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The Week in Ideas (2/10)

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  February 11, 2013 09:00 AM

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SlavePic.jpegThe secret writing of American slaves: Craig Fehrman looks at a new book from historian Christopher Hager, “Word by Word: Emancipation and the Art of Writing,” on the contemporaneous writings of American slaves. Most of the writing we have about life as a slave was written by slaves after they’d been freed. Fehrman explains that much less attention has been paid to the small number of surviving letters, memoirs, and diaries written by slaves who overcame prohibitions against slave literacy to record their thoughts while still in bondage. In these texts, slave writers show a great preoccupation with every day life—including the anguish of having families sold apart—and pay, overall, less attention to the moral and political dimensions of the system that enslaved them.

The joy (and irritation) of blank art: Blank art—music without noise, paintings without paint, writing without words—is a confounding and also surprisingly prolific genre. Eugenia Williamson interviews Craig Dworkin, an English professor at the University of Utah and the author of a new book that seeks to explain how “equally unmarked pages can enact different significances.” Dworkin explains that blank art derives from the modernist preoccupation with pursuing “various genres of art to their most reduced essence.” He also says that blankness has to be appreciated in context: Blankness can be mournful, defiant, ironic, or lonely depending on what you know about the artist and the circumstances surrounding the creation of a piece of blank art.

Egypt’s free-speech backlash: Thanassis Cambanis on the growing constraints on free-speech in Egypt. He explains that the Muslim Brotherhood has resorted to a combination of old-school authoritarian tactics and newly passed laws to limit the voices of its critics. The crackdown is partly an attempt by the Brotherhood to solidify its power in an immature democracy. It has also been driven by conservative Muslims—the party’s base—who find that free-speech frequently treads on religiously offensive ground. Cambanis frames the current struggle in Egypt as a hugely important test of whether Modern Islam is capable of working within a secular, democratic political system.

When physicists do linguistics: Ben Zimmer on the awkward fit when quantitative methods from hard sciences like physics are applied to fields like linguistics. He looks at a recent paper that used data from Google Books to argue that languages function like gases: As they “cool” (or age) they change more slowly. Linguists have responded that this kind of blunt analysis misses the essence of what actually constitutes a language. The back and forth raises the question, “Can number-crunchers outside these fields use the data to make bold, useful contributions? Or do they need more specialized knowledge to be able to ask the right questions in the first place?

Plus: Kevin Lewis on the inverse relationship between the number of online friends you have and how happy you are; how pretending to be a superhero makes you more like one in real life; and how alcohol—up to a point—may actually enhance your cognitive skills.

Image of Bill and Ellen Thomas taken as part of "Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938," courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
contributors
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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