Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Secret

USA has an article about The Secret, the latest example of popular study in the field of crapology. Apparently, there are a number of Churches that preach similar "power of positive thinking" Panglossian scented-candle babble. I mean, okay let's be honest, there's no accounting for taste. And, if people want to believe stupid things, well who cares really? Besides, it's encouraging that the public has this widespread belief that really old books have wonderous secrets in them-some of them do, and people might even start reading some of them.

You have to wonder though- most traditional ethical systems work by encouraging some sort of empathy in their adherents. So, what about a "Church" that encourages its members to believe that other people who are suffering brought it on themselves by their negative thoughts? (I mean, hell if those German Jews hadn't been so negative...) Isn't this just ugly first world narcissisitic indifference wrapped up in a new age bow?


Friday, March 30, 2007

Today's French

Amer: (adj.) Bitter. (n.) Bitters, Seamark, Gall (of animal)
"Le mouvement, comme le pensée classique, s'organise autour d'un amer visible : le retour au pays et l'esprit."


Today's English

Atrabilious: (adj.) 1. Inclined to melancholy.
2. Having a peevish disposition; surly.


A Question for the Regulars (and everyone else)

I like my regular readers quite a bit. So, this one is for you to comment on. However, the anonymous masses can chime in as well. Anyway, I hadn't heard of "religious naturalism" before. But, this is the description that I found here:

A Worldview and Its Uses

Most of us have a worldview, an
overarching context for life that
helps to shape our beliefs, goals and
actions. This book explores the
science-based worldview known as
naturalism: a comprehensive and
fulfilling alternative to faith-based
religion and other varieties of dualism.

Taking empirical science as the route
to reliable knowledge, naturalism holds
that we inhabit a single, natural world;
there is no separate supernatural realm.
We are fully physical beings whose
origins lie in cosmic and biological evolution.
We are therefore entirely at home in the universe.

By understanding and accepting
our complete connection to the
natural world, naturalism provides
a secure foundation for human
flourishing, an effective basis for
achieving our purposes and
addressing our deepest concerns.
We don't need belief in the
supernatural to sustain us.

Nature, it turns out, is enough."

My question, then would be: Is nature enough to sustain us? What does everyone think?



38-year old Jack Branson has been fighting HIV for 20 years. His doctor recommended that he smoke marijuana in order to keep his medications down. "That or pick out a hospice which you'd like to die in," Branson alleges the doctor told him. She couldn't put her recommendation in writing because she works at the University of Colorado at Denver and Health Sciences Center. Medical marijuana is legal in Colorado, but the university is federally-funded, and so she could lose her job.

Long story short, Branson grows the pot and is arrested. Next week, he will go to court, and the jury will decide if he goes to jail for growing marijuana for medical purposes in a state in which medical marijuana is legal. He plans to commit suicide rather than go to jail. Ever vigilant, the nation-state defends our collective responsibility to suffer and die in order to maintain the authority of the nation-state.


And Now, Why I Disagree with Cultural Conservatives

I've tried to explain where I disagree with the left-leaning academic take on culture. My critiques tend to be the same as those of 'cultural conservatives'. Essentially, I think that the art world is a bit too interested in transgressing cultural boundaries that are all-but-nonexistent anymore, and not interested enough in creating or maintaining boundaries of artistic merit. So why do I agree with cultural conservatives about the problems, but not the solutions?

Since I can't parse The Closing of the American Mind here, maybe it's best to link to a few interviews with leading cultural conservative Roger Kimball and explain where I agree and disagree with him. For the record, I quite admire his work. I'm also going to comment on cultural conservatism more generally.

A lot of my gripes with Kimball are petty. For instance, we clearly disagree about John Stuart Mill, whose On Liberty Kimball finds to be "one of the most toxic books of political philosophy ever written". I admire Mill greatly, and, in general, works that I find to be silly or misguided, Kimball seems to find "toxic" or "destructive".

However, this isn't entirely pedantic. What it points to is teleology- a teleology is a narrative of human history as moving towards a particular goal. Often liberals see human societies as, through much struggle, becoming progressively liberated or egalitarian. On the other hand, conservatives from Plato until now have tended to see human societies as being in decline. Frequently, they write rather alarmist narratives about this decline. Kimball says: "High culture is a great and humanizing resource–and it is, moreover, a resource that is everywhere imperiled today." Imperiled by what he calls the barbarism inside us. It's not surprising that Kimball is a devout Catholic. The Christian teleology ends with the decline and fall of human societies and finally the Rapture.

In the first place, I'm not convinced that "cultural decline" isn't a matter of changing fashions, and therefore wonder if the pendulum couldn't be ready to swing the other way as soon as people get sick of being so shallow and stupid. I agree with Kimball that: "There has been a steady loss of cultural capital as one educational institution after the next -- schools, colleges, museums, and so forth -- waters down its offerings in the name of diversity or populism." In fact, this is a recurrent gripe on this blog as well. But I see this as being market-driven, and suspect that neglected, but growing segments of the 'market' are getting really sick of the vapidity of their own lives. Life was fun, fun, fun 'till Daddy took the meaning away.

But, if culture really is in decline, or imperiled, it's decay cannot be reversed as much as halted. In fact, Plato's Republic is a program to halt the decay of society. Authoritarianism tends to rely on these stop-gap measures, fingers in the dyke, so to speak. Many conservatives push for a renewed reverence towards the past, but see this as inherently antagonistic with an appreciation of the present. I'm not sure it is. I don't buy the idea of a 'culture war' at all, and wonder why conservatives have to filter all human experiences through the model of conflict. Why does society constantly have to be 'defended' in conservative writing?

And I'm not a believer in teleologies. I don't see decline or liberation so much as continual change. What I want is a renewed engagement with great works of art of the past and present- not a necrophiliac reverence for "tradition" or "High Culture" in itself.

I will say that I completely agree with Kimball is in this statement, which he expounds elsewhere: "The issue, it is worth stressing, is not the orientation of the politics–Left vs. Right–it is rather the politicization of intellectual life tout court. That is, the task is not to replace or balance the left-wing orientation of academic life with a right-wing ideology but rather to de-politicize academic, i.e., to champion intellectual, not political, standards."

But I'm not sure how Kimball's own work accomplishes this. His journal, The New Criterion, at its best, champions intellectual standards. But, all-too-often, it beats the right-wing drum. And his books use High Culture as a cudgel to beat the left with. Often it's hard for me to tell if a work of art getting criticized in the journal is being trashed for being lousy, or if it's just too 'left-leaning'. He says the New Criterion lauds art that is true and beautiful, which it often does. He also says: "Like the original Criterion, The New Criterion is modernist in its cultural stance and conservative in its politics." So, liberal aesthetes need not apply? If the goal is to depoliticize culture, why should his journal be anything in its politics?

I think where I really disagree with cultural conservatives is that I don't see the decline of culture as the result of a long attack by the radical left. Conservatives blame academics for not defending high culture, although they tend to exaggerate a bit there, and the media for being trashy, but they think that this is the end result of some sort of 'cultural relativism' instead of good old capitalism. So the kids at the mall who have no connection to any ennobling culture? Well, we can blame Heidegger for that!

Or, even more frequently, we can blame ''The 60s'', as if America in the 1950s was a high point of culture that was destroyed by all those 60s poets, artists, and writers.

I mean, the simple fact is that we now have a mass media that equates creative greatness with easy pleasure, constantly asserting that High Culture is simply "pretentious" or "elitist', and it does so for nakedly capitalist reasons. The dumbest buy the mostest. But, for some reason, instead of blaming mass culture or late capitalism for killing off High Culture (in other words, for doing exactly what Marx said they would do back in 1848), conservatives would rather point the finger at academic radicals (who are always less numerous than claimed) for not doing enough, once again, to halt the decline or to "preserve" high culture.

But preservation is best suited for artifacts. I'd rather have people engage with the great and ennobling works of culture than worship them. Enthusiasm should be active. I would say that the differences between myself and cultural conservatives boil down to the following:
1) I don't think culture moves in a single teleological direction- either towards decline or liberation,
2) I agree with Marx that capitalism is the main force of opposition towards cultural traditions,
3) I don't buy the model of cultural war and I don't think the left is actually anti-culture. To be honest, I think that lefty academics who worry about the "dumbing down" of the culture and conservatives who worry about the "progressive vulgarisation" of the culture are really talking about the same thing, and their attempts to politicize this problem are just an example of totally missing the point.
4) This problem- a widespread belief that any attempt to give daily life meaning or to improve culture in any way is a sign of 'arrogance', and the underlying cynical supposition that daily life and culture simply can't have any meaning or be in any way enlightening or ennobling- is absolutely endemic to mass media and consumer culture, and yet- and here's my main area of disagreement- is nothing but a fad. A disbelief in meaning is, itself, meaningless.

In other words, when people get sick of their lives having no meaning or transcendence, when they get tired of being fed a steady diet of nothing, when they question their binge and purge lifestyles, all of this will pass into history. But the opening of the American spiritual eye will be the work of artists, not conservatives. And it will come when the artists turn to the 'classics' and discover that there is a lot there to chew on, and celebrate, and engage with. Remember Allen Ginsberg masturbating to William Blake- a story that scandalized the readers of the Paris Review- this is living faith in the power of great art; not the sort of passive superstitious belief in the classics that most cultural conservatives encourage, with Kimball perhaps excluded.

Faith is active and engaged conversation with higher things. Superstition is doing certain things in certain ways in conformity with established wisdom. Mass culture amounts to cultural obedience- the choice of no choice- and superstition. We need a revolution in the accepted scales of human existence.

This will be the key to the next Renaissance- a turning away from the cynical binge and purge culture. And it will likely scandalize the cultural conservatives who are too gloomy and afraid of change to recognize that cultural renaissances can only come from artists, not from preservers and mummifiers. In fact, those people will never see it coming.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

Today's English

Postprandial: (adj.) Following a meal. i.e.- smoking a postprandial cigarette.

Thanks to Hiromi for the suggestion!


Today's Spanish

Preocupar: To worry. ¡No te preocupes! "Relax!" "Don't worry about it!"
preocupado/a (adj.): Worried, anxious.


Today's French

Essor: (N.) Flight. Development. (Business) Boom.
Prendre son essor: to take wing

"...tout montrait l'essor, et non la fin, des voyages."
-Daniel Roche


The Borderline Personality Disordered School of Thought

Salon has an interesting article today on Canada's one-woman media circus and dangerous stalker turned conservative pundit Rachel Marsden. She was involved with a number of weird incidents in Vancouver that Claire remembers a lot better than I do, and then remade herself as a pundit for the Toronto Sun, which is sort of like a cross between The National Enquirer and an angry drunk guy at last call. Now, she's on the Fox News Channel, where she apparently offers right-wing punditry.

From the sound of it, I'd think she suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder; this is usually the case with stalkers. I would never want to suggest that people with borderline personality disorder are particularly well-suited to the punditocracy (perish the thought!), but... well, it's worth noticing the overlap in patterns of thought. One of the defining traits of both BPD and contemporary political punditry is what Freud called "splitting"- namely "the propensity to either idealize or completely devalue other people, to see them as either all good or all bad." In fact, this is essentially what Marsden did in the Sun, basically writing variations on the 'liberals are the root of all evil' articles that those people who'd much rather not think more deeply about politics than that seem to read constantly.

Of course, it's not just the Sun or Fox News or right-wing media. Our local 'alternative newspaper' runs a weekly column written in perfect stoned dorm room patois which usually details why the U.S. President is not simply an incompetent authoritarian boob, but is actually working to instill global slavery at the command of the Skull & Bones fraternity and Haliburton. In fact, let's be honest- Noam Chomsky's little books tend towards "splitting" most of the time, don't they? So, when people wonder if American politics is getting to be too polarized, I wonder instead if the problem is that mass media is teaching people to think in ways that are psychologically dysfunctional, splitting instead of dwelling deeply, inhibiting empathy towards those other straw men we live with.

The fact is that most people aren't particularly evil; they're just imperfect. A child will think that Daddy is evil when they learn that he has flaws or he refuses to buy them a pony, but this is a developmental stage, and most people grow out of it. But, media punditry tends towards an analysis of the world that is extreme, impulsive, narcissistic, shallow, glib, and mean spirited. One might call it the "borderline personality disorder genre of writing."


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Quote for Today

A scary thought from a commenter on The Panda's Thumb:

"A thought that occurred to me regarding creationists was this. As long as they keep pouring out interminable megabytes of garbage on the Internet to trap the gullible, driven by an urge that I can only characterise as masturbatory in origin, responsible and reputable scientists are going to have to waste time debunking all of this tripe, when they could be putting their talents to far more constructive use increasing our understanding of the world, curing currently incurable diseases, and finding ways of allowing us to have modern, healthy lifestyles without environmental catastrophe looming because of our current reliance on fossil fuels. Thus, every piece of crap that surfaces and requires the attention of a functioning brain to debunk it inhibits our progress as a species."
-Dave Edwards


Tortured Logic

According to the L.A. Times, parents in Los Angeles are very upset about these billboards advertising a horror film and have forced them to be taken down. According to Fangoria, The Federal Trade Commission will soon be issuing a report on how violent such media can be.

Would this mean that the government would be in the business of censoring fictional depictions of torture, while slowly legalizing and normalizing the actual use of torture? Or that the public, who seemingly don't really care much about torture in real life, are somehow offended by its existence in the fantasy world?
And, of course, there is a popular show on primetime network television that gets quite a bit of mileage out of positive depictions of torture. Don't get me wrong- 24 is very entertaining. However, it's not subject to the same sorts of attacks from the public bluenoses as these posters have been. Can we therefore just assume that the public is fine with positive and life-affirming torture, but not scary torture? Has the culture been so widely 'bitten by the torture bug' that it's now considered offensive to slander torture?


Surrealism and l'amour fou

Of course, the strange argument that artists should be politically active is nothing new- it actually goes back to 1920s-era 'social realism', which tended to champion kitsch, so long as it was about factory workers!

For all of the artistic movements that claimed the mantle of 'political and social relevance' in the 20th century, it's odd to think that surrealism, the most pointedly irrelevant, is perhaps the only one you would have to know about in order to understand the century itself. The attempt to dream while awake is embodied in the mass politics of the century, in its literature, its cultural revolutions, and at last, in the art of the surrealists. Salvador Dalí was accused of being an avaricious hedonist, but at least he was honest about it! And even there he was more in tune with the zeitgeist than all of the painters and writers prattling on about 'social realism'.

Why does surrealism endure so well?

In a great article on the surrealists and design, Robert Hughes notes:
"Fashion was sexy. So was surrealism. They were a natural fit. Nobody ever called cubism sexy, or constructivism, or any of the other movements of the early 20th century except German expressionism, which did have its sexy moments - though not so very many of them. But one of the core beliefs of the surrealists, as set forth by their leader, Andre Breton, was in l'amour fou, obsessional love, the kind of love that deranges the senses and tips those who feel it into a helpless vortex of appetite and feeling."


Today's Spanish

(I'm working on reactivating my Spanish so I can get certified in it.)

Siglo: Century. "Siglo de las Luces" Age of Enlightenment. (French- siècle)


Hey Greg!

Since you're now able to post here too, would you like to try to have a discussion of some topic that we both know very little about, such as global warming?


Today's English

Scullion: A servant employed to do menial tasks in a kitchen.


Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Married Person's Cult

The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed slavery of the wife... Within the family he is the bourgeois and his wife represents the proletariat.

-Friedrich Engels, 'The Origin of the Family'.

Summer approaches and soon Claire and I will find ourselves at those places that married people congregate in, such as barbecues, dinners, and 'get-togethers'. We will stand around, drink alcohol, eat chips, and gradually be brought into the fold of the married person's cult. Hopefully, we will not have to sacrifice any single people and drink their blood from a ram's horn.

Don't get me wrong- I love being married to Claire. However, one of the strange things about being married is that you get marked out as a married person. Therefore, many other married people believe that they can relate to you on the basis of your similar situation. They assume that you are married in much the same way they are married, or in some cases the ways that people on sitcoms are married. For reasons that only the patriarchy understands, you can be single in any damn way you like, but there are only a few ways to be married.

Being the husband, which is a very narrowly-circumscribed role, I will hear hoary old cliches from other husbands who want to relate to me. "Doesn't it bug you when she has the remote control?", someone will ask. "Actually, I don't watch a lot of television because it makes me feel pukey," I will think to myself, while just nodding and smiling. "I'm sure you know, it's a good idea to let your wife do whatever she wants," one will joke. "Of course. I learned that from The Lockhornes," I will think to myself, while just nodding and smiling. Invariably, some fellow will quiz me about the things that I should rightfully be interested in- namely sports, electronic gadgets, or cars- and visibly get that sinking feeling in finding out that I'm not interested. ''Oh shit! Rufus is into fashion magazines, art films, old literature, and gardening. He must be 'on the down-low'!''

I realize that they're just trying to relate to me and I'm always polite to them. But I bridle at the weird assumptions and I wonder why they go along with marriage. It's as if being married finally settles the question as to your position on all gender issues- you must not be feminist if you tied the knot. I've had people assume, for instance, that the fact that Claire and I work so far from each other, and I sometimes have had to sleep in another town, must have made me crazy with jealousy. Their ribbing is good-natured, but it's never at a time in which I can respond, ''Nah, we have an open relationship. I don't care who she sleeps with so long as she gets pictures'', and expect that it will tickle their funny bone.

Where are the cool married people anyway? It's as if people get married and decide that, even if they were cool, they're now required to behave according to a certain time-tested role. I've said before that most 'identity' really amounts to internalized role-playing, and nowhere is this more true than in the family. But, Claire and I aren't like this. We're not jealous, or possessive, or petty, or afraid of the world outside of the living room. We're not obsessed with our jobs or the consumer items that we'd really like to have. Actually, we're a little weird. Our aspirations involve going to India or taking hallucinogens or inventing a holiday. We're still crazy kids after all. I don't mind that marriage is the beginning of adulthood, but I don't understand why so many people accept the idea that adulthood is limited.

Have any of you encountered this phenomena? Or am I just going to really lame barbecues?


Monday, March 26, 2007

Today's Enlgish

Martinet: 1. A rigid military disciplinarian.
2. One who demands absolute adherence to forms and rules

"I have always taken good care to keep out of sections with small company commanders. They are mostly confounded little martinets."
-Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front


Time Goes On, Life Slips Away

Time Inc. is going to stop publishing Life Magazine, which has been a newspaper insert since 2004 anyway. The good news is that they will make their 10 million images available online. Still it's a bit of a shame for those of us who dream of one day becoming a great photographer.


Sunday, March 25, 2007

People Who Don't Need People

300 has recently been surpassed in the boxoffice listings by the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles non-interactive video game. Two Blowhards are are debating the relative merits of 300 here, in an interesting article which includes this great line:

"300" and films like it represent -- I can't help feeling -- the end of an art form that I loved and the beginning of something that I don't care about one way or the other.

What do you call these things? Digital hallucinations for people who aren't particularly interested in people? I like this comment: "The arts are leaving the human behind. What rough beast slouches out of the shopping malls (waiting?)to be born?"


TIDE Gets Society cleaner

Here you can read about the Terror Database known as TIDE, or Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, which has quadrupled in the last four years. Apparently, information gets fed into the database in Mclean, Virginia, from around the world, be it intelligence reports, gossip, or news reports. "The bar for inclusion is low, and once someone is on the list, it is virtually impossible to get off it." TIDE includes Americans and non-Americans, and is collaborated with FBI information on Americans for a daily addition of 1,000 to 1,500 names. The total was something like 235,000 names when last checked. There are 80 analysts who get "thousands of messages a day".

It was surprising how sloppy the list is. Not only is the data of vague quality, but so is its assesment. For instance, if you have the same name as someone on the list, you will still get flagged at the airport. Senator Ted Steven's wife Catherine Stevens was put on the no-fly list because she was mistaken for Cat Stevens and he's not allowed into the country. Actually, if you've ever listened to a Cat Stevens album, you know that this is probably the first thing they've done right in the war on terror!

Overall, the database seems to be as poorly constructed as such databases usually are. This is always the problem- too many people on the list, too few people to check the lists, no transparency whatsoever. But, perhaps the point isn't to 'control' or 'surveil' anyway. Remember: The operations of the state seek mainly to justify the existence of the state. These databases exist largely to justify the existence of the databases. Of course they're lousy. That's not the point. The point is to get a lot of names in order to have a large database. When people worry about the growing police state, I hear where they're coming from, but I'm not sure that these 'watchdogs' aren't just below average intelligence joes looking to keep their jobs.

That's not exactly reassuring though.


Today's English

Canton (N.)
1. A small territorial division of a country, especially one of the states of Switzerland.
2. A small, square division of a shield, usually in the upper right corner.
3. A usually rectangular division of a flag, occupying the upper corner next to the staff

My figures fail to tell me
How far the Village lies-
Whose peasants are the Angels-
Whose Cantons dot the skies-
-Emily Dickinson, from Poem 7


Deconstructing Multicultural Education

I've been a bit unfair in recent posts to those academics who wanted to make the canon multicultural. It should be obvious that I object not to their goals, but that I am disappointed with the relative poverty of most cultural education in America. This might be nobody's fault in particular. To be honest, I'm fairly irritated with both armies in the so-called 'Culture Wars', and could be called a conscientious objector.

However, I've unfairly characterized the advocates of multicultural education as being totally uninterested in aesthetics. So, I would like to give a reading of what they wanted to accomplish, in their own words, and try to be a bit fairer than I have been so far. The text I would like to pick apart is entitled:

"Feminism, Multiculturalism, and the Colonial Tradition" By: Paul Lauter.
Lauter is editor of the Heath Anthology of American Literature and a well-respected pioneer in multicultural education. This essay, from 1991, is considered a classic. Unfortunately, it's not online!

Lauter begins by explaining that he will offer a history of the development of feminist and multicultural education in America, but begs us to forgive him his 'grand narrative'. No problem there. He begins by telling us that '25 or so years back (so around 1965)- the demand of feminists and multiculturalists was for access.' Great women and non-white writers had been largely excluded from the canon and the curriculum. Lauter had a top-notch education and, as he jokes, "I had read black writers- all three of them" because the curriculum was so limited even in the Ivy Leagues.

Let me make it clear that my criticism isn't with greater inclusion. In fact, I guess you could say that I still think the canon is entirely too limited. However, I do think that the primary criterion for inclusion should be artistic merit, as determined by cultivated scholars.

So, basically, here's where I disagree with both sides in the Culture Wars. The conservative argument here is generally: If there are only three black writers in the canon, then so be it. The idea being that the canon is not the place for affirmative action. But, I would disagree with the claim that the canon has been free of political interests. As Lauter points out, the architects of the 19th and 20th century curriculums saw it as their goal to promote Western Christian Culture, which is not the same thing as a canon that is blind to all but merit. As Lauter explains: "There seemed, in short, to be a politics to the canon."

But, I don't exactly agree with Lauter either. He tends to reduce the canon to mere politics, which doesn't really work for me. At one point, he uses Melville as an example of how political the canon was. His point is that Melville wasn't recognized as a great writer until a group of aspiring critics promoted Melville as a means of validating their own authority. But, this case holds up until you actually read Melville! And especially if you compare him to his contemporaries. So, if the canon has been infected by politics, it isn't merely political.

Besides, Lauter takes it for granted that the canon is political, but shouldn't his goal be to remove its political biases altogether? People who talk about poltical biases often argue that they are somehow innate to human beings and that we can only acknowledge them, not overcome them. But, is that really the case? Isn't the point of all cultural education to broaden our understanding of the world and overcome our own biases? Often cultural education encourages a sort of cultural ghettoism in which people only expose themselves to the works of their own culture and claim some deeper affiliation with that art than the rest of us can have. Lauter and I both despise the essentialism of much multicultural education, which often amounts to: 'If you're a ____, of course you'll want to read books by _____s!'

Later continues: "If so much of such interest was left out of the Western Civilization course, what confidence could we have in the narrative we were presenting?" I can definitely sympathize with this statement. Of course, this might always be a problem with a two semester course that aims at teaching the entirety of history. Certainly, mutating the Western Civilization course into World Civilizations has mostly added new sections to be given the short shrift. Maybe what I'm responding to isn't an academic environment that is uncomfortable discussing issues of aesthetic merit so much as a national culture in which art and literature are peripheral, if not vestigial.

So, I agree with the demands for "access" and "inclusion", as long as the criterion for inclusion is still merit. And I disagree with writers like Saul Bellow who believe that it has been the sole criterion hitherto. However, I also disagree with the argument that, since the canon has been political, it should be our political battleground. Art and literature are where we escape the struggles of the day, not their battleground.

Also, I find Lauter a bit annoying in that he assumes that his education in the 'classics' was somehow universal. He asks if there "is anyone who will credibly argue that we need yet more books on America's certified 'classics'?" Um.... Well, okay. Why not? My problem is that the generation that I teach has no understanding whatsoever about the classics of any culture, including America. Shouldn't the point of multicultural education be to teach the classics of all cultures, and not to assume that, well, we've got enough books on Melville, thank you very much! Isn't there an unseemly subtext of contempt in Lauter's question?

What bothers me is how limited most academics are in their tastes, after forty years of trying to broaden their tastes! It's astounding to me how many grad students, and junior professors I meet who have never read Flaubert beyond Edward Said's attack on him. They've never read Hemingway because they read Kate Millet's attack on him. Many of them have never read Shakespeare deeply. And I find the same thing is true across the board. The erudite scholars I encounter seem like oddballs! Enthusiasts seem insane!

But, who's fault is that? It isn't as if university economics doesn't play a role in this. Again, we had to fight to keep any World Civ requirement at Mall University against those number-crunchers who would like us to become vocational training. Apparently, while some people were pushing for a more complete course of study, others were pushing to keep students' contact with culture as minimal as possible. The end result was a little dab of this and a little dollop of that, and away you go!

I think Lauter cares greatly for aesthetics and wants acknowledgement of the merits of excluded classics. However, he never mentions aesthetics beyond this, and he all-too-often assumes that someone else will teach the long-established classics. Let's push the new model and leave the old model in the warehouse. Most university old-timers that I meet have weirdly grandiose assumptions about primary education, which they assume teaches the classics thouroughly and by a 'triumphalist model' that might have applied in the 1950s, but which often amounts to little more than busy work in contemporary reality. Lauter says that the goal of his organization was "so that the work of Frederick Douglass, Mary Wilkins Freeman, and Zora Neale Hurston is read with the work of Herman Melville, Henry James, and Ernest Hemingway."

This is a noble goal. Actually, it's a fantastic goal. But, I disagree with the assumption that someone else will teach the students Melville, James, and Hemingway. When was the last time you saw a course at a university on Hemingway?! The problem is that people had this goal twenty years ago, and in 2007, students don't read any of the above. The end result of the Culture Wars was a bunch of old farts arguing about the classics who were actually the last generation to have fully read the classics.

My ideal is embodied in Allan Ginsberg (blessed be his name). Ginsberg was astounding in that he knew the Western canon inside and out, and also knew the Eastern canon inside and out. His was a cosmic consciousness, not the sort of spiritual bureaucracy that has reigned in universities. Sometimes, I get the feeling that we've been cheated. There is another sky, but I think we need to leave the culture wars, leave the universities, and return to culture.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Folie et déraison

For the first time ever English readers will be able to read the complete text of Foucault's Folie et déraison, and potentially discover that the glaring problems in the text are even worse in the complete edition. (I've read the complete French text) Andrew Scull explains those problems in some detail in this review, for those of you who won't be reading the unexpurgated English edition of Madness and Civilization. Most of this I've heard a number of times; it's seemingly customary for people who write histories of madness to explain why Foucault was wrong in their introduction. But, it's interesting stuff nonetheless. The most interesting thing to me is actually the comments section, in which a couple of fans (Foucaultheads?) accuse Mr. Scull of pedantically nitpicking. This in spite of the fact that he actually demolishes the central thesis of Foucault's study in his article. You have to wonder what wouldn't be seen as nitpicking in this case.


Friday, March 23, 2007

Matthew Barney

I should say that there is much of contemporary art that I like- actually, I think your chances of seeing great art are much improved if you attend smaller galleries. I think there are plenty of great artists out there who are following their own obsessions, even though there is a lot of schlock too. But, generally, I get along well with artists; not so much with art scholars. One artist I like a lot, who is extremely popular as well, is Matthew Barney. What I loved about The Cremaster Cycle was its relentless surrealism as well as how deeply personal it is. This work of art could not exist if Matthew Barney didn't exist. I think he's broken into what Burroughs called "the grey room" and I admire that.


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Poland tries to become homorein

We had a walk-out in World Civ a few years back by students who were offended by our content dealing with homosexuality. What was our content dealing with homosexuality? It was the following shocking information:

"Another thing about Greek culture was that it was very accepting of male homosexuality, which was often seen as a sort of ideal relationship."
That was it.

At this point, the section on homosexuality ended. And no, we did not show Fellini's Satyricon or the classic film Caligula. And yet a handful of students felt we had warped their fragile little minds (to quote Eric Cartman) and walked out. No great loss.

Anyway, my point is that people who say they want to keep the "promotion" of homosexuality out of schools are full of shit. What they want is a world in which homosexuals do not exist and have never existed because homosexuals trouble them greatly. They're Adult Babies. For example, the Education Minister of Poland has drafted a bill to prevent the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools by banning any discussion of homosexuality in schools and universities and firing all gay teachers who can be identified as gay, regardless of what they have said. So don't ask, don't tell, don't be.

I think it's good that gays and the people who love them work to change public opinion, and generally I support rational and diplomatic methods to do this. However, it also seems to be the case that there are some people who one cannot reason with because they're simply insane. They want a world that is homorein. For a 'plan b', I think gays should generally own guns.


sitting in the literature department...

Sitting in the Literature Department listening to a presentation on Coleridge today, I realized that most of what I've posted recently about "taste" is still very much at odds with academic thought. Certainly, there is still some sense that there are great works of art; however, to admit so openly is seen as a bit gauche, and variations on historicism still reign in the lit departments. Much of this is comparable to what we call "history from below" in our field. The idea historians came to back in the 1960s (earlier in France) was that historiography which deals with Kings and great generals is very limited and that we need to study average people to understand society. The result was a lot of studies of peasants, many of which are actually quite good.

A similar thing happened to lit departments a bit later- what is often called the New Historicism works either by relentlessly historicizing great works of literature, or by reviving things like comic books and diaries that we don't often think of as literature because, in doing so, we reveal formerly marginalized voices. Both techniques are great for historians, but what I've noticed is that lit crit writing almost never discusses preferences, or tastes, or even the quality of art. It's almost seen as boorish. And when I ask lit crit people about this, I always get the same response: "But, who can really say what is 'great literature'?"

Instead, most academic writing on the subject uses cultural texts in a referential way, as symbols for something else. So I have a good idea what Coleridge tells us about the British slave trade, which is of course very important historically, and haven't heard much in years about his actual craft, which is seen as somehow unimportant. The idea that great art is of its time and place, and yet transcends its time and place is pretty much alien in most literature departments that I've studied in. This is why I study history.

So, when I talk about the "clerisy' as I see them, I should point out that I haven't encountered them in the four universities that I've studied in. The idea of great works of art and great artists is something I haven't heard entertained. What's depressing about all of this is that I had hoped the 'culture wars' would lead to a wider appreciation of art, taking in all of the great works of art from around the world, and in turn a much larger definition of 'erudition'. Not cutting out the 'dead white males', but adding every great work of art from every culture and enriching the canon greatly. And yet, this seems to have happened in artistic circles, but not academic ones. I'd like to hear that I'm wrong about that actually and that I've just had very bad experiences with literature courses. But, I have to admit that I feel a sense of overall disappointment when I read academic journals on the subject.

A confession: I'm not actually fond of much academic writing.


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Today's French

Octroyer: To grant. To bestow.


Today's English

Munificent: Very generous in giving.


Quote for Today

"Which came first, the intestine or the tapeworm?"
-William S. Burroughs


Culture, etc.

Alas, this probably doesn't interest anyone but me. Also, most of this is still vague in my mind, and so will read as vague. However, I have to follow this train of thought to the end of the line. So...

I. Culture is Not Democratic. Lasting cultural tastes are not determined in ways that are truly populist.

1. Let's start with a very simple statement: The film Wild Strawberries, by Ingmar Bergman, is a superior film to Home Alone. Leaving aside matters of individual taste, I assume that this statement would be relatively uncontroversial amongst movie buffs. And, yet, if culture is democratic, Home Alone would be a better film than Wild Strawberries is simply by virtue of the fact that more people have seen Home Alone. In fact, it might be safe to say that Home Alone is 100 times better than Bergman's Wild Strawberries. So, why is it that we know this not to be the case?

2. Tastes are not equal; there are cultivated and uncultivated tastes. In a sense, this is as obvious as it is arrogant. To give an example that is unlikely to be taken as 'elitist', the first horror film I ever watched was the William Shatner classic Kingdom of the Spiders. Upon seeing the film, I was convinced it was utterly terrifying; a masterpiece even. I was seven years old. After watching fifty more horror films, I was less convinced that Kingdom of the Spiders was a great film. At age 32, I've seen hundreds, and probably thousands of horror films, and I am convinced that Kingdom of the Spiders is lousy.

I am now convinced that Halloween is a masterpiece of the genre. Not only that, but I can explain the artistry of the film shot-by-shot. My opinion is educated in the sense that I have a wide knowledge of the genre of film that I did not have when I saw my first horror film. In fact, I would say that my opinion is more cultivated than that of the horror tyro.

This seems like a silly example, and yet, Premiere Magazine recently suggested that film critics might want to write reviews that are more in line with the tastes of the general public. The problem with this idea is that it assumes that the average film tyro knows as much about film as Roger Ebert simply by virtue of having an opinion. In a democracy, all votes are counted equally. In culture, all opinions are not equal.

3. We therefore have to come up to the level of great works of art. Great art is not immediately accesible, but instead rewards repeated readings. This is why we return to these works of art, and the basis of cultivation is in elevating our tastes through repeated exposure to elevating works of art or culture. This applies as much to Hamlet, as to Psalms, as to Wild Strawberries.

4. The Arts need Cultivated People to appreciate them. This brings us Matthew Arnold's idea of a 'clerisy'- an educated elite that preserves and appreciates the greatest works of art for the next generation; the stewards of culture. The same elite applies to other cultural institutions. The Church needs a clergy to instruct the laity. Universities need senior scholars to instruct junior scholars. The 'elitism' of this position is based in the idea of advanced knowledge.

5. This is at odds with all of the instincts of democracy. Democracy is rooted in the idea that everyone should have a 'voice' that is equal to that of everyone else. A political scientist who has very well researched information leading him to vote for a candidate has the same vote as a pathological racist who votes based on his delusional biases. This is acceptable based on a common foundation of public education. Yet, beyond this common foundation, all men are considered equal. All tastes are equal. In political rule, this model seems to work. However, we should remember that well-educated and intelligent Germans voted Nazi at one time.

II. Attempts to democratize culture are doomed to irrelevance.

1. Again, this makes sense in the example above. If Home Alone truly was a masterpiece, its appreciation would be guaranteed long into the future. And yet, it is already totally irrelevant. True masterpieces endure in ways that popular schlock does not.

2. The same holds true in the 'marketplace of ideas'. The marketplace of ideas often seems to follow fads, trends, mass delusions, and simple bigotries. And yet, the ideas of John Locke, for example, have survived in the same way that Wild Strawberries has; both are rich enough to reward multiple and repeated readings.

3. This explains, at least in some way, the long-term irrelevance of the Internet. The Internet levels all opinions by reducing them to the same scale. This is ideal for the Television generation, and yet, terrible for culture because it can only sort Internet writing according to popularity. Value is neutral. I think the reason that we have so many Internet equivalents of Home Alone and no Internet equivalents of Wild Strawberries is simply that the net is structurally unable to reward repeated readings. It encourages the transitory, the easily-understood, and ultimately the shallow simply in the way it is updated and added to and even the ways it is used. It provides a quick fix of a few scattered, interesting ideas, and yet somehow denies the possibility of lasting ideas.

III. If Culture is truly able to elevate the mind and soul of the Individual, Are Attempts to Democratize Culture Dangerous to the Individual?

I have no idea.


On the other hand...

Where Johnson seems to have a point is in his argument that electronic media "are certainly bad masters, but may be excellent servants, of the intellectual life." I don't honestly think it's happened yet, and my point is that the shocking shallowness and vapidity of most internet writing (sad to say, mine included) should be an indication that Sontag was at least partially right. But I think the potential is there. Honestly, I don't believe we will ever get a Dostoevsky or Rousseau out of the Internet, but perhaps the general level of Internet writing will, at some point, rise above the level of angry callers to AM radio programs. However, I do think that form shapes content in ways that Johnson denies. I suspect that an Internet Proust couldn't exist.


The Value of "Narrow-mindedness"

The Guardian recently published a posthumous article by Susan Sontag, which I also linked to a few days back. In the article, Sontag argued that the novel is in decline, threatened by the preponderance of electronic media.

Daniel Johnson took issue with Sontag today on the Commentary Magazine blog. His argument is: 1) Susan Sontag is old-fashioned. Well, was old-fashioned. This is because she questioned electronic media. Interestingly, if you question status quo thinking on anything but technology, you are considered an iconoclast or an intellectual. However, if you question the status quo thinking on any technology whatsoever, you are called a Luddite. That usually ends the argument. Incidentally, no mention is made of the fact that the actual Luddites were right.

Johnson continues: 2) Susan Sontag is making a false dichotomy between high art and blogging, and 3) The Internet doesn't threaten novel writing. In fact: "the Internet has brought about a renaissance of some literary genres—the letter (email), the diary (blogs), the little magazine (webzines)—that had seemed to be almost endangered species. The advent of narrowcasting has allowed specialized TV channels to multiply, giving artists unprecedented access to their publics. And the insatiable hunger of all mass media for “content” means that there are now more people earning a living by writing than ever before." Right. None of which are novels though. I literally have no idea if Johnson realizes that letters, magazines, and diaries are not the same thing as novels, in spite of the fact that they are all written. I have no idea if he realizes that the gossip columns in People Magazine, for example, are different than the works of Nabokov.

George Trow, who I cited yesterday, said back in 1980 that Television creates a problem of scale: it presents the War against Acne in the same way it presents the Vietnam war. Viewers tend to distinguish that certain things are important, but not why, and not how important in relation to each other. For instance, they might ask, along with Daniel Johnson: "What is the difference between the novel and an email? They're both written, after all."

In other words, everything base is elevated and everything elevated is lowered, and we end up with flatness, an oceanic, indistinct field for the insensate. 'Content'. But no substance. But, who can tell the difference after a few years?

It is this inability to make the most basic distinctions of value that is most obvious in people who have been trained to think by the mass media, and this is particularly salient in Internet writing. The Internet is what happens when people who have been educated by television learn to speak aloud in the television patois. Why shouldn't a community college economics instructor's opinions on global warming be taken as seriously as a climate scientist's? Why shouldn't we take an unemployed actor's ideas on what "really happened on 9-11" as seriously as we would a military expert's? Or a teenaged blogger's, for that matter? Isn't the point of a 'marketplace of ideas' to offer a variety of ideas to a variety of people? Isn't the important thing debate as an end in itself? You say the world is flat, and I say the world is round, and we're both right!

This inability to distinguish is usually defended by appealing to "elitism". It would be elitism to suggest that a great blog is not equivalent to a great novel. It might even be elitist to suggest that graffiti writing isn't equivalent- all but identical really- to novel writing. And yet...

Aristocracies are paradoxical in that they're bad for political rule, and absolutely vital for culture. We need to be able to make distinctions based on coldly (inhumane!) objective standards of taste, in spite of the fact that such standards are not democratic. Aesthetics are not democratic. Intellect is not democratic. No blogger has yet written at the level of Dostoevski, or even at the much lower level of Stephen King. Thus people who read nothing but things they find on the Internet are still often unable to read literature. I teach a generation that is largely unable to follow the arguments presented in books. And yet, they are able to read blog entries and emails. According to Johnson, six of one is worth a half-dozen of the other.

And, yet...

And, yet, there's some part of us that knows this isn't true. Call it 'elitist', or 'arrogant', or 'the argument of a Luddite'. But, even the babies realize that the adolescents, like Daniel Johnson, are ripping them off. They just don't have the words to express it yet. Pablum is content. Content is pablum. And some of us hunger for adult food. But this is not an adult society, and right now, it most desperately needs to be.


Sluts and Cock-Teases

In Salon, Heather Havrilesky writes an amusing article about the Pussycat Dolls and the "whoring sea donkeys" who want to be them. I have a rule to avoid all television that isn't animated, so I haven't seen the reality show about these sea donkeys, but Claire has, and she has attested that it is stupid enough to suggest this might be the end of the world.

Apparently, the Pussycat Dolls are a manufactured pop group, along the lines of the Spice Girls or Menudo. The history of rock music is filled with manufactured rock bands, generally called "fakes" or "poseurs" by people who forget that the Sex Pistols were also manufactured. In this case, the record label has put together a group of strippers and written songs for them, the most popular of which is called "Don't 'cha", and features the line: "Don't you wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?" I find the assumption that my girlfriend is not a freak to be a bit offensive, and terribly retro, actually. But, I think that people are missing the point when they say that groups like this indicate that the "slut" has become a popular cultural archetype. Most of these pop songs are about cock-teasing, which is different than whoring.

Take, for example, the song "My Humps" by Fergie of the Black-Eyed Peas, perhaps the stupidest song ever written, and yet almost totally inscrutable. What could it possibly mean? After some research, I can suggest the following translation from Fergie into English: "One of the nice things about having developed sexually during adolescence is that my body tends to make men think of sexual intercourse. Those men, in turn, give me jewelry in exchange for sexual intercourse. And yet, alas, they are not successful in this stratagem because I will not have intercourse with them. Suckers." Actually, many of Fergie's songs make this same argument. Generally, the response from pop groups whose songs are about cock-teasing is to say that their message is "female empowerment", a particularly strange take on that phrase.

Similarly, I think it's wrong to see young women as idolizing "whores" when the cultural ideal is the cock-tease. Idolizing the supposed "power" of strippers is not romanticising promiscuous sex- it's romanticizing manipulation, the "con", which has always been romanticized in American culture. Promiscuous sex has a very short shelf-life in America, lasting roughly from 1969-1976 (R.I.P.), while the con has a long and sordid past. What's astounding is the celebration (probably implicit in capitalism anyway) of outright manipulation of other people, as a sign of "sophistication" or "empowerment". The ideal has to do more with Gordon Gekko than Annie Sprinkle. Similarly, young men who talk about "bagging" girls tend to see sex as something that one cons out of another person, human interactions as being somehow similar to financial transactions. What's fascinating about "bagging", emotionless hook-ups, and the cock-tease isn't the sexual promiscuity that terrifies patriarchal authority; it's the outright denial of human emotional connections as anything other than a threat to selfhood.

The slut takes a chance on human connections; cock-teasing denies the possibility of human connections. The slut recognizes the beauty of sex; the cock-tease sees sex as defeat. Nobody uses the term "slut" as an epithet who isn't something of a misogynist; cock-teasing is rooted in both misandry and misogyny. Similarly both the slur against promiscuous women and the act of cock-teasing work from the idea that a woman who gives sexual pleasure to another person is somehow 'degraded' or 'ripped-off' simply by the other's orgasm. Both mistake "self-esteem" for contempt for others! But, sleeping around is a healthy and life-affirming act- the natural introduction to the world of adult sexuality; cock-teasing anthropomorphizes dead money, it is an introduction to the market. The pathological form of promiscuity is "nymphomania"- the pathological form of cock-teasing is sociopathy.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Today's English

Truculence: Aggressiveness, ferocity.


Where's Walt Disney When we Need Him?

Four years into the present, and the U.S. military hasn't been successful shilling democracy in Iraq via the hard sell; it might be time for the soft sell. But a culture which has gone tone-deaf often has no idea when it is shouting.


Quote for Today

"No one, now, minds a con man. But no one likes a con man who doesn't know what we think we want."
-George S.W. Trow, who recently passed away, alone, in Naples.


Monday, March 19, 2007

Quote for Today

"In North America and in Europe, we are living now, I think it fair to say, in a period of reaction. In the arts, it takes the form of a bullying reaction against the high modernist achievement, which is thought to be too difficult, too demanding of audiences, not accessible (or "user-friendly") enough. And in politics, it takes the form of a dismissal of all attempts to measure public life by what are disparaged as mere ideals.

"In the modern era, the call for a return to realism in the arts often goes hand in hand with the strengthening of cynical realism in political discourse.

"The greatest offense now, in matters both of the arts and of culture generally, not to mention political life, is to seem to be upholding some better, more exigent standard, which is attacked, both from the left and the right, as either naive or (a new banner for the philistines) 'elitist'."
-Susan Sontag, "Pay Attention to the World"


This Dude is Totally Corrupting the Youth!

Student evaluations are the curse of the thinking class. But, it's good to remember that Socrates had terrible student evaluations! Thomas Cushman has the evidence!


Today's English

Magniloquent: Lofty and extravagent in speech. Pompous. Boastful.


Sunday, March 18, 2007

Real People Done Dirt Cheap

I have no clue what is going on in this blog from Russia, but please tell me it's not utterly compelling!


Quote for Today

"Security is when everything is settled, when nothing can happen to you; security is the denial of life. Human beings are better equipped to cope with disaster and hardship than they are with unvarying security, but as long as security is the highest value in a community they can have little opportunity to decide this for themselves."
-Germaine Greer, "The Female Eunuch", 1970. (p.240)


Today's English

Sartorial: (adj.) Of or relating to a tailor, tailoring, or tailored clothing: sartorial elegance.


I did the B-O-P Bop! P-I-L-L-S! Bop pills!

Okay, so we've covered Republicans, Commies, and academics Versus Science. Badscience talks this week about yet another group that seems to be fighting valiently against the scientific method: pharmaceutical drug reps. Do you ever wonder how they produce so many pills that erase all aspects of emotional life that are unpleasant and then get those pills approved by scientists and featured on news programs? What's strange is that the TV producers love the loopier stories so much they're often willing to pay for the research. This way the companies are happy, and the TV news can announce nonsense like "Researchers have found that Chocolate can make you smarter!" At any rate, this story deals with a pill that is supposed to make you smarter (ah, but can it give me a smarter erection?), and why the research into that pill was largely crap, and why the media did a special report on that crappy research.

The author, Ben Goldacre notes that this isn't just creepy in that truth shouldn't be manipulated in order to make money, but also: "There is a far greater issue at stake here, beyond even the misrepresentation of the scientific method by the media: the nation’s children are being systematically re-educated to believe that they need to take pills every day to lead a normal, happy, productive life."

I think the key word in all of these "Take your Soma, kids" stories is 'productive'. If you want to question the warping of reality and of human existence by well, everyone under the sun, start by questioning that word.


Today's French

One of my favorite phrases...
Tiré à quatre épingles: To be immaculately dressed, spic and span, or all dolled up. Literally it means something like "drawn by four pins"; épingles are pins. It is a commonly used colloquialism though.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

Blissful Times

Sandra Alland is an employee who I often see at This 'Aint the Rosedale Library. She's also a very talented poetess, photographer, publisher, performer, artist, and probably a few other things that I'm forgetting. Her site is called Blissful Times and so is her forthcoming book. Oh, and she hosts a show on CKLN. In other words, she's one of those amazingly creative people who seem to wake up every day and produce tons of amazing art.

Anyway, if you're in Toronto...

BookThug launches
Blissful Times
poems by Sandra Alland

What Happened
poems by Tom Walmsley

Wednesday, April 11, 8pm
Clinton’s Tavern
693 Bloor St. West (near Christie Station)


TA Blues

Today, my blues returned a bit- I'm not much looking forward to returning to classes next week. Spring Break was spent reading for my exam fields, spending time with my wife, wandering around Toronto, and shovelling snow. But now I have to get back to recitations.

I've been trying to figure out why the recitations are such a drag this semester. I don't think it's the sad sack students I have because I'm used to them. General education courses at our University are something of an ordeal for those Freshmen who major in vastly different subjects and who haven't quite grasped that they're in college by their own volition. I'm used to seeing a sea of lugubrious faces in recitation. I think what's different this semester is that I don't see the point of recitations any more than the students do.

The idea of recitations for a history course is a bit odd anyway. Sure, the lab section makes sense for a biology course, but for World Civ? When I took the course, back in the dark ages of 'Western Civ', we just met for lecture twice a week. Now, they have to come to lectures as well as sitting in a smaller classroom once a week to discuss a batch of "readings" that most of them haven't actually read. Even stranger, by order of the University, attendance at the recitations, but not the lectures, is mandatory. I have asked why in the world we would be taking attendance in a University course, but nobody can explain this. Isn't attendance a High School phenomenon? Aren't university students responsible for coming to class on their own?

Not only is attendance mandatory, but the recitation work is 40% of their grade. This is intended to force the students to discuss the readings, which they haven't read, in the recitation, where they don't want to be. Also, I have assigned them a short essay to finish by the end of the semester. Otherwise, I'm going fairly easy on them. It seemed to me that I could either assign them a bunch of pointless busy work, like other TAs do, or go easy on them. To be honest, I don't want to grade the busy work while finishing my exam field readings and they don't need to have two classes worth of work for one class. So, we're just having discussions about the lectures and the readings. Essentially, they're weird desultory monologues though, because I'm the only one who is doing the readings or paying attention in the lectures.

Lastly, the readings don't really relate to the rest of the course work. Instead, they're sort of used to fill in things that we might have missed in lecture. So, to recap, attendance at the recitation is mandatory, it is 40% of their grade, and there we are supposed to discuss readings which will never show up on their exams, or anywhere else basically. In fact, the Professor gives them "exam review" sheets, so they knew after the third week that none of this stuff would ever be on an exam. Actually, the readings are only tangentally related to the course work at all. Moreover, the books of readings are godawful because they tend to give short excerpts of classic documents. Why read the Communist Manifesto when you can read 2 pages of it and have no clue what it's about? Rather humorously, the students think that I'm making them read these things simply because they're pleasurable for me. I try to teach how to take notes, or review the lectures, or explain how to site the readings in an exam essay, but it's no use; my job is to waste these kids time each week; they know it, and I know it.

In the past, I've worked for Professors who coordinated the work that we were doing in recitation with the course work. One of them made our weekly discussion topics into essay topics for the exams. Those students loved me because I was helping them with the course, not marching them through a morass of primary documents that have nothing to do with the course itself. Ah, memories.

When I asked the Professor why we don't assign them work for recitations that will be pertinent to their exams, their essays, or some other course material, he explained that "the real point of recitation is that it allows the students to ask questions." Fair enough. But, don't we already have office hours? And email, for that matter? Aren't students responsible for asking questions on their own? What exactly are they responsible for?

The real reason that recitations were initiated for World Civ is that too many students were failing the course. The administration decided that more students would pass if they had an opportunity to ask questions. What they don't realize is that the students who fail have no idea what's going on in the class anyway, and hence, have no questions. So, they come each week to hear me babble on about readings that may, one day, relate to the lectures, review those lectures (themselves a review of the textbook), and ask them repeatedly if they have any questions. Oh, and get pissed off at me when their grades still aren't very good. After the last essay one of them told me: "You're supposed to be making sure we're all ready for the exams!" Well, no, no I'm not. What am I supposed to be doing? To be honest, I'm not really sure. I feel rather stupid about that. I wish I could take these lemons and make lemonade, but I can't figure out how to. A student confided to me last week that the class is boring her to death because it's so easy. I had to stiffle an "Amen!"

But, also, I can't blame the other students for the learned helplessness that is so salient among them; we've pretty much taught them to require help with everything because we refuse to admit that some of them just can't do college-level work, and that it has always been this way. Instead of admitting the obvious, and flunking some students out, we've safety-netted the system into submission. No tuition is left behind. But, quite a lot is lost in the process.


Friday, March 16, 2007

Who Does Your Nipples?

Are you worried about the ripeness of your nipples? Me neither. But, apparently, a company called Benefit is selling nipple rouge for women who want "ripe, rosy" areolae. My first response to this was to think "Yeah? Well, stupid is as stupid does." But, according to New York Magazine, this is another "sign of the stripperization of the Everywoman." My response to that was to say, breathlessly, to myself: "My God! They're perfected the stripperization ray! Dr. Ignatius Incognito, you beautiful bastard!"

Anyway, those of us who just assume the Everywoman is too smart to be putting make-up on her nipples first thing in the morning have another thing coming. Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW, complains: "While women are spending their energy, time, and money getting their areolas just the right shade of pink, the Supreme Court is getting more conservative and closer to taking away our long-fought right to reproductive choice." Those poor dears. Apparently, NOW doesn't know any women who are capable of thinking about more than one thing. Happily, men don't have to worry about such patronizing nonsense from our "advocates". I've never heard anyone ask: "How will men be able to fight homelessness when they have to think about wearing pants?!"

And to add well-meaning insult to well-meaning insult, Salon's writer demurs a bit and then adds: "it suffices to say that this is just one small part of the commercial colonization of the Land of Private Lady Parts." A Land I've longed to live in since I was a little boy. But, seriously, isn't capitalism based on a system of supply and demand? A barter system, if you will, in which money is exchanged for goods and services? Why, in such a system, people could make products that other people might willingly buy, if they had a lot of expendable income and wanted nipples the color of pomegranites. No colonization to it really. Sure, it's a stupid product. But, a system of exchange doesn't become colonization until they start mining these women's nipples for cobalt. And besides, can't adult women do very silly things just for the hell of it without everyone worrying that their privates are being colonized, their minds being controlled, and their rights being taken away?


Movie Notes: "Fido" (2007)

Basically a one-joke movie, and you'll know the joke if you see the trailer, "Fido" still works somehow because of its loopy sense of humor, which reminded me of the Simpsons. In fact, this could be a "treehouse of horror" bit stretched to feature length. Basically, the joke is that it's an alternate version of the 1950s in which suburbanites own zombies as the family pet. Does that idea make you giggle a bit? Well, then you'll probably enjoy this one. They wring every last joke out of the premise (including Mom to Zombie "What's wrong? Is Timmy in trouble?") and get in a few digs at militaristic security in suburbia. Overall, it's cartoonish and silly, and I laughed a number of times.

We saw the Rue Morgue screening last night in Toronto. It opens this week in Canada and in June in the states. If you're the sort of person who likes this sort of thing, well, this is the sort of thing you'd like.


Thursday, March 15, 2007

Inside Higher Education

Okay, I know this blog is getting a bit random- recent topics include: Kant, terrorism, cinema, quantum electronics, baroque chamber music, sex, university textbooks, Sparta, health food, conservatives who dress like animals, and introductory biology- so it's actually pretty amazing to me that anyone at all is reading it at this point! Thanks to everyone, and a special thanks to Inside Higher Education, who have linked here a number of times. It's worth noting that I know this because I read their site every day! And hello to anyone who has followed those links- sorry about the mess!


Sky: Not Falling, News at 11

At our local cheapo drug mart, where they seem to screw up every single one of Claire's prescriptions, there is a great wacko paperback for sale with a title like "The Islamic States of America". In the tradition of great American boilerplate paranoid ephemera, the book wonders how we will live when the Muslim radicals take over the United States. For me, it recalls those classic films like Red Dawn that convinced an 8-year old version of me that the Russians were going to invade, and that it was going to be awesome, action-packed excitement! Seriously, I was looking forward to the nuclear war when I was a kid because I watched so many movies that made it look thrilling. Finally, I'd get to use those Ninja throwing stars I bought from the back of a comic book! But, alas...

Anyway, I'm starting to wonder if these Warriors on Terror who talk so much about the "existential threat" that radical Islam poses to our very way of life aren't having the same sorts of childish fantasies that I did when I was an actual child. Does anyone seriously believe that a handful of Temple of Doom extras and their werewolf leader in some cave in Pakistan are going to destroy America? Or do they really just want to flatter themselves that their blog posts about how the Dixie Chicks are bitches are somehow making the world safe for all of us?

Anyway, this question from Thomas Mallon is going around the web, also via Andrew Sullivan:
"Are American writers, artists, and thinkers truly prepared to admit that Islamofascism is a real, and even imminent, threat to everything they are accustomed to thinking, saying, and creating?"

You have to enjoy it when someone puts forth their own opinion as the cold hard truth that the rest of us just aren't ready to face. In response, I would ask: "Are American writers, artists, and thinkers truly prepared to admit that lycanthropy is a real, and even imminent, threat to everything they are accustomed to thinking, saying, and creating?" Because, if they aren't, well then they must be friggin' crazy! Werewolves, man. They're fucking evil!

I mean, the real question is "Wouldn't it suck to live in a world in which the US had been overthrown by Al Quaida?" And the answer is: "Of course it would!" But it 'aint going to happen. I mean, look, maybe there will be another attack inside the US, and if so, it will definitely be horrible. But, terrorists will never defeat us. No chance. Pickpockets stand a better chance of overthrowing the United States. Anyway, Tom Gara is calling Bullshit and probably more of us should be. It probably should have been obvious on September 12th, 2001 that the sky isn't falling. But, it's never too late to recognize the obvious.


Film Notes: "Shortbus"

Okay, darlings, do you know how even so-so sex can seem utterly thrilling after a long 'dry spell'? Oh, please! I know you know! Anyway, for the same reason, we should resist the urge to declare Shortbus a masterpiece, or the greatest movie of its generation, or any such thing. It's a flawed film, but it's definitely a step in the right direction, and certainly better the waves of shitty romantic comedies and sexually explicit films that have come out in the last decade or so. So, let's raise our glasses to that!

First, let's deal with the strengths of the movie. Shortbus is one of the most sex-positive American films in years, almost gleefully so. And its joie de foutre is positively infectuous; you leave the film believing in the healing powers of sex itself, a topic that hasn't been dealt with by anyone but Marvin Gaye since the early seventies. In fact, American films have taken a rather negative view of sex since the sex romps of the sixties, which this film clearly hearkens back to. If we need to put a R.I.P. date on those films, we could go with 1977, when Looking for Mr. Goodbar was released. Movies after that tended to see sex as tempting fate in the Greek sense, as somehow inviting in danger. Halloween (also 1977) established the motif in slasher films of characters having sex and then being murdered by a lurking maniac. But, even the thrillers of the 1980s and 1990s tend to show sex as a destructive force in society, and perhaps the best of these films is Basic Instinct.

Pornography shows sex as purgatory- endless and pointless- and ultimately destroys any sense of narrative. Are there positive and life-affirming stories in porno? Well, that depends on how important it is to you that the plumber actually fixes the plumbing.

As for American romantic comedies, they seem to be populated by people who never have sex. Their climax is generally that our characters finally get to kiss! If they do have sex, it's off-camera. As for the teen comedies that feature sex, they're not really about sex as much as they're about status. Will the nerd get to fuck the hot girl? Sex is a means to a social end, as it is with many teens. Maybe you don't really learn to enjoy fucking until your thirties anyway. Lastly, American gay films sometimes take a positive view of sex, although they also tend to have their main characters get killed off by gay bashers! One might think that Americans were a bit prudish considering how many of our sexually-active characters get murdered on film.

Contrary to popular belief, European films aren't any more sex-positive than American films. In recent years, they have become sexually explicit, as the films of Catherine Breillat exemplify. But, the sexually explicit films also tend to be downright depressing, as the films of Catherine Breillat also exemplify! Clearly, these films were an inspiration to John Cameron Mitchell, and he seems to have decided to make a sexually-explicit lighthearted comedy in response. Basically, if Woody Allen showed cum shots, it would be like this!

At any rate, the film deals with three intersecting stories: Sofia, a marriage consellor played by Sook Yin-Lee, is struggling to have her first orgasm while her husband is struggling with unknown issues, a cute gay couple, played by PJ DeBoy and Paul Dawson, are looking to open up their relationship, and a dominatrix, played by Lindsay Beamish, just wants to connect with another person. In the end though all of the characters want to connect with another person, and they all come together (I know! I know!) at Shortbus, a hipster orgy in the literal sense.

Okay, now the problems. First off, I hate the look of digital video, so filmmakers, please, knock it off! It looks like cable access television! Secondly, I imagine that twenty years from now, we'll be making jokes about how filmmakers in this era couldn't convey deep emotions without a music montage! Characters are missing each other. How can we tell? Because they're staring into space while indie rock plays in the foreground! Thirdly, the movie's a bit glib. Interesting ideas are tossed off and never mentioned again. This is, of course, better than most films in which interesting ideas are never mentioned. Lastly, the film sticks to the basic formula of sitcoms- characters are established in the first act, they have conflicts in the second act, they brood over those problems (during a music montage), and the problems are neatly resolved in the third act. Again, it's a bit glib.

But, it's also surprisingly liberating because the answer in this film really is sex. This film believes in that schoolyard wisdom: "You just need to get laid!" In fact, one character's life is probably saved by fucking. It was astounding to me how revolutionary it still is to show sex as life-affirming. Because it is, in fact, life-affirming. Of course, sex can be destructive too. But between Dateline's war on pedophila, countless 90s films about hot stalkers, the religious right's conviction that buttfucking is destroying the American family, and endless books about 'online predators' and 'little girls gone slutty', I think the destructive side of sex is well-covered territory.

Besides, Shortbus doesn't have a negative bone in its body (I know! I know!). This is a film that loves its characters; finally, we've got a movie with gorgeous close-ups of the human face: they're almost as much of a revelation as the close-ups below the belt. And because it loves its characters, the sex is good. Not only is the sex in Shortbus life-affirming; it's also creative, convivial, and goofy, just like it is in real-life, but seldom in the movies. In one of the best scenes in the film, three men have group sex while singing the Star Spangled Banner. Not only did this scene provide the film with one of its best jokes ("Is this the first time somebody has sung the Star Spangled Banner into your ass?" "No."), it was also surprisingly heartfelt. One suspects that, to John Cameron Mitchell, that this is what America is all about- freedom, ingenuity, and the creativity to live your own life in the pursuit of happiness. And for the people who don't seem to get that these days... well, maybe they just need to get laid!


To Further Complicate Things...

Okay, here's something that Greg can answer because I have no clue as to its validity:

From Andrew Sullivan's reader

"The most fascinating stuff I've come across in my research, by a long shot, is in the area of quantum mechanics, as presented in the work of the Oxford mathematican/physicist Roger Penrose and his colleague Stuart Hameroff, an anesthesiologist and professor at the University of Arizona.

"Together, Penrose and Hameroff have developed a theory of consciousness called ORCH OR (Orchestrated Objective Eduction of Quantum Coherence in Brain Microtubules) which posits that consciousness "occurs" not at the neuronal level in the brain, and not in algorithmic processes mimicking on a grand scale the way computers work, but at the sub-neuronal level, in the microtubles (crystal-like lattice structures that help organize cell structures and enable information processing) in which quantum processing interacts with classical physics. It's that intersect, between classical and quantum physics, to drastically over-simplify the Penrose/Hameroff model, that "provides the global binding necessary to consciousness."

"Why is this interesting? Two reasons: because it suggests that the brain functions not like a computer but in a non-computable (i.e. non-reproducible by artificial means) way, and because Penrose goes further, and theorizes a stable set of Platonic ideal structures residing at the very lowest energy level of the Planck scale (where quantum gravity, whatever that is, would be strongest), which inform and influence at least our unconscious minds. Because quantum mechanics allows for non-local patterns, and because these non-local patterns repeat everywhere, the implication is that the universe is in some way conscious, and that we are part of that consciousness."

This is the other answer to the mind/body problem in Descartes- there have long been philosophers who thought that the split between Mind and the Physical world was more apparent than actual. And actually, the sub-neuronal level is astoundingly complex, especially considering that we one saw it as an on-off switch. So, perhaps Greg can clue me in as to the implications of non-local patterns for consciousness?


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Immanuel Kant "Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals"

If you have yet to breathe the crisp, chilly, unforgivably Nordic air of Kantian philosophy, this would be the place to begin; it will prepare you for the lung-searing experience of the Critique of Practical Reason, although not for the subzero temperatures of the Critique of Pure Reason. To mix my silly metaphors even further, think of the Critique of Pure Reason as Mt. Everest; it's the most difficult and rewarding of Kant's works, at least, in my opinion. But, you have to work up to it. Okay, let's just shoot the metaphors in the head, so to speak.

Here we have Kant's preliminary ideas that would eventually lead up to the Critique of Practical Reason. Here he first puts forth the Categorical Imperative, which seeks to give a reasonable and coherent standard for ethics. According to Kant, there are three sorts of philosophy: Logic deals with the purely subjective a priori workings of the mind, while Ethics and Physics deal with both the subjective and the empirical worlds, the physical and mental realms together.

This brings Kant to what we can call the Big Problem. The Big Problem beguiles philosophers from Descartes until today, and is often called "the problem of free will". Essentially, the problem is that everything in the physical world acts in ways that are determined by the laws of nature, except us. We're part of the physical world, and yet, we believe that we have free will, and actually, if we don't have free will, all standards of ethics are meaningless. The problem, in Kant's words is that, "the freedom attributed to the will seems incompatible with the necessity of nature." The Big Problem has become even more difficult the more we understand neural physiology, because the explanation of what should constitute free will becomes even more mechanistic and in line with natural laws. We still can't quantify free will.

For Christians, this isn't a problem- free will is the imperative of the non-physical soul. For Descartes, there seemed to be a problem mostly in how mind and body work together, but he assumed there was a soul. Actually, Kant does too, but he wants to give a reasonable standard of ethics that doesn't have to explain itself by reference to God. Also, I believe that he wants to explain why Christian ethics are completely rational to the atheists in the audience.

Does he succeed? Well, according to Arthur Schopenhauer, "Aw, hell no!"* Kant switches the terms around and gives us another unverifiable explanation for ethics. The Categorical Imperative is: "I ought never to act except in such a way that my maxims could become the basis for universal law." Or, in other words, I should do unto others as I would want people to universally do unto each other. Schopenhauer's response was actually something more like "Oh? And why exactly ought I do this?"

I'm not sure that Kant ever solves the Big Problem either, although he suggests Aesthetics as the realm in which body and mind interact in the larger Critique, which I think is an interesting answer to the Cartesian problem. As one of the atheists in the audience, I don't actually think he solved the ethical problem either, although I do think he has an interesting way of justifying ethical behavior. (It should be obvious why I got so annoyed with that tool who was talking about 'Kantian nihilism'.)

As for the Big Problem (which I've probably not summed up very well), could the solution be to extend randomness to natural law? Physics during Kant's era tended to see the universe as completely deterministic- basically a big clock. Isn't that a mistake too?

*Not an exact quote from Schopenhauer.


Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Like Sparta, but Smarta

My distaste for 300 is solely a gag reflex caused by CGI poisoning. I can't speak to the historical accuracy of the film. But, Hiromi is right about the trailers being weird- the Spartans look like the Justice League or something! They were certainly heroic, but wasn't Sparta the sort of society that only a fascist could love? Anyway, Ephraim Lytle, a Hellenist at U of Toronto has seen the film and thinks its distortions are bizarre and disturbing. It's an interesting article. I have a bit of a nerd crush on Classicists anyway; they're sort of like us early modern historians, but even more diligent and nitpicking, and they've learned Latin, which I could never higher than a B in. Anyway, it's worth reading.