March 20th, 2020

The offseason in coastal Rhode Island is generally quiet. The breeze whipping off the Atlantic that draws the city folk during the oppressive heat of summer is exactly what keeps them away during the winter months. The ubiquitous clam shacks, surf shops, and ice cream parlors shutter their doors. The boxwoods enclosing shingled summer cottages, chiseled into bright green geometric shapes in the summer, wither into ugly brown knots.

Today one would hardly be able to tell that it is still mid-March, however, when walking down the seawall in Narragansett pier, the tiny beach town where my family resides. A long sidewalk, hugging the unimpeded expanse of open ocean, stretches from Monahan’s clam shack, under the grand stone arch that once marked the entrance to the old casino, to the town beach. As in June or July, the narrow tunnel between the fence of parked cars and the rocky coast was packed with families walking, donning down jackets and scarves in place of bathing suits. It appeared that nearly all of the permanent residents of southern Rhode Island had flocked to the shore for exercise and the solace of our shared sea in this time of uncertainty and distress.

As my dad and I joined the ranks of walkers we sensed a new edginess. In the summer as one traverses the seawall, one must always be prepared to be bonked by a surfboard, or sniffed by a sandy dog, or licked by someone’s sweaty bare skin. Today, when two groups of walkers approached each other, a strange dance ensued. Both parties slowed as they neared. You could see the cogs turning in the minds of each walker as they attempted to calculate whether both parties could maintain a six-foot berth while both staying on the sidewalk between the cars and the sea wall. As noses and mouths grew visible, chests rose as breaths were held. And at some point, both parties realized that there would be no possible way that both could pass side-by-side on the four-foot-wide sidewalk. Thus, in the finale of the dance, there was a standoff. Shoulders broadened, eyes narrowed, fists clenched, until one party ceded and hopped off the sidewalk, darting between bumpers, to pass on the road inside the line of parked cars.

I found this new fear of the bodies of other humans to be disturbing. I have tried to live by the ethical principle that when one sees the face of another, they should conceptualize them as a consciousness with an experience and perspective as rich and valuable as your own. This realization of the humanity of another is easiest when peering into their eyes, hearing their story, catching a glimpse of their inner life. How soon will we fall out of the habit of inhabiting the minds of others when we must place a six-foot distance between our separate realities? Can talking to a grainy image on a video chat ever compare to interacting with the overwhelming expressiveness of a human face in the flesh? Social distancing now strikes me as a strange paradox of a state-mandated dehumanization for the common good.

As we continued down the seawall, I surveyed the little sliver of ocean that has become mine over my years in Rhode Island. A thousand shades of blue were compressed into the line between the water in the sky – the flux below set against the stillness above. The open sea has always struck me as a place of refuge, the edge of normal life. Gazing into its vastness, as it churns with the emotion of the barometric pressure, is a reminder that great swaths of our planet are free from the frivolity of human affairs. At this moment, however, the sea suddenly felt more like a barricade rather than a portal to a simpler world. The virus is creeping, riding on the backs of New Yorkers and Bostoners fleeing to rental properties and summer homes, multiplying within the ranks of Rhodies. And I wait, squeezed up against the rocky coast, pressed against the edge of a world descending into panic.

In the lobby of an art hotel in Paris my mother and I discovered TOILETPAPER Magazine, a picture-based magazine founded in 2010 by venerable talents Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari. The magazine features brightly colored, surrealist, full page photographs often exploring themes of themes of the post-internet age. I highly recommend scrolling through their collage-gallery of a website!

I’m a longtime fan of the FRKWYS series from the Brooklyn-based record label RVNG Intl., which facilitates collaborations between some of the greatest talents in the Avant Garde electronic music scene. This week, I’ve been revisiting two of my favorite FRKWYS relseases: Vol. 15 from Visible Cloaks, Yoshio Ojima, and Satsuki Shibano (SpotifyYouTubeRVNG Intl.), and Vol. 7 from David Borden, James Ferraro, Samuel Godin, Laurel Halo, and Daniel Lopatin (SpotifyYouTubeRVNG Intl.).

I have found a fitting reflection of this current moment in the work of photographer Aakash Bali, particularly his collection The Shadow Disrict. Here, Bali captures the way in which the cover of night can draw out a certain cinematic nostalgia from contemporary scenes. I can’t help but be reminded of main streets, shopping centers, and hotels in the time of COVID19, eerily quiet, the scenery of a (temporarily) lost reality.

Understandably, the defining emotion of the pandemic has been grief – grief not only for the lives that have been and will be lost, but also grief for normalcy, grief for future plans, grief for live events cancelled, grief for budding relationships now left stagnant. It may be soothing to remember how much beauty still remains, both within ourselves, in art, and in nature. The transcendent, serene landscapes of Cuban painter Tomas Sanchez are hopefully a reminder of all three.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie

March 15th, 2020

I awoke on the morning of Thursday, March 12th to my phone buzzing furiously on the wooden bedside table. 2:38am, Paris time. After unearthing my sweat-slicked legs from the tropical cave created by the bare European comforter (why no under-sheets?), I reached over and yanked my phone off of the charger.
 
32 unready messages:
 
How are you?? Stuck in Paris??
 
Hey hey! Trump is being an idiot and stopping all flights out of Europe starting Friday. Sending you good vibes ❤ ❤
 
You guys need to come home by Friday! Trump has closed travel from Europe after Friday. Don’t panic.
 
I attempted to compose a text to my father, back home in the States, with trembling fingers:
 
What is happening
 
Trump had just announced a ban on travel to the United States from Europe on national television, without taking the care to mention that the ban only applied to foreign nationals, not US citizens and their family abroad. Upon hearing the news, my dad immediately called American Airlines to attempt to change the flights home for my mother, sister, and myself from Sunday to Friday, within Trump’s travel window.
 
I laid on my back in the sagging AirBnB sofa bed, working myself up into an anxiety fever, suspended in a strange mental space between sleeping and sprinting. Apocalyptic visions swirled beneath my eyelids: an emergency room strewn with bodies twitching in respiratory distress; ventilators, ECMO; the carcasses of grocery stores, their ribs picked clean.
 
Finally, my mother and sister awoke and I informed them of the recent news. We had been scheduled to take the train to Reims, in the French countryside, that morning. All of a sudden Champagne tasting seemed frivolous, irresponsible. We were to stay put and focus our energy on getting out the country.
 
Amidst the frenzy, we realized we were starving, and I was sent to retrieve sustenance. I heaved open the oversized, cherry-red apartment door to reveal a dense, grey-blue March sky, cradled in the spires and stonework of the Renaissance architecture. The streets were abuzz with French students and commuters. Their faces were not obscured by the eerie sterility of surgical masks, but rather adorned with colorful scarves and stylish, round eyeglasses. Dodging tiny cars and bicycles, I made my way to Du Pain et des Idées, a boulangerie in the 10th Arrondissement. I was greeted by racks of glossy pastries, reflecting the mythological scene of the faux fresco spanning the ceiling above. And as I strolled back to the apartment, clutching a Robin egg blue paper bag bulging with croissants and chaussons aux pommes and an escargot pistache et chocolat, I was struck by how normal Paris seemed.
 
I had been at ease during the beginning of our trip, and in the days leading up to it. I hadn’t seen someone so much as cough in France. At this moment in time, the difference between the comfort of normality and sheer terror lay solely in information, in the news media. What would’ve happened if we had never singled out COVID19 as something novel, among the innumerable strains of other coronaviruses, influenza viruses, rhinoviruses, rotoviruses? What if we hadn’t given it an easily recognizable, but unfamiliar name? What if it had originated on our shores, rather than from a part of the world still unfamiliar, exotic? Would we have written off this pandemic as a bad cold and flu season? Or would the destruction have been farther reaching, more terrifying?
 
After we had spent the morning successfully rearranging our travel plans, we were determined to spend our now last day of our trip soaking up the grandeur of Paris. We indulged in a lunch of escargot and Croque-Monsieurs at a café in St. Germain dus Pres. I swooned at the buttery-soft leather goods, milky watch faces frozen in time, and jewel-toned silk scarves in the windows of luxury shops. We spent the money that had been set aside for now-cancelled hotel rooms on scenery-shifting perfumes. At one point, we strolled through the plaza of the Louvre, in front of the famous I.M. Pei glass pyramid. In my memories from my last trip to Paris, the plaza has been packed with tourists waiting in line to enter and mulling about taking selfies. On this afternoon, we were alone with the breathtakingly grand walls of the Palace Royale. The dearth of humans hung heavy in the clammy air. I half expected a Renaissance-era royal procession – tufted hats, billowing silk gowns, feathered hooves – to emerge from beneath one of the stately arches.
 
As we rolled our suitcases, still stuffed with clean clothes, through the Charles de Gaulle Aeroport early the next morning, something had shifted. So often the presence of other humans is a sign of safety. I would prefer to walk on a crowded street at night, or jog on a crowded trail. I rely on relationships with family, friends, and coworkers to contextualize myself in this exceedingly complex modern reality. Connecting with the other consciousnesses, suspending the possibility of solipsism, finding reason to believe that there are other beings in the world that possess an inner world as vivid as my own – this seems to be something essential to finding meaning in my day to day existence. In the time of COVID19, other humans have morphed into a threat – a viral reservoir that deposits invisible toxic particles on surfaces and requires a 6 foot berth. The mouths of others were once a portal for wisps of one’s humanity. Now the human breath is a vehicle for a prickly half-living invader trying to make its own way in the world.
 
It is also easy to forget that I, myself, am equally likely to be a threat (perhaps more so than others, given that I made the choice to travel internationally last week). At this point in time, I am choosing to self-quarantine out of respect for this fact. What does solitude look like in 2020? We have been moving towards a world in which digital communication has slowly replaced face-to-face interaction. For many of us, COVID19 has accelerated the actualization of this reality. This is a chance to explore how we experience human relationships and information in our technology-dense, global world.
 
In times like these it can be reassuring to remember that there have been people throughout history who have felt that way that we do now. For this surreal moment, I’ve curated a collection of surrealist artwork. Listen to this hope-spun mixtape (SpotifyYouTube) from Chicago skater and collagist SEENMR while you scroll.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Hang in there… 

Much love,
Sophie

March 2nd, 2020

As you may have suspected, given the recent drought of “Butter for the Brain” newsletters, I have been suffering from a good bit of writer’s block since I entered medical school. I’ve spent the last few weeks asking myself why this is the case. Objectively, I should have more fodder on which to muse than ever. This past year I have moved to a new city. I have embarked upon training in a profession with enough daily drama to propel the careers of writers from Shonda Rhimes to Atul Gawande. I am more scientifically engaged than ever, as I set my brain loose on itself, shifting my research focus to the neural circuits underlying awareness.
 
I pondered my writer’s block while I was walking to class this morning, simultaneously flipping through Neurology flashcards. I was halfway along my journey across the Walnut Street bridge when a sudden gust of wind nearly knocked my phone into the black shards of the Schuylkill river glinting angrily below. I regained my footing and shoved my hand, still frozen into a claw around the icy glass of my phone, into my pocket. The flashcards would have to wait for fairer weather.
 
I spent the rest of the walk grumbling about the fact that I would now have to find time somewhere else in my day to complete the flashcards that I had allotted for my walk to class from 7:32am to 7:57am. As I neared my destination, I realized how far I’d fallen. Why was I wasting my mental energy stressing about fifteen minutes of lost productivity? And what is this thing we call “productivity” anyway?
 
For most of human history, “productivity” was associated with the act of actually using the energy stored within your muscles and neurons to create a physical object, generally an agricultural object that you could then use to reenergize those muscles and neurons. I would venture to guess that most of my modern readers, however, now associate “productivity” with a vague notion of maximizing self-betterment within a given time frame. This self-betterment is often associated with advancing oneself in their given career or educational tract, but we also consider activities such as working out, keeping up on current events, or, ironically, meditation, to be “productive.”
 
My ponderings on productivity were echoed by a genius Opinion video released by the New York Times this week (I highly recommend a watch):
The Times video cites a prediction by British economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 that, as technological advances continued to augment productivity, we would have to work less and less until only a 15 hour work week would be sufficient to live a comfortable life. Instead, the opposite has become the case. Instead of utilizing technology to maximize our leisure time, we work longer hours than ever.
  
Bertrand Russell argues for a controversial position in his 1932 essay “In Praise of Idleness.” The essay is dated, yet his core message still rings true in 2020. For Russell, the virtuousness of “productivity” is a myth confabulated by aristocratic landowners to maximize the work output of their serfs to supplement their own leisure. Danger arises when we consider “productivity” to be the purpose of a human life. Instead, humans are actually living their life in moments of leisure.

Russell’s virtuous leisure is not the same as laziness; he is not advertising multi-season Netflix binges or spelunking the cave that is the weird side of YouTube. In fact, our increasing propensity to choose entertainment in the form of passive consumption of inanity might be a product of our work culture. It takes far less mental energy to numb out to the latest Bravo show than slogging through some Hegel or Proust. Thus, after a long day at work, we are far less likely to reach for the “harder,” but potentially more fulfilling, source of entertainment. Russell is advocating for the mental space to pursue hobbies, cultivate our tastes in art, music, and literature, spend time with our families, and engage in holidays and rituals.
 
In citing Russell, I don’t intend to suggest that we all quit our jobs and descend into hedonism. A not insignificant amount of work will always be necessary to secure a comfortable life. We can serve society at large with our work. And work is often required to meet goals that will bring us genuine satisfaction. Rather, I hope that next time you look to “optimize your time” or feel stress at the thought of lost productivity, you can reflect on what is driving your work in the first place. Is this productivity contributing to finding genuine satisfaction, or is it driven by competition, greed, or the passive pressure of a societally fabricated virtue?
 
I have many more thoughts on consumption, production, work, and the “good life” – this musing is only meant to be starting point for a larger conversation. Please send any thoughts you have to butterforthebrain@gmail.com!
I’ve long been fascinated by aesthetic predictions of the future. A ride through EPCOT’s Spaceship Earth (the giant golfball at Disney World), for instance, reveals a vision of what we thought a sleek, technologically advanced world of tomorrow would look like in 1982, yet it can’t seem to escape the design trends of its time. This strange sort of future-facing nostalgia is embodied in the work of Berlin-based illustrator Max Guther, whose hyperreal 3D aesthetic falls somewhere between the Sims, Wallace and Gromit, and Ex Machina.
In the auditory realm, this week I bring you two 2020 albums that have set the bassline for my new year. Moses Sumney’s grae (SpotifyYouTubeBamdcamp) is a project that is set to be released in two parts (we’ve only received part one so far). In his expansive signature falsetto, Sumney explores and embraces his multiplicity as an artist (track titles include “also also also and and and” and “Neither/nor”). Daniel Lopatin (aka Oneohtrix Point Never) contributed significantly to the electronic compositions, which should be reason enough to give it a listen.
 
It’s 60 degrees and sunny day in Philadelphia today, and Australian DJ Mall Grab’s new EP Sunflower (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) made the perfect soundtrack for bopping around the city. I dare you to try to sit still while listening to the EP’s eponymous track.
I hope that we can all agree that New York City’s proposed ban on plastic bags is a good thing, and long overdue. That being said, losing an object that has so long been an unexamined constant in our daily lives often gives it a new poignancy upon reflection. This week in The New York Times Annalissa Quinn explores the many faces of New York’s plastic bags, and the ways in which they can reflect where we go and what we consume.
Alex Moy’s animated short “Idle, Torrent” is a gorgeous example of the wide vocabulary that can be expressed with simple line, color, and movement alone. The labor and commitment required for the medium make every piece of hand-drawn animation awe-worthy, but there is something special about the meditative, organic flow of Moy’s work that has me watching on repeat.
I’ll leave you with a few selections from the boldly colored yet quietly poignant work of Spanish illustrator Maria Medem.
That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie 

January 3rd, 2019

Welcome back to Butter for the Brain! I apologize for the dearth of newsletters for the past few months, but I hope to get back to my weekly (or bi-weekly, or monthly, we’ll see) meditative practice of assembling newsletters for those I love. My absence, in some part, can be blamed on my major preoccupation for this past few months: medical school. This semester I set off on the long journey of an MD-PhD dual degree program. (For those passing through Philadelphia sometime in the next eight-plus years, please say hello!) It has been fascinating to observe my own indoctrination into the often insular and reticent hierarchy of medicine, and it has been thrilling to be whisked from new experience to new experience. I am humbled as I reflect upon the sheer amount of information that has been crammed between the folds of my brain (at least for the time being) in only the last few months.

While most medical knowledge can be found in some form or other somewhere on the internet, there is no replacement, in my opinion, for the experience of learning in a cadaver lab. Before entering medical school, I, as I am sure you do as well, had a vague notion of what a liver was, and that I had one. Nevertheless, it was a wholly other experience to hold a liver in my hands, to experience its enormity, its purple-brown-maroonish color, the thick veins tunneling into its core. I have formed an experiential memory of a liver, which will rise to the surface of my consciousness whenever I palpate a patient’s liver, or order a hepatic panel, in my future practice.

A common gripe among medical students is that anatomists of the past have simply taken things for which we already have perfectly fine names, and assigned them new names to make themselves sound smart. The cheekbone becomes the zygomatic process. The ankle becomes the talocrural joint. But I can think of another field that contemplates often ordinary human experiences and rehashes them in less familiar language: poetry. Poetry is not, or at least should not be, an exercise of flexing one’s intellectual authority through esotericism. Poetry cloaks the familiar in unfamiliar language constructions because the aesthetic quality of the language births new meaning, new atmosphere, new emotions, that could not be sufficiently expressed in plain speak.

Over the course of my anatomy experience I have gained an appreciation for the poetic quality of anatomical jargon. The meaning of anatomical terms is not limited to the physical space occupied by the corporeal structure to which they refer. If one allows their gaze to linger on one of these terms, they often unfurl to reveal fragments of medical history and vivid Classical imagery. Take, for example, one of my favorites: the sartorius, a long, thin muscle which extends diagonally across the front of your thigh from your hip to the inside of your knee and assists in the process of bending at the hip and turning your knee outward. The name of the muscle is derived from the Latin word sartor, which means tailor. It is thought to be a reference to the cross-legged squat distinctive of the profession, perhaps resulting in tailors having particularly defined sartorius muscles. (Alternatively, the name may reference the muscle’s insertion at the inseam, a measurement required for tailor-made trousers.)

The metaphorical nature of many anatomical terms facilitates an understanding of our insides by drawing similarities to our experiences on the outside. These metaphors can serve as a tool in the larger process of distilling the overwhelming complexity of the human body into something familiar and digestible. When we call the topmost vertebra the atlas, we call to mind the Greek Titan of the same name who was condemned to carry the weight of the celestial heavens on his shoulders for all of eternity. In this way, the process of naming a structure gives it a certain narrative and significance. We name what we believe to be important, and we discern what is important by pointing to the things which have a name. I will leave you with a favorite quote of the philosopher and writer Iris Murdoch: “We like nature when it seems to be purposefully constructed and we like art when it seems to be pointless.”

For this edition of Butter for the Brain, I compiled a playlist of some of my favorite tracks from 2019. While this list is in no way comprehensive, it is broad, spanning the delicate soundscapes of Yoshio Ojima’s “Une Collection Des Chainos II” to the distant deep cuts off of D. Tiffany’s “Rarez.”

Kyle Cobban, a Chicago-based high school art teacher, makes surrealist pencil drawings that juxtapose intricate, realist figures with stark shapes against white backgrounds. I particularly like his works on Priority Mail envelopes, which play on his regular themes of familiarity and home.

Stephanie Shih similarly explores the themes of home in her sculptures of Asian grocery items and foodstuffs, intended to evoke a shared nostalgia within members of the Asian-American diaspora through hazy renditions of clearly recognizable products. Shih states that she has folded over 1,000 clay dumplings, an homage to the meditative and laborious process carried out by generations of Chinese women before her.

My family has recently adopted the tradition of listening to podcasts as we’ve crisscrossed the eastern seaboard on a dizzying series of road trips. Like seemingly everyone these days, our favorite genre for consumption has been true crime. 22 Hours: An American Nightmare, from WTOP, a local news outlet in Washington DC, more than delivers with the unbelievable story, thorough analysis, and the personal perspective that had characterized hugely popular productions like Serial. (Apple PodcastsStitcher)

I recently revisited a gorgeous Oscar-nominated short from Ru Kawahata and Max Porter.  Negative Space, is a profound and technically dazzling account of a son’s relationship with his father, which illustrates a notion of inheritance that stretches beyond the genes in our DNA.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie 

June 25th, 2019

Recently, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about death and dying. I am guessing that I have just lost a great deal of my readership right then and there; but for those who persist, I urge you to hang on. Too often we postpone these conversations until they are absolutely necessary: when we are faced with our own imminent death or the death of a loved one. But I suspect that opening the dialogue before we are enveloped by impending grief may make decisions and conversations less intimidating when the time does come. And come it will.

Death is both essentially philosophical and deeply personal. As such, there are a seemingly endless number of questions that swirl within its domain: Why does death feel fundamentally negative to us? Is death something to be feared? Is it possible to have a “good” death? What does it look like for me? And what about the afterlife? As I gear up to enter the health profession, I’ve been thinking about how our healthcare system grapples with death.

For the sake of full disclosure, I can’t say that I arrived at this topic by a chance pondering on a sunny day. I just returned from a trip in which I helped moved my grandmother, who has been ailing with cancer for the last several years, into hospice care. It was a dizzying week – we were swept up into a typhoon of paperwork and thrust into the middle of an unsettling standoff between her oncology team, hospital physicians, and the hospice care workers. All the while, my grandmother, suspended between the false hope given by her oncologists and utter exhaustion from the treatment that has ravished her body, suffered from debilitating pain.

Sociologists use the term “medicalization” to describe the creeping influence of the profession of medicine on all areas of human life and society – generally to negative effect. If we reflect on the way our society grapples with death in the modern age, it is difficult to deflect these charges of medicalization. Death has lost its status as an essential and meaningful aspect of life. Instead, the language that we use suggests that we are “at war” with death – cancer must be “conquered,” a physician’s foretelling of how much time a terminal patient has left is something to be “proven wrong.” We have eschewed rituals around caring for those near the end – there is no mainstream equivalent for maternity leave when caring for a dying relative. Instead, we place our loved ones in the hands of medical institutions: hospitals, nursing homes, and hospice care centers.

In my musings I don’t intend to place blame on any patients, their family members, or even their physicians. Rather, I get the sense that well-intentioned individuals have been swept up in a health system that has lost self-awareness of its own boundaries. Medicine does not hold the sum total of the human experience within its domain, and is too often motivated by metrics more easily quantifiable than quality of life.

Healthcare must instead distinguish between the process of illness and the process of dying. This is no easy task, as death essentially involves the breakdown of the physical body. But perhaps all cannot simply be reduced to our physical form. Medicine can combat illness by providing curative or comforting treatment that increases one’s quality of life. But when a patient embarks on the process of dying, Medicine must humbly retract its slick, synthetic tubing, its needled fingers, its cytotoxic chemicals, to allow space for the non-physical – for meaning.
It’s been a couple years at this point, but Japanese Breakfast’s breakout album Soft Sounds from Another Planet (2017) (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) still pops up in my regular listening rotation. The sound of Soft Sounds is cosmic and abstract, even distant; nevertheless, it reads as intensely raw and intimate. Luckily, Japanese Breakfast has satiated my appetite for the time being with a couple singles recorded at the W Hotels Sound Suite in Bali: “Essentially” (SpotifyYouTube), along with a stirring cover of the Tears for Fears hit, “Head Over Heels” (SpotifyYouTube), which tickles my soft spot for New Wave.
Enjoy these images from Corso Zundert, a parade of giant, colorful floats carpeted in dahlia flowers (!). Every year since 1936 the floats (constructed entirely by volunteers) have traversed the streets of the tiny town of Zundert, Netherlands.
For those who already nurse a bit of aerophobia (fear of flying), this may not be the best recommendation for you. For the rest of us, I found this investigative piece from the Atlantic on the missing Malaysian Airlines flight to be a study in longform journalism. Part mystery, part psychological thriller, part political drama, with some technical stuff thrown in the for the nerds out there, it is well worth your time.
Ukiyo-e is a genre of Japanese art popular during the Edo period depicting scenes of ukiyo, a term literally meaning “floating world” which refers to the hedonistic lifestyle characteristic of the time (think sumo wrestling, kabuki, and courtesans). Ukiyoemon Mitomoya has adapted the ukiyo-e style to the modern day, satirizing everything from the banality of white-collar life in Japan to Western politics.
That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie 

April 14th, 2019

I recently asked a few of my friends to recount what they believed to be the origin of their moral compass (a light conversation starter, I know). Their answers were diverse. Most credited the teachings of their parents or their religious upbringing. (Though some insisted their morals in fact contrasted with those of their parents or their religion.)

Even if some particular moral principles, such as attitudes towards marriage, gender, and dietary restrictions, differ between religions, there does seem to be some continuity in the basic moral principles that underlie belief systems. If I had to guess, you’d be hard pressed to find a culture on this planet that doesn’t place some sort of inherent value in the lives of other humans. (Such a culture would likely cease to exist if its members had no qualms about killing its other members when they got hungry.) Is it possible that this urge to respect other humans is something that is woven into our fabric of being, irrespective of cultural context?

Twentieth-century French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas localized the basic moral principle to a feature that we all possess: a face. In his first book Totality and Infinity, Levinas (in his characteristically opaque prose) poses:

“This infinity, stronger than murder, already resists us in his face, in his face, is the primordial expression, is the first word: ‘you shall not commit murder.’ The infinite paralyses power by its infinite resistance to murder, which, firm and insurmountable, gleams in the face of the Other, in the total nudity of his defenseless eyes, in the nudity of the absolute openness of the Transcendent (pg. 199).”

Levinas’s concept of the face only ricochets off of our traditional notion of the physical face. Rather, he intends to capture the feeling that there is a whole person in there, with agency and individuality not unlike our own, that we experience when we glimpse the face of another. The face is the physical tether by which we grasp another’s humanity, a portal into their subjectivity. Simply seeing the face of a human, and thus conceiving of them as complete person, is enough to usher in our respect for them, and to deter us from doing harm to them. In other words, the first moral principle, ‘you shall not commit murder,’ is baked into our existence and is summoned upon perception of another human face.

Though Levinas’s postulation on the origin of morality may seem a bit ‘far out’ at first, it holds more water than one might think. Take Stalin’s cliché for example: “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic.” Or consider the way in which the introduction of visuals into the coverage of the Vietnam War, the first “television war,” incited a wave of moral outrage and anti-war sentiment on an unprecedented scale.

If we are so moved by faces alone, then what explains the possibility and prevalence of violence between humans? If it is true, as Levinas suggests, that “It is my responsibility before a face looking at me as absolutely…  that constitutes the original face of fraternity (pg. 214),” then how are we so often able to look someone in the face and still wish them harm? If we are asking these questions, then we surely do not fully comprehend Levinas’s concept of the face.

Only a minority of the time, and with a minority of people, do we truly see their face when we look at their physical face. When we do harm to another, or see another as less-than, we are not viewing them in their fullest humanity.

I have some hope that we can habituate those rare moment of the profound sight of the face. Religion, in its purest form, seeks to do just that through the codification of moral principles and the incorporation of rituals into daily light that bring the faces of others into focus. Sometimes we even see a face in fictional characters, the stories of strangers, or even our pets. Perhaps I am just a hopeless optimist, but I like the sound of a morality that is embedded in each of us, awaiting a summons from the shape of another.

Have you ever had one of those moments of existential condensation, where the scale of your world suddenly shrinks and you find yourself a figurine in some larger being’s miniature model world? Amy Bennett, for whom I have recently fallen head over heels, captures just that sensation while playing with themes of time, transitions, and human proximity and distance. Her process is unique and impressive: “I am interested in the fragility of relationships and people’s awkwardness in trying to coexist and relate to one another. To that end I create miniature 3D models to serve as evolving still lifes from which I paint detailed narrative paintings. Using cardboard, foam, wood, paint, glue, and model railroad miniatures, I construct various fictional, scale models. Recent models have included a town, neighborhood, lake, theater, doctor’s office, church, and numerous domestic interiors. The models become a stage on which I develop narratives.”

So I’m not usually a fan of relegating any musician’s work to the status of “dinner music” or “elevator music” or, more aptly, “homework music.” That being said, I do listen to a lot of music while I do my work, and I’ve been particularly inspired recently while tying away to the droning, undulating soundscape “Signals Bulletin” from Japanese producer ASUNA and German producer Jan Jelinek, released last week (SpotifyYouTubevinyl).

If I had to guess, my secret crush on linguistics probably stems from my daily hour-long bus rides to my high school with my dear friend Dan, a then-amateur, now-professional linguist. While Dan is away documenting endangered languages in Indonesia, I must settle for one of my favorite new podcasts, The Allusionist, which explores the English language with both humor and scholarly depth. Listen on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie 

March 29th, 2019

While flipping through photos with my parents from my recent travels I found myself frustrated with the divergence between the images and the experience of the moments they depicted. The photos themselves were still about as beautiful as an iPhoto could be – the peachy morning light glinting off the glassy canals in Amsterdam, the up-lit grandeur of the Grand-Place against the opaque night sky in Brussels, a neon sunrise over Icelandic glaciers. But they left much unsaid. A photo could not depict the organic charm and understated historic gravity of Amsterdam, the awe of accidentally stumbling upon the most stately square in all of Europe, the surrealness of a sunrise lasting two hours in a palette of colors I once thought inaccessible to nature.

Kierkegaard, in his first work Either/Or, articulates this distinction between the aesthetics of an experience and the aesthetics of the depiction of an experience:

“It is quite true that there is a misunderstanding among many people that confuses what is esthetically beautiful with what can be presented with esthetic beauty. This is very easily explained by the fact that most people seek esthetic satisfaction, which the soul needs, in reading, in viewing works of art, etc.; whereas there are relatively few who themselves see the esthetic as it in in existence, who themselves see existence in an esthetic light an do not enjoy only the poetic reproduction.”

What is beautiful in our experience of our world often differs from what is beautiful in our ways of representing the world – poetry, photography, music, visual art, even storytelling. Kierkegaard attributes this difference to the trouble of temporality in depiction:

“…an esthetic representation always requires a concentration in the Moment, and the richer this concentration is, the great the esthetic effect. In this way, and only in this way, the happy, the indescribable, the infinitely rich moment—in short, the Moment—gains its validity.”

Experiences that can more easily be condensed in time are more easily represented through art and story. (Kierkegaard uses the example of erotic love and marriage to illustrate this contrast. Erotic love is unveiled in discrete pockets of passion; thus, it is easily distilled as a poem or a scene in a film. The course of marriage unfurls over the majority of a lifetime – expressed in an extended series of daily happenings that would likely bore the reader or viewer.)

Is seems to me that ease of depiction affects not only what we choose as a subject of art. Even further, this ease of depiction affects what we choose to set out to experience in real life as well. We often engage in (consciously or not) crafting a narrative of self, both retrospectively and prospectively. We act in a film of which we are simultaneously the screenwriter. We do what we think we should, according to the story of who we think we are, and who we want othersto think we are.

When we are driven by this ethics of depiction, we value experiences that are “Instagrammable,” stories that can easily be retold to impress or entertain. As technological progress makes the tools for artistic representation and self-crafting more and more accessible (think ubiquitous phone cameras and endless profiles), we must be careful that we do not miss those indescribable, quiet but sublime, slivers of the human experience in the process. Kierkegaard again possesses words beyond my grasp:

“…you believe only a restless spirit is truly alive, and all who are experienced believe that only a quiet spirits is truly alive. For you, a turbulent sea is a symbol of life; for me it is the quiet, deep water. I have often say beside a little running stream. It is always the same, the same gentle melody, on the bottom the same green vegetation that undulated with quiet ripples, the same tiny creatures that move down there, a little fish that slips in under the cover of the flowers, spreads its find against the current, hides under a stone… It is not showy, and yet at times it has a sheen that nevertheless does not interrupt its usual course, just as when the moon shines on that water and displays the instrument on which it plays its melody.”

In addition to bagfuls of stroopwafels and salty licorice (yes, I am perhaps the only non-Scandinavian person on the planet who took to it on first bite), I brought home a new fandom for New York artist Daniel Arsham, whose work is on currently exhibiting in a retrospective at the Moco Museum in Amsterdam. The collection included a series of surrealist manipulations of the physical environment, as well as eroded artifacts of outdated technology and trends, as if they were uncovered in a future archeological dig.

The Claymation of animator, painter, and illustrator Kate Isobel Scott, based in The Hague, Netherlands, oozes nostalgia and charm. Scott balances a childlike, DIY aesthetic with impressive detail and clear forethought – each item that appears in her animations adopt personality and agency.

Ukrainian pastry chef Dinara Kasko takes the exacting science of baking to a new level using 3-D printed molds to turn meringue and sponge cake into architectural masterpieces. Anyone who is a fan of cathartic cake decorating videos may not survive a scroll through her Insta feed.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie 

March 10th, 2019

Unfortunately, or fortunately, you will have to settle for a bit of an abbreviated newsletter this week, and likely zilch next week, as I am currently galivanting through The Netherlands and Belgium and would like to avoid getting my laptop stolen in a hostel. But anyway, cue the minimal musings…

When I tell people I’m into philosophy, I am more often met with something along the lines of “Oh, yeah, like, bioethics?” I generally nod and smile, but the reality is that, despite the fact that I am going into medicine, I generally shy away from bioethics and the field of ethics at large. It is not that I don’t care about it, or think that it important. Quite the contrary – providing some guidelines for our conduct and how we treat each other is probably the most gallant pursuit of philosophy. Rather, the field strikes me as slippery; in their work, ethicists often examine a question working within a specific ethical system (e.g. utilitarianism, Kantian ethics) or jumping off from a specific set of assumptions. But I often feel as if ethicists lack the tools to evaluate and compare these systems and assumptions.

A great deal of my discomfort with the field of ethics is derived from the unresolved tension between moral relativism (generally the trendy view in non-philosophical intellectual circles since it was formalized by William Sumner in the early 20th century) and belief in the existence of first moral principles. Moral relativism states that moral judgements are only relative to a particular culture and historical period. This position challenges individuals who believe that there are indeed universal moral principles that apply to all humans, either divinely revealed or deduced through reason (as in the case of Kantian ethics).
The influence of these two conflicting positions on our dialogue at large cannot be understated, but it is often not explicitly articulated. Thus, I find that they are often applied inconsistently. For example, one might insist that we cannot make moral judgements about another present-day culture, but will readily make moral judgements on the actions of a historical figure. I, myself, am wholly unresolved on the question. Empirical and historical evidence is strongly in favor of a position of moral relativism – attitudes towards particular moral questions such as polygamy, arranged marriages, suicide unquestionably vary between societies. But I cannot help but feel as if we all agree that the moral things to do is to treat other humans with respect – as both rational beings like ourselves, and complex individuals with their own unique and rich experience of the world. And what follows from this respect are principles of gender equality and protection of the rights of minorities (among others) – principles that often are violated in other societies (and our own) in a way that is worthy of a negative judgement. I’d love to read some of your thoughts on the question during my travels – so please reply with your own musings!

The fluorescent photography of British fashion photographer Miles Aldridge aggressivly confronts themes of popular culture, femininity, and 1950s Americana.

This week I’ve found myself repeatedly indulging in the Emma-Jean Thackray remix of Hector Plimmer’s “Sunshine” (SpotifyYouTube), featuring the luxurious vocals of And is Phi. Who knew a crooner could be so uplifting?!

We all learned the scientific method in middle school — a scientist proposes a hypothesis then tests it. But what do you do when you don’t even know what language to use when crafting your hypothesis? Call in some philosophers of course!

Enjoy this outstanding article from Quanta magazine on the showdown between neuroscientists and philosophers over competing theories of consciousness.

For those suspicious of the conscious character of our pets, I encourage you to look at my cousin-in-law Rob Wayne’s series of photographs of his pet pooch Doug — a window into inner world of an especially expressive pup.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie 

March 3rd, 2019

This past Thursday I floated out of my research lab, in awe of the capabilities of molecular biology. The actual practice of research would appear surprisingly mundane to an outsider; in my case, I spend a lot of time moving miniscule quantities of liquid from one container to another (punctuated by some mouse husbandry). But even if the physical manifestation of research can often be banal, the actual sub-microscopic manipulations that one can perform are astounding. I can take DNA out of one thing, swap out some of the letters of the genetic code, and stick it back into something else. I can get the complete sequence of an organism’s DNA, or find every place where a specific protein binds to that DNA. In the mid-nineties it took hundreds of scientists and $2.7 billion dollars to sequence the first human genome. Now, a measly undergrad like myself could do the same for less than $2,000.

It is stupefying that a hundred years ago we didn’t even really know what DNA was, and now we’re able to sophisticatedly study and manipulate our own genetic material (generally for the better, sometimes for the worse). But science does not move forward uniformly. As much as we know about genetics, we know shockingly little about other extremely fundamental aspects of our own physiology. Take sleep, for example. We spend about a third of our life doing it, but we have a very primitive scientific understanding of its purpose, mechanism, and pathology.

Biologists, generally, are biased towards teleology – they assume that most biological processes or entities aim at a particular function or purpose. (This notion, a clear component of Darwinian evolution, can be traced back as far as Aristotle’s Physics.) Thus, sleep, a thing that all humans do a lot, must, itself, have a purpose.

The argument for a purpose to sleep is bolstered by studies using the most powerful resource in the sleep researcher’s toolbox – sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation impairs cognitive functioning, memory, and attention, increases morbidity for cardiovascular diseases, and may even increase pain sensitivity.

Sleep doesn’t just affect our brains – it causes cellular changes in our pancreatic tissue, fat tissue, immune cells, and skin as well. But sleep deprivation, as a scientific tool, is more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel. We need alternative approaches to sleep research to get at some of the finer mechanistic details that explain our need to sleep.

A recent article in Nature Reviews Neuroscience makes a fascinating case for expanding our study of sleep beyond the anthropomorphic lens of human health – instead zooming out to study the function of sleep across all animals. Sleep has been identified in “every animal carefully examined” – from mollusks to roundworms to jellyfish. Even animals that don’t have a central nervous system, such as the upside-down jellyfish of the genus Cassiopea, show sleep behavior during the night.

If sleep is a fact of life for all animals, even those without a brain, is it possible that sleep is a fundamental fact of life? What happens when we expand our investigation to organisms that couldn’t possibly exhibit what we would consider sleep behaviors, like plants or bacteria? Botanists, dating back to the 18th-century, have documented plants responding to daily changes in their environment and following strong circadian rhythms. Even light sensitive bacteria have their own cyclic responses to night and day – these bacterial molecular clocks can be replicated in a test tube containing just three different proteins and an energy source.

There are cycles to be found all over biology – in the timing of the cell cycle during the replication of cells, in the menstrual cycles of female animals, in the metabolic fluctuations of nearly all our cells. Through these oscillations, life, in its many realizations, becomes firmly rooted in time – a push and a pull between setting our own internal biological clocks and responding to the cycles in the external world. Is sleep, or something like it, a fundamental force of life – the way that gravity is a fundamental force in physics?

Even our human experience of sleep undergoes its own oscillations. One moment we glorify minimizing our restful hours, generally in the name of productivity. (I’m sure many of my college-aged readers are familiar with the standoffs over who has pulled the most all-nighters this semester.) In the next moment, we’ve added “sleep hygiene” to the lists of things that fall under the umbrella of “wellness.” But knowing what constitutes good sleep-hygiene (Straight-through eight hours a night? “Split” sleep? Naps?) is about as bewildering as knowing what constitutes a good diet (No fats? Lotsa fats? No carbs? Paleo? Intermittent fasting?). Perhaps the best move (at least until sleep science catches up a bit) is not to focus on making sleep just another thing to be good at (and stress about), but rather to appreciate it as a mysterious foundation of our experiences, and something that we share with the living world at large.

Contrary to connotation, aesthetics is everywhere in science! One of those places is a technique called immunohistochemistry, where different molecules in a cell or tissue are “tagged” with chemicals and them imaged using fluorescent light. Derek Song, an MD-PhD candidate at Penn, curates an Instagram of stunning immunohistochemistry images – blurring the lines between science and art.

Yes, fat is beautiful!
Actin fibers in skin fibroblasts.
Epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition.

This article from Vice News’s culinary division “Munchies” begins with a poem from Angela Jackson:

all night
she watch the pot, cooked
her grits thick for hours
(not the quick kind) till grains disappear
into smooth with a slick
coat on top
hot enough
for a man to wear
(she said) on both
his faces.

Cynthia R. Greenie tells the alternate story of scalding grits (boiled cornmeal, and a southern culinary staple, for my northern friends), as a weapon in the hands of Southern black women against abusive male partners on the battlefield of domestic warfare. Famously, the singer Al Green took a pot of boiling hot grits to the bare back, and the act has since become a symbol, rearing its head in cultural phenomena ranging from the advice of Tyler Perry’s Madea to the confessionals of R. Kelly.

This week in music, give a listen to New Atlantis, a recent release from Efdemin, an acclaimed German DJ with a residency at the legendary Berlin club Berghain. The album offers classic techno beats made for the dancefloor, juxtaposed with forward-thinking ambient and Avant Garde tracks.

As in immunohistochemistry, aesthetics is a crucial aspect of the culinary sciences as well. Although I can always appreciate ugly delicious food (also David Chang’s Netflix Series, Ugly Delicious) – think of a nice putrid brown liver pate or Japanese curry – there’s a little something extra to every food experience that tickles the beauty sensor in your other senses as well. Feast your eyes of these little works of art from pasta chefs in New York, caught between the calls for authenticity and individuality, in this article from New York Magazine’s Grub Street column.

I’ll leave you with the quiet sublimity of the woodblock prints of Hasui Kawase (1883-1957), depicting the austerity and serenity of Japan.

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie 

February 24th, 2019

In preparation for a trip to Japan this spring, I’ve spent the past few weeks trying to pick up a bit of Japanese. Initially, I just wanted to learn a few phrases to ease the logistics of moving around in a country sparse with English-speakers. Now, however, my aims stretch beyond just that. I am eager to soak up every drop of the Japanese culture that I can during my visit, and much of culture is expressed in language – spoken or written.

When catching the speech of an unfamiliar language, the words, packaged into garbled chunks of sound, hardly rise above the din of ambient noise. Unfamiliar writing, especially in unfamiliar character systems, consists of masses of coordinated lines. In this way, we gloss over the foreign. When we learn a language, however, our experience of these sounds and scribblings are permanently altered. Learned words and characters, newly infused with the breath of meaning, lift off the plane of the sensory manifold and drift into the realm of the understanding.

I’ve become addicted to the feeling of new sounds stretching and slipping in between the neurons in my brain, new shapes straining from the grain of the page with the newfound force of familiarity.  I now know the word 家族 (ka-zo-ku) to mean “family.” And when I see these two little line-creatures I don’t just say the word “family” in my head. Rather, I think of my mother, and father, and sister, Perri (and even my dog Mabel). I feel the certain warmth, security, tenderness that appears in my inner sense when I conjure the thought “family.”

As in my concept of “family,” our thoughts often overflow the verbal declaration of words in our inner sense. Philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch illustrates this phenomenon beautifully in her 1951 paper “Thinking and Language”:

“Words do not occur as the content of thought as if they were cast upon a screen and there read off by the thinker… The meaning-character of uttered speech often demands an awareness of gesture, tone, and so on, as well as of context, for its full understanding… The thought is not the words (if any) but the words occurring in a certain way with, as it were, a certain force and colour… there is a region where words occur but in a more indeterminate imagining manner (indeterminacy is a main characteristic of the mental image) and not at all like a rehearsed inner speech.”

When we have trouble “articulating our thoughts,” even in our native language, we are having trouble taking the infinitely rich array of images, abstract notions, emotions, sensations, and reducing them to a finite set of symbols. As such, even simple words such as “family” carry additional “thought baggage” that is specific to each individual’s experiences and vocabulary. (It is perhaps this “thought baggage” that both necessitates and facilitates metaphor and poetry.)

What does this say, then, for the task of translation? How can we transfer the meaning of words and all of their “thought baggage” between different languages? When we work with two different languages, we are working with two non-overlapping nets through which to filter our inner sense. This requires a process of dissolving the thought which has been distilled in one language back into thought, then re-distilling it in the other language. It seems that there is only one way in which this process can be done: carefully.

For an example, let us call upon a brain-buttering essay (gifted from my friend Sofia) by Ilya Kaminsky on the process of translating the work of Paul Celan. Celan (1920-1970) was a Romanian-born poet whose parents died in Nazi concentration camps while he studied medicine in Paris. The trauma of the Holocaust was the primary theme of much of his famously opaque poetry, which he wrote in German, his mother-tongue, despite fluency in several other languages. Celan, chose to “break” German, eschewing conventional structure and meaning, as demonstrated in this excerpt from a translation of his most famous work, “Deathfugue” from John Felstiner:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus 
     Deutschland

Kaminsky asks and answers: “Why break a language? To wake it up.” Celan chose to “break” his mother tongue, which was insufficient to express his trauma as a victim of the Holocaust, in a process of “reclaiming” the language to express this trauma.

But, if it is difficult enough already to transport “thought baggage” between languages, how does one translate a broken language? Again, carefully. In the above translation, Felstiner departs from the literal translation of the German, instead “breaking” English in the same way that Celan intended to break German. He even chose to retain some of the German words in the English translation, transforming the work from a unilingual to a bilingual poem in an attempt to retain the sense of “foreignness” in the original work.

Preserving meaning in the process of translation is tricky – and risky – business. In one historical instance, the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews having horns, depicted in art and culture for centuries, has its root in a faulty translation. St. Jerome, the patron saint of translators (ironically), mistranslated the “radiance” (“karan”) around Moses’s head when he descended from Mt. Sinai as “horned” (“keren”) in his translation of the Torah (Hebrew bible) into Latin.

The complexity multiplies when we consider that the boundaries of language exist in forms other than our traditions distinction between, say, Swahili and Hindi, or Indonesian and Russian. If we further divide the population on the basis of the “thought baggage” that comes with the meaning of words (founded in shared experiences), we create new, more specific languages. This subdivision can be carried out until we even define a language between two people, or between an individual and their own thoughts. From this perspective, every instance of communication, every time we reach outside of the language of our own inner sense, is an exercise of translation. One that must be carried out, as you guessed it, carefully.

Many of the common objects in my life have a new secret life in my eyes since I discovered the work of Japanese artist Tatsuya Tanaka. Tanaka’s photographs, which are released daily in the form of a calendar, play with scale and semblance, turning everyday objects into the architecture of a miniature world. (You can also easily summon Tanaka’s work to your Instagram feed.)

Sometime between now and its release in 2015 I stumbled across the album Comme Ca (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) from a myserious artist named Domenique Dumont. To my great excitement, this past October the French label Antinote released another album, Miniatures de Auto Rhythm (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp), from the Paris-based producer, now revealed to be the Latvian duo of Artus Liepins and Anete Stuce, with the same sun-streaked, ethereal, soundscapes of their debut release.

If you’re withdrawing from the addictive cultural moment that was the Fyre Festival documentaries, block out a little time in your day to indulge in this article from New York Magazine’s The Cut on the recent meteoric rise (and impending fall) of Tulum, Mexico, a paradise for Instagram influencers and “the next stop after Ibiza on the global DJ party circuit.”

It is fun to ponder what any pre-20th-century Western artist would think of the walls of art museums in our day – empty rooms with lights going on and off, blocks of color on a canvas. The arrival of abstract art was a paradigm shift that required the boldness and ingenuity of artists such as the formerly-overlooked Hilda af Klint (1862-1944). Klint’s work, wondrously warm and feminine in contrast to much of the abstract art that followed, is riddled with symbols of the occult, and perhaps serves as a sort of manifesto of her mystical-prophetic worldview. Regardless of your feelings on her brand of spiritualism, Klint made beautiful art in a time beyond her own. Catch the exhibition of her work at the Guggenheim before it ends on April 23rd!

That’s all for this week folks! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Older newsletters are archived at butterforthebrain.blog. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,
Sophie