Месечни архиви: декември 2016

Does Information Smell?

John Constable's drawing of a mouse with a piece of cheese, inscribed "Jack," 1824
The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource John Constable’s drawing of a mouse with a piece of cheese, inscribed “Jack,” 1824

In our first two dialogues, we presented the standard, or “internalist” version of how our conscious experience of the world comes about: very bluntly, it assumes that the brain receives “inputs” from the sense organs—eyes, ears, nose, etc.—and transforms them into the physical phenomenon we know as consciousness, perhaps the single most important phenomenon of our lives. We also pointed out, particularly with reference to color perception, how difficult it has been for scientists to demonstrate how, or even whether, this really happens. Neuro­scientists can correlate activity in the brain with specific kinds of experience, but they cannot say this activity is the experience. In fact, the neural activity relating to one experience often seems nearly indistinguishable from the neural activity relating to another quite different experience. So we remain unsure where or how consciousness happens. All the same, the internalist model remains dominant and continues to be taught in textbooks and broadcast to a wider public in TV documentaries and popular non-fiction books. So our questions today are: Why this apparent consensus in the absence of convincing evidence? And what new ideas are internalists exploring to advance the science?

—Tim Parks

Tim Parks: Riccardo, I know I should be asking the questions, not answering them. But I’m going to suggest that one reason for this consensus is that we are in thrall to the analogy of the brain as computer. For example, a recent paper I was reading about the neural activity that correlates with the sense of smell begins, “The lateral entorhinal cortex (LEC) computes and transfers olfactory information from the olfactory bulb to the hippocampus.” Words like “input,” “output,” “code,” “encoding,” and “decoding” abound. It all sounds so familiar, as if we knew exactly what was going on.

Riccardo Manzotti: We must distinguish between internalism as an approach to the problem of consciousness (the idea that it is entirely produced in the head) and neuroscience as a discipline. The neuroscientists have made huge progress in mapping out the brain and analyzing the nitty-gritty of what goes on there, which neurons are firing impulses in which rhythms to which others, what chemical exchanges are involved, and so on. But you are right, the way they describe their experiments by way of a computer analogy—in particular of information processing and memory storage—can give the mistaken impression that they’re getting nearer to understanding what consciousness is.

When physiologists address other parts of the body—the immune system, the kidneys, our blood circulation—they don’t feel the need to use anything but the language of biology. Read a paper on, say, the liver, and it will be talking about biochemical mechanisms—metabolites, ion homeo­stasis, acetaminophen poisoning, sepsis, infection, fibrosis, and the like, all terms that refer to actual physical circumstances. Yet, when dealing with the brain, we suddenly find that neurons are processing “information,” rather than chemicals.

Parks: Is this because while we know what other organs are doing—I mean, which physical processes in the body each is responsible for—we’re not sure what all this neural activity is for?

Manzotti: On the contrary. We know very well that neural activity controls behavior, the nervous system having evolved to meet complex external circumstances with appropriate reactions. The question is, did it also evolve to orchestrate an internal mental theater for us—David Chalmers’s “movie-in-the-head”? Or to “process information”? Stanislas Dehaene and Jean Pierre Changeux, two leading neuroscientists, recently claimed that to explain consciousness we must show “how an external or internal piece of information goes beyond nonconscious processing and gains access to conscious processing, a transition characterized by the existence of a reportable subjective experience.” There’s barely a word here that refers to anything physical.

Parks: But is it really not possible to connect the notion of information with chemical exchanges occurring in the brain? Surely when we use a computer the information input is moved along toward the output through electrical signals. Can’t this also be the case with the brain? Hasn’t the philosopher Luciano Floridi claimed that “information is a physical phenomenon, subject to the laws of thermodynamics”?

Manzotti: Listen, when something physically exists and obeys the laws of thermodynamics, then you can find it, concretely. Electrons were predicted to exist and then found. Likewise the planet Neptune and a host of other things. But information, or data, is not a thing. It’s an idea we stipulated because it served a certain purpose, but it doesn’t exist physically, as an entity in its own right in the causal chain. Brutally, when we look inside a computer, or a brain, we don’t see or even detect information. Or data. We see physical stuff: voltage levels in a computer, chemicals in the brain.

Parks: So what you’re saying is that everything that goes on in a computer or in a brain could be fully and properly described without resorting to words like information or data?

Manzotti: Absolutely. Imagine you’re describing a battery; you will have to refer to electricity. It is an indispensable part of the thing. But, when you describe what the brain or even a calculator does, everything can be exhaustively described in terms of causal processes, chemical releases, and voltage changes without ever using the word information.

Parks: But then what is information? How can Floridi make the claims he does? What part can information have in the consciousness debate?

Manzotti: Obviously there is the definition of the word in common use: “facts, data, communicated about something.” The bus leaves at six. Yesterday it rained. The cash machine is out of order. That meaning has been around in English since the fifteenth century.

Parks: And?

Manzotti: Then there is the technical IT definition established by the mathematician Claude Shannon in 1949. Shannon was concerned about achieving accurate communication through technological devices and described information as an estimate of the probability that a given channel would successfully transmit words, images, or sound between a source and a receiver.

Parks: Sorry, what do you mean exactly by a channel? I’m lost.

Manzotti: A channel is the physical structure or circumstances that allow two separate events to be connected—the air pressure waves that occur when Romeo utters loving words to Juliet, the wire between a switch that you flip and a light that turns on, or everything that happens between your typing some letters on your phone and someone else reading them on theirs. Essentially, Shannon broke down any communication of data into its most basic constituents, namely a multitude of yes/no questions, that he called bits. Eight bits would make a byte. Information, in this new manifestation, is expressed as a number that tells us how many yes/no questions can be asked and answered through a given channel. A megabyte, for example, indicates capacity for around eight million such questions. Your smart phone requires a few million bits—yes/no questions—to put together, point by point, a photo on the screen. But, there is no internal semantic content, no data or image inside the device, no point along the causal chain where you can put your finger and say, Aha, information!

Parks: Could we say that there is no more information in a cell phone, than there is information in the air between my voice speaking and your ear listening? Or between a radio transmitter and a radio receiver?

Manzotti: You could indeed. Information here is simply the capacity of any channel to affect a causal coupling between two events, speaking and hearing, typing letters and reading them. It is not a thing between those events. If there is no one on the receiving end to hear the voice or read the letters then quite simply there is no information because we don’t have our two events.

Parks: So what do neuroscientists mean when they talk of information processing in relation to the brain? For example, a mouse’s brain when the animal smells a piece of cheese.

Manzotti: Honestly, it is a bit like when we say that the sun goes down. Of course, we know it doesn’t literally go down, but it is a nice expression and it saves a lot of explanation. The problem with the concept of “information” comes when we start to take it literally, as Floridi does. We start to imagine there really is a mental, non-physical stuff called information. A subtle dualism creeps in, as if the brain contained organic material on the one hand and this mysterious, immaterial “information” on the other. In fact Floridi speaks of moving from a materialist vision “in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one,” as if there were some sphere of existence that is not physical.

However, in its precise scientific usage—and certainly most neuroscientists would see it this way—“information processing” simply means that a physical system—a computer, or the human body, the brainallows given events to pass along their causal influence to further events. When your mouse recognizes the smell of cheese and moves toward it, the cheese becomes the cause of effects in the olfactory bulb, which themselves cause effects in the lateral entorhinal cortex, which themselves cause effects in the hippocampus, and so on. But there is no immaterial “message” being passed along, no code, or coded representation of “cheese,” existing separately from these organic changes, which are very many and very, very complex. The notion of information and information processing is then built on top of all that causation. It is a kind of shorthand for describing a causal chain so complex as to be beyond any visualization or easy explanation.

Parks: But does the chain end anywhere? Is there a point where we could say, this is where everything arrives, where conscious experience happens?

Manzotti: Alas no. Rather than ending, the causal chain branches and every branch is a constant back and forth with as much feedback as input. In this sense the brain is completely different from IT devices which are always channels leading somewhere, usually to a person who reads off the message that arrives—the second of the two events we talked about.

Parks: OK, let me try to sum up so far. The neuroscientists, for the most part internalists, continue to fill us in on the brain’s exceedingly complex chemical and electronic activity. Meantime the extended computer metaphor that they almost always employ conveys the impression that what is going on is not just organic, but “mental,” that the brain is producing consciousness, storing memories, decoding representations, processing data. So there is a general feeling of promise and expectation, but actually we get no nearer to an explanation of consciousness itself, since we are simply describing, with ever greater precision, what neurons organically do.

Manzotti: I’d agree with that. And perhaps add that maybe people are not unhappy with the situation: we get regular, often melodramatic updates on how marvelously complex we are and how clever scientists have become, while consciousness remains blissfully mysterious. In short, we get to feel very special all round.

Parks: Let’s stick to substance. Aware of this situation, some internalists have made other suggestions. David Chalmers, if I’m not mistaken, has suggested a sort of second and secret life of information—hopefully you can explain. Giulio Tononi has developed an elaborate theory of “integrated information” and “emergence.”

Manzotti: Both Chalmers and Tononi seem to see information processing as a sort of intermediate step toward the conscious mind. I’m not sure this is very enlightening, because if it is hard to imagine how consciousness might “emerge” from neurons, it is even harder to conceive how it might “emerge” from information, which, as we said, is not a physical thing, not “a thing” at all in fact. To put it another way, information can hardly form the basis for a natural phenomenon like conscious experience, which—and we must always remember this—is a thing, a physical phenomenon that we all experience at every waking moment.

Parks: Let’s take the positions one by one. What is this dual aspect of information that Chalmers proposes?

Manzotti: Chalmers agrees that information, as Shannon construes it, lacks any phenomenal character (colors, smells, feelings), or indeed intrinsic meaning, in that a string of zeros and ones in a computer might mean anything. Yet he believes that the brain is basically a computational device crammed with information. So how do all those zeroes and ones, or some neuronal version of the same, become colors, sounds, pains, and pleasures? His solution is that information has a dual aspect—the functional aspect (the zeroes and ones that govern our behavior) and the phenomenal aspect that constitutes conscious experience (colors, sound, itches, whatever). He does not explain why or how this should be and admits himself that his position is basically dualist: information has two sides, one that science can deal with, neurons controlling behavior, and another that is, simply, consciousness.

Parks: At which point we’re back with Descartes deciding what belongs to science and what doesn’t.

Manzotti: Pretty much. Tononi also distinguishes between two kinds of information. Standard information, of the IT variety, and “integrated information,” which we find in the brain and which, like Chalmers’s second, “phenomenal” aspect of information, gives rise to consciousness.

Parks: But what is “integrated information”?

Manzotti: It’s a model for quantifying how much any system brings together, or integrates within itself, the causal influences of the external world. For instance, in a starfish, none of the separate arms knows what the others are up to or what is happening to them. There is no integration at a neural level. Or consider an image on your computer screen; each pixel is quite independent from the pixels around it; you can change one without altering the others. Human beings are very different. Change one neuron and changes will occur in hundreds if not thousands of others. Read about Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Proust’s Marcel in La Recherche and you’ll see that everything that happens to them is immediately mixed up with everything else. Everything connects. A human being is the ultimate causal Gordian knot. You can’t disentangle it. So Tononi’s integrated information is a formula that expresses quantitatively the extent of such integration in different creatures and systems.

Parks: Does that mean it can calculate how those creatures or systems react to a given stimulus?

Manzotti: Perhaps potentially yes, but at the moment no. Tononi’s formula is so complex to compute that even if you posit an unrealistically simple nervous system, it is still beyond the capacity of the most powerful computers to handle. Aside from that, the formula does not explain how or why this super integration might transform itself into the things we experience, for example the color red.

Parks: It seems whichever way internalism turns, however exhilarating its interim discoveries, when it comes to consciousness it reaches an impasse. We have the impression—or simply we’re used to believing—that consciousness is in our heads, that memories are stored in our brains, that there is a world outside and a representation of the world inside, and so on. Yet nothing we have found in the brain warrants this. In our next dialogue, then, I propose that we break out of our skulls and see if there is any other approach to this question that offers more promise.

Manzotti: Very good, but this time I’m going to have the last word! Internalism, like dualism, is, if you’ll allow me the joke, a monster with many heads. We’re going to have to come back to it again and again, to look at dreams, visualizations, hallucinations, and all kinds of other exciting creatures. And some of them will be harder to tackle than the basic premise in itself.

This is the third in a series by Riccardo Manzotti and Tim Parks on consciousness.

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A Great Writer We Should Know

Antonio Di Benedetto
Antonio Di Benedetto

The year is 1790, the place an unnamed outpost on the Paraguay River ruled from faraway Buenos Aires. Don Diego de Zama has been here for fourteen months, serving in the Spanish administration, separated from his wife and sons. Nostalgically Zama looks back to the days when he was a corregidor (chief administrator) with a district of his own to run:

Doctor Don Diego de Zama!… The forceful executive, the pacifier of Indians, the warrior who rendered justice without recourse to the sword…, who put down the native rebellion without wasting a drop of Spanish blood.

Now, under a new, centralized system of government meant to tighten Spain’s control over its colonies, chief administrators have to be Spanish-born. Zama serves as second-in-command to a Spanish gobernador: as a Creole, an americano born in the New World, he can aspire no higher. He is in his mid-thirties; his career is stagnating. He has applied for a transfer; he dreams of the letter from the viceroy that will whisk him away to Buenos Aires, but it does not come.

Strolling around the docks, he notices a corpse floating in the water, the corpse of a monkey that had dared to quit the jungle and dive into the flux. Yet even in death the monkey is trapped amid the piles of the wharf, unable to escape downriver. Is it an omen?

Besides his dream of being returned to civilization, Zama dreams of a woman, not his wife, much as he loves her, but someone young and beautiful and of European birth, who will save him not only from his present state of sexual deprivation and social isolation but also from a harder-to-pin-down existential condition of yearning for he knows not what. He tries to project this dream upon various young women glimpsed in the streets, with negligible success.

In his erotic fantasies his mistress will have a delicate way of making love such as he has never tasted before, a uniquely European way. How so? Because in Europe, where it is not so fiendishly hot, women are clean and never sweat. Alas, here he is, womanless, “in a country whose name a whole infinity of French and Russian ladies—an infinity of people across the world—[have] never heard.” To such people, Europeans, real people, America is not real. Even to him America lacks reality. It is a flatland without feature in whose vastness he is lost.

Male colleagues invite him to join them in a visit to a brothel. He declines. He has intercourse with women only if they are white and Spanish, he primly explains.

From the small pool of white and Spanish women at hand he selects as a potential mistress the wife of a prominent landowner. Luciana is no beauty—her face puts him in mind of a horse—but she has an attractive figure (he has spied on her, bathing naked). He calls upon her in a spirit of “foreboding, pleasure, and tremendous irresolution,” unsure how one goes about seducing a married lady. And indeed, Luciana proves to be no pushover. In his campaign to wear her down, she is always a move ahead of him.

As an alternative to Luciana there is Rita, the Spanish-born daughter of his landlord. But before he can get anywhere with her, her current lover, a vicious bully, humiliates her grossly in public. She pleads with Zama to avenge her. Although the role of avenger attracts him, he finds reasons not to confront his formidable rival. (Zama’s author, Antonio Di Benedetto, provides him with a neatly Freudian dream to explain his fear of potent males.)

Unsuccessful with Spanish women, Zama has to resort to women of the town. Generally he steers clear of mulattas “so as not to dream of them and render myself susceptible and bring about my downfall.” The downfall to which he refers is certainly masturbation, but more significantly involves a step down the social ladder, confirming the metropolitan cliché that Creoles and mixed breeds belong together.

A mulatta gives him an inviting look. He follows her into the dingier quarter of the town, where he is attacked by a pack of dogs. He dispatches the dogs with his rapier, then, “swaggering and dominant” (his language), takes the woman. Once they are finished, she offers in a businesslike way to become his kept mistress. He is offended. “The episode was an affront to my right to lose myself in love. In any love born of passion, some element of idyllic charm is required.” Later, reflecting on the fact that dogs are as yet the only creatures whose blood his sword has spilled, he dubs himself “dogslayer.”

Zama is a prickly character. He holds a degree in letters and does not like it when the locals are not properly respectful. He suspects that people mock him behind his back, that plots are being cooked up to humiliate him. His relations with women—which occupy most of the novel—are characterized by crudity on the one hand and timidity on the other. He is vain, maladroit, narcissistic, and morbidly suspicious; he is prone to accesses of lust and fits of violence, and endowed with an endless capacity for self-deception.

He is also the author of himself, in a double sense. First, everything we hear about him comes from his own mouth, including such derogatory epithets as “swaggering” and “dogslayer,” which suggest a certain ironic self-awareness. Second, his day-to-day actions are dictated by the promptings of his unconscious, or at least his inner self, over which he makes no effort to assert conscious control. His narcissistic pleasure in himself includes the pleasure of never knowing what he will get up to next, and thus of being free to invent himself as he goes along.

On the other hand—as he intermittently recognizes—his indifference to his deeper motives may be generating his many failures: “Something greater, I knew not what, a kind of potent negation, invisible to the eye,…superior to any strength I might muster or rebellion I might wage,” may be dictating his destiny. It is his self-cultivated lack of inhibition that leads him to launch an unprovoked knife attack on the only colleague who is well disposed toward him, then to sit back while the young man takes the blame and loses his job.

Zama’s incurious and indeed amoral attitude toward his own violent impulses led some of his first readers to compare him with the Meursault of Albert Camus’s novel L’Étranger (existentialism was in vogue in the Argentina of the 1950s, when Zama first appeared). But the comparison is not helpful. Though he carries a rapier, Zama’s weapon of choice is the knife. The knife betrays him as an americano, as does his lack of polish as a seducer and (Di Benedetto will later imply) his moral immaturity. Zama is a child of the Americas. He is also a child of his times, the heady 1790s, justifying his promiscuity by invoking the rights of man—specifically the right to have sex (or, as he prefers to put it, to “lose myself in love”). The configuration, cultural and historical, is Latin American, not French (or Algerian).

More important than Camus as an influence was Jorge Luis Borges, Di Benedetto’s elder contemporary and the dominant figure in the Argentine intellectual landscape of his day. In 1951 Borges had given an influential speech, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” in which, responding to the question of whether Argentina should be developing a literary tradition of its own, he poured scorn on literary nationalism: “What is our Argentine tradition?… Our tradition is all of Western culture…. Our patrimony is the universe.”

Friction between Buenos Aires and the provinces has been a constant of Argentine history, dating back to colonial times, with Buenos Aires, gateway to the wider world, standing for cosmopolitanism, while the provinces adhered to older, nativist values. Borges was quintessentially a man of Buenos Aires, whereas Di Benedetto’s sympathies lay with the provinces: he chose to live and work in Mendoza, the city of his birth in the far west of the country.

Though his regional sympathies ran deep, Di Benedetto as a young man was impatient with the stuffiness of those in charge of the cultural institutions of the provinces, the so-called generation of 1925. He immersed himself in the modern masters—Freud, Joyce, Faulkner, the French existentialists—and involved himself professionally in cinema, as a critic and writer of screenplays (Mendoza of the postwar years was a considerable center of film culture). His first two books, Mundo animal (1953) and El pentágono (1955), are resolutely modernist, with no regional coloring. His debt to Kafka is particularly clear in Mundo animal, where he blurs the distinction between human and animal along the lines of Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” or “Investigations of a Dog.”

Zama takes up directly the matter of Argentine tradition and the Argentine character: what they are, what they should be. It takes as a theme the cleavage between coast and interior, between European and American values. Naively and somewhat pathetically, its hero hankers after an unattainable Europe. Yet Di Benedetto does not use his hero’s comical hispanophilism to push the case for regional values and the literary vehicle associated with regionalism, the old-fashioned realist novel. The river port where Zama is set is barely described; we have little idea how its people dress or occupy themselves; the language of the book sometimes evokes, to the point of parody, the eighteenth-century novel of sentiment, but it more often calls up the twentieth-century theater of the absurd (Di Benedetto was an admirer of Eugène Ionesco and of Luigi Pirandello before him). To the extent that Zama satirizes cosmopolitan aspirations, it does so in a thoroughly cosmopolitan, modernist way.

But Di Benedetto’s engagement with Borges was more far-reaching and complex than mere critique of his universalism and suspicion of his patrician politics (Borges called himself a Spencerian anarchist, meaning that he disdained the state in all its manifestations, while Di Benedetto thought of himself as a socialist). For his part, Borges clearly recognized Di Benedetto’s talent and indeed, after the publication of Zama, invited him to the capital to give a lecture at the National Library, of which he was director.

In 1940, along with two writer colleagues associated with the magazine Sur, Borges had edited an Antología de la literatura fantástica, a work that had a far-reaching effect on Latin American literature. In their preface the editors argued that, far from being a debased subgenre, fantasy embodied an ancient, preliterate way of seeing the world. Not only was fantasy intellectually respectable, it also had a precursor tradition among Latin American writers that was itself a branch of a greater world tradition. Borges’s own fiction would appear under the sign of the fantastic; the fantastic, deployed upon the characteristic themes of regional literature, with the narrative innovations of William Faulkner added to it, would give birth to the magic realism of Gabriel García Márquez.

The revaluation of the fantastic advocated by Borges and the writers around Sur was indispensable to Di Benedetto’s growth. As he testified in an interview shortly before his death, fantasy, coupled with the tools provided by psychoanalysis, opened the way for him as a writer to explore new realities. In the second part of Zama, the fantastic comes to the fore.

The story resumes in 1794. The colony has a new governor. Zama has acquired a woman, a penniless Spanish widow, to satisfy his physical needs, though he does not live with her. She has borne him a son, a sickly child who spends his days playing in the dirt. Her relations with Zama are entirely without tenderness. She “allows him in” only when he brings money.

A clerk in the administration named Manuel Fernández is discovered to be writing a book during office hours. The governor takes a dislike to Fernández and demands that Zama find a pretext for dismissing him. Zama reacts with irritation, directed not at the governor but at this hapless young idealist, “this book-writing homunculus” lost in the outer reaches of Empire.

To Zama, Fernández innocently confides that he writes because it gives him a sense of freedom. Since the censor is unlikely to permit publication, he will bury his manuscript in a box for his grandchildren’s grandchildren to dig up. “Things will be different then.”

Jorge Luis Borges, Palermo, Sicily, 1984
Ferdinando Scianna/Magnum PhotosJorge Luis Borges, Palermo, Sicily, 1984

Zama has run up debts that he cannot settle. Out of kindness, Fernández offers to support Zama’s irregular family—indeed, to marry the unloved widow and give the child his name. Zama responds with characteristic suspiciousness: What if it is all a scheme to make him feel indebted?

Short of money, Zama becomes a boarder in the home of a man named Soledo. Included in Soledo’s household is a woman, seen only fleetingly, who is at one point claimed (by the servants) to be Soledo’s daughter and at another to be his wife. There is another mystery woman too, a neighbor who sits at her window staring pointedly at Zama whenever he passes. Most of Part 2 is concerned with Zama’s attempts to solve the riddle of the women: Are there two women in the household or just one, who performs rapid changes of costume? Who is the woman at the window? Is the whole charade being orchestrated by Soledo to make fun of him? How can he get sexual access to the women?

At first, Zama takes on the riddle as a challenge to his ingenuity. There are pages where, with a nudge from his translator, he sounds like one of Samuel Beckett’s heroes of pure intellect, spinning one far-fetched hypothesis after another to explain why the world is as it is. By degrees, however, Zama’s quest grows more urgent and indeed fevered. The woman at the window reveals herself: she is physically unattractive and no longer young. Half drunk, Zama feels free to throw her to the ground and “[take] her with vehemence,” that is, rape her, then, when he is finished, demand money. He is back on familiar psychic terrain: on the one hand he has a woman whom he can despise but who is sexually available, on the other a woman (or perhaps two women) who, in all her/their “fearsome charm,” can continue to be the unattainable (and perhaps inexistent) object of his desire.

Zama took a long time to gestate but was written in a hurry. The haste of its composition shows most clearly in Part 2, where the dreamlike topography of Soledo’s residence will be as confusing to the reader as it is to Zama, drifting from room to darkened room trying to grasp what it is that he is after. Confusing yet fascinating: Di Benedetto lets go of the reins of narrative logic and allows the spirit to take his hero where it will.

There is a rap at the door. It is a ragged, barefoot boy, a mysterious messenger who has appeared in Zama’s life before and will appear again. Behind the boy, as if in tableau, a trio of runaway horses are engaged in trampling a small girl to death.

I returned to my quarters as if harvesting the darkness, and with a new faculty—or so it seemed—of perceiving myself from without. I could see myself gradually transformed into a figure of mourning, the shadows, soft as bat’s down, adhering to me as I passed…. I was going to confront something, someone, and I understood that I was to choose it or choose for it to die.

A feminine presence wafts past. Zama raises a candle to the being’s face. It is she! But who is she? His senses reel. A fog seems to invade the room. He staggers into bed, wakes up to find the woman from the window watching over him, “compassionate affection, an amorous and self-abnegating pity in her eyes…[a woman] without mystery.” Bitterly she observes how in thrall he is to the enchantments of “that other glimpsed figure,” and delivers a homily on the perils of fantasy.

Rising at last from his sickbed, Zama decides that the entire episode of “harvesting the darkness” is to be explained—and explained away—as the product of a fever. He backtracks from the obscurer regions into which hallucination has been leading him, falters in his hesitant self-exploration, reinstates the dichotomy of fantasy (fever) and reality that he was in the process of breaking down.

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka; drawing by David Levine

To grasp what is at stake at this moment, we need to hark back to Kafka, the writer who did the most to shape Di Benedetto’s art, both directly and through the mediation of Borges. As part of his project of rehabilitating the fantastic as a literary genre, Borges had in the mid-1930s published a series of articles on Kafka in which, crucially, he distinguished between dreams, which characteristically lay themselves open to interpretation, and the nightmares of Kafka (the long nightmare of Josef K. in The Trial is the best example), which come to us as if in an indecipherable language. The unique horror of the Kafkan nightmare, says Borges, is that we know (in some sense of the word “know”) that what we are undergoing is not real, but, in the grip of the hallucinatory proceso (process, trial), we are unable to escape.

At the end of Part 2, Zama, a character in what amounts to a historical fantasy, dismisses as insignificant because unreal the hallucinatory fantasy he has just undergone. His prejudice in favor of the real continues to hold him back from self-knowledge.

After a gap of five years, the story resumes. Zama’s efforts to secure a transfer have failed; his amours seem to be a thing of the past.

A contingent of soldiers is being sent out to scour the wilds for Vicuña Porto, a bandit of mythical status—no one is even sure what he looks like—on whom all the colony’s woes are blamed.

From the time he spent as corregidor, Zama recalls a Vicuña Porto who fomented rebellion among the Indians. Though the troops are to be led by the incompetent, pigheaded Capitán Parrilla, Zama joins them, hoping that a spectacular success will advance his cause.

One dark night on the trail a nondescript soldier takes Zama aside. It is Vicuña Porto himself, masquerading as one of Parrilla’s men and thus in effect hunting himself. He confides that he wishes to quit banditry and rejoin society.

Should Zama betray Porto’s confidence? The code of honor says no; but the freedom to obey no code, to follow impulse, to be perverse, says yes. So Zama denounces Porto to Parrilla and at once feels “clean in every fiber of [his] being.”

Without compunction Parrilla arrests both Zama and Porto. Hands bound, face swollen with fly-bites, Zama contemplates being paraded back in the town: “Vicuña Porto, the bandit, would be no more defeated, repugnant, and wretched than Zama, his accessory.”

But the bandit turns the tables. Murdering Parrilla in cold blood, he invites Zama to join his band. Zama refuses, whereupon Porto hacks off his fingers and abandons him, mutilated, in the wilds.

At this desperate juncture salvation appears in the form of the barefoot boy who has haunted Zama for the past decade. “He was me, myself from before…. Smiling like a father, I said, ‘You haven’t grown….’ With irreducible sadness he replied, ‘Neither have you.’”

Thus ends the third and last part of Zama. In the somewhat too facile lesson that its hero-narrator invites us to draw, searching for oneself, as Vicuña Porto has been pretending to do, is much like the search for freedom, “which is not out there but within each one.” What we most truly seek lies within: our self as we were before we lost our natural innocence.

Having seen in Parts 1 and 2 a bad Zama, a Zama misled by vain dreams and confused by lust, we find in Part 3 that a good Zama is still recoverable. Zama’s last act before losing his fingers is to write a letter to his infinitely patient wife, seal it in a bottle, and consign it to the river: “Marta, I haven’t gone under.” “The message was not destined for Marta or anyone out there,” he confides. “I had written it for myself.”

The dream of recovering Eden, of making a new start, animated European conquest of the New World from the time of Columbus. Into the independent nation of Argentina, born in 1816, poured wave after wave of immigrants in quest of a utopia that turned out not to exist. It is not surprising that frustrated hope is one of the great subterranean themes of Argentine literature. Like Zama in his river-port in the wilds, the immigrant finds himself dumped in an anything but Edenic site from which there is no obvious escape. Zama the book is dedicated to “the victims of expectation.”

Zama’s adventures in wild Indian territory are related in the rapid, clipped style Di Benedetto learned by writing for the cinema. Part 3 of the novel has been given great weight by some of his critics. In the light of Part 3, Zama is read as the story of how an americano comes to cast off the myths of the Old World and commit himself not to an imaginary Eden but to the New World in all its amazing reality. This reading is supported by the rich textual embedding that Di Benedetto supplies: exotic flora and fauna, fabulous mineral deposits, strange foodstuffs, savage tribes and their customs. It is as though for the first time in his life Zama is opening his eyes to the plenitude of the continent. That all this lore came to Di Benedetto not from personal experience—he had not set foot in Paraguay—but from old books, among them a biography of one Miguel Gregorio de Zamalloa, born 1753, corregidor during the rebellion of Túpac Amaru, last of the Inca monarchs, is an irony that need not trouble us.

Antonio Di Benedetto was born in 1922 into a middle-class family. In 1945 he abandoned his legal studies to join Los Andes, the most prestigious newspaper in Mendoza. In due course he would become, in all but name, editor in chief. The owners of the newspaper dictated a conservative line, which he felt as a constraint. Until his arrest in 1976—for violating that constraint—he thought of himself as a professional journalist who wrote fiction in his spare time.

Zama (1956) was his first full-length novel. It received appropriate critical attention. Not unnaturally in a country that saw itself as a cultural outlier of Europe, attempts were made to supply it with a European parentage. Its author was identified first as a Latin American existentialist, then a Latin American nouveau romancier. During the 1960s the novel was translated into a number of European languages, English not included. In Argentina Zama has remained a cult classic.

Di Benedetto’s own contribution to this debate on paternity was to point out that if his fiction, particularly his short fiction, might sometimes seem blank, lacking in commentary, as if recorded by a camera eye, that might be not because he was imitating the practice of Alain Robbe-Grillet but because both of them were actively involved in cinema.

Zama was followed by two further novels and several collections of short fiction. The most interesting of these works is El silenciero (The Silencer), the story of a man (never named) who is trying to write a book but cannot hear himself think in the noise of the city. His obsession with noise consumes him, eventually driving him mad.

First published in 1964, the novel was substantially revised in 1975 so as to give its reflections on noise greater philosophical depth (Schopenhauer comes to figure prominently) and to forestall any simple, sociological reading of it. In the revised edition noise acquires a metaphysical dimension: the protagonist is caught up in a hopeless quest for the primordial silence preceding the divine logos that brought the world into being.

El silenciero goes further than Zama in its use of the associative logic of dream and fantasy to propel its narrative. As a novel of ideas that includes ideas about how a novel can be put together, as well as in its mystical streak, El silenciero very likely pointed the direction Di Benedetto would have followed as a writer, had history not intervened.

On March 24, 1976, the military seized power in Argentina, with the collusion of the civilian government and to the relief of a large segment of the population, sick and tired of political violence and social chaos. The generals at once put into effect their master plan or “Process for National Reorganization.” General Ibérico Saint-Jean, installed as governor of Buenos Aires, spelled out what El Proceso would entail: “First we will kill all the subversives, then we will kill their collaborators, then their sympathizers, then those who remained indifferent, and finally we will kill the timid.”

Among the many so-called subversives detained on the first day of the coup was Di Benedetto. Later he would (like Josef K.) claim not to know why he was arrested, but it is plain that it was in retaliation for his activities as editor of Los Andes, where he had authorized the publication of reports on the activities of right-wing death squads. (After his arrest, the proprietors of the newspaper wasted no time in washing their hands of him.)

Detention routinely began with a bout of “tactical interrogation,” the euphemism for torture, intended to extract information but also to make it plain to the detainee that he or she had entered a new world with new rules. In many cases, writes Eduardo Duhalde, the trauma of the first torture, reinforced by having to watch or listen to the torture of other prisoners, marked the prisoner for the rest of his/her life. The favored instrument of torture was the electric prod, which induced acute convulsions. Aftereffects of the prod ranged from intense muscular pain and paralysis to neurological damage manifested in disrhythmia, chronic headaches, and memory loss.*

Di Benedetto spent eighteen months in prison, mostly in the notorious Unit 9 of the Penitentiary Services of La Plata. His release came after appeals to the regime by Heinrich Böll, Ernesto Sabato, and Jorge Luis Borges, backed by PEN International. Soon afterward he went into exile.

A friend who saw him after his release was distressed by how he had aged: his hair had turned white, his hands trembled, his voice faltered, he walked with a shuffle. Although Di Benedetto never wrote directly about his prison experience—he preferred to practice what he called the therapy of forgetting—press interviews allude to vicious blows to the head (“Since that day my capacity to think has been affected”); to a session with the cattle prod (the shock was so intense that it felt as if his inner organs were collapsing); and to a mock execution before a firing squad when the one thought in his mind was: What if they shoot me in the face? Fellow inmates, most of them younger than he, recalled that he seemed bewildered by the brutal prison regime, trying to make sense of the random assaults he suffered from guards when the essence of these assaults was that they should be unpredictable and—like a Kafkan nightmare—make no sense.

Exile took Di Benedetto to France, to Germany, and eventually to Spain, where he joined tens of thousands of other refugees from Latin America. Though he had a contract for a weekly column in a Buenos Aires newspaper and enjoyed a residency at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, he recalled his exile as a time when he lived like a beggar, stricken with shame whenever he saw himself in the mirror.

In 1984, after civilian rule had been reinstalled, Di Benedetto returned to an Argentina ready to see in him an embodiment of the nation’s desire to purge itself of its recent past and make a fresh start. But it was a role he was too aged, too beaten down, too bitter to fulfill. The creative energy that prison and exile had taken away from him was irrecoverable. “He began dying…on the day of his arrest,” remarked a Spanish friend. “He continued to die here in Spain…and when he decided to return to his own country it was only in search of a more or less decent ending.” His last years were marred by recriminations. Having first been welcomed back, he said, he had then been abandoned to even greater poverty than in Spain. He died in 1986 at the age of sixty-three.

During his exile in Spain Di Benedetto published two collections of short fiction, Absurdos (1978) and Cuentos de exilio (1983). Some of the pieces in Absurdos had been written in prison and smuggled out. The recurring theme of these late stories is guilt and punishment, usually self-punishment, often for a transgression one cannot remember. The best-known, a masterpiece in its own right, is “Aballay,” made into a film in 2011, about a gaucho who decides to pay for his sins in the manner of the Christian saint Simeon Stylites. Since the pampas have no marble columns, Aballay is reduced to doing penitence on horseback, never dismounting.

These sad, often heartbreaking late stories, some no more than a page in length—images, broken memories—make it clear that Di Benedetto experienced exile not just as an enforced absence from his homeland but as a profoundly internalized sentence that had somehow been pronounced upon him, an expulsion from the real world into a shadowy afterlife.

Sombras, nada mas… (1985), his last work, can most charitably be looked on as the trace of an experiment not carried all the way through. Finding one’s way through Sombras is no easy task. Narrators and characters merge one into another, as do dream and represented reality; the work as a whole tries doggedly but fails to locate its own raison d’être. A mark of its failure is that Di Benedetto felt compelled to provide a key explaining how the book was put together and offering guidance on how to read it.

Zama ends with its hero mutilated, unable to write, waiting in effect for the coming of the man who a century and a half later will tell his story. Like Miguel Fernández burying his manuscript, Di Benedetto—in a brief testament penned shortly before his death—affirmed that his books were written for future generations. How prophetic this modest boast will be, only time will tell.

Zama remains the most attractive of Di Benedetto’s books, if only because of the crazy energy of Zama himself, which is vividly conveyed in Esther Allen’s excellent translation. A selection of Di Benedetto’s short fiction (his Cuentos completos runs to seven hundred pages), in translations by Adrian West and Martina Broner, has been announced for 2017 by Archipelago Books. It is to be hoped that some enterprising publisher will soon pick up El silenciero.

Copyright © 2016 by J.M. Coetzee

  1. *

    Eduardo Luis Duhalde, El estado terrorista argentino (Barcelona/Argos Vergara, 1983), pp. 155–159. Duhalde is not to be confused with Eduardo Alberto Duhalde, president of Argentina in 2002–2003. 

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Carmen Herrera: Art Without Lies

Carmen Herrera in front of the Cerro de la Silla in what is now downtown Monterrey, Mexico, en route to her honeymoon in Acapulco, 1939
Jesse LoewenthalCarmen Herrera in front of the Cerro de la Silla in what is now downtown Monterrey, Mexico, en route to her honeymoon in Acapulco, 1939

When Carmen Herrera is asked to explain her paintings in Alison Klayman’s film about her life and work, The 100 Years Show (2015), she says, “If I could put those things in words, I wouldn’t do the painting. I would tell you…Usually artists are not the best people to talk about art. I think it’s a great mistake. You cannot talk about art—you have to art about art.”

Herrera, now 101 years old, has spent the better part of a century doing just that. For most of that time, the world paid scant attention to her “arting”: only in the last decade has she been granted the attention she should by rights have received half a century ago. As a Cuban, as a woman, she found little public support in the New York art world. Reluctant to be classified by national origin or gender, she struggled to find a place, but continued to produce work, prolifically, for decades: “I kept going,” she says in Klayman’s film. “I couldn’t stop.”

Herrera paints or draws daily even now, and her work has remained an exhilarating example of hard-edged abstraction. Inspired by Miró and Mondrian, a friend of Barnett Newman and of Leon Polk Smith, a young artist in post-war Paris at the same time as Ellsworth Kelly, she is an artist for whom the pure line remains the source of inspiration and joy (“I like straight lines…I like order. In this chaos that we live in, I like to put order,” she explained in a 1994 interview). A recent discovery for audiences, she may appear, like Athena, to have sprung fully formed into the world when she sold her first painting in 2004, at age 89. But it is simply that we have been painfully oblivious: Herrera’s work has been waiting for us all along.

The current exhibition of Herrera’s work at the Whitney Museum, entitled “Lines of Sight,” with a beautiful accompanying catalogue by Dana Miller, endeavors to rectify the art world’s long-term neglect: it focuses on Herrera’s work from 1948-1978, from her earliest abstracts through the various stages of her artistic evolution. Miller’s central catalogue essay is illuminating and rich, and the catalogue further offers valuable insight into Herrera’s place in Cuban art, her French experience, and what might be deemed the hemispheric setting of work, her connection to Latin artists in the Americas. 

Born in Havana, Cuba in 1915, Carmen Herrera was the seventh and last child of well-to-do parents. Her father founded the newspaper El Mundo, and her formidable mother was an early feminist. In 1939, Herrera married an American, Jesse Loewenthal, and moved to New York, where—with the exception of five years in Paris from 1948-1953—she has lived since. (Her long marriage was happy, and her husband’s faith and support were crucial to her as an artist. “I wish my husband had seen it,” she says of her success. “He saw the artwork, but he didn’t know that I was going to be popular.”) Having initially studied architecture, she gravitated early to painting, studying on scholarship at New York’s Art Students’ League in the early 1940s. But it was in Paris that she found herself as an abstract artist, discovered the work of the Bauhaus, of Josef Albers, of the Russian Supremacists, and joined the coterie of artists known as the Salon des Réalités Nouvelles, an association of abstract artists. It was there, too, that she painted the earliest of the works on view at the Whitney.

From the first, Herrera deployed line and color with an energy intensified by her rigor. A City (1948), with its blocks of lemon yellow, black, and cobalt blue, foreshadows a palate that recurred in later series. More visually complicated than her later paintings, it evokes, with its sharp juxtaposed turrets of light and dark overlaying broken oblongs of opposing color, the architecture and bustle of urban life. It is hard not to smile at Herrera’s witty use of the rectangular burlap frame and within it, the squared oval of tri-colored paint, which in turn contains the measured interplay of various geometrical forms. A City affords us both formal satisfaction and its sly frustration; it points to things, and elicits emotion, but insists, still, on its openness, its detachment.

This tension between form and freedom—the paradox that fierce constraint, or restraint, can allow for the greatest liberty—becomes only ever more apparent in Herrera’s oeuvre. In her Blanco y Verde series (one of which has been acquired by the Whitney) she explores that balance with a radical purity, her nearly all-white canvases ruptured by jagged elongated emerald triangles that sing to, or spar with, one another: all but touching like the fingertips of Adam and God in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam; or piercing the canvas like an intense shaft of green light; or pointing thinly westwards, like the needle on a dial. There aren’t words, of course, or similes, for what these paintings are or what they do: as Herrera says, they stand for themselves, and each is only the expression of its intention.

That this intention has a spiritual component can sometimes be powerfully felt. The purity of Herrera’s lines is nowhere more evident than in her many black-and-white paintings: as she has said, “You cannot lie when you have a black-and-white painting.” Some of these from the 1950s —such as Black and White (1952)—prefigure the Op Art movement by a decade; others, much later, are meticulously architectural. All are animated by Herrera’s brisk humor. Escorial (1974) is Herrera’s response to San Lorenzo del Escorial, the sixteenth-century Spanish royal monastery and palace, of which she explains: “It was a garbage dump and now it’s a royal palace. And even more fun, El Escorial was designed as a symbol of Saint Lawrence, who was barbecued…and this is a grill.”

Surely few art critics would have the audacity to liken Herrera’s painting to a barbecue, but the analogy works: it does look like a grill. And like an architect’s drawing of a monastery. And like a form of prayer. And because Herrera, slyly, is in the business of “arting” rather than explaining, it can be all of these things at once. She is a firm believer that less is more: “I have something that I think is finished,” she explains, “and I take something out, and it’s better.” The resulting paintings are, quite literally, essential.

For audiences, the revelation over the past decade of Herrera’s bold and vital work is a glorious gift. The paintings and sculptures are exciting precisely because they allow for so much, while insisting, firmly and with order, upon very little. It is not too much to say this is art as a form of politics: the opposite of tyranny, and hence all the more important today. For Herrera, with the wisdom of a century, the pleasures of exhibition are genuine, but tempered. “It’s about time,” she has said, about being shown at the Whitney. “Better late than never… A little earlier would have been nice.”

“Carmen Herrera: Lines of Sight” is at the Whitney Museum of American Art through January 9.

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Poverty & Terrorism

In response to:

The War on Terror vs. the War on Poverty from the November 24, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

William Easterly argues that terrorism doesn’t flow from poverty, and by throwing aid money at “fragile” states with bad governments, Western donors only encourage and perpetuate bad governance, deepening the very poverty they seek to end [“The War on Terror vs. the War on Poverty,” NYR, November 24, 2016].

It is true that much foreign aid has been used for political ends and commercial advantage, working against its stated purpose. This does not mean, however, that poverty doesn’t exist or that it isn’t a staging ground for all manner of trouble with broad international implications: health pandemics, environmental degradation, refugees. And in societies where people are hungry, some—angry young men mostly—are prone to join groups fighting against perceived oppressors. This is not new: the Bourbons and the Romanovs learned this lesson as they toppled into their graves.

Easterly argues that those “who want to support Western humanitarian efforts should make clear [their] political independence from [their] own governments’ national security programs.” This sounds too much like walking away from a larger responsibility and a more proactive possibility. Why not insist instead that government aid be clearly and demonstrably delinked from national security and commercial interests, that it be spent—as advertised—on poverty reduction, human rights, and good governance, and that it be made openly accountable to those who pay for it—taxpayers?

That, of course, would require something more than misery-based fund-raising and a hunt for government contracts on the part of those “who want to support Western humanitarian efforts.” It would require an effort—especially by NGOs—to explain some of this to taxpayers, treating them as responsible adults rather than passive milch cows. It would require an acknowledgment that there is indeed great peril in poverty and ignorance, but that with care it can be addressed in ways that don’t fall into the traps that Easterly describes so well.

Ian Smillie
President, Canadian Association for the Study of International Development
Ottawa, Canada

William Easterly replies:

Mr. Smillie wants to dispute my summary of the academic literature that evidence is lacking for a link from poverty to terrorism. He correctly points out that lots of bad things do indeed go with poverty. But his one attempt at evidence that does link poverty to terrorism is to anecdotally mention the French and Russian revolutions, whose progenitors were also not from the poorest classes.

Mr. Smillie also wants to limit any rebellion against our own governments’ policies that support autocratic allies in the “war on terror.” These policies are bad for both democracy and development, but Mr. Smillie thinks such a rebellion would be “walking away from a larger responsibility.” He is right to bring up the long-standing conflict in social change efforts between (A) working within the system and (B) protesting against the system. He has some good ideas for option A, many of which he himself is already doing very well. Indeed the vast majority of those who work in global anti-poverty efforts have already, like him, chosen option A. Couldn’t Mr. Smillie let a few of us choose option B?

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How Bad Was Tony Blair?

In response to:

Tony Blair’s Eternal Shame: The Report from the October 13, 2016 issue

George W. Bush and Tony Blair at Hillborough Castle, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 2003
Nick Danziger/Contact Press ImagesGeorge W. Bush and Tony Blair at Hillborough Castle, near Belfast, Northern Ireland, April 2003

To the Editors:

It’s impossible to disagree with most of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s harsh assessment of Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq war [“Tony Blair’s Eternal Shame: The Report,” NYR, October 13, 2016], but two of his many charges do need qualification.

First, Wheatcroft accuses Sir Jeremy Heywood, the UK cabinet secretary, of “obstruct[ing]” the Chilcot inquiry into the war and “deplorably [trying] to protect Blair” by resisting Chilcot’s requests for permission to quote in his published report secret exchanges between Blair and George W. Bush about the war. But a more charitable and equally valid interpretation is that Heywood’s main motive was to protect not Blair but the principle that heads of state and government (like other senior public figures and diplomats) ought to be able to communicate frankly and honestly with each other without the fear that their messages would later be made public, a fear that would fatally damage frankness, and make it impossible for vital decisions and the reasons for them to be properly recorded to ensure that they would not be misinterpreted by those tasked to carry them out. (I write as a former UK diplomat who would not have dared to record some of my exchanges with diplomats and opinion-formers of other countries, or to offer some of my advice on and criticisms of my government’s policies, if there had been a risk of their publication while the relevant issues were still current.)

Secondly, Wheatcroft’s concluding assessment of Tony Blair as “a complete and utter mediocrity…in our strange and testing times he was hopelessly out of his depth” is impossible to reconcile with Blair’s record in many fields apart from Iraq and the question of international intervention. Electorally he was the most successful Labour Party leader in its history; domestically his thrice-elected government achieved numerous reforms in promoting civil rights, restoring public services, and reducing poverty and inequality; economically his governments presided over eleven years of uninterrupted growth, low inflation, and full employment, until the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US precipitated a near collapse of the West’s financial system for which Blair could not be held responsible, even by Mr. Wheatcroft. Some mediocrity!

Brian Barder
London, England

Geoffrey Wheatcroft replies:

I am grateful to Sir Brian Barder for his letter, and glad that we agree about Tony Blair’s part in the disastrous Iraq war. Although we must agree to differ in other respects, and although my description of Blair as a mediocrity is obviously a matter of opinion, as is Sir Brian’s contention that Blair restored public services, some of his defense is not only debatable but refutable.

It really will not do to blame the financial implosion of 2008 on the wicked Americans alone. New Labour was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (in the famous words of Peter Mandelson, Blair’s consigliere, and we never guessed then how literally his capo would follow that precept!). Like Sir Brian, Blair and Gordon Brown, his chancellor, boasted of a decade of uninterrupted growth, thanks to what Brown called “light touch” regulation of the financial sector. That meant in practice that the bankers and fund managers of the City of London, not to mention the Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock, were allowed recklessly to inflate a bubble economy with an explosion of house prices and other asset values, and another explosion of debt. When the bubble burst, tax revenue plummeted, and governments have been dealing with the problem ever since.

A point mentioned by neither of us is Blair’s responsibility for the estrangement of the British people from the European Union. He was a false friend to Europe, promising but not delivering closer engagement. His embrace of President Bush and the Iraq war rather than Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, who opposed the war, completely ruptured Europe at a moment when a common European front might have changed history.

And in 2004, when the East European countries, with their much lower economic product and wage levels, were admitted to the EU, Blair could have taken the opportunity, which other West European countries did take, to restrict immigration from those countries for some years. But he was too absorbed in his Levantine crusade, and failed to do so. Immigration ensued on a scale wholly unforeseen by the Blair government, and immigration was the central question on which our “Brexit” referendum turned last June. Is Sir Brian pleased with the outcome?

To the Editors:

The Chilcot report on Iraq and Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s summary of it seem under a misapprehension as to the position before the Iraq war in 2003. The issue was not, as Wheatcroft suggests, that Britain joined the invasion “before the peaceful options for disarmament had been exhausted.” In 1991, following the first Gulf war, the UN had granted Saddam Hussein an armistice, provided that he remove his weapons of mass destruction within ninety days. The onus was on him to remove them, not on the inspectors to prove that he had done so. By 1998, the weapons had not been removed. In President Clinton’s words, “Instead of the inspectors disarming Saddam, Saddam has disarmed the inspectors.” It was Clinton in 1998, and not Bush, who signed the Iraq Liberation Act committing the US government to regime change.

In 2002, the UN Security Council unanimously declared that Saddam was still “in material breach” of UN resolutions, since he had not disarmed. He was to have a “final opportunity” to comply within thirty days or face “serious consequences.” It is difficult to believe that the “serious consequences” the UN had in mind were simply to give the inspectors more time. By March 2003, when the invasion occurred, no major power nor the inspectors believed that Saddam had complied with the armistice terms after eleven years of obfuscation.

Wheatcroft condemns what he calls “shameful collusion of the British intelligence agencies.” But the intelligence agencies of every major country, including those of France and Germany, which opposed the war, believed that Saddam still had weapons of mass destruction. If there were misjudgments, they were not those of Britain and the United States alone.

It is true that a suggestion made in a dossier presented to Parliament in September 2002 that Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction that could reach Britain in forty-five minutes was not accurate. But that was in no way crucial in the case for war, and was not mentioned in the Commons debate endorsing invasion on March 18, 2003. It became important only with hindsight.

It is absurd to suggest, as Wheatcroft does, that Blair—or Bush for that matter—was “mendacious,” in that they knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It would have been pointless to do so since the deception would have been discovered immediately after the invasion.

Indeed the conclusion that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq needs to be qualified. The Butler report, which Wheatcroft cites, but appears not to have read, declared that Saddam was in fact a greater threat than had been believed. He was importing dual-use goods in breach of sanctions and, unknown to the UN, maintaining laboratories that could be quickly reactivated to produce weapons of mass destruction. The Iraq Survey Group declared that Saddam was “planning to produce several chemical warfare agents including sulfur mustard, nitrogen mustard and Sarin.” His previous record leaves little room for doubt that he would have used these weapons. Those opposed to the war have to face the fact that the regime of UN sanctions and containment was not working effectively.

Wheatcroft declares that ministers in Britain were bypassed by Blair and that there was no collective discussion on the war. But Robin Cook, who resigned from the government because he could not support the war, says exactly the opposite in his memoirs: “I have little sympathy with the criticism of Tony that he sidelined the Cabinet over Iraq. On the contrary, over the next six months we were to discuss Iraq more than any other topic.” The Butler report declares that the Cabinet discussed policy toward Iraq twenty-four times in the period before the war.

There is of course a serious debate to be had on the Iraq war and on the limits of liberal interventionism. But the torment in Syria shows the dangers of a policy of nonintervention, as does the failure to intervene against Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. The debate is not helped by simplistic caricatures and distortions.

Vernon Bogdanor
Professor of Government
King’s College London, England

Geoffrey Wheatcroft replies:

Those who have read Mr. Bogdanor over the years will be aware that he’s indefatigable, and incorrigible. His letter completely ignores inconvenient facts, including the lengthy testimony of Hans Blix, the chief United Nations weapons inspector, that by the end of February 2003 hundreds of inspections had not found any weapons of mass destruction, that the inspection regime was still working, and that it would be completed in “months, not years.”

It is thoroughly disingenuous to say that the notorious “forty-five-minute” dossier in September, while “not accurate,” did not influence the subsequent debate. Once the Sun had shouted “Brits 45 Mins From Doom,” the dossier had done its work. Mr. Bogdanor wisely does not mention the still more infamous “dodgy dossier,” which was cobbled together by Downing Street in February 2003, partly plagiarized from a paper written in California in 1991, misprints and all, or indeed before that the Downing Street Memo of July 23, 2002, summarizing what John Scarlett, then chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, had reported after talks in Washington: the Bush administration had determined on an invasion of Iraq, and “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”

The following summer, after the invasion, Scarlett gave evidence to the Hutton inquiry. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Tory defense secretary and foreign secretary, immediately pointed out how incriminating Scarlett’s testimony had been, demonstrating as it did the intimate collusion between Scarlett and Alastair Campbell, Blair’s media officer, who concerted the propaganda campaign in support of the invasion. Does Mr. Bogdanor think that Sir Malcolm is another stooge?

But really, I now find arguing with people like Bogdanor as tedious and fruitless as arguing with someone who thinks that the way Sir Anthony Eden took us into the Suez adventure sixty years ago was entirely honest. Or perhaps Bogdanor believes that as well.

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Buffalo Brutalism

In response to:

The Brutal Dreams That Came True from the December 22, 2016 issue

To the Editors:

Martin Filler’s important survey of the ebb and flow of our love/hate relationship with Brutalism [“The Brutal Dreams That Came True,” NYR, December 22, 2016] was long overdue. Although he did mention Le Corbusier’s early influence in exploring the topic, he might have noted that Walter Gropius’s early article in Jahrbuch des Deutschen Werkbundes (1913) was what really sparked the interest of architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, one of many who made a pilgrimage to Buffalo for the sole purpose of viewing those gigantic silos on the city’s lakefront. One can make the argument that Buffalo and its silos helped to pave the way for many of those Brutalist structures that subsequently found many admirers.

G. Stanley Collyer
Louisville, Kentucky

Martin Filler replies:

Mr. Collyer is correct to point out Walter Gropius’s early interest in the concrete industrial structures of Buffalo (and other cities), one of many vernacular prototypes for Brutalism. However, it was actually Le Corbusier’s appropriation of Gropius’s images of these grain elevators for his Vers une architecture (1923) that gave them their widest currency. And even though such utilitarian landmarks did indeed influence early modernist architects, three decades later the Brutalists did not invest them with any particular significance and were looking much more closely at Le Corbusier’s postwar works in concrete. The definitive account of Buffalo’s central place in this development can be found in A Concrete Atlantis: US Industrial Building and European Modern Architecture (MIT Press, 1986), the last book by the greatest scholarly proponent of Brutalism, Reyner Banham.

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The Most Powerful Men in the World

Vladimir Putin on screen delivering an annual news conference, in Simferopol, Crimea, December 23, 2016
Pavel Rebrov/ReutersVladimir Putin on screen delivering an annual news conference, in Simferopol, Crimea, December 23, 2016

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mode of public communication is the very opposite of Donald Trump’s: rather than Tweet 140-character bursts, he stages elaborate, laboriously choreographed affairs that far outlast anyone’s attention span. He holds one press conference and one televised call-in show a year. Participants are pre-screened, question topics are pre-cleared, and many are pre-scripted. Each event usually lasts more than four hours. Each usually contains a memorable and informative passage that summarizes Putin’s current vision of himself in the world. There have been times when he positioned himself as the savior of a country on the brink of catastrophe, a conqueror, a victor. This year, in his press conference on December 23, he positioned himself as the most powerful man in the world.

Here is Putin’s scripted exchange with a state-media journalist (I am quoting both sides at length precisely because this is pre-written dialogue):

Journalist: Vladimir Vladimirovich, the world is undergoing a global transformation. We are witnessing nations expressing their will, voting against old political concepts, against the old elites. Britain voted to leave the EU, though we still don’t know how it’s going to play out. Many people are saying that Trump won because people were voting against the old elites, against faces that they are tired of seeing, among other reasons. Have you and your colleagues discussed these changes? What will the new global order be like? Remember, at the General Assembly, on the seventieth anniversary [of the United Nations], you said, “Can’t you see what you’ve done?” Where are we going? At this point we are still in the context of confrontation. The back-and-forth yesterday about whose military is stronger. During his last press conference your still-colleague Barack Obama said that 37 percent of Republicans like you and that Ronald Reagan is probably turning over in his grave.

Putin: What was that?

Journalist: 37 percent of Republican voters like you.

Putin: Really?

Journalist: Yes, and if Ronald Reagan knew, he’d be turning over in his grave. By the way, we as your voters are very pleased that you have such power, that you could even reach Ronald Reagan. Our Western colleagues often tell us that you can manipulate the world, pick presidents of your choosing, intervene in elections wherever you want. How does it feel to be the most powerful man in the world? Thank you.

Putin: I have addressed this issue on numerous occasions. But if you think that I need to do it one more time, fine, I will say it one more time. The current US government and the leadership of the Democratic Party are trying to blame all their failures on outside forces. I have some questions and a few ideas regarding this.

The Democratic Party lost not only the presidential election but also the election to the Senate, where Republicans have the majority, and to Congress, where Republicans have the majority. I wonder if that’s my accomplishment too. [Here Putin cracks a joke with a reference to a Soviet-era film about a hapless college student who gets in trouble and takes the blame for things he did as well as things he didn’t do.] None of this is true. All of it is testament to the fact that the current administration is facing systemic problems. I have talked about this before.

I think there is a gap between the elites and the broad masses, as we used to say in Soviet times, regarding what’s right and what’s wrong. The fact that a significant portion of, let’s say, Republican voters are supporting the Russian president is not something I take personal credit for. You want to know what I think? I think a large number of Americans share our ideas of what the world should be like, what we should be doing, where we face common dangers and problems. It’s good that there are people who share our understanding of traditional values, because it’s a good start for building relations between two countries as powerful as Russia and the United States, on this basis, the basis of mutual admiration of the people.

I wish they wouldn’t dredge up the names of their former leaders. I don’t know who would be turning over in his grave. I think Reagan would rejoice in the victory of his party and would be happy for the newly elected president, who had a fine understanding of societal mood and worked in that paradigm and went to the very end even though no one, except you and me, believed that he would win.

At this point Putin is interrupted by applause. After the break, he continues by chiding Democrats for being sore losers. Later in the press conference he dismisses the conclusions of the CIA that Russian intelligence services threw the American election through hacking, claiming (much as Donald Trump has done) that the hackers could have been anyone, including “someone lying on the couch or in bed.” But Putin is reveling in the idea that he is “the most powerful man in the world.” He is right: it doesn’t matter if Russian hacks were decisive in the election—what matters is that many people believe that they were. If Americans perceive Putin as the ultimate winner of the presidential race, then that is what he is.

Putin made it clear that he views the outcome of the American election as the end of a struggle for world domination—hence the reference to his September 2015 speech at the United Nations General Assembly. Back then he traveled to New York for his first address to the UN in a decade. He offered the United States a deal: Russia would help in Syria if the US government would withdraw its criticism of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. President Obama snubbed the offer, and Russia responded by entering the Syrian conflict on the side of Bashar al-Assad. Putin framed Russia’s actions in Syria as a battle against the American-dominated world order. It is this battle that he sees himself as having won on November 8.

Putin views Trump’s victory as the triumph of a particular world view: “a large number of Americans share our ideas of what the world should be like” and even of “right and wrong.” The phrase “traditional values” is crucial here: the instrumentalization of some vague idea of past greatness is something Putin and Trump share. Putin is no more likely a proponent of “traditional values” than is Trump: the Russian president is divorced and has long—long before his divorce—been rumored to be romantically involved with a gymnast-turned-politician, with whom he may or may not have children. The story of the affair originated in Putin’s hand-picked press pool, which consists of one journalist—like the story of Putin’s pivotal role in the American election, it may or may not be true but it is what he wants people to believe. Putin’s attitude toward women is remarkably similar to Trump’s. The Russian president once expressed admiration for former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, a convicted rapist. “What a powerful man he turned out to be!” Putin said in 2006. “He raped ten women! I never would have expected that from him! He surprised us all! We are all envious!”

In the last few years, the Kremlin has framed the battle for global domination as a conflict between a “Western civilization” rooted in the idea of human rights and a “traditional values civilization.” Putin’s “traditional values” campaign has included a virulent antigay offensive, an insistent effort to raise the birth rate in order to save the 145-million Russian nation from extinction, and, most important, a systematic discrediting of any idea that is viewed as connected with contemporary Western culture. This is where Putin sees a kindred spirit in Trump, with his flailing against political correctness and his defense of Christmas against a fictitious threat. “Traditional values” becomes a catchall term for an imaginary past—which goes a long way toward explaining Trump’s seamless symbiosis with the American Christian Right.

Putin has declared victory in his war on modern culture, which gives him the right to call himself the most powerful man in the world. But, of course, that description has generally been part of the definition of a different job—the one to which Trump has in fact just been elected. One suspects that having two men who believe themselves to be the most powerful in the world can’t go well. In fact, the predictable signs of trouble have already appeared.

On December 22, the day before the press conference, Putin held his annual meeting with the leadership of Russia’s defense ministry. Among other things, he mentioned nuclear arms, which he said had been well tended to in 2016, helping Russia maintain “strategic parity.” This was a notable step down in rhetoric from last year, when he directed the armed forces to “pay special attention to improving the fighting potential of our strategic nuclear forces.” Trump, however, responded by tweeting that “the United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability”—an unprecedented way of upending nuclear policy.

Putin fielded a question about Trump’s tweet during his press conference. He was magnanimous, as perhaps only the most powerful man in the world could be. “There is nothing unusual here,” he lied. He went on to explain his own comments about nuclear arms by stating that Russia aims only to be “stronger than any potential—pay attention here—aggressor.” Without naming any potential aggressors, he made it clear that Russia does not view the United States as one. This was another lie: Russia’s military doctrine, adopted in 2014, identifies NATO member states as the number-one military threat.

The specter of the American military has been essential to Putin’s domestic rhetoric. Throughout his seventeen years as the Russian leader, Putin has relied on the constant if sometimes vague idea of existential danger to shore up his popularity. This has been especially important during his current term as president, when he has responded to protests and a tanking economy by launching wars at home and abroad. All of these wars—against the “fifth column” inside the country, in Ukraine, and in Syria—have been framed by Russian media as wars against the United States. The wars have been good for Putin’s popularity rating, which has stayed above 80 percent ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2014—in spite of a precipitous economic downturn. But Ukraine and Syria would not produce those kinds of numbers on their own: it is the framing of these wars as proxy conflicts with America that make them important.

Putin went on to blame the outgoing Obama administration and the George W. Bush administration for having incited a new arms race. He was absolving Trump of responsibility for his tweet—or, really, for his country—as one might release a child from having to carry the burden of words spoken rashly. This mode of relating to Trump cannot be sustainable—if for no other reason than that Trump has made and seems likely to continue to make outrageous statements like this again and again, and will demand to be taken seriously. Both men share a primitive idea of power as something that is based on superior strength asserted and acknowledged publicly. Trump will tweet nuclear policy again, and Putin will not be as accommodating in the future.

Does this mean that we are entering a new Cold War? No—it’s worse. The Cold War was fought by men who had different visions of the future—the ideologies of the two sides were battling for the right to define societies to come. This made the prospect of mutually assured destruction an effective deterrent. We now know that on several occasions one or the other side took a crucial step back from the brink.

Trump and Putin, on the other hand, lack a concept of the future. In Putin’s version of the clash of civilizations, we have only a threatening Western present versus an imaginary Eurasian past. In Trump’s case, the threatening present is global while the alluring past is American. Both men traffic in appeals to the local and the familiar from the past against the frighteningly strange future. They are also both short-tempered, thin-skinned, not very bright, and disinclined to listen to advisers—all major risk factors for escalation. But it is their shared inability to look ahead that poses the greatest danger to the world.

Putin’s inability to plan has been well documented. European Russia scholar Mark Galeotti has called it the “Putin Paradox”: Putin is great at seizing opportunities but can never think through consequences or next steps. Galeotti was writing about Putin’s wars and his interference in US elections (though he was assuming a Trump loss), but the Putin Paradox can be observed in the Russian president’s personal behavior as well. I once wrote about an extravagant palace Putin was building with a billion dollars’ worth of embezzled and fraudulently appropriated funds. When I was reporting this story back in 2011, what struck me was that the palace—a private residence—was located in Russia. It seemed planned as a retirement residence, but Putin clearly hadn’t considered the impossibility of his retiring in Russia, in peace. Another example is Putin’s obliviousness to the political undercurrents of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Only in late December 2013 did he realize that Western leaders were declining his invitations to the Games—and pardoned political prisoners, including Mikhail Khodorkovsky, in a last-ditch attempt to salvage the party. But it was six weeks before the Olympics, and it was too late.

Trump’s short attention span is legendary. He also has a track record of making impulsive lavish investments that fail over and over again. It appears that his ability to plan for the future is as severely limited as Putin’s.

Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, seems to have a different temperament but a similar apres nous le deluge attitude. His company stands out even among oil giants in its steadfast refusal to invest in renewable energy and its clear commitment to discrediting climate-change science—in other words, a strategy of maximizing immediate earnings at the price of future generations’ ability to live on the planet. Applied to global politics and combined with Trump’s ballistic temperament, this augurs a war that will not be cold.

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The Rules of the Game: A New Electoral System

‘The Electoral Vote: Now Let Us Look at It from Another Point of View’; illustration by Thomas Nast, 1876
Sarin Images/Granger‘The Electoral Vote: Now Let Us Look at It from Another Point of View’; illustration by Thomas Nast, 1876

Americans have been using essentially the same rules to elect presidents since the beginning of the Republic. In the general election, each voter chooses one candidate; each state (with two current exceptions) awards all its Electoral College votes to the candidate chosen by the largest number of voters (not necessarily a majority) in that state; and the president-elect is the candidate with a majority of Electoral College votes.

Primary elections for president have also remained largely unchanged since they replaced dealings in a “smoke-filled room” as the principal method for selecting Democratic and Republican nominees. In each state, every voter votes for one candidate. In some states, the delegates to the national convention are all pledged to support the candidate getting a plurality of votes (again, possibly less than a majority). In others, delegates are assigned in proportion to the total votes of the candidates.

These rules are deeply flawed. For example, candidates A and B may each be more popular than C (in the sense that either would beat C in a head-to-head contest), but nevertheless each may lose to C if they both run. The system therefore fails to reflect voters’ preferences adequately. It also aggravates political polarization, gives citizens too few political options, and makes candidates spend most of their campaign time seeking voters in swing states rather than addressing the country at large.

There are several remedies. Perhaps in order of increasing chance of adoption, they are: (1) to elect the president by the national popular vote instead of the Electoral College; (2) to choose the winner in the general election according to the preferences of a majority of voters rather than a mere plurality, either nationally or by state; and, easiest of all, (3) to substitute majority for plurality rule in state primaries.

Replacing the Electoral College

Donald Trump lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by more than 2.8 million votes, but won the presidency through the Electoral College. This discrepancy has caused a public protest (millions of people signed a petition urging Trump electors to vote for Clinton at the formal meeting of the college on December 19). Similar protests were lodged in 2000 when Al Gore, winner of the popular vote, lost to George W. Bush in the Electoral College.

It is hardly surprising that disappointed backers of Gore and Clinton, with more support from American voters than their opponents, should complain about the outcomes in 2000 and 2016. What is particularly relevant is the clear unpopularity of the Electoral College as an institution. In a 2013 Gallup Poll, for example, 63 percent of respondents favored deciding presidential elections by the popular vote, while only 29 percent preferred the current system.

However, literally getting rid of the Electoral College would require a constitutional amendment (the most recent filing for such an amendment came from Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Steve Cohen in November). That would need approval by two thirds of each house of Congress as well as by three quarters of states—a virtually insurmountable barrier in America today.

Somewhat more realistically, each of the forty-eight states that currently award Electoral College votes on a winner-take-all basis could instead award them either district by district, as is now the case in Maine and Nebraska, or in proportion to the statewide vote totals. Either change would make the respective outcomes from the Electoral College and popular vote more likely to coincide (historically, there have been five elections—two within the last sixteen years—where they have not coincided). Indeed, the Constitution in Article II, Section 1 allows an individual state to make such changes when it says, “Each state shall appoint [electors], in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct.” Still, unless the other states are doing so too, a state has little incentive to move away from winner-take-all; a swing state, in particular, would be loath to surrender the attention it gets from candidates and the press.

Currently, the most promising initiative to replace the Electoral College is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. Beginning in 2006, a sequence of states have made a pledge to award their electoral votes to the winner of the nationwide popular vote on condition that the states within the compact command at least 270 electoral votes—the minimum needed to elect a president. This condition creates a coordinating mechanism—states would move to the new system together, not unilaterally.

So far, ten states and the District of Columbia have joined the compact, amounting to 165 electoral votes. All of them are solidly Democratic—probably reflecting the election of 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote but lost in the Electoral College. In all likelihood, we will have to wait for an election in which the same thing happens to a Republican candidate before any red states sign on. More importantly, even if the compact succeeds (so that the Electoral College is in effect “replaced”), the election system will remain highly unsatisfactory unless plurality rule—election by less than a majority—is also replaced. Why is this the case?

Plurality Versus Majority Rule

This year’s Republican and Democratic nominees differed sharply on almost every major policy issue—trade, immigration, climate change, minority rights, and health care, to name a few. But they were also viewed “unfavorably” by a majority of the public. Many citizens were appalled by Donald Trump’s personality and platform yet couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton for various reasons (including, in the critical last days of the election campaign, baffling announcements from the Federal Bureau of Investigation). It is worth noting that nearly 7 million voters ended up voting for third-party candidates who had no chance of winning; and 42 percent of those eligible didn’t vote at all.

A good many disaffected citizens—especially moderates of one kind or another—might have voted for, say, Michael Bloomberg had he been on the ballot. Others—especially millennials and liberals—might have voted for Bernie Sanders. But Bloomberg and Sanders chose not to run as third-party candidates in the general election; they likely thought they would have taken away votes from Clinton and handed the election to Trump.

Bloomberg and Sanders were deterred by the prospect of “vote-splitting”—in which the votes for a group of roughly similar candidates are divided among them, allowing a very different sort of candidate to win. Plurality rule, the current method for awarding electoral votes, is highly vulnerable to splitting votes, as Bloomberg and Sanders understood. (In 2000 Ralph Nader notoriously ignored this danger and attracted nearly 100,000 votes in Florida, mostly at Al Gore’s expense, giving George W. Bush the presidency.) Still, by staying out of the general election, Bloomberg and Sanders deprived the public of alternatives many would have preferred.

Thus, an election method subject to vote-splitting creates a pernicious choice: either attractive political candidates—e.g., Bloomberg and Sanders—stay out of the race, or they join in (as did Nader) and risk throwing the election to their ideological opposite.

Are there election methods that always (i.e., for all rankings that voters might conceivably have) give us a clear-cut winner, respect everyone’s vote, and avoid vote-splitting (or equivalent conditions)? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Some sixty-five years ago, the economist Kenneth Arrow published his Impossibility Theorem, showing that no electoral method can satisfy all three requirements (although there are many rules that satisfy two out of three—for example, plurality rule respects everyone’s vote and produces a winner, but often leads to vote-splitting).1 The natural follow-up question is whether there is an election method that satisfies these requirements more often (i.e., for a wider class of voters’ rankings) than any other. Here, fortunately, there is a clear answer: the solution is the classic method of majority rule, strongly advocated by the Marquis de Condorcet, the great eighteenth-century political thinker.

Instead of limiting a voter to choosing a single candidate, Condorcet proposed that voters should have the option of ranking candidates on the ballot from best to worst. The winner is the candidate who, according to the rankings, would beat each opponent in a head-to-head contest.

Suppose, for example, that in a three-person race consisting of Trump, Clinton, and Bloomberg, the voters in a particular state (such as Florida) break down into three groups (see Figure 1 below). There are the Trump supporters, consisting of 45 percent of the voting population, who put Trump first, Clinton last, and Bloomberg in between. Then there are the Clinton supporters (40 percent), who have the opposite ranking. Finally there are the voters who detest Trump, can’t accept voting for Clinton (and so, effectively, aren’t distinguishing between the two), but find Bloomberg acceptable (15 percent). In this example, a majority of voters (40 percent, plus 15 percent) prefer Bloomberg to Trump, and a majority (45 percent, plus 15 percent) also prefer Bloomberg to Clinton. Thus Bloomberg is elected as the majority winner.


This example illustrates that majority rule entails comparing how many voters prefer candidate A to candidate B for every pair A and B. It also shows how majority rule avoids vote-splitting and therefore avoids deterring potential candidates such as Bloomberg. Voters opposed to Trump need not face a choice between Clinton and Bloomberg; they can rank both candidates above Trump without fear that one will cancel out the other.

The example shows too how majority rule may reduce polarization. A centrist like Bloomberg may not be ranked first by a large proportion of voters, but can still be elected if viewed as a good compromise. Majority rule also encourages public debate about a larger group of potential candidates, bringing us closer to John Stuart Mill’s ideal of democracy as “government by discussion.”2

Is majority rule a realistic alternative to plurality rule in presidential elections? We think so. It can be adopted state legislature by state legislature; no constitutional amendment or federal legislation is needed. And, unlike the consequences of replacing the Electoral College, a state suffers no loss of influence by making the change unilaterally.

Moreover, the approach has already proved itself: a somewhat similar ranking system—called instant-runoff voting (IRV)—is already being used successfully in mayoral elections in several American cities, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. (In IRV, voters rank candidates as in majority rule. If a candidate is ranked first by a majority, he or she is elected. Otherwise, the candidate ranked first least often is eliminated, and the process continues until someone gets a majority.) IRV doesn’t avoid vote-splitting as successfully as majority rule but is far better on that score than plurality rule.

Finally, voters have the option to rank as many or as few candidates as they wish—the candidates they do not rank are treated as tied at the bottom of the order (for example, the third group of voters in Figure 1 rank Bloomberg first and leave Trump and Clinton unranked). The result is that majority rule doesn’t impose a greater burden on voters than plurality rule and gives them more freedom of expression.

Indeed, since majority rule is such an appealing idea, one might wonder why it isn’t already being used for presidential elections. Apart from inertia, we suspect the main reason is technological. Majority rule entails a more complicated process of vote-counting than plurality rule; making comparisons between each pair of candidates. (See Figure 2 on this page.) Of course, this poses no problem at all for modern electronic methods. However, until such technologies were available, majority rule was probably out of the question for elections involving millions of voters. Today, we need not be limited by problems that no longer exist.

Certainly majority rule is not a perfect system, and Condorcet himself showed that there are circumstances—rare in practice—in which no candidate can beat every other candidate in a head-to-head contest (that is, Arrow’s requirement that there be a “clear-cut winner” fails). In that case a tie-breaking method would be needed, such as having a runoff between the two top candidates.

Presidential Primaries

Though adopting majority rule in general elections may be the most important change that America should now make, the simplest and most straightforward voting reform would be to replace plurality rule with majority rule in state primaries. This would require no changes in laws at all—the Republican and Democratic parties could simply amend their rules.

How did Donald Trump win the Republican nomination? The answer is not entirely obvious because there were several other candidates who, according to polls, would probably have beaten him in the early Republican primaries in a one-on-one race. For example, an ABC News/Washington Post poll on March 8 showed that both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio would have beaten Trump easily in a two-candidate contest. And Trump failed to get a majority in the first seventeen of the primaries he won. But the problem, again, is vote-splitting: the anti-Trump vote was dispersed among Cruz, Rubio, Jeb Bush, John Kasich, and other candidates. This enabled Trump to win the early contests and build the momentum he needed to win the nomination.

To understand what happened, imagine a scenario in which 40 percent of voters rank the candidates in the order of Trump, Rubio, Cruz; 35 percent rank them in the order of Cruz, Rubio, Trump; and the remaining 25 percent rank Rubio first, then Cruz, and then Trump. Under the current plurality system, where only voters’ top choices matter, Trump wins the primary (with 40 percent). But under majority rule, Rubio wins: 60 percent of voters prefer him to Trump, and 65 percent prefer him to Cruz.

Changing the Rules

Would majority rule have defeated Donald Trump, either in the primaries or in the general election? Quite probably it would have. But here we want to make a more general point about presidential voting methods. Majority rule comes closer to satisfying people’s preferences than any other method, including the current one. After 224 years, perhaps it is time to change the rules of the game.

  1. 1

    For discussions of this theorem and its implications, see Eric Maskin and Amartya Sen, The Arrow Impossibility Theorem (Columbia University Press, 2014). 

  2. 2

    On related issues see Amartya Sen, Collective Choice and Social Welfare, Enlarged Edition (Penguin UK and Harvard University Press, forthcoming 2017). 

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Pipilotti’s Pleasure Dome

Pipilotti Rist: Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016
Maris Hutchinson/EPW StudioPipilotti Rist: Pixelwald (Pixel Forest), 2016

If you’ve been watching the news as much as I have these past several months you might be forgiven for forgetting that video as a medium can do more than provide a platform for talking—if not ranting—heads. I nearly forgot myself. The large-scale exhibition on Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist at the New Museum reminded me in the most enjoyable way.

After a flurry of appearances in small venues in the late 1980s, the fifty-four-year-old, Rist made her international exhibition debut in the Aperto or “Open” section of the 1993 Venice Biennale directed by Achille Bonito Oliva. Since then she has traveled the art world circuit like a blissed-out rider on a psychedelic merry-go-round, making herself a ubiquitous presence in museums, kunsthallen, biennials, and elsewhere, not least in a major atrium installation at the Museum of Modern Art in 2008-2009 and by the addition to MoMA’s permanent collection of her paradigmatically sybaritic video installation, Sip My Ocean (1996), which follows swimmers moving over clean sand through clear ocean  waters to a soft music. Nevertheless this show, which occupies four floors, is the first New York survey of her work and it comes at an oddly critical time both for her and for her American audience.

Still from Pipilotti Rist's (Absolutions) Pipilotti’s Mistakes, 1988
Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)/Hauser & Wirth/Luhring AugustineStill from Pipilotti Rist’s (Absolutions) Pipilotti’s Mistakes, 1988

In many ways Rist is a kind of lusty feminist flower-child—her first name is an invented combination of Pippi Longstocking and Rist’s own childhood nickname, Lotti—but of a generation that missed the first blush of those tendencies and so was in a position to look back on them critically. Raymond Pettibon, the punk Goya of the post-Haight-Ashbury–post-Altamont counter-Counter-Culture, and his polymathic, multimedia pal Mike Kelley both turned jaundiced eyes on the giddy spirit of the 1960s in their indictments of the periods Utopian fantasies. In striking contrast, Rist’s approach has been to embrace such idealism without any apparent cynicism. Over many years, she has deployed a sensual ethos and aesthetic with a robustness and invention that persuades one not only of her sincerity but of the abiding worth of such optimism.

I write this as a sixty-seven-year-old ‘68er who has smoked my share of dope, lounged around my share of crash pads watching light shows, and communed with my share of kindred, soul-searching spirits. I don’t really hunger for more and certainly have no desire to relive the past. Accordingly it was with considerable wariness that I exited the elevator on the top floor of the New Museum to find a dimmed chamber scattered with beds of every description—from standard issue IKEA to faux-Rococo sleighs—on which members of the public stretched out to watch two videos projected on a ceiling framed by curvaceous Plexiglass cutouts.

Still from Pipilotti Rist's Pickelporno (Pimple Porno), 1992
Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)/Hauser & Wirth/Luhring AugustineStill from Pipilotti Rist’s Pickelporno (Pimple Porno), 1992

Like several other tapes, the video images could have been outtakes from what one might call Life Aquatic with Pipilotti Rist. In this instance—To Mildness (2016)—they consist of complex digital montages of multiple views of plant growth just above and below the waterline of a calm lake or pond suffused with multicolored organic matter and occasionally disturbed by body parts bobbing or plowing through this wetlands flora; hands, feet, faces, and one enormous, Moby-Dick-like breast. All of these clips, which also include extreme, subtly disorienting close-ups—the breast—and the clever superposition of spatially inverted or tilted glimpses of the bubbling surface of the same lake or pond, plus periodic bursts of mud or seeds or natural powders. They are accompanied by audio of a woman who intones “when I was a child” and then sings about being pushed “in my neck, in my chest, in my waist, in my butt.” As annoyingly unintelligible as the libretto was much of the time, in short order my resistance to these sights and sounds gave way to an attentive surrender to the lulling amniotic flux of a liquid universe, and the subdued murmur of the recorded words emanating from another dimension.

Still from Pipilotti Rist's Worry Will Vanish Horizon, from the Worry Work Family, 2014
Hauser & Wirth/Luhring AugustineStill from Pipilotti Rist’s Worry Will Vanish Horizon, from the Worry Work Family, 2014

On the back stairs between the fourth and third floors a hand-held screen shows naked beauties scream gleefully from what seem to be the pits of Hell—Selfless in the Bath of Lava (Bastard Version) (1994); somersault head over heels, displaying in other extreme close-ups an open rouged mouth and tongue at one end and a puckered, roseate anus at the other—Mutaflor (1996); and engage in extended foreplay with a naked man, though for a while both he and she wear briefs made of green turf—Japsen (1988). The biggest installation of those anchoring the exhibition, Pixelworld (Pixel Forest) (2016), consists of a full floor dimly illuminated by hanging chains of electric fixtures that blush rose, pale yellow, orange and pale blue and are encased in plastic shells complemented by scattered pillows on the floor. Like Olafur Eliasson in his 2003 Weather Project in the Tate Modern’s Turbine, Rist offers a soothing environment in which to move back and forth between paying attention to high impact imagery and letting one’s mind wander, though she does the courtesy of providing spectators with a cushion to settle into. And like Eliasson’s, Rist’s effect is very “Back to the Sixties,” but by means unavailable in those days and therefore not merely a restyling of a previous aesthetic.

Still from Pipilotti Rist's Mercy Garden, from the Mercy Work Family, 2013–2014
Hauser & Wirth/Luhring AugustineStill from Pipilotti Rist’s Mercy Garden, from the Mercy Work Family, 2013–2014

On the third floor the video centerpiece composed of Mercy Garden phased into Worry Will Vanish Horizon (both 2014) can be watched where two giant wall projections converge in the corner. In one sequence that convergence allows Rist to create the impression that the supine spectator is constantly rising above and falling below the surface of the water, while various other sequences make the viewer feel as if he were groping through sunflower stalks, hurtling through rural landscapes, parting seaweed while swimming under water, and tracking laundry lines against a big sky. During one of these excursions more limbs and briefly a wrinkled uncut phallus resembling a sea worm come and go to the rhythm of plucked banjos and guitars. Throughout, Rist’s video sleight of hand paradoxically renders a tactile, olfactory reality in hypnotically optical terms.

The environments on the top two floors are the main events of the exhibition, added to which are several viewing booths with continuously streaming one-channel videos of varying degrees of distinction in the predominantly mellow, nature-loving idiom of her oeuvre overall. Again and again we are invited to look at the world from a shameless female gaze; and again and again we—men and women alike—do just that with telltale smiles or giggles or staring fixity bespeaking significant differences among us in a way that a comparable audience watching similarly charged movies in a darkened theater would not display to one another. Rist’s is an inherently benevolent social art. Her most overtly political gesture thus far has been her contribution to the 2005 Venice Biennale, Homo Sapiens Sapiens. For it she projected a swarm of kaleidoscopic nudes onto the ceiling of the deconsecrated Church of Saint Stae and provided mattresses so that the public could enjoy this orgiastic video substitute for a pagan fresco in almost Roman comfort.

Still from Pipilotti Rist's Ever Is Over All, 1997
Hauser & Wirth/Luhring AugustineStill from Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All, 1997

The two signal exceptions to the prevailing methods and mood of the works just described are to be found in Ever Is Over All (1997)—which in the New Museum’s presentation is looped with Sip My Ocean—and Suburb Brain (1999). The ensemble subsuming the latter piece, Rist’s only full blown foray into three-dimensional sculptural installation, incorporates a wall covered with low relief casts of packaging materials such as the specially molded Styrofoam insulation for shipping boxes—The Innocent Collection (1985-ongoing)—and Suburb Brain, a scale model of a suburban street, a track house whose windows are screens that offer a glimpse into the interior, where, among other things, a family sits down to a meal with flaming plates, and an outbuilding where other screens flicker and flash. Projected on the wall next to these structures, are scenes of a middle-aged woman driving with a friend, to whom she delivers a monologue combining New Age psychobabble and several pithy observations about the impossibility of domestic bliss, among them “we rot together in pairs”—or words to that effect.

Ever Is Over All is by comparison exuberantly, anarchistically feminist: a radiant, laughing, anti-bourgeois Venus strides the sidewalk holding a decidedly phallic tropical flower with a long stem, stopping from time to time to swing it like a baseball bat to smash the windows of cars parked along her path. Behind her appears a police officer, but rather than chasing her down the street, the cop—also a smiling woman—salutes her when they come abreast of each other and then moves on. With that, Rist’s protagonist resumes her romp/rampage. It is the most joyful call to arms I’ve witnessed in a long time. Yet set as it is in an immaculate and decorous Northern European city, it strikes my New York eye as pure fantasy, and as far from Lizzie Borden’s gritty Reagan-era feminist guerrilla video Born in Flames (1983) as one could get.

Deploying relatively simple special effects—digitally increasing contrasts and denaturing color, dropping out shadows or increasing highlights to the point that forms break up—in support of medium-tech strategies involving montage, mirroring, and uncanny juxtaposition, Rist has conjured a pantheistic pleasure dome. At its least effective, it’s an approach that resembles high-end music videos; but sometimes it is almost capable of putting the mess we are in out of mind. On departing the New Museum, as when leaving an art-house movie theater in years gone by, the glow of Rist’s work lasts for long enough to briefly re-enchant you. But don’t try smashing car windows with exotic blossoms. In the new reality the cop following you won’t be smiling.

Still from Pipilotti Rist's Sip My Ocean, 1996
Hauser & Wirth/Luhring AugustineStill from Pipilotti Rist’s Sip My Ocean, 1996

“Pipilotti Rist: Pixel Forest” is at the New Museum through January 15.

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Prankster and Daughter

Peter Simonischek as Winfried Conradi and Sandra Hüller as Ines in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, 2016
Komplizen Film/Sony Pictures Classics Peter Simonischek as Winfried Conradi and Sandra Hüller as Ines in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, 2016

Nearly every season, usually around the Christmas holidays, Hollywood releases a film that ends in a reconciliation between an estranged daughter and her feckless, distant, or irascible father—a part that most often, it seems, is played by Robert DeNiro. But aside from surface similarities of plot, German director Maren Ade’s deadpan comic masterpiece Toni Erdmann—shortlisted for the foreign film Oscarhas nothing in common with those heartstring-tuggers, and it’s not only because Ade resists all the obvious and familiar ways in which a familial accord can be brokered. Here, the father and daughter, we see at once, could hardly be less alike: Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) is a shambling bear of a man with an unruly mop of white hair and the air of an aging hippie; his inexpensive clothes look as if they’ve been washed once too often—or not enough. Whippet-thin, buttoned-up, and tightly wound, his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), an aspiring junior executive, favors black pant suits and blouses equally suitable for the corporate boardroom and the after-work drink.

In a revealing scene, Conradi is waiting to meet Ines in an extravagantly upscale Bucharest mall that, complete with an indoor ice-skating rink, is the capitalist equivalent of Ceaușescu’s palace. It’s the largest mall in Europe, Ines has informed him, in a country in which hardly anyone has any money. They have come there because Ines has been asked to escort on a shopping trip the wife of a CEO with whom her company (a consulting firm that advises corporations on how to “outsource” their labor forces, and in the process fire a significant number of their employees) hopes to do business. 

When Ines at last appears with the CEO’s wife, who is flushed with the exhilaration of having spent so much money on luxury items, it again becomes clear—in her obvious willingness to put herself at the woman’s disposal—that Ines lives only for her work, that she is in thrall to her bosses and her “team,” and that her only desire is to succeed, at any cost, and perhaps win a hoped-for transfer to Shanghai. Her father gives her a searching look, then asks, “Are you really human?”

It’s rare that a film can have one of its characters pose a question that so baldly states its larger philosophical concerns—What does it mean to be human and how should a human being live?—without seeming overly obvious or sanctimonious. But Toni Erdmann gets away with it, in part because its characters are so complex and precisely drawn (we are fully persuaded that this father would ask his daughter that) and in part because the film is at once so understated, so broad, and so funny; in fact, humor and the ways in which humor expresses our humanity and allows us to get through the day is one of Toni Erdmann’s themes. It’s not Ines’s workaholism that her father is questioning so much as her inability to have fun, to relax and laugh. To Ines, life is a succession of PowerPoint presentations and performance reviews, while to her father, it’s a series of irresistible occasions for practical jokes.

When we first meet Winfried he’s playing one of the many pranks with which he will amuse himself throughout the film. He convinces an increasingly anxious delivery man who brings a package to his door that the parcel contains a live bomb and that he has just gotten out of jail for sending bombs through the mail; the ticking that can be heard, he explains unconvincingly, is only his blood pressure monitor. Soon after, we watch him at the school where he teaches music. He and his students, their faces painted to make them look like zombies, sing a merry song about death to celebrate the retirement of an elderly teacher. Still in zombie makeup, he visits his aged mother. When she asks why he looks like that, he replies that he’s working part-time at a nursing home, where they pay him extra for everyone he kills. Accustomed to her son’s peculiar sense of humor, the old woman barely responds. Soon after, Winfried attends a party that his ex-wife is throwing for Ines. A chilly, impatient, and undemonstrative young woman, she’s unamused when her father says that he’s hired a substitute daughter because she visits him so rarely.

Every performance in Toni Erdmann, particularly those of Simonischek and Hüller, is spectacular, and we register the actors’ skill at the many small moments that make the nearly three-hour-long film a continual pleasure to watch; the silences are nearly as telling as the dialogue. Soon after Winfried follows Ines to Bucharest, he waits for her, hiding behind a newspaper in the lobby of her office building. Surrounded by her co-workers, she spots him and pretends not to know he’s there; her glimmer of recognition is so fleeting and subtle that we may at first be unsure of whether she’s registered his presence. A little later, she asks him how long he’s planning to stay in Romania, and when he jokingly answers, “A month,” we watch her already taut features stiffen with sheer terror. “That was real fear,” he rapidly observes.

Finally, to his daughter’s relief, he leaves. But just as she’s telling the friends with whom she’s waiting to be seated at a restaurant how unbearable his visit was—the worst weekend of her life!—he reappears, as if from nowhere, wearing an irridescent jacket, a black fright wig, and ill-fitting fake teeth. His name, his tells Ines’s friends as she silently fumes, is Toni Erdmann, an alias and an alter ego he will maintain through much of the second half of the movie. He is, he claims, a professional life coach.

As it turns out, that’s precisely what he does, helping Ines to “work on her charisma,” forcing her to look more deeply at her life, chipping away at her brittle shell until she begins to display some elements of her father’s sense of humor and his predilection for doing and saying outrageous things with a perfectly straight face. Among the consequences is a horrific and hilarious sex scene involving a smarmy co-worker with whom Ines is having an affair and a tray of petit-fours that her lover has ordered up from room service. The ultimate expression of Ines’s reluctant transformation is a long sequence involving a party to which she invites her colleagues—it is so expertly played that, for a while, we are unable to tell if we are watching Ines having a nervous breakdown or staging a comedy that far outdoes her father’s most elaborate and outlandish hoaxes.

Nothing in Toni Edrmann is predictable, though, as we gradually realize, we have been prepared for everything that occurs by a minor detail or casual exchange that we recall from earlier in the film. There are recurrent motifs involving a wide range of subjects both large (the differences between generations, old age and death) and small: a cheese grater, spaghetti, toenails. Repeatedly, events transpire that may at first seem startling but which, we are soon persuaded, are wholly in keeping with the characters we have come to know.

A scene from Toni Erdmann, 2016
Komplizen Film/Sony Pictures Classics A scene from Toni Erdmann, 2016

Among the most surprising of these scenes occurs at an Easter-egg-dyeing party that Toni Erdmann, who at this point is claiming to be the German ambassador, crashes. (During his brief stay in Bucharest, the bewigged, grotesque-looking “life coach” has gotten closer to the local people than Ines has during her longer sojourn inside the protective bubble of corporate culture.) As he and Ines are saying goodbye and thanking their hosts, Toni offers to sing them a song, and when Ines balks, he hisses, “Be polite for once in your life.” Sitting at a cheap electric piano, Toni/Winfried plays the opening bars of a song and, after more hesitation, Ines belts out a creditable and progressively more impassioned version of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”—a syrupy, hackneyed ballad about believing in children and the future—that manages to seem, under the circumstances, not only fresh and inspiring but deeply moving.

Politics saturates the film in much the same way in which it informs our daily lives; the realities of class, gender, power, and inequality are always there, but the characters are only intermittently conscious of them. At one point, Ines gazes out the window of the conference room where she’s just attended a meeting and sees a small house and a yard where an old woman and several children are living in dire poverty. During a visit to an oil field, where Ines has come to talk to an oil-company executive, her father attempts to prevent two workers who have committed an obvious safety violation from losing their jobs. Ines is horrified. The more workers the company lets go, the fewer she has to fire. Throughout the film, we are made aware of the sexism that Ines must confront on a daily basis, evident in the assumption that shopping with the CEO’s wife is part of her job description, and in the fact that the men she works with (or hopes to work with) are more comfortable discussing business even with the bizarre Toni Erdmann (or with any man) than they are talking to her.

In the film’s final scene, which takes place back in Germany, Winfried delivers a brief, rhapsodic speech about our inability to appreciate the beauty of the moment while we are experiencing it; not until the moment is long past can we comprehend how precious it was. His daughter responds with yet another small—and perfect—gesture, a sign that she has come to understand and accept what her father believes: that humor is our comfort and our consolation, enabling us not only to enjoy life but also to endure it.

Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann will be released on December 25. 

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