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Proteus vs Prometheus
And why we love throwing things
All summer, Christopher Nolan’s cosmos-commanding Oppenheimer has competed in the box office with another all-powerful being: Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, a plastic immortal reckoning with the problems of the human soul.
This week at Public Seminar, Jacob Walters and Gwenda-lin Grewal consider the scientist god and the doll god as cultural deities. And in an excerpt from Social Research, Nusrat S. Chowdhury investigates a time-honored audience response: if you don’t like the show, pelt an egg at it.
How free is Barbie to be anything she wants? Where are Trucker Barbie, Ugly Barbie, and, as Agnes Callard has noticed, Philosopher Barbie? Weird Barbie is a nod in that direction, but, again, unfortunately, Barbie’s freedom is limited to what can sell, which puts a cloud of doom over her ability to signify liberation. In the faux Barbie world of faux liberation, free expression means no money, no sex, no ogling, no oppression, no anxiety—and, importantly, no meaning. Barbie must remain chronically unsympathetic, unable to imagine the relations between things as anything other than replicas of herself. Who would want to live in this tragic-comic world?
At the moment, the answer is: billions of people. Reality Barbie is one of those fictions that needs Barbie qua Barbie to make sense: you want the preciousness of life but with all the campy pool floats that cushion you from thoughts of death. Yet even while the rejection of the doll world has to be grounded in the belief of its existence, the Neoplatonic separation of abstraction from reality makes Barbie’s choice inevitably singular. There is no going back for the fallen Barbie; in her fallenness she has become a new ideal, reborn as a meme in Jesus shoes.
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In Christopher Nolan’s new film, Oppenheimer, the titular protagonist, J. Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), makes a wish right before a fade to black. Camping in New Mexico on a vacation from his days as a professor of theoretical physics at University of California Berkeley and Caltech, Oppenheimer remarks that his “dream” is to combine “physics,” a subatomic field for discovery, and “New Mexico,” the American West, the nation’s mythical field for self-discovery.
Oppenheimer’s wish comes true in his Los Alamos, New Mexico, laboratory, where dozens of scientist-explorers work to develop an atomic weapon under the U.S. government’s Manhattan Project. But his wish isn’t only a personal desire. Rather, it indexes a node in the American technological imaginary. As figured by many American intellectuals and writers, the desert is an endlessly expanding horizon, an untouched land of awesome potential, a canvas of the soul.
Nusrat S. Chowdhury
Aggrieved crowds have been throwing objects—stones, shoes, pies, eggs—that have doled out insult and injury in equal measure seemingly for centuries. A common show of collective grievance, pelting has lost neither its significance nor its frequency over time. The name of the Roman emperor Vespasian crops up repeatedly as one of the first recorded targets of protest pelting. In 63 CE, so the story goes, Vespasian was attacked with turnips by ordinary Romans angry over food shortages. Emperor Nero experienced the wrath of disgruntled citizens in the form of onions in the Coliseum shortly after the Common Era began.