Front Table - 4/15/2019

April 14th, 2019


On our Front Table this week, explore the relation of aesthetics and politics, including a study of the use of portraits in women's suffrage movements, a sublime piece of nature writing on the urgency of ecological crisis, questions about the politics of the sentence as a literary form, and an inquiry into the work of art in the age of AI. Find the following titles and more at

Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne (Atlas Press)
Roland Topor, trans. Andrew Hodgson.

The works of the French author and artist Roland Topor are undergoing a major reassessment. Major exhibitions have been mounted and all his books are being brought back into print. This is the first of them to be translated into English for some 50 years. Topor was known for his paintings and drawings as much as for his novels (The Tenant was filmed by Polanski), plays and short stories. He was also a film-maker, actor and the co-founder, with Arrabal and Jodorowsky, of the Panic movement. Topor’s works are dominated by a sense of irrational everyday menace that could be interpreted as humour, but a form of humour pushed deep into discomfort. Head-to-Toe Portrait of Suzanne tells of an isolated, misanthropic narrator and his encounter with the beautiful Suzanne, an old flame from his past. It is at once a fable, a love story, and a tale of increasingly unpleasant events that culminate in horror and atrocity. With its distinct blend of sympathetic cynicism and grotesquerie, it offers an ideal introduction to the work and worldview of the artist.

Crises of the Sentence (University of Chicago Press)
Jan Mieszkowski

There are few forms in which so much authority has been invested with so little reflection as the sentence. Though a fundamental unit of discourse, it has rarely been an explicit object of inquiry, often taking a back seat to concepts such as the word, trope, line, or stanza. To understand what is at stake in thinking - or not thinking - about the sentence, Jan Mieszkowski looks at the difficulties confronting nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors when they try to explain what a sentence is and what it can do. From Romantic debates about the power of the stand-alone sentence, to the realist obsession with precision and revision, to modernist experiments with ungovernable forms, Mieszkowski explores the hidden allegiances behind our ever-changing stylistic ideals. By showing how an investment in superior writing has always been an ethical and a political as well as an aesthetic commitment, Crises of the Sentence offers a new perspective on our love-hate relationship with this fundamental compositional category.

Malebranche (Columbia University Press)
Alain Badiou, trans. Jason E. Smith with Susan Spitzer

In his annual seminars on major topics and pivotal figures, Alain Badiou developed vital aspects of his thinking on a range of subjects that he would go on to explore in his influential works. In this seminar, Badiou offers a tour de force encounter with a lesser-known seventeenth-century philosopher and theologian, Nicolas Malebranche, a contemporary and peer of Spinoza and Leibniz. On one hand, this is a lively interrogation of Malebranche's key text, the Treatise on Nature and Grace. Badiou develops a rigorous analysis of Malebranche's theory of grace, retracing his claims regarding the nature of creation and the relation between God and world and between God and Jesus. Through Malebranche, he develops radical concepts of truth and the subject. On the other hand, the seminar is record of Badiou's thought at a key moment in the years before the publication of his most important work, Being and Event. It occupies a pivotal place in his reflections on the nature of being that demonstrates the crucial role of theology in his thinking.

Dante and the Early Astronomer: Science, Adventure, and a Victorian Woman Who Opened the Heavens (Yale University Press)
Tracy Daugherty

In 1910, trailblazing Victorian astronomer Mary Acworth Evershed sat on a hill in southern India staring at the moon as she grappled with apparent mistakes in Dante's Divine Comedy. Was Dante's astronomy unintelligible? Or was he, for a man of his time and place, as insightful as one could be about the sky? At the beginning of the twentieth century, women who wished to become professional astronomers faced difficult cultural barriers, but Evershed joined the British Astronomical Association and, from an Indian observatory, became an experienced observer of sunspots, solar eclipses, and variable stars. From the perspective of one remarkable amateur astronomer, readers will see how ideas that were developed during Galileo's time evolved or were discarded in Newtonian conceptions of the cosmos and then recast in Einstein's theories. The result is a book about the history of science but also a poetic meditation on literature, science, and the evolution of ideas.

The Creativity Code: Art and Innovation in the Age of AI (Belknap Press)
Marcus du Sautoy

Complex algorithms are choosing our music, picking our partners, and driving our investments. For many years we've taken solace in the notion that they can't create. But now that algorithms can learn and adapt, does the future of creativity belong to machines, too? In this book, celebrated Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy addresses these bewildering questions of machine learning and the future of creativity. The Pollockizer can produce drip paintings in the style of Jackson Pollock, Botnik spins off fanciful scenes inspired by J. K. Rowling, and the music-composing algorithm Emmy fooled a panel of Bach experts. But do these programs just mimic, or do they have what it takes to create? Du Sautoy argues that to answer this question, we need to understand how the algorithms that drive them work, and this brings him back to his own subject of mathematics. The Creativity Code offers a more positive vision of our future cohabitation with machines than many recent books on AI, and it challenges us to reconsider what it means to be human.

Votes for Women: A Portrait of Persistence (Princeton University Press)
Kate Clarke Lemay, with contributions by Susan Goodier, Martha S. Jones, and Lisa Tetrault

Votes for Women is a richly illustrated history of the women's suffrage movement. It weaves together a diverse collection of portraits and other visual materials, biographical narratives, and trenchant essays. The leading historians featured here explore the reasons why certain events and leaders of the suffrage movement have been remembered over others, and they focus attention on underrecognized individuals and groups. They address the obstacles that black women faced when organizing with white suffragists and the subsequent founding of black women's suffrage groups, as well as the foundations of the violent antisuffrage movement. Votes for Womenis published in association with an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, and it contains nearly 200 color illustrations. The authors further explore the role of portraiture and visual culture in promoting ideals like gender equality, and in strategies of activism and recruitment. Their account sheds new light on the movement's relevance for our own time.

Horizon (Knopf Publishing Group)
Barry Lopez

In Horizon, award-winning nature writer Barry Lopez takes the reader on a journey that is at once his most far-ranging and his most personal. Lopez travels to six regions of the world: from Western Oregon to the High Arctic; from the Galápagos to the Kenyan desert; from Botany Bay in Australia to finally, unforgettably, the ice shelves of Antarctica. Along the way, he probes the long history of humanity's quests and explorations, including the prehistoric peoples who trekked across Skraeling Island in northern Canada, the colonialists who plundered Central Africa, a Native American emissary who found his way into isolationist Japan, and today's ecotourists in the tropics. Throughout his journeys, and via friendships he forges along the way with scientists, archaeologists, artists and local residents, Lopez searches for meaning and purpose in a broken world. Horizon is a revelatory, epic work that voices concern and frustration along with humanity and hope. 

Arabs: A 3,000-Year History of Peoples, Tribes and Empires (Yale University Press)
Tim Mackintosh-Smith

This books provides a riveting, comprehensive narrative of almost 3,000 years of Arab history. It shines a light on the footloose Arab peoples and tribes who conquered lands and disseminated their language and culture over vast distances. Tracing this process to the origins of the Arabic language, rather than the advent of Islam, Tim Mackintosh-Smith begins his narrative more than a thousand years before Muhammad. He explores the ways that Arabic, both spoken and written, has functioned as a vital source of shared cultural identity over the millennia. He further reveals the ways that linguistic developments - from pre-Islamic poetry to the growth of script, Muhammad’s use of writing, and the later problems of printing Arabic - have helped and hindered the progress of Arab history. And he investigates how, even in today’s politically fractured post-Arab Spring environment, Arabic itself is still a source of unity and disunity.

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