Ingrid Goes Insane: Instagram, Mental Illness, and a New Aesthetic

Celebrity culture has always involved emulation and envy.  People wanted to be as glamorous as Audrey Hepburn or Cary Grant or Julia Roberts; the herculean popularity of Bollywood for the masses of South Asia speaks to the allure of sitting in a dark, air-conditioned room and getting carried away to a magical place where sexy, talented people carry on lives almost unimaginable to the ordinary person.  Woody Allen’s classic The Purple Rose of Cairo functions the same way, as a meditation on workaday poverty and romantic “escapism,” as it is somewhat derisively described by scholars and critics. Something peculiar has happened in the age of the Internet, though.  A mendacious nobody … [Read more...]

Eternal Sunshine and the Science of the Spotless Mind

I have always been frustrated by the pervasive idea that the brain is like a computer.  In the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, it became commonplace to suppose that the human mind was just an information processing machine, akin to the Dell or ASUS or Apple product sitting on someone’s desktop. The mind was a repository of data, with files, folders, items, and directories, which could be mapped on to the structure of a computer’s operating system more or less exactly. This metaphor—if it’s a metaphor—has always struck me as being a little off.  For one thing, brains have been around for a lot longer than computers, and for most of human history the notion of an … [Read more...]

Let’s Talk about Comps Exams

When I read @philommeides_’s tweet about grad-school comps, my heart sank.  The author expressed how her extremely difficult experience with PhD exams had caused her anguish and self-doubt.  The tweet elicited a large number of responses from people in academia about their own bitter encounters with the hazing ritual of exams, as well as thoughts about how to reform a broken system. And it’s no surprise: hardly anyone likes the way that PhD students (in the humanities at least) are tested on their field knowledge before moving on to the dissertation.  My own experience with the process was, frankly, traumatic, though perhaps not as bad as what others have gone through.  And as a faculty … [Read more...]

My American Airlines/Orbitz Hell

So I guess it makes sense to begin at the beginning. Since moving to Atlanta my wife and I have typically flown on Delta because this is a company town and it's been the path of least resistance.  No more doing two or three connections like we did in grad school, just to get the cheapest possible fare through Orbitz or Travelocity. I was supposed to attend a conference on "Smart Cities" at the University of Calgary on Thursday, August 17 through Sunday, August 20.  I was invited by my friend Eliot Tretter, who is a Geography professor and the author of a great book, to participate in an interdisciplinary discussion between historians, geographers, sociologists, political scientists and … [Read more...]

Spend Your Dog Days with Barbara Fields and HP Lovecraft

Way back in 2011, RR and I conceived the idea of a new series where writers would look back on, reread, and reassess the books that they loved or that influenced them over the years.  Since then, many of our best contributors have revisited books by the likes of Roberts Caro and Wiebe, Barbara Fields, H.P. Lovecraft, Karen Halttunen, Michael Holt and more.  (We've also opened up the series to other kinds of works beyond books or essays, to include music and film.)  The whole idea was just to use the waning days of Summer to write shorter, more casual pieces than the epic, longform articles that we often publish. If you have a favorite scholarly work, novel, album, or film you would like … [Read more...]

The Wide World of Tropics of Meta

ToM's audience has steadily grown for years, ever since it was invented in a humble Palo Alto garage back in 2010.  But we've certainly had a distinct surge in readership during 2017.  Perhaps it is just the mind-blowingly awful state of the world that drives readers to escape into the history of thrash metal and hardcore, the genealogy of the hipster, the racial politics of Gremlins. But certainly a handful of pieces have brought a lot of new people to the site. Notably, R. Mike Burr's critique of Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance appears to have struck a real nerve with readers, many of whom share his skepticism for the portrayal of Appalachian culture by the canny and ambitious Vance. … [Read more...]

America and Russia: The Real Story Is Not What You Think

We here at Tropics of Meta--and our sister podcast Doomed to Repeat--have been thinking about Russia for a while. Remember when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried a goofy PR gesture of handing Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a "reset button," meant to symbolize a desire to renew relations between the US and Russia?  (The Russian word on the button actually meant "overcharged," not "reset." Foreshadowing much?) Remember when Mitt Romney said Russia was our "number one geopolitical foe"--and everyone laughed at this weird Cold War throwback? Well, when we sat down to start mapping out our new podcast series in the Summer of 2016, we were casting about for ideas, and we … [Read more...]

Telling the Story of Healthcare Reform (Again)

The Affordable Care Act was passed a mere few months after Tropics of Meta started, in early 2010.  Our friends gathered around a TV in Queens, New York that showing C-SPAN and the fateful vote.  It felt like a solemn moment in history, even if many of us were sorely disappointed by what ended up in the Rube Goldberg-esque bill that resulted.At the time, we tried to weigh in on what the whole thing meant.  The post, one of our first dozen or so pieces, shows the extreme risks of historians pontificating on fast moving events and uncertain, unpredictable outcomes yet to unfold.  We were preoccupied, understandably, by the lack of a public option that progressives had … [Read more...]

Ben Parten on America’s Other Founding Father: Nat Turner

In the 2014 film Top Five, Chris Rock's character has set out to make a film called Uprize, about the Haitian Revolution.  He sees it as his way of changing his image and being a more serious artist, rather than merely the star of a series of ludicrous comedies about a bear who becomes a cop.  Little does he realize that much of America has little appetite for a movie that's basically about black people killing a bunch of white people.  It doesn't "play in Peoria." Ironically, two years later brought The Birth of a Nation, director Nate Parker's ambitious attempt to tell the story of another slave uprising: the 1831 revolt led by Nat Turner in Virginia. The movie met with a relatively … [Read more...]

Not One of Us: How a North Carolina Election in 1972 Presaged Today’s Politics

Remember the old saw about how history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce"? The 2012 political spoof The Campaign may be a farce, but it recalls a tragic election that changed the course of politics in America. In the film, Zach Galifianakis plays Marty Huggins, an eccentric upstart who challenges long-term Rep. Cam Brady, who expected to run unopposed. The film, directed by Jay Roach, mastermind of the execrable Meet the Parents series, does not offer sharp political satire, but it’s at least infected with a touch of Tea Party-era lunacy. Zach is not the first Galifianakis to run for office.  Forty-five years ago, his uncle Nick battled conservative commentator Jesse Helms … [Read more...]