Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: new essays, old women, super egos, and more.

The editors

April 18, 2023

The art of the imperfect worker: At long last, The Harper Review begins to publish its spring 2023 issue. In the season’s first essay, Kyle Ferrer explores English polymath John Ruskin’s aesthetics of imperfection. The enchanting beauty of the Gothic comes from the unpredictability, clumsiness, and even failure of its maker, who, like the rest of us, is only human. As says Ms. Frizzle of The Magic School Bus, “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!” Read Ferrer’s essay, as well as three letters debating the statement, “Art must be political,” on our website.

The once and future sex: The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh is not the only public figure asking, “What is a woman?” In her new book The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women’s Roles in Society, Eleanor Janega, a historian at the London School of Economics, does the same but looks to the Middle Ages for answers. Medieval thinkers, Janega explains, derived their concepts of the sexes from a blend of classical Greek and Roman philosophy and Christian theology. These male intellectuals often derided members of the fair sex as inherently lustful, insatiable, and weak, and believed they should ideally embody perfect motherhood. However, Janega reveals that real women of the era, while often mothers, were also farmers, textile workers, and artisans, and paved the way for new ideas about women’s intellectual capacities and industriousness that still shape our views of womanhood today.

Forced obsolescence: We’ll look back and laugh at today’s AI and its lack of sophistication, but even so, it is coming to surpass humans in many fields. On the cusp of the AI revolution, what will this shift mean for human purpose, work, and self-conception? The UChicago Veritas Forum is sponsoring an event in partnership with the Lumen Christi Institute, bringing together a theologian and a professor of computer science to discuss the ethics and future of AI. Taking place in Breasted Hall on Thursday, April 20 at 7:30 pm, the participants will contemplate where humans fit in an AI-saturated future and attempt to answer the ever-present question: are we becoming obsolete?

The guilted age: Superego—just the damning sound of the word can make you shudder. According to Sigmund Freud, this part of the mind criticizes and prohibits in an effort towards morality. According to Mark Edmundson, a professor in the University of Virginia’s English department, the Freudian concept can yield insight into the harsh culture of the internet. In his forthcoming book, The Age of Guilt: The Super-Ego in the Online World, Edmundson explores the history of the superego and its relationship to our culture today. One way to deal with the superego’s self-criticism is to lash out and criticize others for transgressions. Perhaps the Twitter mob, perpetually pointing fingers, is simply the superego’s outward judgment writ large. Read more next week, when The Age of Guilt is released by Yale University Press.

Sniffin’ glue: Don’t listen to what they tell you—small little magazines with just a handful of readers can make waves. In this article, the one-time British music journalist Mark Perry recalls the story of the twelve-issue punk zine Sniffin’ Glue, which debuted with just 50 copies in 1976, the year that punk music took off. Perry was then a nineteen-year-old bank teller. The photocopies Perry provides, from one of the last surviving copies of the original, is a remarkable journey into the world of homespun publications and their role in establishing and recording, for all time, the nascent days of fast-burning subcultures. The excerpts from the zine itself are worth reading—check out the review of Blondie’s (still excellent!) album Private Stock, tagged “classy trash and pop at its best,” or the first recorded interview with British rockers The Clash.