Cornel West’s Catastrophic Love

Question: What is the “bluesman”?

Cornel West: Well, see, the bluesman, of course, or the blueswoman, is someone who begins with the catastrophic. See, the blues is all about graphical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically. So it's a lyrical response to the monstrous, like the first sentence of Kafka's Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa grows up uneasy -- I mean wakes up from an uneasy dream, finds himself transformed in bed to a huge vile vermin. That's catastrophic. That's catastrophic. The situation of poor people is catastrophic. Black people had slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow, catastrophic. What was the response? It wasn't to create a black al Qaida. It wasn't counterterroristic. In the face of slavery, Frederick Douglas said what? With a smile and wounds, we want freedom for everybody. We don't want to enslave others just because we're enslaved. Jim Crow -- we have no rights and liberties; we're civically dead -- we want rights and liberties for everybody. We don't want to Jim Crow somebody else. The blues responds to the catastrophic with compassion, without drinking from the cup of bitterness -- not with revenge but with justice. That's the best of the blues, you see.

And so the blues people in America have been the leaven in the democratic loaf, because black people could have chosen counterterroristic tactics when they were lynched over and over and over again. They said no, we're not going to go out and lynch white folk. We would rather be defeated for the moment, with integrity, than win and be a gangster like them. That's a blues sensibility. That's a blues sensibility. So you let that love inside of you be expressed even though it's hard for it to be translated into love or justice on the ground. That's a great lesson in this age of terrorism and in the age of recession, you see. And so a bluesman like myself in the life of the mind, a jazzman in the world of ideas, says I want to tell the truth. The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak. And as a Christian, I believe in unconditional love; that's why I love brother Larry Summers. I want him to have more joy in his life. It's hard to have a lot of arrogance and have a lot of joy at the same time. I want him to have more joy and less arrogance. But unconditional love is always tied to justice. Justice is love on legs, spilling over into the public sphere.

Question: Is this mentality always linked with Blues music?

Cornel West: No, I mean its' just a different institutional array of sources of what a blues sensibility -- now, keep in mind, by blues sensibility, what I have in part in mind is a tragicomic's view in which compassion responds to catastrophe. See, in that sense Walter Benjamin's a bluesman in the Theses on the Philosophy of History in the ninth thesis, you see. That history is catastrophe, a pillage of records upon records, that pile of debris. But the response is; it's weak. But the question is what? To keep alive the memory of those who struggled before based on their compassion for the poor, you see. Based on their attempt to resist the powers that be. So that by blues I don't mean just a particular art form; it's really a way of life that that art form helped popularize. So even the media, in the context of the media, you see, you can be a blues person without even being able to sing. You can have a tragicomic sensibility that keeps track of the catastrophes all around us. It could be personal catastrophes, heartbreak. It could be the shipwreck of the mind, intellectual catastrophe. It could be social catastrophe, crisis. It could be Wall Street, catastrophe for the well to do and others. And then the catastrophe that's always in place for the poor, always at work with housing, education, unemployment and so on.

Question: When do you feel love best promoted social justice?

Cornel West: And so those '60s sensibilities, where people had a love for poor people -- it wasn't a condescension of just helping out -- we had a love for poor people. We loved poor people's music, like Curtis Mayfield. We loved poor people's music, the genius that came out of the ghettos, the Donny Hathaways and others, you see.

And it was also true on the other side: the Bruce Springsteens, the white bluesmen out of the working classes of New Jersey, you see. And they weren't geniuses because they were working-class, but they were extraordinarily ordinary people who happened to be geniuses in their genres. And that was the Sly Stone's Everyday People who we love. Everybody Is a Star, Sly Stone. That's what shaped and molded me, and I am old-school to the core, unapologetic. Motown, Stacks, Philly International Sound, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Aretha, W. E. B. DuBois, LeRoi Jones transferring into Baraka, but especially allowing -- because as a Christian I start with black people in terms of my love, but it spills over to white brothers and sisters, brown, red, yellow, across the board. So I believe in spillover love. And since justice is what love looks like in public, you can't talk about loving folk and not fighting for justice, especially beginning with the least of these.

Recorded on: November 3, 2009

 

In the face of cruelty and sorrow, there is a form of love that can propel people past feelings of bitterness and revenge and into the desire to promote justice—for Cornel West this force is embodied in the blues.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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