buddhist thought, and, in the interview, he makes some interesting distinctions and comparisons. In answer to the Bhikku’s first, very general, question, Heidegger launches into his familiar refrain—“one question was never asked [in “Occidental” philosophy], that is, the question of Being.” Heidegger defines “the human being” as “this essence, that has language,” in contrast to “the Buddhist teachings,” which do not make “an essential distinction, between human beings and other living things, plants and animals.” For Heidegger, consciousness—“a knowing relation to Being” through language—is the exclusive preserve of humans.

In the second part of the interview (read a transcript here), Bhikku Maha Mani asks Heidegger what he thinks about the contradictory Western tendency to identify people without religion as “communists” and those who live “according to religious rules” as insane. Heidegger responds that religion, in its most radical sense, simply means “a bonding-back to powers, forces and laws, that supersede human capability.” In this respect, he says, “no human being is without religion,” whether it be “the belief in science” of communists or “an atheistic religion, namely Buddhism, that knows no God.” Heidegger goes on to explain why he sees little possibility of “immediate and simple understanding” between people of different religions, philosophies, and political groups. While it may be tempting to view Heidegger’s work—and that of other phenomenological, existential, or skeptical philosophers—as working in tandem with much Eastern thought, as perhaps “the” German philosopher himself would caution, the differences are significant. In the interview above, Heidegger largely faults Germany and “all of Europe in general” for a general lack of human harmony: “We do not have any clear, common and simple relation to reality and to ourselves,” he says. “That is the big problem of the Western world.”

Courses on Heidegger’s philosophy can be found in our collection of Free Online Philosophy Courses, part of our larger collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2014.

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The Philosophy of Games: C. Thi Nguyen on the Philosophy vs. Improv Podcast


Thi Nguyen (pronounced “TEE NWEEN”) teaches at the University of Utah, and his first book, 2020’s Games: Agency as Art, makes a case for games being treated as a serious object of study for philosophy. Thi sees game analysis as not just a sub-division in the philosophy of art (aesthetics), but in the philosophy of action. How do games relate to other human activities with constraints, like customs, language, and more specifically performative acts within language (like saying “I do” during a marriage ceremony, where you’re not just describing that you do something, but actually taking action)?

On this recording (episode 24 of the podcast), Thi joins philosophy podcaster Mark Linsenmayer of The Partially Examined Life and improvisational comedy coach Bill Arnett of the Chicago Improv Studio to talk about games and improv, and to engage in a couple of improv scenes that explore the connection between the two.

This is the third philosophy guest for the Philosophy vs. Improv podcast, which alternates between guests from the improv world, guests from the philosophy world, and no guest at all. The overall format involves a lesson from each host, which they teach to each other (and the guest) simultaneously. This often results in unexpected synchronicity given the connections between two disciplines that stress the analysis of language, living deliberately, and quick thinking.

For another philosophically rich episode, see episode #20 in which St. Lawrence University’s Jennifer L. Hansen appeared to discuss the many aspects of the concept of “The Other” in philosophy.

Philosophy vs. Improv is a podcast hosted by Mark Linsenmayer, who also hosts The Partially Examined Life Philosophy Podcast, Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast, and Nakedly Examined Music

How Pulp Fiction Uses the Socratic Method, the Philosophical Method from Ancient Greece

No sooner did Pulp Fiction open in theaters than its director, a young former video-store clerk named Quentin Tarantino, became the new auteur to beat. Drawing from a variety of cinematic traditions both high and low, Tarantino’s breakout film showed mainstream audiences things they’d never seen before, or at least in combinations they’d never seen before. Its dialogue in particular was often cited as an example of Tarantino’s sheer filmmaking vitality. And so it remains: recall how many times, over the past few decades, you’ve heard lines quoted just from the conversation early in Pulp Fiction between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s black-suited hit men Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield.

It’s thanks to this passage of Tarantino’s script that even Americans know the name of the French equivalent of McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. But a bit later, and with a bit more subtlety, it also demonstrated to viewers what’s known as the Socratic method. Such is the premise, anyway, of the Practicable video at the top of the post.

Named for its first practitioner, the peripatetic Greek of the fifth-century B.C. who has since lived in on dialogues composed by his student Plato, the Socratic method has come to be regarded as an effective means of getting to the truth through conversation, either with others or with oneself — or rather, as an effective means of getting away with falsehoods: false opinions, false convictions, false beliefs.

Socrates, says Practicable’s narrator, “would start off asking people for a definition of a term like wisdom, courage, or justice, and through repeatedly pointing out contradictions in their definition, and then the contradictions in their adjustments to their original definition, they would eventually reach a state of admitted ignorance.” Such a process occurs in Pulp Fiction when Vincent and Jules discuss their gangster boss Marsellus Wallace’s recent killing of a man who dared to give his wife a foot massage. “Jules believes Marsellus overreacted, and Vincent believes that Antoine Roccamora got what was coming to him. At this point, we see Vincent try to get to the root of why Jules thinks it was an overreaction.”

Consciously or unconsciously, Vincent does so using the Socratic method, which requires first establishing an argument, then raising an exception or contradiction, then re-formulating the argument, and repeating those steps as truth is approached or falsehood escaped. At issue is the inherently sexual nature of foot massages. By bringing out contradictions in Jules’ own beliefs about them — he gives them to his mother, he argues, though he also takes pride in his advanced technique, which he’s never applied to the feet of a man — Vincent “can finally establish that Marsellus’ use of violence was, in fact, justified.” The dialogue could continue, but Tarantino leaves it there, with Jules in the state of internal contradiction Socrates called aporia. After all, like most of Tarantino’s talkative characters, they’ve got a a job to do.

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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.

An Introduction to the Painting of Caspar David Friedrich, Romanticism & the Sublime

When Denis Villeneuve was announced as the director of the latest cinematic adaptation of Dune, few could have objected on aesthetic grounds. The blasted sand planet of Arrakis, with its storms and worms, demands a sense of the sublime; to a unique degree among filmmakers working today, the auteur behind Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 seemed to possess it. Though long since vulgarized to mean little more than “highly enjoyable,” sublime has historically denoted a richer, more complex set of qualities. The sublime can be beautiful, but it must also be in some way fearsome, possessed of “a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation.”

That quote comes straight from the Wikipedia page on “Sublime (philosophy),” which also prominently features Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, or Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. Completed around 1818, it has become a familiar image even to those who know nothing of Friedrich’s work — work to which they can receive an introduction from the new video above by Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter.

Friedrich, he explains, was “associated with German Romanticism, a rising intellectual and artistic movement” of the late 18th and early 19th centuries “that sought to reconnect humanity with feeling and spirituality” after the Enlightenment so destabilized humanity’s Weltanschauung.

Friedrich’s landscapes, realistically painted if not necessarily faithful to real places, “represent the pinnacle of this movement.” They do this by conveying “the feeling he has in the presence of the landscape, the staggering encounter with the divinity he sees in it. This is the essence of the sublime,” which took on special urgency in an era “when secularism was threatening the core of Christianity.”  More than religion, the Romantics thus began to regard nature as awesome (in the original sense), humbling themselves before the greatness of landscapes real and imagined. The wanderer looming above the sea of fog is actually an exception in Friedrich’s work, most of whose human figures are small enough to emphasize “the vastness of the terrain” — a sublime-evoking technique that we can still feel working two centuries later, Puschak points out, in Villeneuve’s Dune.

You can pre-order Nerdwriter’s upcoming book Escape into Meaning: Essays on Superman, Public Benches, and Other Obsessions here.

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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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