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Forward Thinking

Claire Schwartz: According to the poet Marie Howe, who studied with Joseph Brodsky at Columbia, Brodsky said: “You Americans are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.” You’ve written about the relationship between language and the social imagination—in particular, about the ways that totalitarian regimes in Russia and, more recently, the current government in the United States, have eroded public speech. Would you describe what you mean by that and how you see language functioning in public space right now?

Masha Gessen: For totalitarian regimes, language is an instrument of subjugation. It’s a way of controlling both behavior and thought. Attempting to ensure that words mean what the regime says they mean is a way of undermining people’s ability to inhabit a shared reality outside of what the regime says reality is. There are all sorts of tricks the regime performs along the way—such as using a word to mean its opposite, or almost its opposite. 

Screening the World

Television may be remembered, among other things, as having entered a “golden age” even as it ceased to exist. As a term, television feels increasingly inapt, vestigial, at risk of acquiring the air quotes that presage irrelevance. Still, it refers to a form—episodic, moving-image narrative—for which we have not yet found a better alias, beyond awkward talk of streaming content and on-demand services, and the shorthand that is Netflix, a brand name that suggests the merger of two media, neither of which is television. As good “television” proliferates, television as a medium and as an experience is in decline.

Annesha Taylor’s daughter prays at an altar constructed in their backyard in Arnett Gardens in Kingston.

Learning to Speak: The New Age of HIV/AIDS in the Other Jamaica

When I first see Sherene, I can’t help wondering why a teenaged girl is hanging around the clinic on a Saturday afternoon. She is slim, compact, and wears an extremely short denim skirt and a red wool halter-top but seems youthfully uncertain about her body. Her dark shoulders gleam with a hint of sweat from walking to the clinic, though her light makeup is still intact. When she speaks, she announces that she has been in the support group for five years and that she had been living with the virus for six. She tells the story of her three children—the eldest, now eleven, living with her father in Kingston—and the struggle to raise and feed the other two. I’ve misjudged her age completely.