Harper’s Notes

The Harper Review’s weekly newsletter: postmoderns, chatbots, Rastafarians, and more.

The editors

March 7, 2023

What chatbots can’t do: OpenAI’s artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT has gained great popularity since its launch in November 2022, and many have predicted the demise of the college essay or of writing-intensive jobs as a result. But while ChatGPT can certainly produce pieces of writing that read like an “uninspired middle schooler’s term paper,” can it create literature? Writer Becca Rothfeld considers this question in an essay for The Point magazine. She points out that literature not only conveys information but is a means of communication. Thus, we care that another human deliberately put the words we’re reading on the page: “Books, the German Romantic novelist Jean Paul once wrote, are ‘thick letters to friends.’ Who would want to correspond with the void?”

Liberty behind bars: In 2017, officers in a Louisiana correctional facility took prisoner Damon Landor, “shackled him to a table and had him shaven completely bald.” A similar situation occurred two years earlier to Thomas Walker, an inmate in Illinois. Both men are Rastafarians, a religious movement among black Jamaicans which forbids the cutting of hair, meaning that these actions severed their connection to their God. Now, the two are suing, claiming that their respective prisons violated their religious freedom by knowingly and unjustifiably denying their practice. Rastafarianism, as an Afrocentric liberatory movement which views Western society as a new “Babylon” and partakes in ritualized use and sale of marijuana, raises difficult questions for religious freedom legislation. In deciding these cases, the courts will revisit complex topics such as the distinction between religious and political movements and the “genuineness” of believers. Landor and Walker argue that violations in their liberty signal the willingness of an increasingly irreligious nation to trample the rights of believers.

Black and white photography: A new exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art asks, “Did the sixties ever end?” Not All Realisms: Photography, Africa, and the Long 1960s explores the relationship between art and life in the social and political upheaval beginning (but not ending) in that decade in Ghana, Mali, and South Africa. Materials from the highbrow to the quotidian, including prints, books, magazines, and posters, show the cruelty of South Africa’s apartheid regime and the joy of daily life. The influences between photographers is also key to the exhibition, including the lineage between the French master of film photography Henri Cartier-Bresson and the South African photojournalist Ernest Cole. Answer the question of the sixties for yourself by seeing the exhibition, on view until June 4.

Reading Calvino: For many readers, Italo Calvino is an enduring delight. The Italian writer and journalist’s novels speak directly to the reader with a sense of earnest, fantastical charm rather than postmodern irony. The worlds of Invisible Cities, fonts of creativity drawn out in lyrical prose, deserve to be well-thumbed. (This editor’s copy of Invisible Cities has not left his bedside table since he first read it in high school). Merve Emre writes for The New Yorker this week on a new collection of Calvino essays, The Written World and the Unwritten World. Emre contends that the recent collection ought to distinguish Calvino from postmodern contemporaries such as Borges and Nabokov, and position his prose as the heir to a lyrical and whimsical pre-modern tradition: that of Boccacio and Cervantes.