The Same Stuff

Carina Nebula, James Webb Space Telescope, NASA

Yesterday NASA revealed the first batch of images from the James Webb Space Telescope. It was a much anticipated, heavily marketed, and precisely choreographed event concluding three decades of painstaking and elaborate effort and the expenditure of $10 billion of public funds.

Or perhaps beginning is the better word. For the Webb Space Telescope has roughly 20 years of exploration and science still before it, barring any more, and larger, pieces of random space rock striking and disrupting the telescope’s delicate and finally calibrated gold-plated mirrors. Many more dazzling images and disruptive scientific discoveries are sure to come.

For astronomers, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists, the images were at once deeply satisfying and also provocative. Those among us with less or no scientific training and background could only begin to imagine what they were thinking and seeing as these views into deep space and time came up on the screen. So many confirmations, surprises, revelations, and new questions. I found myself regretting my lack of relevant scientific depth and training.

Southern Ring Nebula, James Webb Space Telescope, NASA

But even the scientists–or at least some of them–had to resort to everyday language and feelings to express their reactions. Referring to Webb’s images of the Southern Ring Nebula–a ghostly, haloed shell of cosmic dust and light radiating from a dying star–Bruce Balick, emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, summed up his reactions by deploying a bit of distinctly non-technical British slang: “I’m gobsmacked,” he said.

And “gobsmacked” is exactly what many of us non-scientists felt in seeing these arresting and strangely beautiful images, a potent combination of surprise, awe, wonder, astonishment, and rich aesthetic excitement and pleasure. It’s akin to what 17th and 18th-century British writers and philosophers intended when they coined the term “the sublime,” a notion that attempted to gather into one word and idea the sensations and thoughts and feelings we have when we encounter something vast, powerful, uncommon, and beautiful. Edmund Burke felt that the sublime also had to include the sensation of fear, or at least profound unease, in the face of things so grand and uncommon. I confess to my own sense of unease as I pondered the implications of Webb’s beautiful pictures.

But the unease is mixed with the recognition of something deeply familiar. Carl Sagan’s celebrated words from 1980–“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.”–were much in the news as Webb’s coming out approached, and they were in the room yesterday morning as the first images were revealed. Amber Straughan, the deputy project director for Webb, paraphrased Sagan in her own remarks. Pointing to the dusty walls of the Carina Nebula, she urged her audience to understand that “We humans really are connected to the universe. We’re made out of the same stuff in this landscape.”

It’s hard not to sense a note of public apology in that remark, anticipating any lingering or future public skepticism as to why so much time and money were spent on making a half-dozen photographs. But Straughan’s words, and Sagan’s too, do in fact helps us absorb the meaning of the project. To contemplate Webb’s deep look into space is to consider the wonder of the evolution of things–from the first primitive forms of matter to complex and vast reaches of space and stars and planets, from early forms of life to the complex and sometimes strange animals that now look back on the history of the things from which they came. This entwinement and reversibility, this fantastically long and intricate history of cosmic kinship, is what Webb speaks to us about.

Deep field image, The Webb Telescope, NASA

And of course the prospect–no, now the virtual certainty–that something is looking back at us, or will do in the long reaches of time to come. The deep field image that was the first to be shared publicly displays hundreds of galaxies in complex arrangements of space and time. Billions of stars and exoplanets in just a small fraction of the now much larger visible universe that Webb has unveiled. The same evolutionary process that led to Webb’s startling achievements is at work elsewhere, or everywhere, across this unfathomably large reach of space and objects and time. The same stuff, our stuff, out there.


Dennis Overbye, Kenneth Change, Joshua Sokol, “Webb Telescope Reveals a New Vision of an Ancient Universe,” The New York Times, Wednesday, July 12, 2022

Carl Sagan, Cosmos–A Personal Voyage, PBS, September 1, 1980

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, London, 1757

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968)

Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and the Meaning of Painting

Paul Cezanne, La barque et baigneurs, 1890

On June 23, 2022, I gave a talk at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland, titled “Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and the Meaning of Painting.” The talk was based in part on research I’d done in the library’s rare book collection on first editions of the works of the French philosopher, René Descartes. The archived video of the talk and related images can be seen here. The text of the talk can be read here.

Raoul Dufy: L’Ivresse de la Couleur, Hotel Caumont Centre d’Art, Aix-en-Provence

In 1908-09, Raoul Dufy and George Braque went to L’Estaque, France, the fishing village a few kilometers west of Marseille. They made revolutionary paintings there, following the trail blazed by Paul Cezanne a few decades before. The Hotel Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix-en-Provence is now showing a dazzling array of Dufy’s paintings from l’Estaque and elsewhere in Provence and France. One sees the influence of Cezanne, but also, especially, Dufy’s remarkable innovations and unique style. To see images from the exhibit, go here.

13 Million: Macron, Le Pen, and the Struggle for Democracy in France

April 28, Puyloubier, France

Altéo aluminum factory, Gardanne, France

GARDANNE IS A SMALL INDUSTRIAL CITY in southern France, roughly 10 miles from the regional capital of Aix-en-Provence. In the 1830s, significant coal deposits were discovered in Gardanne, and it’s been coal ever since. The miners came first, then the industries that require cheap and convenient energy—soap makers, tile factories, the Péchiney aluminum company, and, in 1963, the enormous power generating facility, La centrale thermique de Provence, until recently the largest coal-fired power plant in Europe. The coal mines and the factories brought foreign workers, too— from Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Armenia, and North Africa. They’re still there. Unlike Aix, its wealthy neighbor to the north, Gardanne remains a working-class and immigrant community.

It’s not surprising, then, that Gardanne’s municipal government was dominated for much of the 20th century by socialists and communists. Victor Savine — miner, metal worker, union leader, resistance fighter, militant socialist — became Gardanne’s mayor in 1929. With the exception of the World War II years, Savine occupied the mayor’s office until 1971. He was succeeded by Philémon Lieutaud, another miner and militant socialist. In 1977, Roger Mei, a teacher and militant in the French Communist Party (PCF), succeeded Lieutaud and remained in office until 2020. The community center in Gardanne is called La Maison du Peuple and the public library is named after Nelson Mandela.

Toward the end of the communist era in Gardanne, things began to change. The last of the deep shaft coal mines closed for good in 2003. In 2020, the coal-fired power generating facility that supplied electricity to local factories and the national grid was shut down by the administration of Emmanuel Macron, in keeping with its commitment to address climate change. Substantial public and private resources were committed to an alternative biomass plant, but strikes interrupted its testing and it has never gone online. The hulking Altéo aluminum factory continues to operate, but its ownership has changed hands amid rumors that it, too, might close.

The long-serving communist mayor Roger Mei announced his decision to step down in 2019. In the election that followed, his apparent successor and fellow communist party militant, Claude Jordan, won a razor-thin first-round plurality of votes over the moderately conservative candidate, Hervé Granier. But in the second and decisive round, Granier came out on top. It was the first time since 1929 that Gardanne’s mayor was not a socialist or a communist.

Campaign posters in Gardanne

Earlier regional and national elections had signaled what might lie ahead. Already in the first and second rounds of the departmental elections of 2015, extreme right candidates and platforms made impressive showings against left-wing coalitions. And then in the first round of the presidential elections of 2017, the first of several bombs — Marine Le Pen, leader of the Rassemblement National, defeated the radical left-wing candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon by several percentage points. Emmanuel Macron was a distant third. In the second and decisive round, a coalition of conservative and leftist anti-Le Pen voters enabled Macron to prevail, but the writing was on the wall. In the first round of the presidential contest two weeks ago, Le Pen once again beat Mélenchon, and this time by a margin of six points. (Fabien Roussel, the candidate of the PCF, earned a feeble 3.5 points.) In the second and decisive round, Le Pen prevailed over Macron by a surprisingly large margin of nearly 10 points. Gardanne, a bastion of left-wing politics since the 1920s, had moved solidly into the camp of the extreme right.

There were great sighs of relief in France last Sunday when the news of Emmanuel Macron’s 17-point victory over Marine Le Pen was announced immediately after polls closed at 8 pm. And it was even better news that Macron won pulling away, exceeding the margin of victory predicted in polls just days before. Amid some doubts going into the final stretch of the second round, “the republican barricade,” as it’s known here, had once again prevented the extreme right from controlling the powerful executive branch of France’s government.

But as Le Pen told her disappointed followers in her concession speech, there are reasons for supporters of the Rassemblement National to feel heartened by the results. In 2017, Le Pen won a total of 10.5 million votes; in 2022, she won more than 13 million. Macron, by contrast, lost almost two million votes compared to 2017. The Rassemblement National also made geographical progress, picking up regions, departments, and municipalities across the country. Most important of all, Le Pen made progress in places like Gardanne, working-class communities where her populist messages found greater resonance in 2022 than in 2017. Had Le Pen been able to pick up more of the voters who supported the extreme left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round, the final results would have been much closer and perhaps different.

La centrale thermique de Provence, Gardanne

And they might be different next time. As in the United States, many voters who were once predictably in the folds of the Democratic Party (in the U.S.) and the socialist and communist parties (in France) are moving, to the surprise and dismay of progressives, to the right and into the embrace of rightwing, populist, and nationalist politicians who have found ways to articulate their grievances. Some of those grievances stem from the deep economic disruptions caused by the decades-long pursuit of neoliberal economic policies and the migration of whole industries to distant places (primarily China and other parts of Asia in the U.S., Eastern Europe and the Maghreb in France). At the same time, economic inequality in both countries has grown, less dramatically in France than in the United States, but still markedly.

There are other similarities. In France as in the United States, Trump’s and Le Pen’s styles of populism have taken hold primarily in micro-urban and rural parts of the countries. In France as in the United States, voters on the extreme right tend to be older, less affluent, and less well educated. In France as well as in the United States, anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals have been a big part of the programs of the extreme right, notwithstanding important differences in the sources, nature, and impacts of immigration in each country. In France as in the United States, populist and nationalist rhetoric and proposals are tangled up with autocratic and anti-democratic energy and intentions. And in both countries, there is significant and growing hostility toward economic, political, and cultural elites.

Immediately after the election was called last Sunday, journalists and politicians began giving Macron advice about what he must do during his new term to stem the advance of the extreme right. Almost invariably, that advice begins with political style. Cool and aloof by nature and instinct, Macron’s leadership style in his first term might be described as dignified distance, an approach that earned him the nickname “Jupiter.” In a campaign defined by the economic challenges faced by working and middle-class people, Macron’s cool remove contrasted sharply with Le Pen’s folksy, down-to-earth, “I’m one of you” manner and appeal. Everyone seems to agree that Macron needs to get reconnected to daily life and to real people and to demonstrate that a moderate national government can work for them.

There’s nothing wrong with this advice, but it only goes so far. The deeper political issue in France right now, the one that threatens its democratic legacy and order, is economic and structural. It’s the problem in places like Gardanne in the south and la vallée de la Fensch in the north, where industries supporting working-class communities are struggling or have disappeared altogether, and where Le Pen’s anti-immigrant and populist rhetoric has found fertile ground. As Macron adjusts his personal political style, “the political class” in France needs to develop broad economic and industrial policies that reestablish the economic conditions of democratic institutions and practices. This is a long-term project that will certainly outlast Macron, but acknowledging the problem and making some small, even symbolic headway in the next five years will be critical to the preservation of France’s democratic legacy and future.


Le Maitron: Dictionaire Biographique Movement Ouvrier, Mouvement Sociale.

« Un consortium implanté en Guinée prend le contrôle d’Alteo, leader de l’alumine, » Agence France Presse, 7 janvier, 2021.

“Les résultats de l’élection présidentielle 2022,” Le Monde, April 24, 2022.

Election Presidentielle 2022, Ministère de L’Intérieure, Gouvernement de La France.

Elsa Conesa, « En exportant leurs emplois industriels, les Etats-Unis ou la France ont alimenté une menace pour leurs démocraties »Le Monde, 21 avril, 2022.

Anthony Villeneuve, « Dans la vallée de la Fensch, en Moselle, un vote au premier tour de l’élection présidentielle ‘pour faire péter’ le système »Le Monde, 19 avril, 2020.

The Right Rises in France

Puyloubier, France

Marine Le Pen, President and candidate of the Rassemblement National (Valery Hache/AFP)

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A MONTH MAKES. In early March, polls for the first round of the French presidential election showed the incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, with a wide 12-point advantage over his closest pursuer, the extreme-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The war in Ukraine had been good to Macron. His efforts to intervene in the conflict looked presidential, and his unwavering support for a united Europe appeared prescient. Macron was in his wheelhouse — diplomat, leader of Europe, actor on the world stage. By contrast, Le Pen’s history of chumminess with Vladimir Putin, and her longstanding and strident criticisms of the EU and NATO, appeared to be heavy liabilities in the sudden glare of Russia’s aggression.

Until they weren’t. On the eve of the first round of the presidential election on April 10, the most recent polls show a worrisome decline in Macron’s standing — down three points to 27 percent of likely voters — and an elevation of Le Pen’s, up from 17.5 percent to 24.5 percent. Everyone seems to agree that Le Pen is in striking distance of either a victory in the first round or a very strong second-place finish, giving her a real chance in the decisive second round on April 24, where she and Macron will most likely vie for the ultimate prize.

What happened? Though the vast majority of French voters remain deeply disturbed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the halo effect that Macron enjoyed at the start of the war has dissipated. Older, deep-seated worries about the cost of living, especially in the energy sector, have replaced the initial shock of war. In this more mundane context, Macron’s external focus has become a liability. By contrast, Le Pen has conveyed folksy compassion for the financial worries of ordinary people, a stark contrast to Macron’s perceived distance from daily life.

Jean-Luc Mélenchonradical left candidate of La France insoumise (AFP-Sebastien Salom-Gomis)

Because there are 12 candidates competing for votes in the first round, it’s important to place these numbers in context. When Le Pen’s share of the projected vote is combined with that of candidates Eric Zemmour (8 percent) and Nicolas Dupont-Aignon (2 percent), the extreme right’s position is even more impressive — roughly 35 percent of the projected vote. When Macron’s share is combined with that of the moderate conservative Valérie Pécresse, support for the center and center-right increases to roughly 34 percent. In other words, a dead heat.

The wild card in all of this is the left-leaning side of the electorate, represented by the radical left candidates Jean-Luc Mélenchon of La France insoumise (16.5 percent) and David Roussel of the French Communist Party (3 percent), extreme-left candidates Nathalie Artaud and Philippe Poutou (2 percent), and the more moderate left Socialist Party candidate, Anne Hildago (2 percent). The Écologistes Yannick Jadot is currently projected to receive 4 percent of first-round votes. It seems likely that most Écologistes and Socialist Party voters will swing to Macron in the second round, as they did in 2017 when the fear of a Le Pen victory mobilized nearly every part of the left. But this time, the second-round behavior of radical-left and extreme-left voters loyal to Mélenchon, Roussel, Arthaud, and Poutou is not so clear. Polling suggests that abstentions in this part of the electorate may be very high, owing in part to the dislike of Macron, who is no longer an unknown. In addition, there is concern that some part of Mélenchon’s and Roussel’s working-class supporters may support Le Pen, in light of her cultivation of class resentments and her somewhat softened but still archly conservative stance on immigration. When voters are asked whom they are likely to support in a second-round face-off between Le Pen and Macron, fully 47 percent indicate that they will vote for Le Pen, against 53 percent who say they’ll support Macron. Even if Macron narrowly prevails in that contest, the extreme-right will have achieved a level of support unprecedented in modern French political history.

Meanwhile, other dynamics observed in the 2017 election have matured. The Socialist Party and the moderately conservative Republicans — two mainstays of French politics over the last 50 years — continue to implode. In 2017, social democratic and moderate conservative voters owned 26 percent of the first-round vote, a catastrophic drop compared to 2012. This time they are projected to win a mere 11 percent of the first-round vote, continuing the stunning collapse of these two major political parties. And for the first time since 1969, the French Communist Party may win a greater share of the vote than the Socialist Party, which a mere 10 years ago won both the presidential and legislative elections. The national politics of France are increasingly defined by the political extremes and a large block of poorly organized moderate voters with weak attachments to political parties.

Storefront window, Marseille, France, April 7, 2022

In 2016, Donald Trump’s narrow victory in the Electoral College in the U.S. presidential election was due in large part to the support of white men without college degrees. In an earlier time, a large number of those men would have voted for the Democratic Party, which by tradition was the party of what is now known in France as the “popular classes” (les classes populaires). But Trump successfully wooed these formerly Democratic voters to the Republican Party by appealing to class, racial, and ethnic divides and resentments. There are many ways in which contemporary French and American politics are dissimilar, but the irony of the migration of some elements of the popular classes away from social democratic parties and candidates and into the arms of the extreme right is something that each country is encountering in significant albeit slightly different ways. That migration may prove decisive in the second round of the French presidential election on April 24.


Election présidentielle: le tableau de bord, des parrainages, sondages et temps de parole, Le Monde, 8 Avril, 2022 

Poll of Polls, Politico, April 8, 2022

Man Trouble: Josh Hawley, Manly Virtue, and The Power of the Dog.

“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”

John Duncan, Riders of the Sidhe, 1911.

LAST OCTOBER, JOSH HAWLEY, junior United States Senator from Missouri, gave one of the principal speeches at the National Conservatism Conference — NatCon for short — in Orlando, Florida. It was a big moment for Hawley. NatCon has become the principal ideological showcase for the contemporary right, and most of the thought leaders and aspiring stars of Trumpian conservatism were there.

To continue reading, go to the essay on Medium.