In Oslo, in September, I attended the preview of Jon Fosse’s play “I Svarte Skogen Inne” (“Inside the Black Forest”).
The theatre was small and dark, without a stage, and the scenery was minimal: a large illuminated rock in the middle, some scattered trees, and the audience members, many of whom were seated in folding chairs ringed around the rock. A trumpeter entered first, blowing long, melancholy notes, followed by a young man. The man explained that he had gone for a drive and, when his car had stalled, he had wandered into the woods. It grew darker and colder, and the audience heard the voices of an older man and an older woman speak about the young man, expressing their distress at the direction his life had taken. Then, without warning, a young woman appeared.
She was called a younger woman in the script, but it would have been better to describe her as a presence—or, to borrow the title of Fosse’s new novel, “Kvitleik,” a shining. She was a modern angel, a peroxide blonde with stern cheekbones, in a glittering white slip dress and a white fur stole. Her hair was cropped. Her feet were bare and beautiful and caught the light from the rock with each step. She spoke to the man, urging him to return home. As he roamed the theatre, trembling, followed by her voice and the trumpet, he stopped right next to the chairs of the audience members to argue, to plead, although it was not always clear for what. “My own shame is bigger than myself,” he screamed. I watched the faces of the audience; most of them remained impassive, stony. They looked down at their hands or feet and away from his stricken face. In their withdrawal, they seemed no different from the trees that surrounded them.
The American Library Association reports that 2022 saw more attempts to have books removed from schools and public libraries than in any prior year this century—indeed, it documented nearly twice as many attempted bans in 2022 than in 2021. Notably, the common thread in these aggressive efforts is the subject that binds the most-challenged titles: Most of them address themes of LGBT+ identity or gender expression. On our latest episode of the Smithsonian magazine podcast “There’s More to That,” I talk with journalist Colleen Connolly about Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, the first book ever to be suppressed in North America. What did the Puritans find so threatening about it, and how has this book echoed through subsequent centuries? Then I’m joined by Carla Hayden, the librarian of Congress, for a wide-ranging conversation about the history of book bans in the United States, how a resurgent wave of book bans in many states differs from those of prior eras and why organized attempts to prevent specific people from reading specific books usually fail.
This June, in the political battle leading up to the 2024 US presidential primaries, a series of images were released showing Donald Trump embracing one of his former medical advisers, Anthony Fauci. In a few of the shots, Trump is captured awkwardly kissing the face of Fauci, a health official reviled by some US conservatives for promoting masking and vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was obvious” that they were fakes, says Hany Farid, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, and one of many specialists who examined the pictures. On close inspection of three of the photos, Trump’s hair is strangely blurred, the text in the background is nonsensical, the arms and hands are unnaturally placed and the details of Trump’s visible ear are not right. All are hallmarks — for now — of generative artificial intelligence (AI), also called synthetic AI.