Degas, to George Moore

Do you think you can explain the merits of a picture to those who do not see them? … I can find the best and clearest words to explain my meaning, and I have spoken to the most intelligent people about art, and they have not understood … but among people who understand, words are not necessary, you say humph, he, ha, and everything has been said.

'Magisterial but muffled'

In her mid-twenties, [Elizabeth Hardwick] had befriended the singer [Billie Holiday] in New York. In darkling fashion, her [1976 NYRB] essay recalls textures and spectacles of the 1940s: the “underbrush” of cheap hotel interiors, fingertips split while rummaging through secondhand-record racks, the birdlike figures of great jazz musicians as they stooped out of taxis and into the clubs. And at the center of it all, the “puzzling phantom” of Holiday herself, who is heard to speak only once in the whole piece. Her character leaches out instead in performance, in relations with her tired and flummoxed entourage, in vignettes of addiction, illness, imprisonment. Most of all in the odd, skewed language Hardwick has fashioned to evoke her, with its vexing repetitions and sly inversions: “She was fat the first time we saw her, large, brilliantly beautiful, fat.”

How exactly to describe Hardwick’s singular style? For sure, it is a kind of lyricism, a method that allows her as a critic to bring the reader close to her subject via the seductions first of sound and second of image and metaphor. (In the Times Literary Supplement in 1983, the British novelist David Lodge called Hardwick the first properly lyric critic since Virginia Woolf, but this cannot be true: the lyric mode is indispensable even to a criticism that imagines it’s doing something quite else.) Joan Didion has approved Hardwick’s “exquisite diffidence,” and in an interview for the Paris Review, she herself remarked: “The poet’s prose is one of my passions. I like the offhand flashes, the absence of the lumber in the usual prose.” There is a sense always that Hardwick’s sentences stand alone, pay little or no attention to one another, that each is a self-involved and sufficient whole. She advances (if that’s the word) paratactically: impression piled upon impression, analogy stacked against analogy, till she runs out of conceits and gives it to us relatively strict and straight.

The metaphors in Hardwick’s essays are always unusual, which is what one wants from a metaphor. They are often simply bizarre, or strained as far as they will go. She can be straightforwardly graceful and apposite, as in the opening sentence of “Bloomsbury and Virginia Woolf”: “Bloomsbury is, just now, like one of those ponds on a private estate from which all of the trout have been scooped out for the season.” But what are we to make of the moment when, having told us that Zelda Fitzgerald’s biography had been buried, she goes further and says that Zelda lies beneath the “desperate violets” of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s memories? Hardwick, who had abandoned a dissertation on metaphysical poetry to become a writer, was ever committed to the vivid, cumbrous oddity that could be canvassed in metaphor.


In the late nineteen-twenties, the physiologist Walter Cannon coined the term “homeostasis”—joining together the Greek homoios (similar) and stasis (stillness). The capacity to sustain internal constancy was an essential feature of an organism, he argued. His work was rooted in his experiences working with Allied troops during the First World War, as he studied the physiological complications of traumatic shock. But it was also inspired by the work of predecessors such as the nineteenth-century French physiologist Claude Bernard, who wrote, famously, “La fixité du milieu intérieur est la condition de la vie libre, indépendante”: the constancy of the interior environment is the condition of free and independent life.

“Constancy in an open system, such as our bodies represent, requires mechanisms that act to maintain this constancy,” Cannon wrote. “Homeostasis does not occur by chance, but is the result of organized self-government.”

Cannon’s insight inverted long-established logic. Physiologists, for generations, had described animals as assemblages of machines—as sums of dynamic parts. Muscles were motors; the heart a pump; the nerves electrical conduits. Pulsing, swivelling, pumping, sparking; the emphasis was on movement, on actions, on work—Don’t just stand there, do something. In shifting physiology’s focus from action to the maintenance of fixity, Cannon (and Bernard) had fundamentally changed our conception of how the human body works. A major point of physiological “activity,” paradoxically, was to enable stasis. Don’t just do something, stand there.

All around Cannon, theorists were thrilling to the idea of self-righting systems, resistant to the buffeting forces of change. The English botanist Arthur Tansley coined the word “ecosystem” in 1935; the maintenance of stability would soon be described as one of the cardinal properties of ecologies. Soon economists were relating homeostasis to self-correcting markets; Norbert Wiener, the mathematician, saw that machines and creatures might be governed by autonomous control systems stabilized by “feedback” loops. Cells, cities, societies, even political institutions—all had the capacity to steady their states through the actions of self-regulated and counterpoised forces. And Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen was their symbolic monarch. The world is spinning so fast under her feet, she tells Alice, that “it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

Free jazz

Even [Fred Moten’s] earliest journal publications are intensely idiosyncratic. It’s as if he were convinced he had to invent his own tools in order to take up the subjects that interested him—design his own philosophy, his own theory. “I’m not a philosopher,” he says. “I feel like I’m a critic, in the sense that Marx intends in Private Property and Communism when he gives these sketchy outlines of what communism might look like: ‘We wake up in the morning, and we go out in the garden, till the ground, and in the afternoon we engage in criticism.’”

In his criticism, Moten is especially attuned to a zone that Brent Edwards (a close friend and interlocuter) has called the “fringe of contact between music and language.” He’ll draw the reader’s attention to the “surplus lyricism of the muted, mutating horns of Tricky Sam Nanton or Cootie Williams” in Duke Ellington’s band, for example. Or, commenting on Invisible Man’s observation that few really listen to Louis Armstrong’s jazz, he’ll cut to an abrupt and unsettling assertion: “Ellison knows that you can’t really listen to this music. He knows…that really listening, when it goes bone-deep into the sudden ark of bones, is something other than itself. It doesn’t alternate with but is seeing; it’s the sense that it excludes; it’s the ensemble of the senses. Few really read this novel.”

One difficulty for outside readers encountering Moten’s work is that he tends to engage more with the avant-garde than with pop. It’s easy to see why the art world has embraced him: his taste gravitates toward the free-jazz end of the spectrum so strongly it’s as if he were on a mission, striving to experience all of creation at once—to play (as the title of a favorite Cecil Taylor album puts it) All the Notes. This spring, Moten is teaching a graduate course based on the works of choreographer Ralph Lemon and artist Glenn Ligon. In recent years he has collaborated with the artist Wu Tsang on installation and video art pieces, where they do things like practice the (slightly nostalgic) art of leaving voicemail messages for each other every day for two weeks without ever connecting, just riffing off snippets from each other’s notes. In another video short directed by Tsang, Moten—wearing a caftan and looking Sun Ra-ish—is filmed in “drag-frame” slow motion dancing to an a cappella rendition of the jazz standard “Girl Talk.”

By way of explanation, Moten recalls his old neighborhood. “I grew up around people who were weird. No one’s blackness was compromised by their weirdness, and by the same token,” he adds, “nobody’s weirdness was compromised by their blackness.”

Poster from Design Quarterly 104: Julia’s Kitchen A Design Anatomy

A black and white photograph from 1958 shows Marcel Duchamp and Salvador Dalí on a hot August day in Cadaqués, on the east coast of Spain. The artists are trekking uphill with their wives, Alexina (‘Teeny’) Duchamp and Gala. Duchamp is in shorts and a straw hat; Dalí is dressed like a toreador in a white suit, clutching a gnarled staff. The image says something about their different styles – Duchamp’s cool asceticism, Dalí’s camp showmanship. They make an odd couple. But as the Royal Academy’s exhibition Dalí/Duchamp (until 3 January) makes clear, their lives and interests ran in close parallel from their first meeting, around 1930.

The Pouncer, a hundred-and-forty-five-pound edible glider, with a ten-foot wingspan, is designed to be released from a cargo plane as far as sixty miles from its target. The fuselage is packed with grains; the Pouncer’s entire menu is customizable to cultural tastes and sensitivities. According to Gifford, in a complex humanitarian emergency—such as an earthquake in a mountainous area, with many villages but no usable roads—a plane could carry several hundred Pouncers, each programmed with different landing coördinates. The Pouncer has no engine, but its navigation system can adjust the wings to guide it to within twenty-three feet of its target.

The frame has some wooden components, but Gifford intends eventually to replace them with food. “Some parts can be made with a hard-baked, flour-based material that can be soaked in water and added to a meal,” he said. “My wife doesn’t like this, but I wander the supermarket aisles, playing with food, testing for tensile strength.” Dried, vacuum-packed meats show promise as landing gear.


One afternoon, I met a woman named Anna Piperal at the e-Estonia Showroom. Piperal is the “e-Estonia ambassador”; the showroom is a permanent exhibit on the glories of digitized Estonia, from Skype to Timbeter, an app designed to count big piles of logs. (Its founder told me that she’d struggled to win over the wary titans of Big Log, who preferred to count the inefficient way.)

Elaine Lustig Cohen in her studio (New York, 1969)

Photos by Katie Kline