15: In Focus Zadie Smith (JP)

In this episode, John interviews the celebrated British writer Zadie Smith. Zadie’s horror at the idea of rereading her own novels opens the show; she can more easily imagine rewriting one (as John’s beloved Willa Cather once did) than having to go through them all again. From there the conversation quickly moves through Brexit (oh, the inhumanity!) and what it means to be a London–no, a Northwest London–writer before arriving at her case against identity politics. That case is bolstered by a discussion of Hannah Arendt on the difference between who and what a person is. As Zadie puts it, “When you say my people, you can[‘t] know for certain who those people are by looking at them and by hearing what they have to say. I think what fiction as a kind of philosophy always assumed is that what people make manifest is not all that people are. There’s a great part of human selves which are hidden, unknown to the self, obscure, and that’s the part that fiction is interested in.”

Zadie Smith at Brandeis with a slightly freaked out John (credit: Mike Lovett, Brandeis)
Continue reading “15: In Focus Zadie Smith (JP)”

Episode 14x: Afterthoughts about the Cixin Liu interview (Pu Wang and John)

In May, John and Pu interviewed SF superstar Cixin Liu (you will want to listen to that episode before this one). In August they entered the studio again to work on the final edits for that interview in both its Chinese and English versions. While they were there, they took some time to reflect on the most significant things that Liu had said, and to ponder the political situation for contemporary Chinese writers who come to the West to discuss their work.

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In the original interview, Pu leans forward to fine-tune a translation….
Continue reading “Episode 14x: Afterthoughts about the Cixin Liu interview (Pu Wang and John)”

Episode 13: Polynesia, Sea of Islands: with Christina Thompson

John and Elizabeth talk cultural renewal with Christina Thompson, author of Sea People: The Puzzle of Polynesia, a book that both tells a part of the history of Polynesia, and tells how histories of Polynesia are constructed.

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Tupaia’s map

The discussion also ranges to consider different moments of cultural contact between Polynesian and European thinkers and doers. Those range from the chart Tupaia drew for Captain Cook during the “first contact” era (above) to the Hokule’a‘s triumphant reconstuction of ancient Polynesian wayfinding, in which the work of David Lewis, Brian Finney and the Bishop Planetarium (below) served as invaluable background to the navigational achievements of Mau Pialug and Nainoa Thompson.

Continue reading “Episode 13: Polynesia, Sea of Islands: with Christina Thompson”

Episode 12: RTB Presents “The Electro–Library” (with Jared Green)

In this warm summer episode, Elizabeth and John present a marvelous podcast, The Electro-Library, and they speak with one of its hosts and founders, Jared Green.

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Elizabeth, Jared and John play snippets from a recent Electro-Library episode on the decidedly non-podcasty topic of photographs, and use it as a  springboard to discuss the different aesthetic experiences of radio, television, film, reading, audiobooks, and podcasts. Which are the easiest and which the hardest artworks to get lost in? Would Frankenstein’s monster be more popular as a podcaster than as a YouTuber? (The answer to that one seems most likely to be yes). Continue reading “Episode 12: RTB Presents “The Electro–Library” (with Jared Green)”

Episode 11: Xenophobia and Ethno-Nationalism, 1973 to today (Quinn Slobodian)

What’s the relationship between immigration, globalization and demographics? What do a badly characterized, racist novel and an imaginatively metaphoric biology article from the 1970s have to do with that? And what is woke particularism? John and Elizabeth find out all of that and more in this discussion with Quinn Slobodian, professor of history at Wellesley College and author, most recently, of Globalists:  The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism.

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They first discuss Jean Raspail‘s racist 1973 novel The Camp of the Saints, a book whose popularity in certain quarters since its publication might explain how Europe has gone from Thatcher to Brexit, from Vaclav Havel to Viktor Orban.  How is this xenophobic screed related to science fiction of the same period–and to John Locke? Pat Buchanan,  American early adapter of Raspail’s hate-mongering, figures prominently. Continue reading “Episode 11: Xenophobia and Ethno-Nationalism, 1973 to today (Quinn Slobodian)”

Episode 10: Life, Writing, and Life Writing with Helena DeBres

Bonus!  Available only on our website,  Episode 10X includes a brief RTB discussion  about Exit Zero, a stunning “auto-ethnography” that raises fascinating questions about what it means when people retell stories or anecdotes about their own lives as a form of evidence that helps explain their overall worldview.

Update: For more on autofiction, check out this essay on Ben Lerner by William Egginton from our partners at Public Books.

How does the past live on within our experience of the present? And how does our decision to speak about or write down our recollections of how things were change our understanding of those memories–how does it change us in the present? Asking those questions brings RTB into the company of memory-obsessed writers like Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust. But it also takes up into the modern phenomenon of “autofiction,” a term which, if you’ve never heard of before today, you’re in good company! But by discussing autofiction writers like Rachel Cusk, Sheila Heti and Karl Ove Knausgaard, we begin to understand that the line between real-life fact, memory, and fiction is not quite as sharp as we had thought. Continue reading “Episode 10: Life, Writing, and Life Writing with Helena DeBres”

Episode 9: Women in Political Power; with Manduhai Buyandelger

 

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Evita, Thatcher and HRC walk into a glass ceiling…In this episode, John and Elizabeth are joined by MIT anthropologist Manduhai Buyandelger to discuss women in political power in Argentina, Mongolia, the UK, the United States and beyond.  At the conversation’s heart: Manduhai analyzes  the legacy  of “female quotas”  in Soviet-era politics, as well as the narrow “lanes” that women politicians are sorted into.

For starters, Elizabeth discusses Santa Evita, Tomás Eloy Martínez’s riff on what happened to Evita Perón’s body before and after her death, and how much she looked, eventually, like Grace Kelly. Continue reading “Episode 9: Women in Political Power; with Manduhai Buyandelger”

Episode 8: Distraction, a Conversation (Marina Van Zuylen and John Plotz at Harvard’s Mahindra Center)

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We frequently worry that we live in a “distracted age.” But perhaps the human condition is always to live “almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite another” (Ford Madox Ford, “On Impressionism”). Join John’s conversation with Marina Van Zuylen of Bard College.

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Van Zuylen, the author of The Plenitude of Distraction, makes the case that some aspects of distraction that are far more positive than they initially appear. Kierkegaard’s image of saving yourself from a boring philosophy lecture by watching sweat trickle down the speaker’s face is one highlight; her story about her real-life brain scan is another. Continue reading “Episode 8: Distraction, a Conversation (Marina Van Zuylen and John Plotz at Harvard’s Mahindra Center)”