Lizzie Widdicombe Essays Of Elia

The Swarmatron, in the center of the room, had a pitch ribbon and a swarm ribbon, and an array of unlabelled knobs and switches, which Brian began manipulating in a way that produced something that your own first cousin once removed might recognize as music. Hanging from the walls were four “wall gins”—synthesizers, housed in various clocklike cases, that had been programmed to make random sounds at random intervals.

—Nick Paumgarten, “Swarm,” (January 24, 2011)


—Nick Paumgarten, “Interesting,” (February 7, 2011)


The marriage proposal was not wholly a surprise. The subject had been discussed the previous summer. “He asked me, ‘If I were to ask you to marry me, would you say yes?’ And I said, ‘Of course,’ ” she said. “So then Hef’s secretaries measured my ring finger.” Coming after the departure of Hefner’s other two girlfriends, the identical twins Karissa and Kristina Shannon, the announcement elicited an additional line of speculation: Was Hugh Hefner in a monogamous relationship?”

—Abby Aguirre, “Something Old, Something New,” (February 28, 2011)


For five or ten minutes, a serendipitous stroller could engage the essayist Cécile Guilbert in a discussion of the history of wigs, or the potential fashionableness of gray hair, or why anyone would be attracted to hair-printed underwear, then wander across the room to hear Justin E. H. Smith, a professor of philosophy, wax (or not) upon primate hairlessness (or hairiness) as an outward sign of the possession or lack of the faculty of reason. Upstairs, Sophie Wahnich, a historian, earnestly addressed the postwar shaving of the heads of French women who were known to have consorted with German soldiers or Vichy collaborators.

—Mark Singer, “Hair Fair,” (March 14, 2011)


Michael Stipe added, “Once, a duck she was cooking caught fire, and she threw it in the pool.”

—Lizzie Widdicombe, “Gwyneth’s World,” (April 25, 2011)


—Reeves Wiedeman, “Big Ted, Little Ted,” (June 6, 2011)


Certain authors are touchstones for [Jeff] Nunokawa: Eliot (“She is probably my most stable and enriching relationship”); Gerard Manley Hopkins (“Just that incredible yearning to be heard as he grows more and more impossible to understand”); Henry James (“There is so much compassion there, and he doesn’t even know it”). Each note is accompanied by an image—a painting, an iPhone snapshot, a photograph of Fernando Torres, the soccer player. “He really does function for me in the classical form of the Muse,” Nunokawa said. “What is that line of Roethke: ‘Did Beatrice deny what Dante saw? / All lovers live by longing and endure: / Summon a vision and declare it pure.’”

—Rebecca Mead, “Earnest,” (July 4, 2011)


—Ben McGrath, “Personal Collection,” (October 24, 2011)


—Ryan Lizza, “Those Huntsman Girls,” (November 14, 2011)


[Alexandra] Janelli calls herself a “WiFi detective,” stalking the fragmentary consciousness of the city. “People are taking it to the next level in terms of being able to be really cryptic and send a message,” she said. Her site is a treasury of passive-aggressive messages to neighbors (Stop Cooking Indian!!!), self-promotion (FutureLawyersofCharlieSheen), flirtation (**cOuGaRviLLe**), and frustration (We can hear you having sex).

—Lauren Collins, “The Tao of WiFi,” (December 5, 2011)


[Richard] Rabinowitz, who wore his long hair in a ponytail and had glasses with checkered frames, noted the coincidence of the Stamp Act’s arrival in the birthplace of the Occupy Wall Street movement: “Back in 2006, when we started this project, there was no hint of revolution around the country, but now that it is opening we have these Occupy movements.” Like the monolith that arrives at key moments of technological transition in the Stanley Kubrick film “2001,” perhaps the Act had arrived just in time for a decisive political transition.

—John Seabrook, “The Act is Back,” (December 5, 2011)


“We’ve been good friends ever since,” she said.

“Well, you came with a half gallon of rosé, with my daughter-in-law Julie and another gal,” Leonard said. “And we had a nice time.”

“The thing was he understood the point,” Taubman said. “He wasn’t nostalgic about it all.”

“I wanted to be part of it. This is a big, big book, and it’s going to be successful.”

“But you didn’t know it was going to weigh seven pounds.”

“Six-point-six. You know how many books of mine it would take to make that weight? Five.”

—Nick Paumgarten, “Detroit Valentine,” (December 12, 2011)

Top illustration by Jim Stoten. All other illustrations by Tom Bachtell.

Read more from The New Yorker’s 2011: The Year in Review, at News Desk and at Culture Desk.

I also write about the problematization of the world in a recent Quartz piece.


You might have thought that food is an activity of cultivating and partaking and communing with others and that death is an event that calls upon us to make sense of our earthly lives, but it turns out that, like most things in modernity, food and death can be ‘problematized.’ Food and death can, in other words, be turned into and conceptualized as problems. But this is only the true provided that one already affirm the metaphysical belief that the world consists of problems in need of human solutions.

Most do.

Imagine the world as being the kind of place–not here and there but everywhere and in all quadrants–which is filled with problems; then human conduct can become the search for and the application of solutions. Based on this metaphysical view, it can be held that sleep is a problem, stress is a problem, sex is a problem, hyperactivity is a problem, staying awake is a problem, eating is a problem, excreting is a problem, drinking is a problem, domestic abuse is a problem, construction is a problem, crime is a problem, water shortage is a problem, maintaining an erection is a problem, trust is a problem, childhood development is a problem, economic growth is a problem, obesity is a problem, overpopulation is a problem, public safety is a problem, shelter is a problem, climate change is a problem, and death is a problem. In short, anything having to do with the world has become problematizable.

Consider, again, food and death: food is a problem to be solved, and death is a problem to be solved. They can be considered as separate problems, as is the case with those who believe that technology can help human beings live forever. Or the two theses can be combined: food is a problem to be solved because death (from starvation) is a problem to be solved or else because time (i.e., clock time) is a problem to be solved (efficiency gains).

In ‘So You Want to Live Forever,’ an article that appeared recently in The Weekly Standard, Charlotte Allen discusses the Live Forever Movement whose thesis is, as she puts it, that ‘death is a problem to be solved, not a fate to be endured.’ The scientist Aubrey de Grey claims, ‘The problem right now is that people think of aging as a universal phenomenon, but diseases such as heart disease are thought of as separate phenomena. But they’re universal!’ Like disease, aging can be conceptualized as a problem begging for a creative scientific solution.

In a recent New Yorker essay titled ‘The End of Food,’ a couple of startup guys are developing a food-like stuff called Soylent that would fulfill the utility-function of food. They take food to be an ‘engineering problem’ that could, if solved, end ‘mankind’s oldest problem.’ By some, writes Lizzie Widdicombe, ‘Soylent has been heralded by the press as ‘the end of food.” Widdicome continues,

To help a village full of malnourished people, “you could [Rhinehart, one of the founders of Soylent, states] just drop in a shipping container” full of Soylent-producing algae. “It would take in the sun’s energy and water and air, and produce food.” Mankind’s oldest problem would be solved. Then, he added, all we’d have to do is fix the world’s housing problem, “and people could be free.”

With these examples, food and death, we have come to the ultimate and radical transformation of needs–of the basic constituents of the perdurance of a human life in particular or human life in general–into problems. In terms of our thinking, there are no further thresholds to cross with regard to the ‘problematization of the world.’


I want to ask not yet, ‘How did the world become problematized?’ but for now, ‘What is a problem taken in social life?’ This problem in social life is distinct from other concepts of problems: a problem set in mathematics, a boulder problem in climbing, etc. I want also to distinguish between such statements as ‘The problem with Joshua Tree is that it lacks a food coop’ and those like ‘The problem of childhood obesity is pandemic.’ The first simply means that there is something deficient about the place (with the assumption that one can live just fine with this deficiency) whereas the second points us to the way in which the world has become problematized. The latter sort of case is what I have in mind in my conceptual analysis below.

In the everyday world, problems of the kind I seek to understand exhibit the following characteristics:

1.) Some agent (person, organization, institution, etc.) does not have what is good at the same time that it has what is bad.

2.) The domain of the problem is specified or local in the sense of being circumscribed or isolated from the whole (i.e., it is ripped free of the whole).

3.) It is postulated that there is an efficient cause that led to its existence. (E.g., overeating is the cause of obesity.)

4.) It is urgent.

5.) To act (solve it) is to get rid of what is bad or undesirable, thereby clearing the way for what is good or desirable.

6.) The solution is presumed to be final and definitive. (E.g., solving the problem of climate change puts an end to the problem. One could not both solve it and have more work to do.)

An example: drinking too much often enough is said to be a problem. Let us say that it is not an illness in this case, only a bad habit. The agent does not have what he wants (e.g., a comfortable family life, a stable work life, a sense of control over his appetites, etc.) at the same time that he has what he does not want (e.g., cravings, poor health, sundry vices, etc.). The problem of drinking is specified so as to exclude (e.g.) questions of the divine, communion with nature, the possibility of anomie, the sociological analysis of drinking rituals, etc. An efficient cause is sought: his lingering rage, let’s say, with his domineering yet now deceased father. It is urgent: unless it is solved, the good things in life will go away while the bad things will dwell with him. The proposed solution–coming to terms with his late father, say, combined with an intensive will training program–would allow him to ‘solve’ his drinking problem.

It strikes me as highly doubtful that this is a good way of understanding why this person cannot make sense of his life. And I am equally skeptical that it is a good way of understanding human life. I would want to say something similar about all the so-called problems above. Yet another way of knowing the world cannot be disclosed until a path is cleared that lies well beyond the ‘problematization of the world.’

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