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