I actually read In Search of Lost Time back in college, although all I remember of it now was that I enjoyed the way Proust describes experiences and thinking the whole thing would work fairly well as a soap opera. Certainly, the secret lesbian underworld seemed like something from a soap opera. Not surprisingly, that stuck in my memory as well! Anyway, I figured I'd pick the books up again as I've been reading Chateaubriand's memoirs and wondered if there was any influence there in the Proust volumes.
The novel came up a few years back in a graduate seminar, in which we briefly discussed modernism. One of the other grad students asked if she should read the full work, to see what it is like. The professor laughed and said, "Well, sure! It's only like the greatest novel ever written!" I've not read as many novels as he has, I'm guessing; but, so far, it's the best one I've ever read.
Swann's Way (Volume 1) describes the narrator's childhood in Combray, as well as M. de Swann's great love affair (before the narrator was born) and gives some idea as to how Swann found himself on the outs with high society. Chateaubriand's Combourg is close to Combray, but the fictional provincial town in the story was apparently based on Illiers, where the young Proust summered with his family. Illiers has since been renamed Illiers-Combray in honor of the book, which one might call a "particularly French thing" to do.
When you start reading the novel, the tone is the first thing that strikes you- it's fairly languid and you have to settle into these massive coiled sentences, like puffs of cotton candy. They're actually quite pleasant to read, although in French they can be difficult. In places, Proust writes sentences that go on for over a page, and it can be hard to remember what the main clause was by the time you reach the end, especially if it's not your native tongue.
However, there is a real vividness to his observations that makes the reading worth slowing down for. Very good writers have a way of describing things that brings them into focus. Even with something mundane, they paint it in a way that I think, "Yes, it's exactly like that!" With Proust, there is a lot about how characters respond to certain sensations, memories, and dreams that strikes me as true. Or, at least, it reminds me of being reminded of things.
Indeed, the famous incident in Swann's Way (Vol. 1) with the Madeline details how a certain taste can bring up a mass of memories. I don't actually agree with the reading that all six books are entirely predicated on that one scene. Even here in Vol. 1, there's the entire "Swann in Love" story that couldn't possibly have been recalled by the narrator since it occurred before his birth.
Sometimes people use the word "Proustian" to suggest fictional total recall. What's interesting though is how often Proust's characters remember things incorrectly. Here, the narrator has to visit his childhood crush Gilberte frequently because he can't hold her face in his mind. Swann changes his mind about Odette nearly as often based on how he assembles his memories of her. Memory is seen as something creative, and eventually creative remembering will be the basis of the narrator's art of writing.
A scene similar to the famous Madeleine incident takes place in this volume with Swann's reaction to the music composed by the fictional M. de Vinteuil- Proust beautifully describes how the music washes over Swann without his understanding why. Later, the music brings him back to earlier and happier days with Odette. I wonder if the entire story is composed of memories unfolding into other memories, like one of those paper flowers that unfold when you place them in water.
For instance, this volume begins with the narrator describing how lying in bed as an older man reminds him of lying in bed as a child and yearning desperately for his mother to come see him, which recalls that his parents were dining with Swann, which eventually recalls the two routes through Combray: called Swann's Way and Guermantes' Way by the family. Swann's reduced status at this time brings us back to his earlier days, in which he met, and fell in love with the young girl Odette at the "Verdurin circle"; and how she was eventually found not to be up to his level of intelligence or character, eventually discovered while he listens to the Virteuil piece, now removed from society.
And, of course, the social lives in the story unfold into more complex and wicked private lives- there's a real sense of hiddenness to the story- I'm thinking of the major infidelities that will come up in later volumes, but also of Odette's somewhat surprising love affairs. It sounds as if she can hardly sit down in the park without cheating on Swann! He's a confusing character in that one wonders what in the world he's doing with this bubble-head, or socializing with the horrible snobs in this book. And yet, while he is refined enough to be friends with the Prince of Wales- a major point in his favor with all of the "circles", he is also a Jew, and an aloof one at that. Eventually, it is his aloofness- and ironically the genuineness that it masks- which alienates him from the dreadful Verdurin.
He's also ultimately jealous and possessive, which humanizes him quite a bit, but there's something almost unnaturally good about Swann, and it's worth noting that Odette, by comparison, can't live up to him. Should we take her as a poorly-developed female character, or a realistic character in relation to Swann, who is akin to the few genuinely sensitive souls we meet in our lives? It's hard to say, but I'm anxious to see what happens next.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Friday, May 29, 2009
In the mid 60s, two filmmakers- H.G. Lewis and David Friedman- fearing that the public might tire of the "nudie cutie" movies they were cranking out, decided to turn to the exploitation of blood and gore. The rest is history. Here are the first three landmark films they made, the so-called "blood trilogy".... For badfilm connoisseurs, they are epochal...
Blood Feast (1963)
If you happen to have an Egyptian caterer, never ask them to prepare an authentic Egyptian feast for you, especially if that caterer has a piercing insane stare. Actually, in general, you'd think that someone with that stare wouldn't get a lot of customers in the first place. I could also see the health department cordoning off those eyebrows to protect the public. And then there's the fact that he's preparing this "authentic Egyptian feast" at the same time as girls are turning up mutilated. Not to mention the fact that the cop investigating the case and the girl receiving the feast are taking a night course in which the professor explains to them in great detail that Egyptian feasts to the goddess Ishtar (I know, I know- Ishtar was Babylonian- just play along) involve eating people. Oh, and lastly, one of the victims has turned up on the brink of death all-but- telling the cop "Some Egyptian caterer attacked me because he's preparing this feast for Ishtar, who I realize isn't an Egyptian goddess, but never mind." before dying from having her face ripped off.
At some point, you have to wonder just how stupid Florida police are. But, the movie is a miracle of ineptitude: the sort of "so-bad-it's-incredible" splatter epics that they invented booze & movie nights for. It's also something of a landmark as the first gore movie ever made, and as such, a testament to American ingenuity.
Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
Two Thousand Maniacs is a leap forward in film making- it's actually quite a bit of an improvement from Blood Feast. Fear not though- they dutifully leaped backwards after this one. The story (on loan from Brigadoon) tells of a sleepy southern town (actually Kissimmee) that was massacred during the Civil War and now returns every hundred years to kill some Yankees. Six strangers wind up here during the centennial, and the plot unwinds accordingly. The lousy acting and stilted humor of Blood Feast returns here; but there's something charming about the Lil' Abner maniacs and their elaborate killing machines, and things move along fairly well. By this point, it's reassuringly clear that Lewis and Friedman realize how ridiculous all of this is.
Color Me Blood Red (1964)
The third film in the "blood trilogy" and Friedman's last splatter epic, Color Me Blood Red finds the boys in a reflective metatextual mood, spinning the story of a mad artist who gains great success by using blood in his canvases, but at what cost? At what cost?!? Adam Sorg, the artist in question, is having trouble pleasing the art world, until his girlfriend cuts her finger and bleeds all over the canvas. After draining his own fingers, he still hasn't got enough blood to finish the canvas, so he... well, you see where this is going.
It occurred to me while watching Color Me Blood Red how closely these Florida gore epics mirror the drive-in Beach Party movies from the same time period. Patricia Lee and Jim Jackel play wacky teenagers here who would easily fit in with Frankie, Annette and Moondoggie. Unfortunately, they don't get killed. But I sort of wish they'd done a straight spoof: Beach Blanket Bloodbath.
By the third film in the series, Lewis's filmmaking abilities have come a long way from totally inept to borderline ept. It is a great relief.
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Okay, having spent a great deal of time in three different countries, and having watched a lot of movies in those countries, I thought it might be interesting to compare their respective film distribution networks. This might not be that interesting, but hey, you can see what's playing in the United States, Canada, and France this week!
Here are the releases for this week, by country:
"The Brothers Bloom" (USA, wide release)
"Drag me to Hell" USA 2009, wide release)
"UP" (USA 2009, wide release)
"Daytime Drinking" (Korea, limited release)
"Munyurangabo" (Rwanda, 2009, limited release)
"Maiden Heist" (USA, 2009, limited release)
So, as you probably know, in the US, "limited release" means that you can't see the movies outside of NYC, L.A., and a few other cities like Chicago. In most areas, multiplexes have a monopoly, and most of them are now owned by the major studios- in this sense, "wide release" means "showing in the multiplexes". However, the movies will likely show up in video stores all around the country in a few months. It is also worth noting that "wide release" films tend to be American-made and foreign films are most often "limited release". We can debate about why that is (the multiplexes versus the audiences as driving it); but the point is that it's different from what you see elsewhere.
Typical American Movie: Shit blows up.
"Drag me to Hell" (USA, 2009)
"UP" (USA, 2009)
"The Brothers Bloom" (USA, 2009)
"Mothers and Daughters" (Canada, 2009, limited release)
"L'Ordre 13139" (Canada 2009, limited release, only being released in Quebec)
"40 is the New 20" (Canada 2009, limited release)
"Carcasses" (Canada 2009, also as far as I can tell, only released in Quebec)
So, you'll notice that "wide release" here means American wide release films, which we get at the same time as they come out in the United States. However, in this case, the term "limited release" is a bit deceptive. Canadian films do get a limited release, so we won't see them in our local multiplex. But, they generally won't come to our video store either! In fact, you can't actually see Canadian films in most parts of Canada!
The irony is that, unlike American independent films, here they're partially funded by the government, and we still have no chance of seeing them if we don't live in Toronto or Montreal. And, if they were shot in Quebec, you won't likely see them released anywhere else in Canada! Lastly, Canadian movies will generally not play anywhere outside of Canada, unless they're from Quebec, in which case they might play in France.
So, the government (in very Canadian style) both pumps money into the industry, while selling it short in the country and outside of the country. There's no real effort made to distribute most of them overseas, unless they were directed by David Cronenberg, Guy Maddin, or Atom Egoyan. And because the multiplexes have a monopoly here too, in most parts of Canada, we're watching wide-release American movies.
Typical Canadian Movie: Shit, you'll never see it anyway, eh.
"Un éclair de génie" (Flash of Genius: USA, 2008)
"Jusqu'en enfer" ("Drag Me to Hell", USA 2009)
"Looking for Eric" (Britain, 2009)
"The Other Man" (Britain, 2009)
"Quelque chose à tu dire" (France, 2009)
"l'Aube du Monde" (France, 2009)
Okay, so what you see here is interesting- in France, there's not as much of a wide release/ limited release distinction. The multiplexes do get the wide release movies, which are generally American, but as I remember it, they also get the bigger French movies. But, everywhere I've been in France has had a small theatre showing the limited release movies, which tend to be French. In fact, there's something of a parallel system across France because the small theatres also get money from the government, so they can compete. In general, I've observed that French teenagers go to the multiplexes to see the American films, and their parents go to the local small theatre to see the French movies.
French movies are partially funded by the government, through the television chains, and through the money made from movies like "Drag me to Hell", which do good business in France. With this funding, there are something like 200 French movies made each year. They don't do as well as films like UP will; but the state gives credits to get them into theatres across the country- usually for about a week, and then they're shown on the television chains. So, you can see them all across France, and maybe in other countries.
Again, the overseas distribution sucks. There's a weird sort of trade imbalance in which about 50% of the films shown in France (and about 90% of the films shown in Canada) are American, while Canadian and French movies generally get no release in the US; not even on DVD. Again, it's not clear if this is due to "free trade" in that Americans won't watch these films, or "monopoly" in that the theatres won't show them.
Typical French movie: Well-to-do Parisians talk about shit, for three hours, while occasionally being naked.
Note however that these distribution systems are fairly characteristic of their respective countries. In the United States, free enterprise rules and the state plays no part in funding or booking movies, with the downside being the large studio/multiplex monopolies that rule in most parts of the country. But, in terms of video, there's still money to be made on foreign movies, so they are accessible! In Canada, the government gives money to make the movies, but plays no part in distribution, and again there are monopolies (particularly Alliance Atlantic) that actually work in tandem with the American monopolies; the result is that the Canadian film industry both sells itself short and is dominated by the American film industry. In France, the government plays a large part in funding and ensuring the distribution of movies, so across the country, the multiplexes form a parallel system with the state-backed theatres, and can't gain a full monopoly, largely due to state intervention. I will note that the really lousy French movies still get that week-long release and showings on TV, and not speculate as to if that's a good or a bad thing!
Note that I'm not an expert on this, so there might be mistakes here. But, it's interesting to me how these film industries mirror other industries in their respective countries.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Forget about hunting wolves from a helicopter! Canada`s Governor General, the official representative of the Queen, recently ate raw seal heart in a show of solidarity with aboriginal seal hunters, who have been criticized by Paul McCartney and others. I think this is the first time a Canadian government official has done anything that I would actually characterize as "metal".
The Republican Party seems to have taken on the character of the wandering Jew in Medieval legend: unable to die, roaming the earth, trying to find a home. Now there's worse news for the GOP: polls show that less and less voters identify themselves as Republicans; among the young, the label "Republican" is roughly as popular as "bookworm".
Of course, there's always room in one's diet for a large grain of salt; some of us old timers remember back in the bygone age of 2005, when they said that Republicans would have a "permanent majority" and the Democrats would likely never be in power again. Besides, it sounds to me like voters are now more likely to call themselves "independents" instead of Democrats or Republicans. And while I prefer a government that has, at least, two parties, I'm not convinced at all that they need to be these two.
Still the Grand Old Party just 'aint what she used to be. The irony is that the GOP's problems are fairly glaring if you're not a Republican, but if you're not a Republican, they don't want to hear from you! Nevertheless...
It seems to me that political platforms are created in the same way as works of art: by the interaction of the genius of individuals with the time and place that they find themselves. While this means that there's something timeless to great art, there's also something about them that is time-bound, and which can become dated and retro.
What struck me about the Republicans during the last election was that the party platform was basically unchanged from the days of Reagan: cut taxes, increase defense spending, shrink the government in some unspecified way, legislate morality, and make sure to protect individual freedoms while doing so! The problem is that Reagan had several pragmatic solutions to specific problems of that time and place- I can fairly easily historicize them if anyone so desires. Since then, these pragmatic solutions have become articles of faith. I think this is the problem.
This problem afflicts all political parties, I'd imagine. And, there are still some good ideas in there- if the national debt relative to GDP keeps increasing at the current rate, expect conservative ideas about government spending to roar back in popularity! But some of these ideas are outdated, irrelevant, and contradictory. I'm obviously not the one to decide which ideas should stay and which ones should go. And I'm no better at saying which parties should stay and which ones should go.
But it's worth noting that the undeclared winner of every election thus far seems to be entropy.
Monday, May 25, 2009
This week, I've been reading François-René de Chateaubriand's Mémoires d'Outre-Tombe for the chapter of my dissertation that most directly involves his Levant voyages. It's a fairly long work, but I'd say it's the best thing he ever wrote, and well-worth reading. Anyway, I came across an interesting story in Book 6, Chapter 8, which recallsChateaubriand's voyage to North America in 1791.
He had left Paris to travel through the woods of North America, with the hopes of finding a Northern passage to the West coast, and thereby making a name for himself as a great explorer. This never actually happened, but he did get the material for some of his mostrenowned works, including Natchez, Rene and Atala . Eventually, he would enter the literary scene as the great writer of Romantic voyage narratives, inspiring a whole new genre of writing.
A secondary reason for making this trip in early 1791 was that he had witnessed the events unfolding in Paris and believed that it was not the best place to be for someone with an aristocratic background. Chateaubriand leans towards republicanism in many of his works, but he doesn't lean very far. While he was never as committed a monarchist as he was accused of being (and he was opposed to all forms of tyranny, especially Napoleonic), Chateaubriand still saw the Revolution as acaesura, splitting the past from the future with what he called a river of blood. Once crossed, the past was irretrievable ; but he also saw modernity as a crisis of identity and meaning, and longed for a religious revival in France. We might call Chateaubriand a part of the religious right.
The story goes that Chateaubriand dined with George Washington upon arriving in the Chesapeake Bay in 1791. This meeting has never been fully verified, although Chateaubriand did carry a letter of recommendation from Charles ArmandTuffin, the marquis de la Rouërie. It still makes a good story. Chateaubriand claims that Washington chuckled good-naturedly at his plans for exploring the Northern passage and discussed the Revolution with him. At one point, Washington shows off a key from the Bastille that had been sent to him from Paris.
Chateaubriand is unimpressed:
"If Washington had seen in the gutters of Paris those vainqueurs de la Bastille, he would have less respect for this relic. The seriousness and the force of the Revolution did not come from these bloody orgies. Upon the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the same populace of the faubourgSaint-Antoine demolished the temple protestant inCharenton with as much zeal as they devastated the church of Saint-Denis in 1793." (translation mine)
I like the passage because it suggests that one's interpretation of historical events is shaped as much by distance of place as by distance of time. On the ground, history moves in ways that are rough and jagged, and hard to comprehend; they only take on the aura of heroism with distance. Does this suggest that Washington's reading of the Revolution was less accurate than Chateaubriand's? It's hard to say, and yet it must be noted that the heroic image of the storming of the Bastille, with a touch of that bloody image, is the one that most French remember today.
Sunday, May 24, 2009
Saturday, May 23, 2009
Thursday, May 21, 2009
Last night, a terrorist plot was foiled in upstate NY. Four criminal geniuses were arrested after planting a "bomb" outside of a synagogue and Jewish Center in the Bronx. Unable to Google "bomb-making" like everyone else does, they had unwittingly purchased the dud bomb in an FBI sting. Apparently, the FBI had been playing them for saps for 11 months, and had also sold them fake missiles, which the four hoped to fire at planes. The FBI was posing in this sting as the Acme Mail Order Bomb Company in what was known internally as "Operation Mee-Meep!"
In spite of the fact that the gang who couldn't shoot at all was clearly not composed of the brightest bulbs in the box, the FBI should definitely be commended for keeping their cool and handling the situation well. By contrast, the media, official spokespeople, and the political establishment are commenting on the near-not-at-all-bombing, and not surprisingly, there's not a stiff upper lip in the bunch.
The Daily News:
"The cell's diabolical dream was to create "a fireball that would make the country gasp," a law enforcement source said."
Terrifying, eh? Except for the small fact that there was no chance of that ever happening. Given that this is written in the style of a comic book, why not just say that "their diabolical dream was to bring the West to its knees and force us all to bow down before the iron claw of Satan"?
Fox News asks: "What scares you most?" about all of this. I'm going to go with the chance that the government response might be driven by the pants-wetting fears of cable news viewers.
My favorite though- Mayor Bloomberg sez:
"Sadly this is just a reminder that peace is fragile and democracy is fragile and we have to be vigilant all the time."
No doubt. But, how exactly does the arrest of a handful of Jew-hating dipshits demonstrate that democracy is fragile? Do they not have criminals in dictatorships? Is democracy somehow especially vulnerable to bigots? I mean, seriously, the mere existence of people who would do evil demonstrates that democracies are fragile?
Bloomberg has never struck me as a big fan of democracy. But this echoes something that authoritarians always say when things like this happen- that somehow we run the risk of these things happening because democracy is so weak. We'd probably be a lot safer in a dictatorship; but, sigh, since you people insist on having an open democracy, this is what you get for it- eternal vigilance, "freedom isn't free", etc. etc. One day, you'll be sorry.
For the record, however, there has never been a shortage of terrorists in dictatorships- in fact, much the opposite. All sorts of crimes metastasize under authoritarianism. Democracies tend to be more internally-peaceful than authoritarian regimes. Which is good news for all of us, since the number of democracies around the world has exploded in the last three decades. This is why the "terrifying threats" that the country faces now, which used to come from the huge evil empires like the Soviet bloc, now emanate from handfuls of alienated losers who have little to no chance of accomplishing anything. And this is why the Manichean worldview no longer makes any sense.
In other words, far from "becoming more dangerous", the world is gradually becoming much safer and more peaceful. This is a reality that the "hard-headed realists" among us, who are constantly talking about how "fragile" the strongest nation on earth is, have yet to adapt to. They literally cannot comprehend living in a world in which the very existence of the country is not threatened at all moments. But it's not, and that bears repeating.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
David Foster Wallace on the value of the liberal arts degree:
"This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.
They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."
-From his 2005 Kenyon College Commencement address, archived here. It's worth reading all the way through, which is a rarity in commencement speeches.
Monday, May 18, 2009
Well, Barack Obama was invited to give the commencement speech at Notre Dame University and all hell, so to speak, broke loose. Anti-abortion advocates were appalled that a stridently pro-choice President was given an honorary degree by a Catholic university. Others were offended that he was giving the commencement speech. It could be worse- our commencement speaker was the elderly Margaret Thatcher, whose speech on "the wahw on tewwowism" was nearly incomprehensible.
I won't pretend to shed any light on the "abortion debate", which has never struck me as an actual debate in the sense of two sides discussing the same issue. Pro-life people express a strong opinion about the ethical dimension of abortion, while ignoring the question of whether the state should have expanded powers to make people more ethical. Pro-choice people express a strong opinion about the expansion of state power, while ignoring the ethical question of ending the development of a unique and unrepeatable human being. Since neither side will discuss the same subject, they've been engaging in a non-argument for nearly four decades. Most of the rest of us have feelings more nuanced than pro-this or anti-that.
Also, I have little opinion about whether or not Barack Obama should have been given an honorary degree, which are these things generally doled out to people who have accomplished something or other, and are not usually seen as testimonies about the recipient's moral character. They're also largely symbolic.
I don't have opinions, but I do have questions about the strange tradition of protesting on American university campuses, which seems to have become an annual event. At Mall University, we have seasonal protests about war, sweatshops, abortion, gay rights, and a few one-offs like the drug laws. Much like honorary degrees, the protests are largely symbolic. They're not remotely pragmatic- that is, they're not aimed at any specific and obtainable ends. Either they aim at ends like "ending gender norms" that can't possibly be quantified, or they aim at quantifiable ends, like an end to war, that can't possibly be brought to pass by an annual protest on college campuses. Rarely are they protesting anything done at the actual university.
Protests are the theatrical representation of political work in the same way that a graduation ceremony is the theatrical representation of academic work.
In general, I think protests are theatrical acting-out sessions, sort of like a rain dance. Professors usually respect the grand tradition of protesting because they respect free speech. And students take part in them because they like to express themselves, and there's something more direct and immediate about doing it in this way. The universities try to remain "neutral" by allowing differing groups to shout their opinions at passersby. And plenty of people outside the university come on campus to protest because they see it as a place where people discuss the questions of the day, although protests generally don't resolve any of those questions. Also, they don't exactly foster discussions. I'm also skeptical that they convince anyone of anything. A protest is not persuasive; it's hectoring. Perhaps they serve to remind us of things that we already believe, but have forgotten.
It's always seemed odd to me that undergrads who have to be begged and prodded to express any opinions in class will rush to express those opinions in public protests. Is it the security of standing with a large mob and shouting? Do the numbers and fury make it less likely that those opinions will be questioned? Or is just the joy of a communal event? Do people just want to spend time together, and holding a protest seems more "worthy" than, say, organizing a game of tag, which has the benefit of being much more fun?
The irony of these campus protests is that people come to them to take part in a larger discussion, but they do so in a way that makes any actual discussion difficult, if not impossible. The most obvious example of this are those protests aimed at controversial speakers who have been invited to the university. Barack Obama, the President of Iran, the Minutemen, David Horowitz, and numerous other speakers have been "protested" or even just shouted down for expressing unpopular opinions on campuses. It this case, it's hard to defend the free speech rights of protesters who aim at silencing people whose opinions they disagree with.
But, it's not clear to me that most protests don't serve to shout down the people who disagree with them. Let me suggest something here, and understand that I'm working through this issue- I agree that the university should be a neutral zone in terms of debates of the day. I think that all opinions should be expressible, but that the university should neither align itself with one side in these debates nor allow one side to drown out civil discussion. All questions should be open questions. This doesn't mean defending indifference; but it does mean defending decorum and respectful exchange. And, yes, it means defending a certain "atmosphere" on campus. The value of a university education should be that it makes it harder for you to shout easy slogans, or to live by them.
So, in that sense, maybe all protests work in opposition to the free exchange of ideas. In some sense, campus protests strike me as profoundly disrespectful towards the university as a place in which ideas are discussed with courtesy and a level head. I like the ideal (never fully obtained) of a university as a place that hangs back from society's current obsessions and madnesses, as well as a place in which young people can safely experiment with different ideas. While both goals can certainly be hindered by an unnecessary "politeness", neither goal seems to me to be particularly well achieved by a promiscuous indulgence in protests either.
Should they be banned on campus? It's hard to say. There is the free speech issue, but it seems absurd to me to suggest that banning campus protests would prevent students from expressing any of their opinions in a more civil and open way. It seems like such a measure would encourage discussion and not stifle it. In some sense, all protests are protests against discussion. And yet, I'm not comfortable with the idea of banning them either. I'm not sure why, but it seems to me that there's some message that can only be conveyed through protest- outrage, for example. These rituals seem, especially, in a university setting, to be somehow therapeutic. I will leave the question open as to if that's a point in their favor.
Anyway, clearly, I'm not the person to invite to take part in a protest! Increasingly, I find myself becoming an inactivist when in public. I'm uncomfortable with the current obsession with politicizing all aspects of life. It's psychologically enervating and vaguely totalitarian. I'd rather offer no political program, and I'm not sure that I trust any of them.
However, if anyone wants to organize a game of tag...
Saturday, May 16, 2009
Thursday, May 14, 2009
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Recently, I've been committing some Keats to memory- particularly the Ode to a Grecian Urn, which I especially like. It's an odd habit we have in the humanities, committing verse to memory. It's hard to find anyone who does it anymore. Aside from the fact that few people actually read poetry anymore, there are certainly more "productive" things that you can do with your time. Or, at least, so I'm told.
It's hard to define what we do in the humanities, odd in that we're constantly being asked by impatient people; but I rather like Philip Rieff's use of the term "remembrancers" (although I generally find him to be too gloomy by half). The cleverities of scholars are good and well, when they need to sing for their suppers, but the real duty we have is to remember the things worth remembering and pass them along to the next generation in line. We are part of a transmission chain and really nothing more. While this is frustrating to those cleverer scholars and those administrators who wish we'd be more "productive", some of us believe that the slow, patient transmission of things worth knowing is a sacred duty. When hearing debates about the "inefficiency" and "waste" of the humanities, realize that we are- at least, traditionally- more akin to the clergy than the department of civil engineering.
In this, I believe that we remembrancers are both "cultural conservatives", in that we devote our lives to literally conserving the culture, and a genuine counter-culture in regards to a society that often feels the past to be a burden worth shedding- more timber to clear-cut. What society in its right mind pays people to memorize poetry? That depends on how you define its right mind.
So, one asks about "outsourcing the brain" to the Internet... Well, when you put it that way, I'd say we professional remembrancers should respond to the Internet with the same animosity that layed-off workers respond to the maquiladoras. Perhaps I'm sleeping with the enemy by writing online- a "scab", so to speak.
I remember (there I go again!) in the heady early days of the Net, those days of Internet Speakeasies and bath-tub bandwidth, when every single teacher I had- and every single adult I knew- was convinced that the Internet was going to create a generation of geniuses. After all, every one of us would have something like the world's largest library at our fingertips; a world of information at our fingertips; the greatest minds at our fingertips. Our fingertips were quite important in those days! However, it occurred to me that I can easily have a weight set at my fingertips; but I'm not going to get any more fit until I actually pick one up. I could have free access to the world's greatest gym, but if I don't do any work, I'll still have a fat ass.
Now, people are telling us that the Internet is a wonder because we all know where information is, our brains are "indexes" to things we don't and needn't know. We've passed from knowing where libraries were, but seldom actually using them, to knowing where digital libraries are, but seldom actually using them. Step with me now, into the future!
What I picked up on early in the Utopian visions of the Internet was their implicit anti-intellectualism. The subtext was that we'd soon reach a glorious future in which we no longer had to learn anything at all- why spend the time memorizing and absorbing old texts when they're right there at your fingertips, should you ever need them? Indeed, a number of people now have the mental equivalent of a fat ass. They see no reason to actually work on learning things at all. These people have always existed, of course; but there's an argument I now hear constantly from them- if I really need to know, I can just google it.
Part of this is the instrumentalization of knowledge- turning truths into factoids- that schools have been pushing for at least three decades. Learn the key bits for the exam and move on! The excuse for the constant testing- we need to quantify learning! We need to quantify their thoughtfulness- make the students jump through more and more hoops, propped up by one damned fad after another! It's like watching a train go by, and leaving most of the passengers at the station, I might add. There's an unwillingness in education to just slow the hell down. My dream is teaching a seminar that deals with one text for the full sixteen weeks. Thinking is slow- this is why it's not reacting. It's inefficient, that all-purpose insult these days- second only to "boring". Indeed, schools have pressured kids for decades to not be thoughtful at all, but instead to pass exams. The parrot says what he knows, but doesn't know what he says.
Where does this leave Keats, that remembrancer par excellence?
Ira once commented here that having a flight manual at your fingertips is no help if you're a pilot having trouble flying a plane. I suppose I see the knowledge worth earning as constituting a flight manual for living. For instance, I certainly can imagine a situation in which I was trying to understand for myself the enduring beauty of art from an ancient culture that I do not belong to. In such a situation, this might come in handy: "When old age shall this generation waste/ Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st/ Truth is beauty, beauty truth,- that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
Not 'handy' in the sense of being an instrument that is right at hand, of course. But having a certain use in fumbling through inwardness.
These people, who I remember, have helped me map out a bit of that inward empire that the humanities help us to colonize for ourselves. Perhaps the real reason to resist outsourcing inwardness is that it's the basis for all genuine freedom.
But, I can't quantify that.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
In February of this year, Binyam Muhammed was released from Guantanamo after being held for six years without anything resembling due process, but experiencing several things resembling torture, including, according to one report: "Mr Mohamed’s genitals were sliced with a scalpel and other torture methods so extreme that waterboarding, the controversial technique of simulated drowning, “is very far down the list of things they did,” the official said."
Muhammed has been seeking justice in British courts, who have agreed that there is sufficient evidence that he was brutally tortured and he is also entitled to obtain evidence in the possession of the British government which detailed the CIA's treatment of him, with assistance from M16 officers.
The US government has threatened the British High Court not to release seven redacted paragraphs of their reports because they threaten "national security"- here defined as the ability of the internal state security apparatus to remain completely above the law.
You might wonder if the current administration would cut out the cancer left by the old administration, before the republic finally has be taken off life support. The short answer: No.
The Washington Times:
"The Obama administration says it may curtail Anglo-American intelligence sharing if the British High Court discloses new details of the treatment of a former Guantanamo detainee. A court filing from the British Foreign Office released recently includes a letter from the U.S. government, identified as the "Obama administration's communication."
...And what does the letter say?
The Letter Excerpts:
"If it is determined that [her majesty's government] is unable to protect information we provide to it, even if that inability is caused by your judicial system, we will necessarily have to review with the greatest care the sensitivity of information we can provide in the future... As a consequence, if foreign partners learn that information it has provided is publically disclosed, these foreign partners could take steps to withhold from the United Kingdom sensitive information that could be important to its safety and security."
"In other words: if you let your courts describe how we tortured Mohamed -- even if your laws compel such disclosure -- we may purposely leave your citizens vulnerable to future terrorist attacks by withholding information we obtain about terrorist plots. Smith re-iterated to Lake what he told me last month: that the Obama administration's actions in issuing these threats in order to hide evidence of torture is itself a criminal act."
Let that sink in- the current administration is threatening the safety of an ally in order to cover up the criminal activities of the past administration, and in the process committing a criminal act itself. And thus, the toxins of torture continue seeping into the blood stream of the republic.
Thankfully, some people still find this sort of thing shocking and disheartening...
The British High Court ruling:
"Indeed we did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials or officials of another state where the evidence was relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, politically embarassing though it may be."
Could we please redact the phrase: "governed by the rule of law"?
Update: And yesterday the Obama administration decided they're not going to release 44 pictures of detainee abuse after all. The reason? You guessed it: "the national security implications of such a release".
Monday, May 11, 2009
The dialogue, one grouped around the trial of Socrates, starts with Meno asking Socrates, rather abruptly, "whether virtue is acquired by teaching or by practice".
Socrates replies that he doesn't know what virtue is; in fact, he's never known anyone who did know. Meno explains that there is the virtue of the mother, and the virtue of a man, and the virtue of a child, et cetera. But, Socrates notes that this list of all the virtues doesn't explain what's common between them. After quite a bit of light joking about how to define things, Meno comes up with the following: "virtue is to delight in things honorable and have the ability to get them."
This is better; but, if honorable things are the same as good things, then everyone wants what is good. The key must be in the power to get them. Yet, he must get them justly. So, now we're back to enumerating the parts of virtue!
Now, they're more confused than ever. In a famous section of the dialogue, Socrates explains that this is a part of knowledge. He has heard that we have immortal souls that pass through successive periods of existence, perpetually remembering and forgetting. All of nature is kindred and each has the seed of all knowledge within them. Learning, then, is a process of remembering. In a famous section, Socrates demonstrates this by eliciting certain geometrical relations- specifically, that the square of the diagonal is double the square of the side- from a totally uneducated slave.
Socrates knows that virtue is a good; but he does not think it is a sort of knowledge because he has never known any teachers of virtue. Therefore, virtue must not be teachable.
In a section that amounts to foreshadowing, they ask the well-to-do Athenian gentleman Anytus who to go to in order to be taught virtue. Socrates suggests the sophists, which angers the man. He then recalls several honorable men of old: Themistocles, Pericles, and so on; and points out that none of them had honorable sons, so they must not have taught virtue. Anytus is outraged to hear the old Athenian heroes slandered and leaves, warning Socrates to watch his tongue. He will participate in the trial of Socrates and there's an interesting critique implied about the sort of person who believes that virtue adheres unquestioningly to certain groups, so referring to "Athenian gentlemen", for example, settles the question.
If virtue is not a sort of knowledge that can be taught, and it's not innate- since we don't generally recognize it in children- couldn't it come to us some other way. Socrates suggests that virtue might really be "right opinion", which really cannot be taught, as it's more instinctual; but which is as good as knowledge for all practical purposes? Socrates proposes that great statesmen have a sort of instinct for right behavior that is divinely given- a sort of revealed instinct. Like prophets, they are divine and possessed by God.
Notes: I like the idea of virtue as "right opinion" because it gets at the fact that virtue isn't easily pinned down or transmitted. A virtuous person today can become unvirtuous tomorrow. I understand this as more akin to a state of mind or a disposition. Aristotle would similarly define virtues as states of being between two extremes- courage is the state between cowardice and foolhardiness, for instance.
It also gets at the fact that we often act virtuously without really knowing why, and then later try to explain it through ethics. There's something... pre-rational about ethical behavior that is akin to how we respond to art- usually there's a nonverbal emotive response which we later try to verbalize. Hemingway said that "evil" is what we feel bad about afterwards and I think there's something to that.
I like this answer, but it's lousy for Meno, who is basically a sophist. He wants an answer that can be easily pinned down and doesn't get it. Socrates is making fun of him throughout the dialogue, whether he realizes it or not. What he's trying to do, and he says as much, is put Meno in a state of aporia- puzzlement, which is intended to be salutary. As Socrates puts it, aporia shows the person that what he thought he knew, he doesn't really know; this makes him want to search for the answer. It is destabilizing. However, for a lousy student like Meno- who just wants to be fed the answers- it is frustrating to be "torpedoed" out of any certainly. Unfortunately for him, aporia is central to Socrates' style.
They don't exactly end in a state of aporia, but their definition is marked by this vagueness. Saying that virtue is divinely inspired right opinion serves mostly to disprove Meno's two options: virtue as innate and virtue as taught; it's neither, but it doesn't exactly clear things up for us. However, it does open the way for a link between the nonverbal "irrational" or subconscious and divine revelation. Freud, of all people, almost made way for this connection- a sub-subconscious, so to speak, that would correspond to divine revelation. But, as an atheist, he backed off. Socrates does not.
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Came across a blog showing and discussing propaganda posters from China, from the 40s to the 70s. The paragraphs in between discuss in very superficial detail the differences between the "reality" shown in the posters, and what people may have been experiencing at the time in China. It's definitely picture-heavy instead of analysis heavy, but I did come across it via a photography resource site. This is part one of a series (not sure if it's 2 parts, or more, part 2 isn't out yet), if/when I see the next installment, I'll put it up here.
I kinda want the 2nd poster on the page, and the space program one.
Friday, May 08, 2009
Recently, I've been meeting with a group that's putting together a gay-themed film festival which they hope to make a yearly event. I've enjoyed discussing rare and classic movies, and while I found that their criteria were a bit different than mine: they wanted to highlight important eras in the gay rights movement, while I tended towards movies that were just artistically unique, we ultimately put together a list of five movies for the five nights.
The issue of "gay marriage"* came up- nobody could think of a great film on the topic- and it occurred to me how quickly it has become a non-issue in Canada. Some of the group members are married and one of them actually got married partly because she felt like she owed it to those who had struggled for her to gain the right. It actually became legal in Canada a few days before Claire and I got married almost four years ago. So far, the society hasn't collapsed.
Similarly, this year began in the United States with gay rights groups heartbroken about losing the right in California, and now it looks like they'll win the right in several other states. I wonder if there won't be a domino effect wherein state after state legalizes the practice. History moves so quickly, doesn't it? New York has proposed making it legal, and I'll vote for it when it's on the ballot. What will gay rights groups do when they're equal under the law? Will they all start holding film festivals instead of marching?
I wasn't surprised by Maine- half of my family are Mainers; they're all Reagan republicans, and they're all fine with gays being married. The reason I think gay marriage will eventually be legal everywhere in the US is simple- to get me to vote against it, as a reasonable person, you have to convince me that if two guys down the street get married, it has any bearing whatsoever on my life, which it just doesn't. It also doesn't hurt that I've lived in four different cities, been actively involved in the arts, and am very used to being around gays. To me, they're like Trekkies: maybe not so common, but not particularly strange either.
I've tried to understand why some people are so uncomfortable with gays and I'm not sure I can fathom it. The closest comparison I can think of is to the unease that I feel about certain sexual fetishes. However, this comparison doesn't really hold water because there's a fairly clear difference between sexual practices and emotional relationships. For the most part, hearing about anybody's sexual practices is awkward, but a wedding isn't about that- (thank goodness! Could you imagine if you had to sit there listening to the bride and groom talking about blow jobs or something?) It's simply about welcoming a couple into the larger society and celebrating their union. Most of the problems people have with gay marriage seem irrational to me. Why is it their business?
I also don't understand why the Republican Party, which talks a lot about getting the government off our back, thinks the state should be in the business of deciding whose relationships are valid. But the "coalition" of libertarians, gun nuts, and blue-nosey busybodies never really made much sense to me. Personally, I don't see the merit in having state marriage licensing. And honestly, I think my generation finds something rather grotesque about the cultural struggles of the right, even if we can see the value in fiscal conservatism. In this case, they've hitched their wagon to a star that burned out long ago. They should cut themselves loose.
For some people, there will always be the religious issue- certain religions are fairly straightforward in their condemnation of homosexuality, and I can respect that believers can't pick or choose their beliefs, although most of them do to some extent. Maybe certain churches won't perform the service. But, who cares? Honestly, getting married is friggin' expensive! It's hard for me to believe that there are many gays who would want to spend a fortune to be married by a priest who is opposed to them being married. Actually, that doesn't even make sense to me.
Besides, there are always churches that will perform the services. I think there's a value in letting other people live their own lives as they see fit. It seems like Americans are increasingly okay with getting their noses out of each other's business- I don't know if this constitutes a "civil liberties surge", but it's certainly welcome.
*"Gay marriage" is a pretty stupid term for what's basically just marriage, isn't it? I can imagine that we'll have "gay home owning" next, or "gay gardening", or maybe "gay napping". Let's hope that portmanteau fades into obscurity ere long.
Megan McArdle is "very, very upset" that the Obama administration has decided not to fund the DC school voucher program. The Economist considers the few concessions made to supporters of the program to be a "cop-out".
I've known several people who have taught at DC public schools, and they've all confirmed that the system there is a mess. Studies have shown it to be one of the worst school systems in the country. The voucher program is intended to give lower-income parents of students in these decaying schools money to put their kids in private school. It is, in my opinion, eminently reasonable.
The ongoing decline of public schools is bizarre and dismaying. It's also inexplicable. I live in one of the "lowest income" cities in Canada; and yet, all of our schools seem to be well-maintained and well-funded. Yet, when you visit schools in places like DC or East Saint Louis, the buildings are falling apart, the bathrooms don't work, they haven't updated the textbooks in years, they don't have any computers, and so on and so forth, ad nauseam . I don't understand why the United States can't operate decent public schools in all parts of the country, and (like always) I suspect that the pat explanations of the political left and right: "endemic racism" and "the teacher's unions", respectively: are both seriously lacking. The simple fact though is that American public school graduates were ranked highest in the world as recently as the mid 1960s, and now they rank nearly at the bottom of all the industrialized countries.
My suspicion is that the decline of the public school system is something akin to the decline of the French aristocratic court in the 1700s: everyone can tell that things are going astray, but there are entirely too many groups with special privileges that they are not willing to give up. Of course this includes teacher's unions, but I suspect that that's not the half of it- administrators, investors, local politicians, school councilors and therapists, and even parents and students all have something to lose if schools are really to be reformed.* I suspect that nobody is willing to give up their privileges and there's a log-jam making any real reform impossible at this time.
So, why in the world would anyone be opposed to letting the bright students who are stuck in this situation have the same exit pass that rich kids have? The first argument seems to be that an exodus of bright kids will make the public schools worse. But why should children be saddled with the task of improving their schools? How is that fair? This is like requiring patients to stay in a run-down hospital in order to encourage the staff to fix things!
A secondary argument is that many private schools are religious schools, so tax money could feasibly go to a religious institution. I'm not sure how this is any different than a college kid spending their Pell Grant at Saint John's. In other words, I''m not sure how this violates the separation of church and state- provided that the state doesn't specify which schools are to receive the money or not- any more than it would if I tithed my tax refund. The voucher exchange, after all, is between the state and the parent, and not between the state and the private school. That seems, to me, to be the key distinction.
I feel for these kids. The students I see who have recently been paroled from public secondary schools are woefully uneducated, as I've noted before. But they're also... somehow spiritually exhausted. They remind me of the company man who has been working at the place for twenty years and has clocked out mentally. Many of them are sick and tired of everything to do with education, and I suspect that spending years in a public school factory system actually does very few of them any good at all. When I compare them to the private school kids I went to college with, who were bright,diligent, and enthusiastic, I have to wonder what advantages the rich receive that working class children do not.
I'm actually skeptical about the strengths of the voucher system. And, given the experiences of the private school kids who Claire treats in her practice, I don't see private education as a panacea either. It seems to me that there's no one magic bullet that will fix the public school system. Instead, we should let a thousand flowers bloom. And that will require watering.
* It might sound cruel to lump students in there. However, every public school I've ever seen has an inevitable handful of unruly, disruptive, and bullying students that the school just can't seem to get rid of. A Canadian teaching friend recounted the story of visiting an American high school where the teacher simply tried to pretend that those students weren't yelling and carrying on right in front of her during class. I'm guessing that the problem has something to do with parents and their lawyers.
Monday, May 04, 2009
Well, it seems that Blockbuster Video is block-busted. The company is in dire straits and could be closing its doors forever within a year's time. Many people are shocked by this.
Not me. If you've ever lived in a medium to large-sized city, chances are that you've lived near a really good video store, a place with a good selection, knowledgeable staff, well-lit, run by cinephiles, and kept clean. Where I grew up, the place was the Video Vault; in Chicago, it's the legendary Facets Video; in Toronto, it's either Queen Video or Suspect Video- but, you get the idea. And all of them are doing fine, even in this economy. The point is that Blockbuster could easily have followed this model. They chose not to.
Instead, if we look at "the video store" as a product, Blockbuster flooded the market with an inferior product. Their stores are dirty, staffed by surly teenagers, have no real selection, and anything you're looking for is likely shelved in the wrong section. But, hey, they're cheap and they've got stores everywhere. So, if you lived in the middle of nowhere, chances are that you went to Blockbuster because there was no other choice.
And then Netflix came along. In Canada, we have Zip; but Claire and I have signed up for the same reason as people use Netflix- because they have a good selection. Blockbuster is fine if you have a need to see Pirates of the Caribbean 5: The End of Plot Coherence. If you want to see anything remotely obscure, you're not going to make it a Blockbuster night.
This is really my problem with the big chain stores: it's basically a business model rooted in selling as much cheap crap as quickly as possible to whoever will buy it. It will no doubt sound "elitist" of me, but I don't really like to buy shirts that fall apart after a few washings, cars that need endless repairs, markdown DVDs of Norbit, junk food that makes me sick, furniture that collapses if you use it, or electronics that break when plugged in. Call me pompous or a snob,but I don't like cheap crap. Blockbuster was the cheap crap of the video rental world, so it's not hard to see them go, in spite of the image of those surly teenagers standing on a soup line somewhere, fucking around with their cell phones.
Blockbuster is not alone. Apparently, a number of these retail chains are in trouble now, but if there's one thing American businesses could stand to learn it's that if you sell people cheap crap, they will have no loyalty to your company.
Sunday, May 03, 2009
Something interesting (well, to me, anyway)- Europe's native-born population is no longer shrinking. The Wilson Quarterly reports: "Defying predictions of demographic decline, northern Europeans have started having more babies. Britain and France are now projecting steady population growth through the middle of the century." Populations are, however, declining across much of the developing world-including much of Asia, North Africa, and Latin America. The article points out therefore that recent hysteria about Europe hollowing out and being "Islamicized" due to immigration from North Africa- a scenario alluded to in that First Things piece I linked to recently- is... well, somewhat hysterical. But Americans seem to be breeding too. So, sex is still popular, which is good to hear.
This is the lawn in a nearby park.
I wasn't comfortable photographing anyone's personal lawn, but this is in no way an atypical lawn here. If you click through to the larger version, it becomes even more apparent how many flowers are there... in the smaller version, what looks like discolored patches of lawn are actually denser flower coverage.
"Tilda Swinton is a paradox, a contradiction, a still point at which opposites converge. Her chameleon face is at once Victorian and futuristic, extraterrestrial yet earthly—her finely etched features appear to be carved out of clay. From one angle she is a handsome, somewhat masculine woman. From another, a handsome, slightly effete man. She seems to straddle time, eras. She often looks ageless; at other moments, all of her 48 years."
-Amanda Fortini interviews the Bowiesque divinity Tilda Swinton here.
Saturday, May 02, 2009
Do the names of things matter? I ask this because I've been on a bit of a Plato binge lately and names definitely matter in Plato. Socrates spends a great deal of time attempting to nail down the precise meanings of words; in some cases, he just makes it more difficult. Theaetetus ends with Socrates having disproved all attempts at defining knowledge and leaving. In other cases, Plato is fairly specific. Statesman and Stoic are handled fairly well. And his successor Aristotle is a definition machine.
The important thing though is that names matter greatly to Socrates. He wants to find the true names of things. He seems to be specifically opposed to the Heraclitian view of things in which everything in the world is in a constant state of change. For Socrates, change is illusory and the Forms are real and eternal. This search for permanence probably relates to the times- Athens was in a period of decline that clearly troubled Socrates and perhaps Plato even more. The most famous dialogue, The Republic, is an attempt, I believe, to create a permanent state that cannot decay. I would not want to live there.
All of this is Philo 101 stuff- and remember that I am not a philosophy grad student. However, it's hard not to sympathize with the Platonic (and definitely Aristotelian) search for the precise meaning of words. Names have power. This is why the true name of God is never spoken. Words also convey inside knowledge. I often say that 90% of picking up any new discipline is learning the vocabulary. Once you've learned new words, new ideas come with them like the medicine in a capsule. It's always strange to me to find terms in French or Spanish that don't really exist in English because it's a new thought that I probably would not have had otherwise.
There's also a modern tendency to be indifferent about the meaning of words. I often find it frustrating to talk with people because many of them use words in vague or incorrect ways with the expectation that you know what they're getting at. Sometimes I do, and sometimes I have no clue.
I think part of this noun fluidity comes from pop culture. Advertisements, in particular, use words as carrots to entice us forward: Dependability, Value, Excitement, Choice, Silky, Sexy, Reliability; the words they use vary in meaning depending on the campaign. As Humpty Dumpty said to Alice, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less." Words are instruments of persuasion, not stones on a path to truth.
It's the same with politics- our elected officials use terms like "stimulus package", "enhanced interrogation techniques", "undocumented workers", "non-governmental organizations", and so forth as a means of confusing us. Or, at least, providing enough vagueness that the meanings could change. The great deconstructor of political language, of course, was Orwell, who put it succinctly: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”
In a democracy, everyone takes part in politics, so everyone has a stake in changing the meaning of words to suit their purposes. In a sense, this was "political correctness"- a total war over syntax extending into the field of subtext during the interbellum periods. If you change the names of things, you change their meanings. The irritation that "PC" stirred up was perhaps because people felt like computers being reprogrammed.
PC was about niceties. Politically-minded slurs also tend to redefine words incorrectly. People often misuse the word "racist", for example, which correctly applies to the objects Holly directed us to, and probably does not apply to every racially stereotyped statement ever made. "Homophobia" is a fairly serious pathological loathing of gays- and not the correct term to use for every redneck who thought Will & Grace was "sorta fruity", or everyone whose religion has an issue with gays. Similarly, the people who are labeled "xenophobes" are quite often not actually afraid of people from other cultures; however, they are quite often racists.
This matters because calling everyone who has a personal blind-spot a "racist", "sexist", "homophobe", et cetera weakens the meaning of those terms and makes it harder to identify and oppose real racism, sexism, and homophobia, genuine examples of which are already legion.
Of course, the left mangles words with vigor; however, there are now right wingers on the Internet trying to figure out if the President is a "fascist" or a "socialist", probably because "liberal", the word that actually describes Barack Obama, doesn't have the sting it once did. For the record, real fascists have specific beliefs and programs, of which we could include:
1. Belief in a one-party state,
2. Belief in a strong authoritarian state with power centralized around a strong leader,
3. Innate inequality between races and nations,
4. The virtue of imperialism,
5. Violent struggle as the central experience of human life,
6. Emphasis on the strength of the nation over the rights of the individual,
7. A rhetorical emphasis on blood and soil,
8. A mythical history in which the Nation or Race was once stronger,
9. Persecution of all enemies, real or imagined, of the state.
While any teenager will tell you that using the word "fascist" packs a punch, people who have actually lived in fascist countries might beg to differ on the suffering of talk show commentators in the US.
Socialists, meanwhile, believe in the abolition of private ownership of property- and specifically call for public or state ownership of the means of production. We can differ about whether or not the US government is headed in this direction; but the fact is they have a long way to go to get there. And, besides, there are more than enough reasons to be queasy about the current economic stimulus program without having to read Das Kapital to understand Marxist theory. Besides, I've read the whole damn thing, and here's what it says: In the future, Capitalism is fucked. Next comes Communism. Then we party!
Of course, this is the sort of thing people argue about on the Internet, and it's nearly as thrilling as the Star Trek/ Star Wars debate. However, having everyone in the country confused about what these words mean has real world consequences: I recently received a paper from a student that discussed at great length Josef Stalin's reign as leader of the Nazi Party following Hitler.
Besides, the fact is that all of the problems currently facing the country are pragmatic problems; not political problems. The economy, the environment, the educational system, health care: all of these things need a tune up. We're all just standing around with the hood open arguing about what needs to be replaced or tightened. Trying to figure out which tool to use to get the machine going again requires serious intellectual effort, and not obfuscatory wordplay. We need clarity and specificity. Because there is truth to be had.
At least, I hope so.
(For the record, I'm all for solving the economic problem with an Americathon.)
Friday, May 01, 2009
(Note: Video is very shaky- I am definitely not a professional cameraman!)
I was talking below about the older suburb that we live in. Here's what it looks like on my regular walk to the convenience store- since closed.
I'm actually thinking of making another one of these since I read how to make a DIY steadycam and remove all the jiggling. I once had the dream of creating a website that would collect videos of short walks from around the globe, but abandoned it because I figured I'd be the only person interested in it!
I'm looking forward to seeing the documentary "Last Stop Kew Gardens".
Novelist and filmmaker Robert Lieberman knows the neighborhood well: he grew up the child of German refugees in this tightly-knit New York community with its German-style delis and Viennese bakeries. Refugees came here from across central Europe, but they all spoke German. As a child, Lieberman desperately wanted to leave, embarrassed by his old world parents; eventually, moving to Ithaca and marrying a blond Swedish woman.
Years later, he wrote an article about his childhood in Kew Gardens, and was surprised to receive a flood of responses from around the world. The film details the old neighborhood, and the graduates of P.S. 99, who grew up there. P.S. 99 had its own strange cultural richness: Paul Simon and "Arty" Garfunkel played in the talent show, Jerry Springer admits in the film that he would never make his show if his parents were still alive, Robert Schimmel recalls his father, who survived a Nazi death march, telling him, "If you want to live, keep moving forward."
It's a fascinating story. In a way, all immigrant communities are incubators for these sort of hybrid cultures- a society without them would be culturally impoverished.
You can buy the DVD here.