Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Slogging Months

I understand why bears hibernate. These are the slogging months for me. In normal circumstances, I'm fairly enthusiastic about the world around me. I've usually got fifteen projects going on at the same time and am trying to learn about six or seven different topics. People often think that I'm on drugs.

But the slogging months bring everything to a crawl. I don't know if I exactly get depressed, but my mind goes placid on most days. The skies are grey and cataracted for six months or so and it's cold for about three of those months. I don't mind the snow that falls most days because it's powder; you can remove it from the car with a broom. But there are days when I miss the sun.

Today I did about three things and that was a big accomplishment. So it wasn't a bad day. Actually, people in this town get pretty cranky in the Winter. Everywhere you go, you hear people bitching in that nasally Noo Yawk accent about nothing at all. Of course, you hear that in the Summertime as well! But I think it's a little worse in the Winter.

Anyway, I'm going to slow down for a few months, but I should be fine.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Perhaps the first clinical research in this country since the 1960s into the subject has shown that psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychadelic mushrooms, can induce a "mystical" experience in those who consume it. In a clinical trial, 2/3rds of those who tried the drug for the first time reported such a mystical experience. Moreover "One-third rated a session with psilocybin as the 'single most spiritually significant' experience of their lives. Another third put it in the top five."

Four people experienced paranoia. And get this: "Two months after a session, the people who had taken psilocybin reported small but significant positive changes in behavior and attitudes compared with those who had taken Ritalin."

Some of the stories that I've seen about this come off as really bitter- "We knew this all along, but the stupid fuzz wouldn't admit it!" But it's good to see neuroscience delving into this subject and the results, if not particularly surprising, are positive.


Monday, January 29, 2007


Historian David Bell has asked the question that I would expect a lot of historians to be wondering right about now: "Was 9/11 really that bad?" He also wonders if Islamo-fascio-lama-ding-dongs, or whatever it is that we're calling them, pose any real threat to the United States; another good question. Honestly, I don't even think you have to be a historian to wonder this. I grew up during the hot Reagan years of the Cold War. It's hard to get scared about terrorism if you're old enough to remember when the largest nation on earth was pointing thousands of nuclear missiles at you. Somehow, 100 guys in a cave in Pakistan with box cutters don't seem so scary! But it's an interesting read and David Bell is a great historian. So, enjoy.

Full disclosure: David Bell is also a friend of a friend and a pretty nice guy in my experience!


Sunday, January 28, 2007


A trick picture that I took on New Year's Eve


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Movie Notes: "That Obscure Object of Desire" (1977)

Luis Buñuel's last film is about the irrational conflict of romantic relationships and how they can veer from the passionate to the ridiculous. Buñuel stages a relationship between a wealthy older man and his maid in which neither of them can satisfy their desires without surrendering some sort of power to the other and so they remain locked in combat that becomes increasingly bizarre and futile.

At first blush, the film seems to tell the tale of Mathieu, a rich widower who is sexually frustrated by the tempestuous younger woman Conchita. The film begins with the man relating this story to the other passengers on the train from Madrid to Paris who have just witnessed him dumping a bucket of water on her head! We learn in flashbacks that Conchita is mercurial- so much so that she's played by two different actresses, Carole Bouquet and Ángela Molina, who don't exactly resemble each other. Poor Matheiu wants to make Conchita his own: more specifically, he wants to have sex with her. But his attempts are in vain and she taunts him mercilessly, at one point, even having sex with her young lover in front of him.

Now, the other way to see it is that he has all of the power socially, and economically, and even politically over her, and expects to fully possess her. His attempts to woo Conchita come across as trying to buy her love, or her sex, including at one point, his attempt to win her over by paying her mother's rent, and later by buying her a house. She is the considerably more vulnerable partner here and acutely aware of her status. So, at some point, her tempestuousness starts to seem like a woman trying to remain independent with the class and gender cards stacked against her.

To make the whole situation stranger, the backdrop of this sex farce is an environment in which terrorist crimes are so common as to elicit little notice. Buñuel claimed that this simply reflects the political background of the late 1970s, when the film was made. But I think that the absurd battle between the terrorist groups of the political left and right in the film are intended to show the same sort of struggle between freedom and mutual dependency as exists between Matheiu and Conchita. And you could say that the far left and the far right really are in a masochistic love relationship just like the main characters. Towards the end of the film, we are informed by the radio that the various terrorist cells are fighting to see who can destabilize society first!

Certainly desire can destabilize society. Matheiu is the socially dominant member of high society who is reduced to servitude by what a maid has beneath her dress. On the other hand, both of them are obsessed with their own freedom and completely unable to freely pursue their own desires. So, perhaps nothing can destabilize society, or perhaps we need society in order to protect us from our desires, or perhaps society is already absurd and surreal. It's really up to the viewer to come to their own conclusions.


Thursday, January 25, 2007

As of 5:41 pm, I think Donnie Davies really is a parody.

And I don't think I'm getting much out of blogging, to be honest. It's sort of like those CB radios that let you talk to real truckers. After a while, you start wondering what the point is.

So, do other bloggers ever ask yourselves what it is that we get from this hobby?

I used to have a roommate who watched TV all day long. Whenever I was home, she was in her room with MTV on. She'd watch it until about 1:00, when she went to sleep, and then, right after her alarm went off in the morning, I'd hear the TV come on. She never really left her room and I always figured that she needed to hear the voices in order to not feel lonely.

I know that's a bit depressing, but I'm wondering lately what makes this any different than interactive television. And, I guess, I'm wondering if it's not time to turn it off.


Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Intelligence is Hot

Everyone happy? Great.


A Modest Proposal for Gentle Readers

The Washington Post has an editorial from a librarian who's worried. She works at an independent DC area school and she's noticed that kids don't read anymore. Even worse, the librarians that she works with don't read anymore!

"In other words, literacy today is defined less by how English departments or a librarian might teach Wordsworth or Faulkner than by how we find our way through the digital forest of information overload."

As with most jobs that increasingly involve surfing the net, she finds that this new orientation is over-hyped:

"The buzzword in the trade is "information literacy," a misnomer, because what it is really about is mastering computer skills, not promoting a love of reading and books."

She cites the common argument that kids will start reading when they get to university. She doesn't buy it. I don't either. Our kids don't read. Even our grad students have started to read the on-line reviews of books instead of the books themselves. Libraries have started replacing books with DVDs and even video games. Nobody knows what to do.

Here's the cold, hard truth: Reading is dying out. Ever since the introduction of TV, active literacy rates have declined. That is the number of people who are regularly reading (not just those who can read) has steadily dropped. With the introduction of the Internet, it kept declining, but at a faster rate. Reading rates took a nose dive.

According to the despairing librarian, most of the strategies to get people reading aren't working. So what is to be done?

Why not give up?

I mean, you can lead a jackass to water, but you can't make him drink. It seems to me that there's as much shame in the fact that you have a smarty wasting her time trying to make professional shoppers read books as there is in the fact that most people don't actually read books. In other words, we don't have that many smarties as it is, and we're telling them to waste their time trying to get non-readers to read?

It also seems to me that our terror over the death of reading is due to a mistaken teleology that says that "Decline leads inevitably to collapse". In other words, because the culture is declining and becoming trite, because people are turning into these weird trained animals that return dutifully to the mall three times a week, and because all indicators of "higher culture" are in the doldrums, we assume that civilization as we know it will end, a pretty common refrain these days.

But, what if, and this is the optimistic possibility(!), we're just entering the Dark Ages? It seems to me that there will always be a few remaining "bookish" types left. Sure, maybe they'll be regularly beaten by the Master's students from my university! But, they will be there. In fact, I've taught about 300 students now, and I know that one of them was an active reader.

So, why not behave like they did during the last Dark Ages and keep reading alive through secret societies, a monkish clerisy, and lending libraries? It's occurred to me that the best thing that us bookish types can do today is to drop out of society. Of course, we'll have to be careful that the feds don't think we're terrorists! But, why not form secret societies based around esoteric knowledge? Why not become the Rosicrucians of reading?

Of course, we'll have to find storage to keep the books in. But, it seems to me that most libraries are throwing piles of stuff out right now. So, what we'll do is snap up all of the old books and store them in a cold, dry place. The reason for this is that they won't be consumed by fires and we can still live in a relatively normal way. I'm thinking that we should rent those store-all garages and fill them with books.

Also fuck the Internet! We shouldn't waste our time posting books to the net because, as far as I can tell, most online users don't read them anyway. It just takes too much time and allows people to say: "Why are you holding on to that there old book for? It's online!"

Most importantly, we need to form real-world social relationships! I know that this is hard for most of us, but we need a network of book people to borrow from and to discuss books with. We need to create the sort of free and spontaneous communal joy that consumer culture is inherently opposed to! We need to be exuberant- instead of wasting our lives away trying to 'reach' the militantly stupid, we need to return to the real work of culture- creating worlds and ideas and societies out of whole cloth.

So, let's start today.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

More from R.A.W. (R.I.P.)

Incidentally, I got that "intellectual suicide" line from our dear, departed brother Robert Anton Wilson, and this essay of his:

In Doubt We Trust: Cults, Religions, and BS in General

It's a good place to begin with R.A.W. and one of his core ideas:

Human brains are as individualized and unique as human fingerprints. We all live in different sensory universes, and nobody has a guarantee that his/her universe corresponds more exactly to the alleged "real universe" than anybody else's.


Europe: Still Not Dead

One thing I've been skeptical about for some time is the reported 'death' of Europe. For a few years now, I've been hearing that the European countries are collapsing, or dying, or otherwise in decline. I saw some serious social concerns in France, especially in regards to the highly isolated Paris banlieu that I wandered around one day after researching; but I didn't see a society that was in decline, or showing any serious signs of collapse. I've said before that I think Western Civilization might well die of boredom! But, I didn't get the feeling that the center isn't holding.

Anyway, the European Union isn't declining economically. Does anyone remember when the Euro first came out and people were warning that we shouldn't take any because the Euro was going to decline in value? Anyway, it's done quite the opposite, and is currently worth more than the dollar. And Europe's productivity increased sharply last year. So, where's the problem? Is their culture declining? We're the ones who produced Brittney Spears remember.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Hrant Dink

Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was previously arrested for "insulting Turkishness" in his writings on the 1915 massacres of Armenians, has been murdered. He called the massacres a genocide, which is still a touchy suject in Turkey especially among Turkish nationalists. But, of course, murdering him is a greater insult to "Turkishness" than anything he could have written. And an attack on Turkey as well, not to mention human decency.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

Christian Nationalists

'Aint that something? I blather on here about how the born-agains that Andrew Sullivan calls "Christianists" would be better described as "Christian Nationalists" because that avoids associating them with the violence of fascism (they're not violent) and it highlights what's offensive about them: not their religion, but their desire to 'reclaim' the nation. Anyway, I'm thinking I'm so clever for coining a phrase and then someone points me to this book:
Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism by: Michelle Goldberg

From what I can tell, Goldberg is more afraid of these people than I am. I think the warning about how they're going to conquer America is overly paranoid. Those people that pretend to be Klingons have a better chance of conquering this country and I'm guessing that, after eight years of the born again in chief, most Americans are pretty sick of these people. Like it or not, we're heathens. What can I say? We like booze, sex, and all sorts of other bad things. So, yeah, I think they want to 'reclaim the nation' as well. But, I'm just bemused by them, if anything.

I'm guessing that there will be other people who will complain that the "Dominion theology" loons aren't really nationalists. But, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck..


Saturday, January 20, 2007


Talk about total entertainment! Jon Gingoli made a website tour of his parent's basement in Peoria, Illinois, that just has to be seen to be believed. They redecorated the basement in 1971 in the latest psychadelic/mod look, and haven't changed it since. It's like the Laugh-In set.


Friday, January 19, 2007

First draft completed

Whew! I just finished the first draft of my first written exam. I started writing last night, and wrote through today. Believe it or not, the first draft is 32 pages! I've talked to people who finished these things in five pages, but if you read that question, which I posted below, you'll understand that it's just not possible to do it justice in five pages. I expected to spend at least ten pages each on the Enlightenment, Modernity, and the Mass State. So, more or less, that's what I did.

I'm totally exhausted right now, but I won't lie- I had a blast sitting here and writing about cultural and intellectual history for the last 13 hours! It's sick, I know. But, this was a lot of fun. I've been reading these books for months now, and this was my chance to share all of the things that I've noticed about them, all the connections that I've made between them, and all of the ideas that I've developed on my own with a senior scholar who I greatly admire. This is one of the joys of academia.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Exam 1

Tomorrow, I am going to get up, light my candle that smells like Christmas cookies, put in my CD of the Brandenberg Concertos, and set about answering the following:

"I suggest that you combine these three questions into one, discussing the varieties of Enlightenment thought in the late eighteenth century, the extent to which the Enlightenment constituted a modern outlook, what is understood by modern, and to what extent a mass society was part of modernity. I want you to refer to the ideas expressed in your readings but also develop a position of your own. As for the question of the Enlightenment, also discuss currents of Counter-Enlightenment. If you have Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment well in mind, who try to establish a link between Enlightenment and the horrors of the twentieth century, you might discuss whether you consider their analysis correct. As for the mass society and its responsibility for the rise of totalitarianism, you might compare the very different conceptions of the origins of Nazism in Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism and William S. Allen's The Nazi Seizure of Power."


Intelligence is not egalitarian

Here are two recent takes on the burning question: What in the hell is the matter with American universities?

According to University President John Simpson, the problem is that the "pipeline of education" is broken. What he means by that is some students, the raw sewage of education I suppose, don't leave high school with the skills they need to do well in University. This assumes, I think, that all high school students, ideally, can do college-level work, but, high school is failing them in some way. Possibly.

The ever-controversial Charles Murray, meanwhile, says the problem is that American society is too dependent on the university degree. After all, some people just can't do college work. In fact, if the average I.Q. is around 100, then at least 50% of the population really has no business being in a university. So, why in the world should a position as manager of Budget Rent-a-car require a college diploma? In other words, screw the pipeline- there are some students who are simply too dense to fit through it.

In a sense, I think they're both right, but Murray is more right. High schools really do need to get their shit together- if none of their students can read or write, then they're doing something wrong. But, maybe what they're doing wrong is refusing to let some students get left behind. And maybe that's what's devaluing the high school diploma, as well as the college diploma.

We live in a liberal, enlightened, egalitarian, and democratic society. So, this is hard to accept:

Intelligence is not egalitarian.

Neither is beauty, actually. But, plastic surgery and cheap makeovers have essentially democratized beauty. Beautiful people are a dime a dozen. But, one thing that's struck me every time I've taught is that some of my students just aren't ever going to understand history. Not because it's profound or brilliant stuff, but because they simply can't concptualize the information and organize it in time and space. They just can't do it. And I'm guessing it's the same in all of their courses.

And I think we know this. We basically tell them what to parrot on the exams. We give them review sheets, we repeat things again and again, and we ask fill-in-the-blank type questions. If they can remember "N-E-S-T-L-E-S, Nestle's makes the very best!" they have the skills to pass our history class. If that doesn't work, we "bump the grades up". At least the professors do. But, often I think to myself that we're just lying. If I was told to pass only those freshmen who I thought were ready to do second-year, or even first-year university-level work... It wouldn't be more than 40% of them. No chance.

Maybe the problem with the pipeline is that it needs to be narrower.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Walter Benjamin "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

Benjamin argues that mechanical reproduction strips a work of art of its "aura", by which he seems to mean its authenticity, specificity, and its unique significance. It is thus removed "from its parasitical dependence on ritual", which I take to mean that mechanical reproduction is the disenchantment of art.

(Incidentally, I also have no idea how one might obectively measure the "aura" of a work of art, for those who are wondering!)


Culture Wars

One of the things that seems to upset people when I say it, and so I'll say it again, was that the true power of the 9/11 attacks was that there is something profoundly upsetting about an essentially meaningless act. The mind struggles to rationalize the meaningless act of violence, to put it in some sort of rational framework- a matrix of logic- and fails utterly. People think they have it figured out, but honestly, what could it possibly mean to destroy the World Trade Center? It's as surrealist and bizarre as using the nation's military to destroy a McDonald's. Ultimately, the power of the act was in the fact that it doesn't make a lot of sense.

This allows the act to become a cipher- people project whatever they want to on it. Osama bin Laden becomes a Marxist to the Marxists and a culture warrior to the culture warriors. His actual ideas: a bit of anti-globalization, mixed with old fashioned anti-Semitism, and some freaky mysogyny, mixed with some bizarre religious nonsense, are so incoherent and pointless that they actually have something to offer all alienated people. Do you hate social injustice? Well, Osama sort of hates it too... admittedly, he'd like to replace it with totalitarian domination by a religious fundamentalist sect. But, otherwise, he's just like Che Guevera! (who was a proto-fascist himself!) Do you hate Hollywood, with its cultural decadence? Well, so does Osama! Although, admittedly, he's never actually talked about Hollywood, he does hate "shameless" women who go outside of the house. So, it's sort of the same!

Anyway, I've argued against people using national tragedies to further their own agendas. So, Dinesh D'Souza's latest screed about how cultural liberalism caused Osama bin Laden (here Osama's a rational thinker!) to attack the country, annoys me as much as that horseshit from Ward Churchill about how US capitalism forced Osama (such a good citizen, isn't he?) to blow shit up. But, hey, I haven't read D'Souza yet, so I'll bite my tongue.

Katha Pollit has read the book, God bless her, and she characterizes it thusly

9/11 was provoked by feminism, birth control, abortion, pornography, feminism, Hollywood, divorce, the First Amendment, gay marriage, and did I mention feminism? Muslims fear the West is out to foist its depraved, licentious, secular "decadence" on their pious patriarchal societies. And, D'Souza argues, they're right. Working mothers! Will & Grace! Child pornography! Our vulgar, hedonistic, gender-egalitarian, virally expanding NGO-promoted values so offend "traditional Muslims" that they have thrown in their lot with Osama and other America-haters.

Okay, so it sounds pretty dumb. Just another book for bedwetting authoritarians to use in their argument that "freedom can go too far!"

But, you know what? The hell with it. I can see a way to agree with D'Souza that I like:

Hear ye! Hear ye! Good Americans!
Do you hate Osama bin Laden? Do you hate terrorists? Well, there's only one way to fight them- cultural decadence! Dinesh D'Souza is right! We have to relax our morals in order to combat terrorism! Start making out with the same sex! Start having sex in public! Make gay marriage mandatory and straight marriage illegal! Grow more pot! Demand that Hollywood make sleazier movies! Allow nudity in all public places! Call on R.E.M. to write more songs about sex and drugs, and less wussy songs about swimming at night! Demand that the President end his state of the union address with the phrase 'PARTY ON, DUDES!' Let Motley Crue re-write the national anthem. Give the Statue of Liberty a strap-on! Demand that Brad and Angelina release a porno movie, for crying out loud! Dinesh D'Souza demands that America get sleazy!

Sex! Drugs! and Rock'n'roll! Your children's future depends on it!


Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Everyday Evil

One of the bewildering things about the genocide in Rwanda, among many things that are nearly impossible to comprehend, is the fact that people now have little choice but to live together in a society in which, not too long ago, one half of the population tried to exterminate the other half of the population with machetes. Theodore Dalrymple has written much, and well, about the problem of radical evil. This quote, from his recent essay, gets at the strangeness of the Rwandan evil:

Francine, a Tutsi farm woman and shopkeeper, on the other hand, says this:
'Sometimes, when I sit alone in a chair on my veranda, I imagine this possibility: one far-off day, a local man comes slowly up to me and says, ‘Bonjour, Francine, I have come to speak to you. So, I am the one who cut your mama and your little sisters. I want to ask your forgiveness.’ Well, to that person I cannot reply anything good. A man may ask for forgiveness if he has one Primus [beer] too many and then beats his wife. But if he has worked at killing for a whole month, even on Sundays, whatever can he hope to be forgiven for? We must simply go back to living, since life has so decided… We shall return to drawing water together, to exchanging neighbourly words, to selling grain to one another. In twenty years, fifty years, there will perhaps be boys and girls who will learn about the genocide in books. For us, though, it is impossible to forgive.'



Boy, did 20th Century Fox screw up with this movie. They released it in only six cities, and with absolutely no advertising, allowing it to earn about $300,000 and then die. The problem is the movie's actually pretty good. And because it's a satire about the dumbing down of American culture, when people eventually do see it, and it becomes one of those 'cult classic' sort of movies, the fans are going to decide that Fox buried it because its satire hits too close to home. Well, or because Starbucks and Fuddrucker paid for product placements, and director Mike Judge shows the future Starbucks selling handjobs, and Fuddruckers changing their name to "Buttfuckers".

Basically, the film has one joke: We really are getting dumber. And it follows that conceit to every possible conclusion. It's the old Rip Van Winkle story- an average Joe is frozen and thawed out 500 years from now to find the world is changed. In this case, it's gotten a lot stupider. The most popular television show is "Ow! My Balls!", the most popular movie features nothing but a farting ass for two hours, and he's now the smartest man on earth.

It's sort of a feel bad comedy, and while it's not the greatest comedy of all time, it's a lot funnier than a lot of movies that get wide releases- White Chicks, I'm looking your way! Anway, I recommend it, and actually, I hope more people will see it because it's endlessly quotable, and as of now, nobody but Claire gets it when I say "But Brawndo's got what plants crave! It's got electrolytes!"


Monday, January 15, 2007


Here's what I'll be using for the first part of my three-part essay:

1. The Enlightenment. Dorinda Outram
2. The Party of Humanity Peter Gay
3. Nathan the Wise Gotthold Lessing
4. The Spirit of the Laws Montesquieu
5. Essay Concerning Human Understanding John Locke
6. Letters on the English Nation Voltaire
7. What is Enlightenment? Emmanuel Kant
8. The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau
9. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Rousseau
10. The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith
11. On Crimes and Punishments Cesare Beccaria
12. Fragment on Government Jeremy Bentham
13. Leviathan Thomas Hobbes
14. Inquiry Into Human Nature David Hume
15. Dialogue Concerning Natural Religion David Hume
16. The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers Becker
17. Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno
18. What is Enlightenment? Michel Foucault
19. The Age of Revolution Eric Hobbsbawm

The other two sections are similarly long, and actually, I think the whole list comes out to something like 80 books, although I don't think I'll include them all in the essay. The list was fun to read, but I might have made it a bit long for a minor field.


Charles Darwin "The Origin of Species" (1859)

One of the key themes of modernity is a fascination with origins. While there are Enlightenment era writers of history, such as Gibbon, they all tend to use history for narrative or didactic purposes, not to show the origins of modern conditions. Romantic authors in general, however, have a marked fascination with history as well as the mysterious past shrouded in the mists of time. In many cases, modernity is marked by a feeling of rootlessness, and the Romantics often speak of a mystical union with larger structures of organization, such as history or nature.

Charles Darwin's study The Origin of Species deals with the long-extinct orgins of modern species. Darwin was not the first to suggest that species have evolved over time- Buffon and Lamarck had made similar claims- but he was the first to argue for a mechanism by which they evolved, namely 'natural selection'. Darwin argued that species of the same genera have descended from common ancestors, and not from disctinct and separate species.

Darwin starts by pointing out that sexually reproducing species have great variation- no two individuals of a species are identical. These individual variations are important because they are often inheritable. Variations are neither good or bad, but some are better suited to the physical environment.


Herbert Marcuse "The One-Dimensional Man" (1964)

Herbert Marcuse's The One-Dimensional Man is a similarly gloomy critique of mass society. Marcuse believes tha "its sweeping rationality, which propels efficiency and growth, is itself irrational." And yet, mass society seems to neutralize the inherent contradictions that Marx wrote about. Marcuse wants to know why industrial society seems "capable of containing qualitative change".

Marcuse believes that "independence of thought, autonomy, and the right to political opposition" are drained of their critical function in mass society. His needs are satisfied by society, and new needs are created for him by vested interests. The indoctrination of mass culture manipulates his mental life. The contrast between the given and the possible is flattened out. Mass man believes that he lives in the best possible world, a criticism made as well in The Organization Man. Mass man identifies too closely with his society which manipulates his inner life in a sort of obsequious totalitarianism.

Choices are flattened out in mass society. Political parties are indistinguishable from one another, unions work in tandem with management. The Welfare and Warfare state, as Marcuse labels it, creates in administered life for the individual which makes it pointless for him to insist on self-determination. Freedom becomes superfluous. Marcuse thus questions the Marxist doctrine of the inevitability of historical crisis.

According to Marcuse, man in mass society has no inner life. He thinks that he is happy, but this is a product of false consciousness.

The work is most powerful in its critique of mass culture. When the President responded to the attacks of 9/11 by calling on Americans to shop, one is reminded of Marcuse's mass man. However, Marcuse might be begging the question a bit. He sets out to explain why individuals in mass capitalist societies have no interest in overthrowing those societies, and seems to answer the question by arguing that they can't think for themselves. Like Gramsci, he runs the risk of becoming a Marxist who explains why others don't become Marxist with the insulting answer that they've been indoctrinated and therefore cannot make their own decision to become Marxist.

Also, there is a risk in too broadly defining 'servitude'. At times, Marcuse makes an argument similar to Foucault's startling comment that Truman's America and Stalinist Russia are indistinguishable. We must be able to recognize the Holocaust or the Gulags as involving a very distinct sort of unfreedom that is qualitatively worse than being duped by mass culture. By defining democracy as totalitarianism, Marcuse runs the risk of questioning why it is that we should oppose totalitarianism.


Max Horkheimer "The Eclipse of Reason" (1947)

Max Horkheimer's 1947 book The Eclipse of Reason argues that individuals in "contemporary industrial culture" experience a "universal feeling of fear and disillusionment", which can be traced back to the impact of ideas that originate in the Enlightenment conception of reason, as well as the historical development of industrial society. Before the Enlightenment, reason was seen as an objective force in the world. Now, it is seen as a "subjective faculty of the mind". In the process, the philosophers of the Enlightenment destroyed "metaphysics and the objective concept of reason itself." (18) Reason no longer determines the "guiding principles of our own lives", but is subordinated to the ends it can achieve. In other words, reason is instumentalized.

The effects of this shift are devaluing. There is little love for things in themselves. Philosophies, such as pragmatism and positivism, "aim at mastering reality, not at criticizing it." (65) Man comes to dominate nature, but in the process dominates other men by dehumanizing them. He forgets the unrepeatable and unique nature of every human life and instead sees all living things as fields of means. His inner life is rationalized and planned. "On the one hand, nature has been stripped of all intrinsic value or meaning. On the other, man has been stripped of all aims except self-preservation." (101) Popular Darwinism teaches only a "coldness and blindness toward nature." (127)

According to Horkheimer, the individual in mass society is a cynical conformist. Ironically, the 'idolization of progress' leads to the decline of the individual.

While much of this sounds romantic, Horkheimer largely neglects Romanticism, to his peril, I think. However, he does recognize that a turn towards Romantic primitivism will not solve the problem, and in the case of National Socialism simply made domination more barbaric.
a philosophy that asserts "the unity of nature and spirit" that has been denied. (169) It must foster a mutual critique of both objective and subjective reason. (174) Philosophical ontology "tries to obscure the separation between man and nature" and is therefore inevitably ideological. (182) Critical philosophy can show the relativity and historicity of values, and become "a command directed against commands." (184) Philosophy can become "mankind's memory and conscience." (186)


One Hot Night in the Museum

In a related story, a museum in Oslo is staging an exhibit demonstrating homosexual behavior in countless animal species. If I'm not mistaken, homosexual behavior has been observed in members of something like 500 species. The exhibit, Against Nature? is the first exhibition in the world dedicated to gay animals, outside of South Park. I think the idea is to counter claims made by various anti-gay groups that homosexuality is "against nature".

Okay, my first question (after 'will it be hot?') would be why a Natural History Museum wouldn't see it as a bit, I don't know, lowering to engage in public debates with anyone, much less with homophobes. Is this intellectually worthwhile at all? I mean, isn't it one step from this to Jerry Springer? Also, aren't they taking on a rather stupid argument anyway? Is there honestly anybody making the 'against nature' argument who really has any idea what they're talking about?

My next question would be why they think this argument would work anyway. The fundamentalists aren't opposed to homosexuality because they think it goes against natural law; they're opposed because they think it goes against God's law, which is a totally different thing. In other words, even if they accept that some cats dig cats, and some chicks just dig chicks, it doesn't really change the fact that their God says 'No!' I assume they'd just expect gays and lesbians to remain celibate.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

Flimsy's "Believe it or Burn!" Museum

A Creation Museum is opening in Kentucky, and I honestly have a perverse desire to visit it. "The $27 million project, which also includes a planetarium, a special-effects theater, nature trails and a small lake, is privately funded by people who believe the Bible's first book, Genesis, is literally true."

Not only that, but the site makes it look like they have a section explaining how Adam's sin led to the creation of dinosaurs! Hot damn! This place looks like more fun than a barrel of monkey ancestors! Like a cross between Dinosaur Land and a Jack Chick tract.

Predictably, environmental groups are upset about the zoning. But, surprisingly, other groups have tried to get the place shut down because they object to its Horseshitacular message. But, why? Who cares if these people want to have a museum of crapola? What do you want to bet there's already a UFO museum somewhere in America? Or a Scientology Museum? Or a Museum of Mermaids? Or a Unicorn Museum? I mean, what difference does it make if people want to teach their kids that Noah fought the raptors or whatever?

I can totally understand why parents don't want this stuff taught in their kid's Biology class. But, honestly, does it really hurt the rest of us that some people choose to believe nonsense? Trust me, I've met plenty of well-educated liberal academics who still believe that flouride and microwaves cause cancer, or that second-hand smoke is more dangerous than smoking, or that Einstein's wife did all of his math for him, or that gender is culturally constructed, or any other number of flimsy ideas, and to be honest, it doesn't really make much of an impact on my life. I've started to think that other people's reality tunnels aren't really my problem. One of the amazing aspects of the human animal is our ability to create elaborate realities to replace this one according to our will. People should see this place as a triumph of the imagination- an Art Museum!


Adam Smith "The Wealth of Nations" (1779)

The question of whether or not the development capitalism is tied to the Enlightenment is perhaps best answered by considering Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. It's also perhaps worth remembering that Smith considered himself not an economist, but a moral philosopher.

Smith's book is largely a refutation of the mercantilist idea that a nation's wealth is determined by its supply of capital. Instead Smith argues that a nation's wealth is determined by its "annual labor" and argues against the sort of protectionist tariffs that mercantilist theories call for. He explains how industry can be most rationally organized and how this can lead to a 'more opulent' society through increased production.

In a sense, Smith is explaining how capitalism works, but he's also dealing with laborers and how they work. By making labor the measure of a society, he is arguing that the welfare of every worker in the society is important in ensuring that the society functions. What he calls the 'progressive state' is best for the laboring poor, and thus most wealthy. He wants the laborers, who have been unappreciated by mercantilist emphasis on farmers, to be revalued. He argues that, by improving the lot of the poor, and liberalizing laws, a state becomes wealthy. He is trying to rationalize labor and explain how it might operate better, but he's also representative of the liberalizing mood of his age. The Russian Tsar's drawn out decision to emancipate the serfs was directly inspired by Smith's argument that a capitalist economy needed a free and mobile labor force, and it's worth remembering that Smith was considered a radical in his day.

Smith shares the Enlightenment focus on progress. Historically, he agrees with Rousseau that private property was the start of civil society. (766) But, he also sees states as progressing, and believes that certain practices can retard that progress. His 'progressive state' will abandon the outdated practices of slavery and primogeniture, and mercantilist tariffs that slow progress. It's important to note though that Smith is much more ambivalent about capitalism than he is made out to be. He is clear about the need of societies to increase, and cease to violate "that natural liberty which it is the proper business of law, not to infringe, but to support." (353) For Smith, individualism and liberalism facilitate capitalism. But, Smith is not the cheerleader for Capital that he has been made out to be. Prefiguring later critics, he warns that the division of labor "destroys intellectual, social, and martial virtues," and suggests that the state remedy this by rigorous public education. (839) It's interesting to compare this to Marx's claim, nearly a century later, that capitalism will break all of the old communal bonds. Given how they've been remembered, it's ironic to consider that, in terms of culture, both Marx and Smith were conservatives.

He also shares the Enlightenment fascination with human nature. He explains how the natural 'propensity' towards self-interest leads to the division of labor. Smith argues, famously, that this self-interest leads every man to look for the work that is most advantageous to himself, but that he also works, without knowing it, to promote the general interest. This is where he makes his sole reference to the 'invisible hand'. Throughout the book though Smith argues that individualism, unrestrained, will work to further society. There is again the argument that natural laws and human institutions can be reconciled with one another.

Surprisingly, for some readers, Smith is also opposed to corporations, monopolies, and most private interest groups. He believes that corporations, of any sort, corrupt the working man. (149) I'm not sure it's a far stretch to compare this to the Enlightenment case against 'factionalism'. Smith writes: "The sophistry of merchants inspired by the spirit of monopoly has confounded the common-sense of mankind." (527) In a sense, I think we could compare Rousseau's ideal of free individuals, free of factions, whose free wills added together embody the General Will to Smith's idea of liberated laborers, free of corporations, whose work added together embodies the National Wealth, and whose self-interest furthers the general interest.


Gotthold Lessing "Nathan the Wise" (1779)

Gotthold Lessing's 1779 play Nathan the Wise doesn't quite hold up as theatre, but it survives as a didactic argument for religious tolerance. Lessing's play is unique for its time in making the Jewish patriarch Nathan, modeled after Lessing's friend Moses Mendelssohn, the central character of the piece. The play further makes its case with the often-noted 'ring parable' in the third act, which suggests that religious tolerance between the three major monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) through a rational understanding of the limits of human knowledge.

According to the parable, an Eastern patriarch owned a ring with "the magic power that he who wore it, trusting its strength, was loved of God and men." The patriarch had three sons and, while on his deathbed, realized that all three would wish to inherit the ring. So, he had a jewler make two more rings, "in all points identical", and gave each son one of the rings, claiming that it was the magic ring. The sons eventually go to battle and then to court over the rings, still not knowing which is the true ring. The Judge's advice to the sons: "Accept the matter wholly as it stands, if each one from his father has the ring then let each one believe his ring to be the true one. Possibly the father wished to tolerate no longer in his house the tyranny of just one ring! Let each aspire to emulate his father’s unbeguiled, unprejudiced affection! Let each strive to match the rest in bringing to the fore the magic of the opal in his ring!"

The parable offers a solution to the domestic religious tensions in the play, but it also suggests an answer to religious strife based on an honest empirical assessment of the limits of our own knowledge. Lessing argues that our limited knowledge should prevent any of us from deciding that we are of the 'one true faith', or that other monotheistic religions, having the same source, are 'false religions'. However, by seeming to limit what it is that we can say for sure about religion to the fact that it is given by God, and that we cannot know His will, but should live virtuously, the play seems to argue for Deism. Certainly, the fact that Lessing was a Mason is not incompatible with a belief in Diesm.


Today's French Word

Déesse: Goddess.

- La beauté?
-Je l'aimerais volontiers, déesse et imortelle.

-Baudelaire, "Le Spleen de Paris"


Today's English Word

Otiose: (adj.)
1. Lazy, indolent.
2. Of no use.
3. Ineffective, futile.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Robert Anton Wilson has Immanentized the Eschaton

Robert Anton Wilson has died on 11/1/2007.

When Wilson, or R.A.W. as he was called, was sick, a friend told me that his books had helped him survive adolescence. R.A.W. actually helped me to survive the roughest part of my own adolescence- I read his books while in the mental institution at age 15 and they probably did more to cure me than the institution itself. When you realize how little you know, and what a role you play in creating your own reality, it's almost impossible to ever feel trapped by anything, and that was the essence of R.A.W.'s writing, for me anyway. It's strange to consider how he has affected my own way of looking at the world. I find it almost impossible to be afraid of anything that I'm supposed to be afraid of, or unwilling to entertain any ideas that I'm supposed to find unthinkable. I just can't take any of them seriously. If Groucho taught me to appreciate the absurd, Wilson taught me how to apply the absurd to all reality. I'm still learning. When his doctors gave him about a week left to live (correctly), R.A.W. wrote: "I don't see how to take death seriously. It seems absurd." I think so too.

One last story, from one of R.A.W.'s books:

Wavy Gravy once asked a Zen Roshi, "What happens after death?"

The Roshi replied, "I don't know."

Wavy protested, "But you're a Zen Master!"

"Yes," the Roshi admitted, "but I'm not a dead Zen Master."


Friday, January 12, 2007

Cesare Beccaria "Of Crimes and Punishments" (1764)

The empirical project of the Enlightenment is tied to a larger project of reform of social institutions. If men can use their individual reason to analyze the structures that they are born into, the hope is that they can then rationally organize those structures. They can base institutions on a foundation of empirical reason, instead of upon inherited ideas, prejudices, or superstitions. Therefore, many Enlightenment arguments for reform begin with an appeal to empirical reason.

Cesare Beccaria begins his examination Of Crimes and Punishments by similarly criticizing those people who allow their opinions "be determined rather by the opinions of others than by the result of their own examination." Laws should, rationally, be established to secure "The greatest happiness for the greatest number", but instead have reflected the private interests of powerful people, a claim that, interestingly, Nietzsche will repeat about all morality in The Genealogy of Morals.

Beccaria accepts a Hobbsian view of natural man and agrees that individuals enter into civil society to escape a state of war. He therefore shares the contractualist argument of Hobbes and Rousseau- society is bound together by an unwritten contract between rulers and ruled. However, he differs from Hobbes in believing that the only laws that are valid are those that correspond to "the indelible sentiments of the heart of man." Anything that goes beyond the need to keep order, as determined by the individual in searching his own conscience, is invalid. Therefore, intellectual and moral self-determination, what Beccaria calls enlightened reason, is crucial for keeping societies from swinging into tyranny.

Beccaria is therefore part of the Enlightenment argument of Constitutionalism- that is, the idea that the power of government should be restrained from interfering in social life as much as possible, that societies should however be governed by laws, and that when the state must use laws to keep order, those laws should be fixed, abstract, and general. (see Montesquieu) Laws prevent a ruler from acting in an arbitrary way, and so becoming a tyrant. As Franz Neumann explains it, the legislature is a mouthpiece for the laws and not vice-versa.

Every member of society should know when he is criminal and when innocent.

The punishment of a crime cannot be just if the society has done nothing to prevent it.

That a punishment may not be an act of violence, of one, or of many, against a private member of society, it should be public, immediate, and necessary, the least possible in the case given, proportioned to the crime, and determined by the laws.

Beccaria argues that crimes should be measured by the harm they do to society. Punishments should have the aim of preventing the criminal from doing further harm to society, and to prevent others from commiting those crimes. Trials are public, and punishments serve a didactic function. They should be speedy so as to make a greater impression. He believes that torture is barbaric because it punishes someone who hasn't yet been found guity, and as morality is a matter of reason, it can't be induced by physical pain. It can also encourage the innocent to confess falsely to avoid further pain. Torture has been adopted by custom and superstition.

Similarly, Beccaria opposes the death penalty as being "neither useful nor necessary" in society. It is carried out too quickly to make a suitable impression on potential criminals, and removes the possibility of reforming the guilty. Similarly, putting a price on a fugitive's head "confounds all the ideas of virtue and morality, already too wavering in the mind of man." Also "the most certain method of preventing crimes is, to perfect the system of education."

In a sense, punishments share in the Enlightenment project of public pedagogy. As Foucault critiques in Punish and Discipline, 'rational' punishment here is inscribed upon the soul and not the body of the offender. Beccaria wants punishments to be 'certain' but not 'severe'. They teach the criminal a lesson, but not through physical pain. Unlike Foucault, I consider the way that this punishment is doled out in modern prisons to be in great need of reform, but a step above corporal punishment. Also, unlike Foucault, I don't see possibilities for freedom as necessarily existing in transgression.

He also shares the Utility argument of Bentham- that laws should ensure the greatest happiness for the greatest number. He shares the enlightenment idea that social institutions can be made more rational and thus improved- the idea of progress. He also shares the enlightenment idea that this can occur if laws are made concordent with "the natural sentiments of mankind".

State of Nature: "There is this difference between a state of society and a state of nature, that a savage does no more mischief to another than is necessary to procure some benefit to himself: but a man in society is sometimes tempted, from a fault in the laws, to injure another without any prospect of advantage."


John Locke "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" (1690)

At the heart of the Enlightenment is an attempt to reconceptualize perception and give it a solid and universal foundation. There is a question of what it is that we know, how we know it, and what the limits of that knowledge might be that begins with Locke and reaches its outer limits with Kant. This project aims at developing knowledge of the world that is individual and empirical through a method that is universally applicable. It also stems from an common belief amongst Enlightenment thinkers that individuals must cease to be beholden to inherited ideas, an idea that recieves its most characteristic expression in Kant's "Have courage to use your own understanding!"

Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding is important as one of the first attempts since Aristotle (see also: Francis Bacon) to describe human perception. Locke's major contention throughout the essay is that there are no innate ideas: everything that we understand comes to the mind through passive Perception and Reflection, and then may be elaborated through the active mental processes of Combining ideas or Abstraction. However, the mind is an empty curio drawer upon birth and every idea we have ultimately originates in passive perception of the world around us. William Blake opposed Locke because he felt that this understanding of perception destroyed the power of imagination, but one needn't be an artist to find Locke's tabula rasa a bit depressing.

Locke's Essay is revolutionary because it puts human knowledge on a universal foundation. Locke doesn't tell the reader how to think; just that he should trust the knowledge that he gains by his own perceptions. There is an implied challenge to religious scripture here, but Locke does not follow through with it, instead arguing that our perceptions offer us knowledge of the existence of God based on the a priori argument- if everything we percieve had its origin in another thing, ultimately there must be a first cause of all being and power which is logically God. However, I think that Locke's empiricism makes it difficult to accept the accounts of miracles in the scriptures. David Hume, in his Lockean Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, actually develops the argument that accounts of miracles in the scriptures cannot be established based on eyewitness testimony of events that go against the laws of nature. Hume's skepticism of miraculous accounts would seem to discredit key scriptures such as the miracles performed by Moses, or even the resurrection of Christ.

However, Locke does not go quite so far, arguing that knowledge of God can be gained through the senses, and counciling only against religious conflict. In his Letter on Toleration, Locke makes the point that the limited nature of our own brains makes it impossible for any of us to believe that we have the sole truth about something as mysterious and speculative as the nature of God. In a sense, Locke could be seen as arguing for humility in regards to things of faith, and not atheism.


Carl Becker "The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers" (1959)

Carl Becker's "The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers" argues expertly for a reinterpretation of the philosophes. Instead of being the devout secularists and athiests that they have been made out to be, Becker believes instead that they thought within the intellectual framework of Middle Ages philosophy and Christianity. That there "is more of Christian philosophy than has yet been dreamt of in our histories." (31) Much of the power of Becker's argument comes from his expert writing style and willingness to upend commonly recieved ideas. The problem with Becker's argument, in my mind, is that he too often allies philosophes with theologians based on the fact that they used similar vocabulary. This seems as misguided as aligning the National Socialists with theologians because they both used the terms 'purity' and 'cleanliness'. The philosophes might have used the ideas of earlier religious thinkers, and many of them were kinder to the church than Voltaire or Hume, but it's quite hard for me to take seriously the arguments of a Voltaire, Hume, or Locke, and agree that they "demolished the Heavenly City of St. Augustine only to rebuild it with more up-to-date materials."


Thursday, January 11, 2007

David Hume "Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion" (1779)

Hume is perhaps the most relentlessly empiricist, and even athiestic writer I've read in this section. Most of the Enlightenment writers can be classed as Diests and then we can argue about what that means. I don't really think that Hume can though.

Cleanthes, who is taken to represent the teleological or "Design" argument for God's existence, argues that the universe seems to operate in a way that resembles a number of machines. He says that "the curious adapting of means to ends, throughout nature" resembles the machines of human design. Therefore the universe must also be designed. Philo argues that we cannot apply the rules of one narrow corner of the universe (the mind) to the rest of the universe and hope for any homology. Moreover, no man has any experience of the origin of the universe. We do not see all design in nature, which is infinite. For all we know, the universe might consist of very shoddy workmanship! Also, we cannot claim to know the mind of the Diety. Our "limited experience" is no means by which to judge the "unlimited extent of nature". Ultimately, Philo (and Hume) argues that the (intelligent) design argument "exceeds all human reason and inquiry".

Demea makes the cosmological argument, or the argument from first cause. Matter could not have acquired motion without a first mover. Philo asks why this must be the case. Humans have no experience of matter at absolute rest anywhere in the universe. Demea argues that "whatever exists must have a cause or reason of its existence." Philo asks why this must be so, and if there must also be a cause for the mind of God. Also, if we can ever account for every fact in the chain of facts, why would we need to account for the collection of facts? Ultimately, he scandalizes Demea by discussing the problem of evil, specifically how it came into being.

Finally, Philo claims to undermine religion at every turn in order to reform belief. "When religion stood entirely upon temper and education, it was thought proper to encourage melancholy; as indeed mankind never have recourse to superior powers so readily as in that condition. But as men have now learned to form principles and to draw consequences, it is necessary to change the batteries, and to make use of such arguments as will endure at least some scrutiny and examination." Ultimately, though Philo, and Hume, do not admit of any religious arguments that can endure scrutiny.


Voltaire "Letters Concerning the English Nation" (1733)

(Note: I'm cramming for one of my written exams on about 70-80 texts, which I'll be taking in a week. I've read all of the texts, but I'm now reviewing them together. So, I thought that I might enjoy blogging my notes. These should not be used as Spark Notes by any students on earth!)

Voltaire's text takes the form of letters from a Frenchman visiting England. Instead of being straight travel writing however, Voltaire attempts to survey all of English politics and culture. In a sense, he does this to make serious criticisms of French culture. Enlgand becomes the counter-example to French norms. However, he also uses irony to question Enlgish norms throughout the work. So, for example, the famous passage:
"If one religion only were allowed in Enlgand, the government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another's throats, but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace." This can be taken in three ways:
1. As a straightforward statement in support of religious tolerance.
2. As an implied criticism of the dominance of Catholicism in France.
3. As an ironic comment on the lack of complete religious tolerance in England at this time.
Voltaire, I think, intends for the passage to be read in all three ways at once. Voltaire's style is playful and allusive. However, I think there are key themes throughout the work that tie it to the Enlightenment more generally.

1. Again, religious tolerance is a key theme. Voltaire notes that "A man should never... attempt to win over a fanatic by strength of reasoning." (11) He argues that religious persecution "seldom has any other effect than to increase the number of proselytes." (18) While Voltaire is often seen, incorrectly I think, as an aethiest, here he comes not to bury theism, but to argue against the public dominance of any specific religion, or the public conflict between religions. "The Romans never knew the dreadful folly of religious Wars, an abomination reserved for devout Preachers of patience and humility." (33)

2. Political moderation is another key theme. Voltaire's account of Enlgish political liberty is relatively Whiggish. He notes that the English "are the only people upon earth who have been able to prescribe limits to the power of Kings by resisting them; and who by a series of struggles have at last established that wise Government where the Prince is all powerful to do good, and at the same time is restrained from committing evil; where the Nobles are great without insolence, though there are no Vassals, and where the People share in the government without confusion." (34) The implication is that France has a long way to go in regards to rational and restrained government. But, when he writes that the "house of Lords and that of the Commons divide the legislative power under the King," Voltaire is making a statement about the ideal form of English constitutionalism at a time when it was under debate in England.

3. Another key theme is the power of experiential philosophy. Voltaire attributes all inventions before the use of the experimental method to luck. "In a word, no one before the Lord Bacon, was acquainted with Experimental Philosophy..." (52) Voltaire's narrative sets up a chain of heroes, including Locke, Bacon, and Newton who radically reconfigured how human beings encountered the world, making possible scientific knowledge of the universe, but circumscribing metaphysical knowledge of it. This should limit the ability of religions to speak with certainty about metaphysics, and therefore to clash over religious issues. It is not much of a stretch to call Voltaire a materlialist. When he criticizes Descartes, he does so based on the fact that Descartes speculated far beyond the abilities of his senses. Voltaire prefers Locke's version of the soul to that of Descartes, and prefers Isaac Newton's ideas on matter.

Ultimately, Voltaire believes in a sort of intellectual self-determination based on direct sensory experience, and makes Bacon, Locke, and Newton spokesmen for this point of view.

4. Ultimately, this is a cultural history. Not only is Voltaire attempting to catalogue the intellectual and cultural heroes of England (Locke, Newton, Bacon, Shakespeare, etc.); he is also arguing that it is the intellectual geniuses who push a civilization forward, as opposed to Kings or military leaders. "If true Greatness consists in having recieved from Heaven a mighty Genius, and in having employed it to enlighten our own Minds and that of others, a Man like Sir Isaac Newton, whose equal is hardly to found in a thousand Years, is the trule great Man. And those Politicians and Conquerors, were generally so many illustrious wicked Men." (49) He wants us to see the English nation as having been shaped by its geniuses. This is why men must use their own senses, and not be beholden to imposed structures of belief ('fanatics' as Voltaire phrases it); freedom of thought will allow the few geniuses who exist to change society. "You see that opinions are subject to revolutions as well as Empires." (32)


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Milgram Redux

In 1963, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment, which has since become very famous, in which he asked participants to administer electric shocks to a stranger at the bidding of an authority figure. The subjects were led to believe that each shock was at a higher voltage and, after a few shocks, the unseen subject was screaming in pain from the other room. The 'shocked subject' was an actor, but the subject administering the shocks did not know this. Even with the unseen subject screaming in pain that they feared a heart attack was coming on, if the authority figure commanded it, 65% of the subjects could be ordered to administer the highest shock of 450 volts.

The experiment is quite well-known and is often held up as an example of the common person's willingness to commit an atrocity, against their own will, if a figure in an authority position commands it. Many people have suggested that the experiment shows how conformist Americans were in the early 60s. ABC News Primetime recreated the experiment recently. How many men were willing to potentially kill the unseen subject? 65% Milgram used almost no women in his experiment, leading many to argue that women would have been more humane. How many women could Dateline pressure to potentially kill the unseen subject? 88%


The Joy of Conversation

To assuage anyone's fears about my state of being, I should post that today was a good day for me. For one thing, it has finally snowed! The lack of snow was worrying me. We live in Canada, for crying out loud, and there's been no snow? In December? The white flakes were a relief.

Also, I visited the university to meet with the professor I will be working for this semester and spent quite some time talking with other grad students in the History Department lounge. It's pretty funny to think about it- we got 'caught up', but I have no idea what they did over the break; it was more like us talking for two hours about education, Italian post-war culture, and why it might be depressing to write a dissertation on the bomb! So, I have no idea how they're doing personally, but it was good to visit with people again.

I think Patrick was right that I'm looking for community. When you spend all day reading these books, one naturally wants to discuss them with someone, and often you discover that most 'civilians' don't want to hear about it. I suppose it's much the same for model railroad enthusiasts, or collectors of mono LPs, or something. I've noticed how easy it is for males my age to relate to each other, even if they're strangers, by bringing up the local sports teams. Many academics I know follow sports and can keep up in these conversations. But, alas, I pay no attention to any sports, so I have little to say.

Similarly, I have no real interest in computer technology, or career moves, or new products. So, I spend a lot of times at social gatherings talking to my wife. She is lovely though, and I think I should also note the sheer joy of having a conversation with her about anything. I was thinking the other day, while we were strolling around the Mall together, and I was watching these teenyboppers (who seem to be older every year! I mean, some of them must have been 28!), about how many American movies there are in which the 'sexy' femme is essentially a borderline retarded teenage girl. But, this is nonsense. There is nothing sexier on earth than an independent woman who has come into her own and who can carry on an intelligent conversation. Seriously, compare Charlotte Rampling in any film with Hilary Duff in any film and see who's sexier!

So, I think that this weird monastic job that I have, with its introverts and oddballs, and our desperate need to have lots of time alone, also requires us to spend time together. Freud, Socrates, and countless other people wiser than me worked out their ideas mainly in conversation. We might think alone, but we refine and reflect and develop our thoughts together. We really are social animals, aren't we?


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Quote, Unquote

Conservative writer Ben Shapiro breaks down the 'drawbacks' of John McCain that Conservative Republicans should consider before voting for him:

"his advanced age, his campaign finance reform record, his Gang of 14, his wishy-washy stance on homosexuality, his anti-conservative economic populism and his anti-torture positions."

That's the new conservative thinking. Here's a bit of the old:
"Considerate people, before they declare themselves, will observe the use which is made of power; and particularly of so trying a thing as new power in new persons, of whose principles, tempers, and dispositions they have little or no experience, and in situations, where those who appear the most stirring in the scene may possibly not be the real movers."
-Edmund Burke


Self-Indulgent Blogging

I tend to treat this blog as something like an internal monologue. I lost all interest in 'building an audience' some time ago, actually about two months into this project, and have tended to write things so that I won't forget them. Currently, I am several months into my exam 'reading lists', and starting to feel the strain mentally. Also, since I cannot expect that others cognate in the same way I do, it's useful for me to assess my mental state at this time. That said, it still feels indulgent in that bloggy way. Sorry.

1) When I talk about my train of thought, I'm usually referring to three or four ongoing trains of thought, which I seem to be unable to stop. Currently, one channel is reviewing my childhood, a second is reviewing The Triumph of the Therapeutic, a third is reviewing the books I've read on Marxism for my reading list, and a fourth is worrying about my upcoming reading list in French history. All four are playing at the same time, and I have almost no difficulty jumping from one to the other, or switching topics in any one channel. Therefore, conversations with me, especially the ones in which I'm simply verbalizing the channels, can be exhausting and confusing. Even worse, I seem to be totally unaware of that fact at times. It's also I think why I find it nearly impossible to fall asleep, impossible to tell the difference between sleep and imagining, and generally able to dictate how my dreams will progress when I am dreaming.

2) People always say that life is short, but my own life feels much longer than it has been. It's very hard for me to believe that my childhood took place any more recently than 50 years ago, and it feels like it was during the 1930s. Moreover, I feel convinced that I have lived through those six or seven decades instead of the mere three that I have actually lived. I used to joke that "Life isn't short; I've been alive for as long as I can remember", but there's something to that.

3) I am currently extremely lonely. Our town is very boring, and it's hard for me to find a support network of geeks to talk about geekish things. I've enjoyed the people on-line who are listed in the links; but my general experience is that the on-line community that it's about as intellectually active as the television community. When I'm at Mall University, I enjoy talking to the other PhD students, but they never seem to be around. The Master's students in our program tend towards a bone-deep anti-intellectualism, and I have no interest in discussing how 'reading is gay' with them.

4) I feel crotchety because I can't think of many advances in the last decade that don't depress the hell out of me. I have always been a devoted lover of pop culture and shopping, but lately it feels like turbo capitalism has cheapened and degraded everything good. Universities spend their time aping cruise lines, the artistry of film has been replaced with idiot-movies aimed at 22 year old boys and shot on digital video that is profoundly ugly, pop music is all recorded so that every instrument is turned up in the mix as high as possible so it sounds like one monotone churning thud, cell phones have made people rude in public places, the internet has made its users mindless blowhard mouthpieces for agitprop, literature has been replaced by yuppie memoirs, and I meet almost nobody anymore who understands the idea of innate cultural value as being superior to market value or simple novelty. I don't know what an Ipod is, or a blackberry, or how most technologies work. Everyone wants to tell me how much money they make at the jobs they hate. I hate that people talk like blogs, instead of making complex arguments like books. I feel like such an asshole because I hate people, but love my students, hate the mass media, but still cry when I watch Breakfast at Tiffany's, hate the trite worthlessness of people my age, but obsess over the meaning of lines of Blake, which most people would consider to be a fairly worthless activity. My dream is being put out to pasture to live in the country with my wife and cat.

5) I worry that these are the dark ages and that no great art will be created in my lifetime.

6) I worry that being lonely will turn me into one of those grad student dicks who looks down on everyone else. I don't feel superior- I feel freakishly abnormal and bizarre. When I bitch about the anti-intellectualism around me, my idea of an intellectual is Proust, not myself.

7) I love the aesthetics of machines. We've left the Machine Age, you know. Every new invention is Digital, not Machine, and old machines are being made obsolete. But, I love the kinesthetic quality of a typewriter, or a rotary phone, or an old camera. I love the homology between machines and the body, and consider the Digital Age to have switched to a homology between the Mind and Chip. It's the old mind/body problem and we lost the body. I miss the body.

8) I'm always joking and serious. But, I'm not as funny as I used to be. In my 'student evaluations' this semester, some of my students said that I'm funny. I was glad. But I used to be a lot funnier.


Monday, January 08, 2007

Biology and History 4

Don't misunderstand me- I'm not opposed to contextualizing knowledge- after all, that's what intellectual history is. When I study Burke's idea of the sublime, my 'job' is to historicize it, at least to some extent. This is what we do. However, I also think that we need to be careful not to mistake the moon for the finger pointing at it. The 'sublime' is a referent, but not only a referent. It has an objective existence. Burke (and to an extent Kant) are so clear about the experience that I should, having a human central nervous system, be able to experience it as well.

A lousy literary analysis of the sublime that I once read argued that it was a 'trope' that Kant used to denigrate the barbarian Other, who is supposedly deaf to the sublime. But, the problem I have with this sort of 'historicizing' is that it reduces historical figures to deployers of tropes- unwitting liars in a sense. In other words, it argues that the sublime has no objective existence, but Kant's racism not only has an objective existence, but structures his thought. It's no wonder why students come out of university with a bizarre idea that everyone born before 1969 was a quasi-fascist.

Also, it's just a boring argument! After a while, all of these sorts of essays read as:

"____ has no objective existence. ____ is instead a construction of competing discourses that is fluid, contested, and multivalent. ____ is ultimately a trope that is shaped by, and reveals underlying contestations for power." (Fill in the blank)

My take on the sublime is that it relates to a specific affective response to art. Moreover, I think that we can quantify this response in specific neural processes. I think we can empirically verify what Burke and Kant were going on about. So, I think that the 'discourse' was created by nature, and not vice-versa. In other words, I think that our understanding of biology changes, while basic human biology changes much more slowly. I think that Burke's brain was structurally the same as mine, although much wiser.

Boyd puts this in a different way:
"In fact, not everything in human lives is difference. Commonalities also exist, and without those commonalities between people, culture could not exist, since it could not pass from one person to another or one tradition to another. Cultural Critique wants to stress the “situatedness” of all that is human, but wants to define that situation only in terms of particular cultures. But why not also the unique situation of being human, with the special powers evolution has made possible in us?"

He suggests a "biocultural perspective" that accepts commonalities between human beings across cultures and time periods. And, I would argue that we cannot really do what we do- study other human beings, in my case past human beings- without already agreeing to this. We can argue that there is 'no human nature', or that 'there is nothing outside of the text', or stress the 'difference' and 'situatedness' or our subjects. However, we cannot even claim to study them if there isn't some aspect of their humanity that we, being also human, can comprehend.

Of course, let's remember that these constructionist ideas aren't 'hegemonic' in historiography anyway. There are plenty of social historians left who are busy counting the amount of coal that some mine in 19th century Britain produced from year to year, without any doubt that such information has an objective existence. And intellectual history is often written with the belief that we're tracing the development of knowledge, not simply the tropes of eras in history. Even my own (forthcoming!) historiography, when it deals to some extent with airy fairy issues of ontology in 19th century France, is rooted in the idea that each generation was gaining a unique understanding of something that I take for granted, namely being. Moreover, it's going to require an ungodly amount of empirical study of shipping records and manifests!

But I do think that it's high time that we critique les critiques. One needn't agree with the argument (popular among conservatives in the same way that the hagiographic argument is popular among leftists- and equally tone-deaf) that Derrida et alii were a purely destructive influence in academia to agree that their ideas shouldn't be a hegemonic endpoint either.


Biology and History 3

Anyway, Boyd argues that anti-foundationalism wasn't the revolution it's made out to be.

"If they had been less parochial, the literary scholars awed by Derrida’s assault on the whole edifice of Western thought would have seen beyond the provincialism of this claim. They would have known that science, the most successful branch of human knowledge, had for decades accepted antifoundationalism, after Karl Popper’s Logik der Forschung (The Logic of Scientific Discovery, 1934) and especially after Popper’s 1945 move to England, where he was influential among leading scientists. They should have known that a century before Derrida, Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection— hardly an obscure corner of Western thought—had made anti-foundationalism almost an inevitable consequence."

The weird thing for me is that most discourse analysis of science that I encounter has no idea about this tradition in modern science (which also includes Einstein). Heisenberg's idea of complementarity suggests (I think) that the only way we can grasp reality is to report it in different ways and put them together to complement each other in an exhaustive overlay of different descriptions that incorporate apparently contradictory notions. I don't know why humanities people aren't interested in this core of science writing, and instead pretend that scientists are these quasi-fascist 'essentialists'.

The problem I have with discourse analysis in general is that it tends to put reality in quotation marks. But, by treating all human expression as 'tropes', it argues that all expression is dishonest- a pretense for power relations. This becomes bizarre when a historical source expresses horror at some act of violence, for example, and the historian contends that they are utilizing tropes in a discourse mobilized to essentialize the Other. The problem is, if we can't trust any objective statements about reality, how in the world can we trust the historian's statements about those power relationships, which we're expected to believe really existed?

Since scientists already realize that human knowledge is bound to be incomplete, (also see Heisenberg) relative, and falsifiable, why do humanities people believe that these 'radical' statements undermine the entire structure of Western knowledge? And why in the world do the stewards of Western knowledge so often feel the compulsion to enact attacks upon it? And yet uncritically accept attacks upon it from the 1960s?

"Recognizing our uncertainty helps us in our search to understand more. But those in the humanities who have become “disciples” of the “greatest generation” argue against the possibility of knowledge or truth, since meaning is forever deferred. That is the knowledge or truth, however selfcontradictory and self-defeating, that they insist on imparting. Their commitment to undermining the possibility of knowledge, even while claiming this as bracing new knowledge, explains much of the stasis of the Theorized humanities that Menand deplores."

Again, this stasis dates back to Nietzsche, who worked out several of these ideas and then became a catatonic. Perhaps there's a lesson there.


Biology and History 2

What Boyd is arguing against, and suggesting that the new generation should be arguing against, are certain ideas that he associates with French poststructuralism.

A “greatest generation” of iconoclasts established two fundamental principles: first, anti-foundationalism, the idea that there is no secure basis for knowledge; and, second, difference, the idea that any universal claims or attempts to discuss universal features of human nature are instead merely the product of local standards, often serving the vested interests of the status quo, and should be critiqued, dismantled, overturned.

What philosophy students might notice is that lit studies might have adopted these ideas in 1966, but Nietzsche argued for them in the late 1800s. Let's be honest though- Nietzsche wasn't arguing that those 'myths' should be overturned, but countered with myths. I would also suggest that Nietzsche eventually denied anything outside of 'myths' and 'art'. Also, I might be wrong (as happens), but I think that 'anti-foundationalism' has a foot in Kant too.

Anyway, these ideas have, apparently, become commonplace in literary studies. I would argue that they have become common in historiography that aims at 'discourse analysis'- actually, most cultural history really, and have been as unquestioned there. There's a lot of timidity amongst newer scholars... an unwillingness to challenge the status quo of the profession. So we see a lot of newly minted PhDs whose dissertations are on a "Foucaultian analysis of 1920s janitors" or whatever, basically rehashing the same old arguments. In a way, it reminds me of psychoanalysis, in which there has never been a successor who could equal Freud, but more diminishing returns from his epigoni.


Biology and History 1

English professor Brian Boyd critiques the state of English departments- expect more essays like this in the weeks after the annual MLA conference. I like his essay overall, especially as it gets at some issues I've been exploring in History writing.

First he notes Lous Menand's complaint that there is too much conformity in the English discipline. New scholars tend to repeat the ideas of older scholars without much willingness to challenge the old guard. "He laments the “culture of conformity” in professors and graduate students alike. He notes with regret that the profession 'is not reproducing itself so much as cloning itself." I've noticed the same thing in historiography, with newer monographs uncritically repeating theories from Benedict Anderson, Foucault, or Gramsci without really questioning them. Even when these theories don't work, I notice that people seem more willing to misread their primary sources than question their borrowed theories.

Then Boyd challenges Menand's belief that the humanities needn't reach out to the sciences, particuarly biology for intellectual material. Boyd is a bit hard on Menand here:

"Well, Professor Menand, you, and those you speak for, are wrong."
(You can imagine him jabbing an accusatory finger here.)

"Until literature departments take into account that humans are not just cultural or textual phenomena but something more complex, English and related disciplines will continue to be the laughingstock of the academic world that they have been for years because of their obscurantist dogmatism and their coddled and preening pseudo-radicalism."

I like that he's willing to sling mud a bit, although I'm personally not swayed by the 'laughingstock' argument. Sometimes, I think we have to be a bit 'obscurantist'- or at least, that there is a difference between the challenging language of Kant, which really does express very challenging ideas, and the challenging language of Lacan, which really seems to me to hide a lot of horseshit. Also, I think we've all met a few engineering majors for whom the humanities will always be a 'laughingstock', since they produce nothing profitable.

That aside, I love biology and have been working on an essay that would explain Burke's ideas of the sublime in relation to a specific sort of neural operation. Will it work? I don't know, but I think it's worth a try. So, I'm all for the suggestion that biology and history should be talking to each other, as we both focus on human beings.


Quote, Unquote

(Recently picked up the Criterion Collection edition of Videodrome. This is from one of the essays included in its booklet. Here Gary Indiana comtrasts Cronenberg's conceit of a video signal that causes permanent hallucinations and the reality of television.)

"'Television makes people stupid,' German writer Hans Magnus Enzenberger declared in an essay. One could qualify this by comparing TV to the Videodrome signal: the more exposure a person gets, the more protracted and ultimately permanent the state of hallucination becomes. The average U.S. television viewer spends eight to twelve hours a day staring into the image-display window of a home appliance. If he or she happens to work on a computer, almost all waking hours are spent looking at a screen and living vicariously in two-dimensional space."
-Gary Indiana


Thursday, January 04, 2007

How to Deal With Students Who Try to Browbeat you Into Giving Them a Higher Grade

(Lately, I've been working on writing up advice for TAs and new instructors that I did not get myself, but wish I had. This is one of my drafts.)

One of the things that I was unprepared for when I started instructing (although I've gotten used to it over time) was dealing with the occasional student who is incredulous about their grade. The first time it happened was with a student whose "D" on his first exam was, to be blunt, generous. The exam was terrible- the essays were off topic, rambling, and painfully short, the short answer questions were simply incorrect- but, it was the first exam, and the kid was a freshman, and etc. etc. etc. So, I kindly spared him from the F.

When the student got back his D exam, he was incredulous. "Excuse me- what exactly is your grading criteria?" he asked in that I'd-like-to-speak-to-your-manager tone that I've learned can come with the territory. When I explained my grading criteria, which are so boring and quotidian that I've seen a variation of them posted in a Maine elementary school, he was apoplectic:"That is not how you're supposed to grade! You're supposed to start by giving everyone an A! And then, if we make any major mistakes, you take off points from the A!" he explained. Being pretty new at this job, I didn't know the decorum, and laughed: "But that's just grade inflation!" And of course it is just grade inflation, but as you'll discover doing the job, there are many students that expect nothing less from us.

So, you have to be the one to introduce them to the idea that "A= Excellent" and not "A= Fine! You did the bare minimum, now leave me the hell alone!" In a perfect world, this would be an easy thing to explain. It would be reinforced by the entire educational system, the parents, and the larger culture. Alas, it's often us TAs who have to do the work.

Quite often, explaining academic standards can take on the character of doing missionary work and converting the natives to Christianity. Sometimes, it can take several weeks and be a very painful process, something like an exorcism. One semester long ago, I had a student who came to my office hours every week for two months trying to convince me that his essay in which he argued that the primary cause of the fall of the Western Roman Empire was the Industrial Revolution really should have been given an A. We read sections of the text together, I drew him a timeline, and made my case as clearly as possible. His case was to simply keep restating, "But, no, I'm right!" Some children, needless to say, should probably be left behind.

The Industrial Revolution student was much easier to deal with than the student who explained to me how grading should be carried out. He reminded me of the entitled rich kid character in every 80s teen comedy ('Do you know who my father is?!'). What you'll find is that there are usually one or two students like this every year. It's also not just us TAs who have to deal with them. Professors seem to get three or four students every semester who are indignant about their grades. I remember once overhearing a master's student in our program (who, frankly, had no business being a master's student anywhere on earth) shouting at an assistant professor that he had 'disrespected' him by giving him a low grade. I think everyone in higher ed has to deal with aggrieved students who believe that a low grade is a personal slight against their personhood. The sad fact is that many of these students have learned that browbeating instructors gets results. But the good news is their numbers are not legion.

Here are some suggestions on how to deal with the student who can't believe that they got anything less than an A:

1) Be willing to reread their exam, essay, homework, or other work. Usually you will find that your assessment of their work hasn't changed in the slightest. But often you'll find that just giving their work another chance is enough to convince them that you really are fair.

2) Look to the administration, professors, or senior faculty for support, if necessary. You'd be surprised at how many of them have good advice for you.

3) Type out your grading criteria in great detail and save copies for those who ask. Also consider handing out a copy of your grading criteria during the first class.

4) Stand your ground! As 'subjective' as grading might seem, after a while it becomes very easy to tell what grade an assignment should recieve. If the student deserved a D, give them a D.

Understand this- all of the hype you've heard about the 'culture wars' is largely just hype. But, there is a marked conflict going on in American academe- between those who believe that education is a moral good and those who think it is a marketable good, between those who believe that the university stands apart from the larger society, and those who think that it looks to the larger society for its direction. For every one of us who thinks that grade inflation is abhorrent, there is at least one faculty member or administrator who thinks it's abhorrent, but figures 'Who cares? So long as the retention rates are high!'

Grade inflation is not an either/or situation, or a switch that gets turned on or off; it is the outcome of millions of small choices that are made by educators. You cannot hold back the ocean of lowered expectations, but you can choose not to swim with the tide.

For those of you TAs, and junior faculty, and visiting professors, I say this- your standards make you part of a cultural revolution. You are the true counterculture.