Why the U.S. Photographed Its Own World War II Concentration Camps (and Commissioned Photographs by Dorothea Lange)




During World War II, the United States put thousands and thousands of its own citizens into concentration camps. The wartime internment of Japanese Americans is a well-known historical event, and also an unusually well-documented one — not just in the sense of having been documented copiously, but also with exceptional power and artistry. Much of that owes to the astute photographic observer of early 20th-century America Dorothea Lange, who had already won acclaim for her Great Depression-symbolizing Migrant Mother.

Published in 1936, Migrant Mother was taken under the auspices of the U.S. Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration. In 1941, Lange abandoned a Guggenheim Fellowship to throw in with another government organization, the War Relocation Authority, and turn her lens on the interned. “After Japan’s bombing of the U.S. navy base at Pearl Harbor, a surprise attack that left over 2,000 Americans dead, Japanese Americans became targets of violence and increased suspicion,” says the narrator of the Vox Darkroom video above. Fearing the emergence of a “fifth column,” the government arranged the relocation of 120,000 Japanese Americans who had been living on the west coast into remote camps.


“The Roosevelt administration wanted to frame the removal as orderly, humane, and above all, necessary.” Hence the creation of the WRA, a department charged with handling the removal, “and more importantly, documenting it, through propaganda films, pamphlets and news photographs.” The project could hardly have made a more prestigious hire than Lange, who proceeded to photograph “the rapid changes happening in Japanese American communities, including Japanese-owned farms and businesses shutting down.” Her work (see various examples here) captured the final days, even hours, of an established multi-generational society about to be dismantled by the mass evacuation.

The Army disapproved of the narrative created by Lange’s candid photos, many of which were seized and impounded. The offending images depicted armed U.S. soldiers overseeing the removal process, “temporary prisons used while the concentration camps were built,” food lines at the assembly centers, and Japanese Americans in U.S. military uniform. Releasing Lange from the program after just four months, the WRA kept most of her photos out of the public eye. They stayed out of it until a series of exhibitions in the 1970s, which revealed the true nature of the concentration camps. That term is most associated with the Holocaust, to whose sheer destruction of humanity the Japanese American internment cannot, of course, be compared. But as Lange’s photographs show, just having the moral high ground over Nazi Germany is nothing to brag about.

Related Content:

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478 Dorothea Lange Photographs Poignantly Document the Internment of the Japanese During WWII

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers & Francis Stewart’s Censored Photographs of a WWII Japanese Internment Camp

How Dorothea Lange Shot Migrant Mother, Perhaps the Most Iconic Photo in American History

Dr. Seuss Draws Anti-Japanese Cartoons During WWII, Then Atones with Horton Hears a Who!

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.

How to Decode NASA’s Message to Aliens




When NASA spent close to a billion dollars on the Voyager program, launching a pair of probes from Cape Canaveral in 1977, its primary purpose was not to find intelligent extra-terrestrial life. The program grew out of ambitions for a “Grand Tour”: four robotic probes that would visit all the planets in the outer solar system, taking advantage of a 175-year alignment of Jupiter and Saturn. A downsized version produced Voyager 1 and 2, each craft “a miniature marvel,” writes the Attic. “Weighing less than a Volkswagen, each had 65,000 parts. Six thrusters powered by plutonium. Three gyroscopes. Assorted instruments to measure gravity, radiation, magnetic fields, and more. Design and assembly took years.”

Since reaching Jupiter in 1979, the two probes have sent back astonishing images from the great gas giants and the very edges of the solar system. “By 2030, Voyager 1 and 2 will cease communications for good,” says Cory Zapatka in the Verge Science video above, “and while they won’t be able to beam information back to Earth, they’re going to continue sailing through space at almost 60,000 kilometers per hour,” reaching interstellar unknowns their makers will never see. Voyager 1 was only supposed to last 10 years. In 2012, it left the solar system, to drift, along with its twin, “endlessly among the stars of our galaxy,” Timothy Ferris writes in The New Yorker, “unless someone or something encounters them someday.”


As deep space detritus, the probes will make excellent carriers for an interstellar message in a bottle, the Voyager team reasoned. The idea prompted the creation of the Golden Record, an LP fitted to each probe containing a message from humanity to the cosmos. “Etched in copper, plated with gold, and sealed in aluminum cases, the records are expected to remain intelligible for more than a billion years, making them the longest-lasting objects ever crafted by human hands.” Produced by Ferris and overseen by Carl Sagan and a team including his future wife, Ann Druyan, the Golden Record includes the work of Mozart, Chuck Berry, folk music from around the world, the sounds of waves and whales, and one of the most universal of human sounds, laughter (likely that of Sagan himself).

The Golden Record also includes 115 images, etched into its very surface. No, they are not digital files. “There are no jpegs or tifs included on it,” says Zapatka. After all, “The Voyager’s computer systems were only 69 kilobytes large, barely enough for one image, let alone 115.” These are analog still photographs and diagrams that must be reconstructed with mathematical formulae extracted from electronic tones. The process starts with the diagrams on the record’s cover — simple icons that contain an incredible density of information. We begin with two circles joined by a line. They are hydrogen atoms, the most plentiful gas in the universe, undergoing a change that occurs spontaneously once every 10 million years.

During this rare occurrence, the hydrogen atoms emit energy at wavelengths of 21 centimeters. This measurement is used as “a constant for all the other symbols on the record.” That’s an awful lot of background knowledge required to decipher what look to the scientifically untrained eye like a pair of tiny eyes behind a pair of odd eyeglasses. But for spacefaring aliens, “how hard could that be?” says Bill Nye above in an abridged description of how to decode the Golden Record. We may never, in a billion years, know if any extra-terrestrial species ever finds the record and makes the attempt. But the Golden Record has become as much an object of fascination for humans as it is a greeting from Earth to the galaxy. Learn more from NASA here about the images encoded on the Golden Record and order your own reproduction (on LP or CD) here.

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

Toni Morrison Lists the 10 Steps That Lead Countries to Fascism (1995)




Image by Angela Radulescu, via Wikimedia Commons

The term fascism gets thrown around a great deal these days, not always with high regard to consistency of meaning. Much like Orwellian, it now seems often to function primarily as a label for whichever political developments the speaker doesn’t like. Even back in the 1940s, Orwell himself took to the Tribune in an attempt to pin down what had already become a “much-abused word.” Half a century later, the question of what fascism actually is and how exactly it works was addressed by another novelist, and one of a seemingly quite different sensibility: Toni Morrison, author of The Bluest Eye and Beloved.

Fascism tends to come along with evocation of Nazi Germany. In her 1995 Charter Day address at Howard University, Morrison, too, brought out the specter of Hitler and his “final solution.” But “let us be reminded that before there is a final solution, there must be a first solution, a second one, even a third. The move toward a final solution is not a jump. It takes one step, then another, then another.” She proceeded to lay out a haunting hypothetical series of such steps as follows:

  1. Construct an internal enemy, as both focus and diversion.
  2. Isolate and demonize that enemy by unleashing and protecting the utterance of overt and coded name-calling and verbal abuse. Employ ad hominem attacks as legitimate charges against that enemy.
  3. Enlist and create sources and distributors of information who are willing to reinforce the demonizing process because it is profitable, because it grants power and because it works.
  4. Palisade all art forms; monitor, discredit or expel those that challenge or destabilize processes of demonization and deification.
  5. Subvert and malign all representatives of and sympathizers with this constructed enemy.
  6. Solicit, from among the enemy, collaborators who agree with and can sanitize the dispossession process.
  7. Pathologize the enemy in scholarly and popular mediums; recycle, for example, scientific racism and the myths of racial superiority in order to naturalize the pathology.
  8. Criminalize the enemy. Then prepare, budget for and rationalize the building of holding arenas for the enemy-especially its males and absolutely its children.
  9. Reward mindlessness and apathy with monumentalized entertainments and with little pleasures, tiny seductions, a few minutes on television, a few lines in the press, a little pseudo-success, the illusion of power and influence, a little fun, a little style, a little consequence.
  10. Maintain, at all costs, silence.

Like any good storyteller, Morrison stokes our imagination while turning us toward an examination of our own condition. Over the past quarter-century, many of the tendencies she describes have arguably become more pronounced in political and media environments around the world. A 21st-century reader may be given particular pause by step number nine. Since the 1990s, and especially in Morrison’s homeland of the United States of America, most entertainments have only grown more monumental, and most pleasures have only shrunk.

Later in her speech, Morrison foresees a time ahead “when our fears have all been serialized, our creativity censured, our ideas ‘market-placed,’ our rights sold, our intelligence sloganized, our strength downsized, our privacy auctioned; when the theatricality, the entertainment value, the marketing of life is complete.” Few of us here in 2022, whatever our political persuasion, could argue that her predictions were entirely unfounded. Fewer still have a clear answer to the question what to do when we “find ourselves living not in a nation but in a consortium of industries, and wholly unintelligible to ourselves except for what we see as through a screen darkly.”

via Kottke

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Hear Toni Morrison (RIP) Present Her Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech on the Radical Power of Language (1993)

Why Should You Read Toni Morrison’s Beloved? An Animated Video Makes the Case

George Orwell Tries to Identify Who Is Really a “Fascist” and Define the Meaning of This “Much-Abused Word” (1944)

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.

Maya Angelou Becomes the First Black Woman Featured on a U.S. Quarter

The US Mint announced that it has “begun shipping the first coins in the American Women Quarters (AWQ) Program.” And it all starts with the outstretched arms of poet Maya Angelou gracing the reverse of the quarter. The Mint writes:

A writer, poet, performer, social activist, and teacher, Angelou rose to international prominence as an author after the publication of her groundbreaking autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” Angelou’s published works of verse, non-fiction, and fiction include more than 30 bestselling titles. Her remarkable career encompasses dance, theater, journalism, and social activism. The recipient of more than 30 honorary degrees, Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at the 1992 inauguration of President Bill Clinton.  Angelou’s reading marked the first time an African American woman wrote and presented a poem at a Presidential inauguration. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Angelou the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was the 2013 recipient of the Literarian Award, an honorary National Book Award for contributions to the literary community.

According to NPR, other honorees in the series will include “astronaut Sally Ride; actress Anna May Wong; suffragist and politician Nina Otero-Warren; and Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. The coins featuring the other honorees will be shipped out this year through 2025.”

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How to Ride a Pterosaur, According to Science

From the BBC: “During the Late Cretaceous, winged prehistoric creatures called pterosaurs dominated the air. They were the first vertebrates to master flight. They were not dinosaurs but closely related. Some were tiny, but some were the biggest creatures ever to have flown. We ask a question you’ve all been wondering, could we ride one, and if so, how?” In the animation above, science producer Pierangelo Pirak explores some ideas Dr. Liz Martin-Silverstone, a palaeontologist with a keen interest in biomechanics. She runs the Palaeobiology Laboratories, including the XTM Imaging Facility for microCT scanning and imaging analysis, at the University of Bristol.

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. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

via TheKidsShouldSeeThis

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Behold Medieval Snowball Fights: A Timeless Way of Having Fun

You can’t get too much winter in the winter

— Robert Frost, “Snow

Snowy winter then responded with a voice severe:
May the cuckoo not come, let it sleep in dark hollows.
He is accustomed to bring hunger with him.

Anonymous poem in Medieval Latin, translated by Heather Williams

Winter may starve and freeze, but in each place where snow accumulates, we also find depictions of informal holidays — snow days — and one of their most exuberant pursuits. “Few seasonal activities are as universal — across time, place, or culture — as the snowball fight,” writes Public Domain Review. Some have even made it “into the annals of history…. According to what might be more fable than history, the teenage Napoleon Bonaparte famously organized a ten day snowball fight at his military school, complete with trenches, regimens, and rules of engagement.”

Snowball fights weren’t “confined to children either,” Arendse Lund writes. In the pages of illuminated Medieval manuscripts, “people of all ages, men and women, can be seen hefting an icy ball.” Such images defy a “conventional topos” — “the threat of winter” found in Old English poetry.


In one calendar poem, The Menologium, for example, “winter comes in like an invading warrior,” notes A Clerk of Oxford, “and puts autumn in chains, and the green fields which decorate the earth are permitted to stay with us no longer…. There are many, many examples of winter as danger and sorrow” in Medieval poetry.

The tradition of winter as a martial invader continues in modern verse. In Robert Frost, snow forms “soft bombs.” Even when one is safe and warm at home, snow banked high around the walls outside, winter threatens: the house is “frozen, brittle, all except this room you sit in.” But alongside these literary scenes of unbearable cold, we have the playfulness and sublimity of winter, its ability to elevate the ordinary, break up monotony, put a temporary end to daily drudgery. Winter brings its own form of beauty, and its own fun: the soft bomb of the snow ball.

In one Middle English poem by Nicolas Bacon, titled “Of a Snow balle,” spring has nothing on winter even when it comes to love; the snowball fight becomes a pretext for a romantic encounter:

A wanton wenche vppon a colde daye
With Snowe balles prouoked me to playe:
But theis snowe balles soe hette my desyer
That I maye calle them balles of wylde fyer.

In the delightful images here, culled from a number of illuminated manuscripts (and one fresco, at the top), see Medieval Europeans play, flirt, and scoff at winter’s warning in lighthearted snowball fights of yore.

via Public Domain Review

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

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.

Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten Updated to Reflect Our Modern Understanding of the Universe

We’ve experienced some mindblowing technological advances in the years following designers Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 film Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero.

Cryptocurrency

Segways

E-cigarettes

And y’know, all sorts of innovative strides in the fields of medicinecommunications, and environmental sustainability.

In the above video for the BBC, particle physicist Brian Cox pays tribute to the Eames’ celebrated eight-and-a-half-minute documentary short, and uses the discoveries of the last four-and-a-half decades to kick the can a bit further down the road.


The original film helped ordinary viewers get a handle on the universe’s outer edges by telescoping up and out from a one-meter view of a picnic blanket in a Chicago park at the rate of one power of ten every 10 seconds.

Start with something everybody can understand, right?

At 100 (102) meters — slightly less than the total length of an American football field, the picnickers become part of the urban landscape, sharing their space with cars, boats at anchor in Lake Michigan, and a shocking dearth of fellow picnickers.

One more power of 10 and the picknickers disappear from view, eclipsed by Soldier Field, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and other longstanding downtown Chicago institutions.

At 1024 meters — 100 million light years away from the starting picnic blanket, the Eames butted up against the limits of the observable universe, at least as far as 1977 was concerned.

They reversed direction, hurtling back down to earth by one power of ten every two seconds. Without pausing for so much as handful of fruit or a slice of pie, they dove beneath the skin of a dozing picnicker’s hand, continuing their journey on a cellular, then sub-atomic level, ending inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell.

It still manages to put the mind in a whirl.

Sit tight, though, because, as Professor Cox points out, “Over 40 years later, we can show a bit more.”

2021 relocates the picnic blanket to a picturesque beach in Sicily, and forgoes the trip inside the human body in favor of Deep Space, though the method of travel remains the same — exponential, by powers of ten.

1013 meters finds us heading into interstellar space, on the heels of Voyagers 1 and 2, the twin spacecrafts launched the same year as the Eames’ Powers of Ten — 1977.

Having achieved their initial objective, the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn, these spacecrafts’ mission was expanded to Uranus, Neptune, and now, the outermost edge of the Sun’s domain. The data they, and other exploratory crafts, have sent back allow Cox and others in the  scientific community to take us beyond the Eames’ outermost limits:

At 1026 meters, we switch our view to microwave. We can now see the current limit of our vision. This light forms a wall all around us. The light and dark patches show differences in temperature by fractions of a degree, revealing where matter was beginning to clump together to form the first galaxies shortly after the Big Bang. This light is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. 

1027 meters…1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Beyond this point, the nature of the Universe is truly uncharted and debated. This light was emitted around 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Before this time, the Universe was so hot that it was not transparent to light. Is there simply more universe out there, yet to be revealed? Or is this region still expanding, generating more universe, or even other universes with different physical properties to our own? How will our understanding of the Universe have changed by 2077? How many more powers of ten are out there?

According to NASA, the Voyager crafts have sufficient power and fuel to keep their “current suite of science instruments on” for another four years, at least. By then, Voyager 1 will be about 13.8 billion miles, and Voyager 2 some 11.4 billion miles from the Sun:

In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light-years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis which is heading toward the constellation Ophiuchus. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 1.7 light-years (9.7 trillion miles) from the star Ross 248 and in about 296,000 years, it will pass 4.3 light-years (25 trillion miles) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The Voyagers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wander the Milky Way.

If this dizzying information makes you yearn for 1987’s simple pleasures, this Wayback Machine link includes a fun interactive for the original Powers of Ten. Click the “show text” option on an exponential slider tool to consider the scale of each stop in historic and tangible context.

via Aeon

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Laurie Anderson Turns Zoom Into an Art Form: Watch Her Hypnotic Harvard Lecture Series on Poetry, Meditation, Death, New York & More

These days the term multimedia sounds thoroughly passé, like the apotheosis of the 1990s techno-cultural buzzword. But perhaps it also refers to a dimension of art first opened in that era, of a kind in which trend-chasers dabbled but whose potential they rarely bothered to properly explore. But having established herself as a formally and technologically daring artist long before the 1990s, Laurie Anderson was ideally placed to inhabit the multimedia era. In a way, she’s continued to inhabit it ever since, continually pressing new audiovisual platforms into the service of her signature qualities of expression: contemplative, articulate, highly digressive, and finally hypnotic.

Anderson’s commitment to this enterprise has brought her no few honors. Biographies often mention her time as NASA’s first (and, it seems, last) artist-in-residence; more recently, she was named Harvard University’s 2021 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry. This position entails the delivery of the Charles Eliot Norton Lecture, a series meant to deal with poetry “in the broadest sense,” encompassing “all poetic expression in language, music, or the fine arts.”


Norton lecturers previously featured here on Open Culture include Leonard Bernstein, Herbie Hancock, and Jorge Luis Borges. “I am pretty sure that the Norton committee at Harvard made an enormous mistake when they asked me to do this lecture series,” Anderson told the Harvard Gazette, “and it was really my own sense of the absurd that made me want to say yes.”

Few could seriously have doubted Anderson’s ability to rise to the occasion. She did, however, face a unique challenge in the history of the Norton Lectures: delivering them on Zoom, that now-ubiquitous video-conferencing application of the COVID-19 era. Despite belonging to a generation not all of whose members demonstrate great proficiency with such technologies, Anderson herself appears to have taken to Zoom like the proverbial duck to water. Such, at least, is the impression given by “Spending the War Without You: Virtual Backgrounds,” her six-part Norton Lecture series now available to watch on Youtube. Its subtitle hints at one feature of Zoom of which she makes rich use — but hardly the only feature.

Throughout “Spending the War Without You,” Anderson also superimposes a variety of virtual faces over her own: Sigmund Freud, Gertrude Stein, Loni Anderson, and even her musical collaborator Brian Eno. This sort of thing wouldn’t have been possible even in the longtime fantasy she cites as an inspiration for these lectures: hosting a radio show at 4:00 a.m., “a time when reality and dreams just sort of merge and it’s hard to tell the difference between them.” That’s just the right headspace in which to listen to Anderson make her elegantly spaced-out way through such topics as her life in New York, tai chi and meditation, language as a virus, the death of John Lennon, the culture of the internet, Catherine the Great, the combination of sound and image, The Wind in the Willows, non-fungible tokens, and American cheese. Taking advantage of her digital medium, she also plays the violin, explores virtual realms, and dances alongside her younger self.

The collision of all these elements feels not unlike Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, Nam June Paik’s television broadcast of New Year’s Day 1984. Anderson also took part in that project, sharing with Paik an artistic willingness to embrace new media. “I’ve almost always been a wirehead,” she says in these lectures 38 years later. “But it’s become a nightmare in some ways, with people attached now to their devices, with a death grip on their phones. At the same time, it’s the same machine that created celebrity culture.” Looking back on a “humiliating” clip of herself and Peter Gabriel performing on Good Morning, Mr. Orwell, she recalls her state of mind during the commercial and technological onrush of the 1980s: “Everything was moving fast, and I just wasn’t thinking. That’s my excuse, anyway.” See the full lecture series here, or up top. The lectures will be added to our collection: 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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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.

Jon Hamm Narrates a Modernized Version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Helping to Diagnose Our Social Media-Induced Narcissism

The Matrix gave a generation or two reason to reconsider, or indeed first to consider, Plato’s allegory of the cave. That era-defining blockbuster’s cavalcade of slick visual effects came delivered atop a plot about humanity’s having been enslaved — plugged into a colossal machine, as I recall, like an array of living batteries — while convinced by a direct-to-brain simulation that it wasn’t. Here in real life, about two and a half millennia earlier, one of Plato’s dialogues had conjured up a not-dissimilar scenario. You can see it retold in the video above, a clip drawn from a form as representative of the early 21st century as The Matrix‘s was of the late 20th: Legion, a dramatic television series based on a comic book.

“Imagine a cave, where those inside never see the outside world,” says narrator Jon Hamm (himself an icon of our Golden Age of Television, thanks to his lead performance in Mad Men). “Instead, they see shadows of that world projected on the cave wall. The world they see in the shadows is not the real world, but it’s real to them. If you were to show them the world as it actually is, they would reject it as incomprehensible.” Then, Hamm suggests transposing this relationship to reality into life as we know it — or rather, as we two-dimensionally perceive it on the screens of our phones. But “unlike the allegory of the cave, where the people are real and the shadows are false, here other people are the shadows.”


This propagates “the delusion of the narcissist, who believes that they alone are real. Their feelings are the only feelings that matter, because other people are just shadows, and shadows don’t feel.” And “if everyone lived in caves, then no one would be real. Not even you.” With the rise of digital communication in general and social media in particular, a great many of us have ensconced ourselves, by degrees and for the most part unconsciously, inside caves of our own. Over the past decade or so, increasingly sobering glimpses of the outside world have motivated some of us to seek diagnoses of our collective condition from thinkers of the past, such as social theorist Christopher Lasch.

“The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety,” Lasch writes The Culture of Narcissism. “Liberated from the superstitions of the past, he doubts even the reality of his own existence” — wonders, in other words, whether he isn’t one of the shadows himself. Nevertheless, he remains “facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it,” and dependent on “constant infusions of approval and admiration.” Social media has revealed traces of this personality, belonging to one who “sees the world as a mirror of himself and has no interest in external events except as they throw back a reflection of his own image,” in us all. It thus gives us pause to remember that Lasch was writing all this in the 1970s; but then, Plato was writing in the fifth century B.C.

Related Content:

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Two Animations of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: One Narrated by Orson Welles, Another Made with Clay

Plato’s Cave Allegory Animated Monty Python-Style

New Animation Explains Sherry Turkle’s Theories on Why Social Media Makes Us Lonely

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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.

Alberto Giacometti: A Documentary Look at the Life & Work of the Great Modernist Artist

Actor Stanley Tucci has had a longstanding interest in the great modernist artist Alberto Giacometti, so much so that he created a film about Giacometti called Final Project (2018). In this documentary, the Tucci “reveals why Giacometti was one of the most relentlessly honest and enquiring artistic minds to have ever lived – a man riven by doubt in his own abilities, yet compelled to keep producing sculptures and paintings that are now hailed as some of the greatest of the 20th century.” You can watch it above.  You can also view 1,000+ works (sculptures, paintings, drawings and decorative art objects) by Giacometti in this online database.

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. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

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1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

An Intimate Look at Alberto Giacometti in His Studio, Making His Iconic Sculptures (1965)

Watch as Alberto Giacometti Paints and Pursues the Elusive “Apparition” (1965)

 





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