Wednesday, January 28, 2015

One Day There Will Be Associated With My Name The Recollection Of Something Frightful

"Ooh, baby, I'll love you better/Wanna be with you night and day..."

Familiar enough to catch my attention, wrong enough to make me focus. That mismatched rhyme scheme... "I think you mean, 'Baby, I love your way'", I said. She was skeptical, so off to Google we went. A few seconds later, we were looking at Peter Frampton videos on YouTube. She relented. "Hmpf. Fine, you were right." As a conciliatory gesture, I admitted that I didn't know Frampton had done it originally. My first experience of the song was in high school, when some pop band had done a cover of it, with a section from, of all things, Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird" grafted onto it.

In the pre-Internet days, it would have mercifully ended there. I didn't remember the band's name, and it wasn't worth the trouble to try to find it. But Google's omnipresent search bar sits right there, beckoning. A portal to things best left unseen and forgotten. And so, by adding "free bird medley" to our original search, we found ourselves face-to-face with it. And now, because we're all in this together, you're going to see it too:

Eight seconds in, you'll notice something awfully incongruous for an '80s pop video.

I hadn't given any thought to the band's name, assuming it was just a cool-sounding phrase they had heard in a deracinated form somewhere else in pop culture. Suddenly, it seemed ominous. Off to Wikipedia, where my suspicions were confirmed: "He chose the name Will to Power for the group as an homage to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche's theory of an individual's fundamental will to power."

Judging by the mustache he sports in the video, the band's name wasn't the only homage.

Nietzsche has been accused of being a formative influence on fascism, postmodernism, conservatism, and who knows how many other -isms, with varying degrees of accuracy. His influence on '80s soft-rock, though, has hitherto been unacknowledged, a shame too secret for academic historians to face. Frankly, I don't know how I can defend him against this. I'm going to need time to reconsider his philosophy in light of this new context.

She broke the stunned silence. "I was just trying to be romantic!" I know, my dear. But still...

Sunday, January 25, 2015

So I Shut It All Off, I'm A Happy Idiot

Larry Siedentop:

Piety and patriotism were one and the same thing. For the Greeks, to be without patriotism, to be anything less than an active citizen, was to be an 'idiot'. That, indeed, is what the word originally meant, referring to anyone who retreated from the life of the city.

Having just finished a book in which Steven Pinker cautioned the reader against struggling upstream toward the "original intent" of specific words, against the current of popular usage, it is only after judicious deliberation that I hereby proclaim my intent to reclaim this particular term. Like Randal in Clerks 2, I realize that "idiot" is currently classed along with "moron", "retard", "imbecile", "cretin" and "simpleton" as unacceptably "ableist", in the parlance of our times, but such fashions will always come and go, and like the idiots of ancient Greece, true individuals will always pay them no heed. Oh, no, no, it's cool, I'm taking it back.

My own retreat from political dialogue was motivated by sober realism, not by selfishness. Temperamentally averse to any sort of group activity, I'm not the sort to take part in meetings or marches, and I'm incapable of proselytizing for a cause. I make just enough money to get by, not enough to meaningfully contribute to charities and politically-oriented non-profits. I could use my limited spare time in an attempt to thoroughly educate myself about all the issues du jour, but to what end? What would I do with that information? Vote differently? Win arguments on the web? In short, I have no power or influence, and acting or speaking otherwise, even as a quasi-literary character, would be just another attention-seeking, self-flattering conceit.

Life in the modern-day polis has rendered most of our activity as citizens superfluous. Retreating from it isn't a renunciation of obligations so much as an acknowledgement of limitations. Like another ancient Greek who was faulted for a perceived lack of community spirit, I don't know much, but I know that much.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Let My People Go

Steven Pinker:

No discussion of the illogic of punctuation would be complete without the infamous case of the ordering of a quotation mark with respect to a comma or period. The rule in American publications (the British are more sensible about this) is that when quoted material appears at the end of a phrase or sentence, the closing quotation mark goes outside the comma or period, "like this," rather than inside, "like this". The practice is patently illogical: the quotation marks enclose a part of the phrase or sentence, and the comma or period signals the end of that entire phrase or sentence, so putting the comma or period inside the quotation marks is like Superman's famous wardrobe malfunction of wearing his underwear outside his pants. But long ago some American printer decided that the page looks prettier without all that unsightly white space above and to the left of a naked period or comma, and we have been living with the consequences ever since.

...These acts of civil disobedience were necessary to make it clear where the punctuation marks went in the examples I was citing. You should do the same if you ever need to discuss quotations or punctuation, if you write for Wikipedia or another tech-friendly platform, or if you have a temperament that is both logical and rebellious.

Logical and rebellious! Why, that's me! Having thus heard the call, I cannot help but answer it!

In all seriousness, I've been waging solo guerilla warfare for years, long before I ever knew there were other fellow freedom fighters out there. I just like to periodically remind those who have been brainwashed by the fascist American system that you're seeing a principled punctuation rebellion in my writing here, not a string of careless errors.

Where There Are Rocks, Watch Out!

Oliver Burkeman:

Or maybe it is: in the last few years, several scientists and philosophers, Chalmers and Koch among them, have begun to look seriously again at a viewpoint so bizarre that it has been neglected for more than a century, except among followers of eastern spiritual traditions, or in the kookier corners of the new age. This is “panpsychism”, the dizzying notion that everything in the universe might be conscious, or at least potentially conscious, or conscious when put into certain configurations. Koch concedes that this sounds ridiculous: when he mentions panpsychism, he has written, “I often encounter blank stares of incomprehension.” But when it comes to grappling with the Hard Problem, crazy-sounding theories are an occupational hazard. Besides, panpsychism might help unravel an enigma that has attached to the study of consciousness from the start: if humans have it, and apes have it, and dogs and pigs probably have it, and maybe birds, too – well, where does it stop?

...The argument unfolds as follows: physicists have no problem accepting that certain fundamental aspects of reality – such as space, mass, or electrical charge – just do exist. They can’t be explained as being the result of anything else. Explanations have to stop somewhere. The panpsychist hunch is that consciousness could be like that, too – and that if it is, there is no particular reason to assume that it only occurs in certain kinds of matter.

This seems like a perfect place to link to this Existential Comic about Chalmers and panpsychism, while strongly recommending that you peruse the entire archives and read a new comic there every Monday.

Now, then, you've heard me several times before express provisional agreement with Spinoza's brand of panpsychism, so this time, I'll change it up a little and cite Alan Watts saying pretty much the same thing, that while we commonly think of human intelligence as some sort of alien phenomenon in the universe, stranded in cold isolation as if it were "dropped" here with no hope of rescue, it may be both more comforting and accurate to think of it growing out of the world in the same way that apples grow out of an apple tree. From this viewpoint, conscious thought is a latent characteristic of "dumb, brute" nature, not an absurd aberration. Pile up enough rocks and dirt in the right conditions for long enough, and they'll start "peopling". If that sounds uncomfortably teleological and religious for your taste, well, just keep in mind that if Spinoza had lived anywhere else in Europe besides the Netherlands, he would have probably been executed for the threat his ideas posed to institutional religion, rather than merely being excommunicated and shunned. Entertaining the notion that consciousness could be a fundamental aspect of existence itself doesn't necessarily lead to a belief in gods, souls and holy scripture.

We Are Never Satisfied

For the past week, I've been listening almost exclusively to the solo records of Mike Doughty, former singer for Soul Coughing. While looking for some additional insight into the man behind the music, I found this interview:

YOUNG: Do you think fame is an addiction?

DOUGHTY: The people I know who are really famous tend to be very disappointed people. They went into it thinking that when they got famous, they would feel good all the time. But then they became famous and they're still just themselves. It can be a real bitter discovery for a lot of people. I have the advantage of having such a minor taste of fame, that I kind of know what it's like, but it doesn't completely fuck with me. But people are so mean to famous people. I'm not saying I want to hang out with them, but people say the meanest shit about these famous people they don't know.

YOUNG: What did you feel the celebrity atmosphere was like in the '90s versus this insane overexposure that people can achieve now?

DOUGHTY: My own experience with that brief moment where I had videos on MTV was that nothing was ever good enough. When you hear people say, "I was unhappy the whole time," that sounds ridiculous. But literally everything that happened to me was like, "This isn't good enough, because so-and-so has something better." I think this is a theme among people who seek fame, not just musicians. There are a lot of bitter, disappointed people.

My life today is better than it was in, say, 2009. I can say that with confidence. I could even name several specific areas in which there has clearly been a marked improvement, from relationships to finances, without there being any corresponding setbacks. Yet, to be honest, I don't really feel any different. Some of the things that gave me joy in 2009 are no longer so prominent in my life; conversely, some of the things that seemed like menacing crises turned out to be harmless phantoms. I meditate upon the reasons I have to be thankful, but in doing so, I can't help but be aware of the myriad ways in which those blessings are beyond my control and could still turn to shit. Overall, life seems pretty well balanced between contentment and frustration, hope and fear. The individual elements constantly change, but the ratios always seem to remain the same.

I think this is a theme common to all people, not just fame-seekers. Fears rarely turn out to be as terrible as we imagined, and successes often turn out to be more ephemeral than we anticipated. I suppose you could say these are axiomatic truths for me: people often don't know what they really want. In fact, their desires largely exist in relation to what other people have and want, rather than existing sui generis. If they're lucky, they might stumble into satisfaction after a process of elimination, but it's likely that they'll spend their lives in vain pursuit of it, never realizing that anything they can actually possess will inevitably become boring and unsatisfactory. However, consciously accepting a life of perpetual novelty-chasing will come to seem equally empty. Neither indulgence nor resignation seem to provide a solution.

Progress can be meaningfully said to exist, at least in the material sense. The problem of how to cope with the stress of modern, sedentary existence in a consumer society seems, to me at least, to be a good problem to have. Not all tradeoffs are created equal. Psychologically, though, there is no correlate to material improvement, no way to estimate that "My life is at least 35% better than it was several years ago" and have it resonate in a satisfactory way. Like Tantalus, the things we want and the things we've lost will always seem to be agonizingly close, yet forever out of reach.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Somebody Else Calls It The News, But That's Yesterday's News

The Black Crowes call it quits, seriously bumming out 1992

Oooh; what he did there, I see it! 1992, you see, that's when the Crowes were last culturally relevant, when they last had big hits on the charts. If your songs aren't in the Top Ten Most Tweeted, why would you even want to go on living?

Oh, A.V. Club. That's just

I come neither to praise nor bury the Black Crowes. I'm just somewhat perplexed by the way in which "relevance" has become so prominent in arguments over taste (and trust me, dismissing an artist for perceived irrelevance is a constant theme at the A.V. Club, where noting "This artist has unsurprisingly declined in popularity over the years!" is an endless source of amusement), when I would have assumed it to be the commonest of sense that relevance is just another word for "fashionable", and neither word tells you anything about the integrity or lasting value of art. Mostly, though, I'm just struck by the laziness, if anything, the way in which a writer for a pop-culture geek site with pretensions of critical respectability, when he has nothing else to say yet feels compelled to say it, falls back on the reflexive sneer, the defensive irony. God forbid anyone get the impression that he might be reporting on this little bit of music news in earnest, as if he or anyone else might actually care!

Freddie was right about these people; their recurring nightmare is that one day, the music will stop and they'll be the ones left standing without a seat, and everyone else will point and laugh uproariously at them, and they'll look down and see that they're naked — naked in the sense that everyone can see exactly what cheesy music and films they like and what they only pretend to hate, and as they stand there trembling, wishing for a blanket of jaded detachment to cover up with, they'll hear someone say the words that cut them to the bone: "Ohmigawd, how completely uncool!" What a sad, perpetually adolescent way to go through life.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Who Got The Power, This Be My Question

Scott Alexander:

Cracked starts off by naming mentally ill celebrities as a group society considers it okay to mock. This doesn’t seem surprising. Nowadays people talk a lot about punching-up versus punching-down. But that just means bullies who want to successfully punch down will come up with a way to make it look like they’re punching up. Take a group that’s high-status and wealthy, but find a subset who are actually in serious trouble and mock them, all the while shouting “I’M PUNCHING UP, I’M PUNCHING UP!”. Thus mentally ill celebrities.

The other examples are harder to figure out. I would argue that they’re ones that are easy to victim-blame (ie obesity), ones that punch down on axes orthogonal to the rich-poor axis we usually think about and so don’t look like punching down (ie virginity), or ones that are covertly associated with an outgroup. In every case, I would expect the bullies involved, when they’re called upon, it to loudly protest “But that’s not real bullying! It’s not like [much more classic example of bullying, like mocking the homeless]!” And they will be right. It’s just different enough to be the hot new bullying frontier that most people haven’t caught onto yet.

"Nowadays people talk a lot about punching-up versus punching-down." That is, to put it mildly, a mild way of putting it. Arguing over oppression rankings is one of the most popular online sports ever invented. I mean, there's kind of a funny parallel I've noticed — here I sit each morning, eating breakfast while listening to the cardinals, finches and titmice in the holly bush outside my window shrilly scolding the cat for loitering with intent in the vicinity of their food source. Then, when that gets old, I open the laptop and...observe all the little shrill, scolding birds on Jaybird Street cheering for the morons going tweet, tweet, tweet. At least the feathered birds are pretty to look at.

In keeping with the law of noospheric entropy, the unobjectionable concept that people should refrain from bullying others has decayed into the bumper-sticker slogan of "punching up/down". Like its sibling cliché, privilege-checking, it's become just another tool for reinforcing the social justice pecking order. The multifaceted nature of identity and power means that a simplistic up/down axis will leave out more than it meaningfully encompasses. Our social justice warriors, being the provincial Ameri-centric rubes they are, predictably obsess over the power and privilege held by straight white males, but what happens when two "oppressed" groups are fighting with each other and there's no Whitey to blame it on? In which direction are the punches being thrown when the Nation of Islam is scrapping with the Anti-Defamation League? Are Asian-Americans culturally oppressed by not being "white", or does their educational achievement and superior median income cancel that out?

The metaphor strongly implies that by "punching" in the right direction for long enough, we might achieve sociopolitical parity. In reality, this is just more ends-justify-the-means thinking, and such parity can never exist except as an abstraction. If humans wanted to create a world without oppression, they'd have to stop punching each other, period. But if there's one thing that holds true about people, whatever their race, class, gender, or whathaveyou, it's that they loooooove rationalizing a justification for acting aggressive and mean toward someone who "deserves" it. And on and on it goes.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I Was Tutored In The Ancient Mysteries By A Wizened Philosophe

Matthew Sharpe:

In order to try to philosophically reconstruct Camus' position, and to show why he has been so partially received, this book argues for a single hypothesis. We argue that Camus should be understood as a philosophe, in a neoclassical, humanistic, and also an enlightened French sense that it will be our task in the Introduction to preliminarily explain.

...Already we thus see how Camus' oeuvre, itself an argument that "a man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once," is as good as its word. Camus does not accept the accepted polarities of philosophy versus literature. His life and work contest the separation of wholly theoretical philosophy versus philosophising rooted in the Socratic gnôthi seauton. He equally challenges the opposition between reason and emotion. Our claim is that Camus‘ bridging of these accepted polarities goes some way to explaining how often he has been partially read hitherto. If we do not accept that Camus' thought and activity challenges these inherited oppositions, we are bound to read him as either a philosopher or a poet, a sentimentalist or a rationalist, an atheist or a theological thinker, a rebel or a reactionary, an ancient or a modern, even when such readings can only be vouchsafed at the cost of overlooking countervailing evidences found elsewhere in Camus‘ diverse production. Srigley, for instance, argues that the evidence speaking to Camus‘ deep allegiance to Greek thought (evidence we have started to give here) speaks in favour of reading Camus' work as involving a total critique of the modern age, since its key ideologies represent for him so many secularised or immanentised, Christian or eschatological doctrines. Camus at one point in his Carnets does declare that "no, I am not a modern," and The Rebel is a famously powerful critique of Marxism-Leninism and elements of modern liberal societies. Yet in "Helen‘s Exile" and elsewhere, Camus is critical of figures like Saint-Exupery to the extent that they despaired of the times. Again, the closing arguments of The Rebel criticise nothing so much as people who turn away from "the fixed and radiant point of the present" in the name of idealisations of what the present is decried to lack, in more or less elegiac or apocalyptic strains.

The opposition ancient-modern, we would rather suggest (one which always trades in unsustainable cultural generalisations) is one more opposition that Camus' thought straddles. In fact, the French word ‘philosophe’ that features in our title, in Camus' native French, is not only the generic term for philosophers of all times and places. It resonates specifically with the generations of French lumières spanning from Montesquieu through to d‘Holbach, led by Diderot and Voltaire, but looking back via Pierre Bayle to Michel de Montaigne. As Peter Gay in particular has argued, the thought and activity of these definitive "moderns," the enlighteners, involved their attempt to revitalise the modern West‘s pagan, classical heritage in the context of the advent of the modern natural sciences. It is just such a project that Camus, his own still small voice, advocates for in the twentieth century.

I came out of Ms. McCarty's Philosophy 101 with a deep, abiding appreciation of four thinkers in particular — Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky and Camus. The presence of the latter two, known primarily as novelists, indicates the broad scope of the class, in which we were taught to appreciate timeless and pressing questions about life, regardless of the academic pedigree of the questioner. The Dane and the Russian have faded in importance to me since then. Nietzsche, I dunno, I guess you could say I have something of an interest in his work. My affinity for Camus, though, has only deepened over time. His humane, pluralistic moralism, impressive even now, is even more so when considered in the original postwar context, where it was highly unfashionable and widely scorned by noxious Stalinist apologists like Merleau-Ponty and the execrable Sartre. Having just spent a good part of this evening reading and enjoying Sharpe's introduction to his forthcoming book, I recommend it to you as well.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


Sophrosyne, the Greek ideal of self-restraint, girds Camus's distinction between rebellion and revolution. Just as self-restraint implies a constant tension between two opposing forces — a straining in two directions at the center of which is the space for creation and progress — the act of rebellion thrives on a similar stress.

...Most critically, however, the rebel seeks to impose a limit on his own self. Rebellion is an act of defense, not offense; it is equipoise, not a mad charge against an opponent. Ultimately, like Weil's notion of attention, it is an active watchfulness in regard to the humanity of others as well as oneself. Just as the absurd never authorizes despair, much less nihilism, a tyrant's acts never authorizes one to become tyrannical in turn. The rebel does not deny his master as a fellow human being; he denies him only as his master. The rebel denies those who have treated him as less than an equal, but also denies the inevitable temptation to dehumanize his former oppressor.

...[T]his tension cannot be maintained indefinitely; sooner or later, ideals will crumble, leaders will grow deluded, followers become disillusioned. Yet, Camus maintains, this tension is as good as it gets for humankind. For the author of The Rebel, those who wish to remain in the party of humanity have no choice but to live their lives with this tension. While it is always possible that the end justifies the means, the rebel never fails to reply that the means alone justified the end. Toward the end of his essay, Camus concluded the rebel's logic is "to serve justice so as not to add to the injustice of the human condition, to insist on plain language so as not to increase the universal falsehood, and to wager, in spite of human misery, for happiness." When the book first appeared, this phrase was dismissed as easy grandiloquence disguising an ethical hollowness within. Yet we are now confronted with the truth that there is nothing at all easy, much less hollow, to Camus's claim. Instead, it recognizes the doubts and desperation filling an effort at true rebellion. It demands that we live with provisional outcomes and relative claims, all the while remaining alive to the one absolute: never to allow our rebellion to turn into a revolution.

Point The Finger, Slow To Understand

♪♪ Where have you gone, Salman Rushdie, our nation hasn't learned a thing from you, woo woo woo...♪♪