Saturday, October 30, 2010

I Am He as You Are He as You Are Me and We Are All Together

For we are all insulted by
The mere suggestion that we die
Each moment and that each great I
Is but a process in a process
Within a field that never closes;
As proper people find it strange
That we are changed by what we change,
That no event can happen twice
And that no two existences
Can ever be alike; we'd rather
Be perfect copies of our father,
Prefer our idées fixes to be
True of a fixed reality.
No wonder, then, we lose our nerve
And blubber when we should observe…

- W.H. Auden

Alva Noë:

Mind, after all, is almost universally taken to be something inside us. That was Descartes’ view. Inside each of us there is a thing that thinks and feels. Each of us is identical to that thing. Neuroscience updates the picture by adding that that thing inside you that thinks and feels is your brain.

You are your brain!

What are the implications of such a view? One is that we inhabit our bodies as a submariner inhabits his or her vessel; the main function of the body is to transmit signals from the surrounding sea of stimulation to neural headquarters. And what of the world beyond the body? Well, it is nothing more than a sea of potential stimulation! And what of other people? These are nothing other than more-or-less persistent patterns in the flow of surrounding stimulation!

What an ugly idea!

...Let’s imagine a new possibility. Your brain is not the thing inside you that thinks and feels. Not because something immaterial does this work for you, but because nothing does. Thinking and feeling is not something that happens in you, not in your brain, or anywhere else. Consciousness is something you achieve. It is something you do, and like everything else you do, it depends on your embedding in and reliance on the world around you (including other people).

Trying to find consciousness in the brain — consider this! — would be like trying to find the value of money in the molecular structure of bank notes. And just as the fact that we can’t find the value of money using an electron microscope does not show that value is mysterious, the fact that we can’t find consciousness in the brain does not show that consciousness is somehow unnatural.

Well, first of all, monetary value is not a property of coins and dollar bills; those are just symbolic representations of value, which itself is abstract and symbolic. The brain on the other hand, is not symbolic of consciousness, and consciousness is very much an emergent property of the brain, so this metaphor kind of falls flat.

Other than that, he seems to just be playing fast and loose with the definition of who "you" are. It is, of course, obviously true that we, as conventionally defined individuals, don't exist in a vacuum. As Nietzsche said in response to Kant's concept of the Ding-an-sich:

The properties of a thing are effects on other "things":
if one removes other "things", then a thing has no properties,
i.e., there is no thing without other things,
i.e., there is no "thing-in-itself".

You, Joe/Josephine Blogreader, are a physical product of your parents' DNA, and all the air, food and water that have maintained you since birth. Mentally, the thoughts you think are conditioned by the culture you live in and the language you speak, both of which are organic processes in constant evolution, with countless contributions along the way from countless people. So in that sense, yes, you are not simply a self-contained, unchanging, timeless observer peering out from the fortress of your body at a world filled with dead matter and likewise separate observers. "You" wouldn't exist without "everything else", as a lengthy stay in a sensory deprivation tank would make clear.

However, your individual brain is the nexus, the crossroads in time, where all these physical and cultural elements come together to form unique and unrepeatable combinations of experience. Remove or severely damage that, and there won't be anyone "doing" or "achieving" consciousness on any level. No other conventionally defined individual will have the same thoughts you do at the same time about the same events as viewed from the same perspective. No one else will ever have the precise experience that you have, informed by the same history, at 3:18 on Wednesday afternoon next week. Understanding this does not imply a life of empty, spiritual barrenness or any of the other clichés he trots out, just as understanding the former perspective does not imply mental peace and bliss. You can fully grasp that life itself, the great process, the Tao, the "I know not what" will continue on after absorbing all of our temporary individual selves back into itself and still feel a pang of wistfulness at the thought of your individual perspective, limited as it is, coming to an end at some point.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Persiflage That Packs a Punch

Now this is a fine example of how to deal with a heckler in the blogosphere. Take note, all you easily-startled pearl-clutchers who whine about the rampant incivility on the Internet.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Sound of One Hand Pudslapping

Marco Roth:

But the summer’s events show that the defense of unthreatened freedoms counts for less than an apparently widespread white wish to make more out of their difficulties than other people. This is no longer a culture war, a revolt of stoics against the “culture of complaint,” but something deeper and older that precedes the identity politics movements it aims to subvert. Forty-two years after the Civil Rights Act, white people who still think of themselves predominantly as “white people” want to air their grievances with the aid of a social movement. One half of what passes for American two-party discourse calls now for another rebirth of a nation: the Caucasian States of America, a postmodern ethno-nationalist republic.

...But it’s futile to insist on nuances of history and law when we’re speaking the language of “offense.” The mythical heartland Sarah Palin speaks from, or for, is full of these voiceless, downtrodden plain folk who are constantly being offended, for whom there is no end to the offenses, real or imagined, perpetrated against them: the Mexican immigrant speaking his native tongue, the Muslim at his prayers, the black man drinking from a public water fountain (oh wait, that one’s not offensive anymore . . .). One of the more charming stories in Budiansky’s history of Reconstruction concerns a Southern gentleman who wanted a freed slave whipped because he had the temerity to wish him “good morning” without being spoken to first. These offended people see with such dreadful clarity things that don’t exist, and so remake reality to suit their grievances.

...While not even Sarah Palin would suggest that we bring back slavery, the ferocity of the right-wing opposition to the disappointingly moderate technocratic policies of this Democratic administration cannot be explained in merely strategic legislative or electoral terms. It’s about more than winning elections for people like Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, who, as part of a plan to intimidate undocumented immigrants, recently called for the repeal of the 14th Amendment, which granted citizenship to former slaves; it’s about rewriting American history as the travails of a trod-upon Caucasian nation.

Right on cue, here comes Victor Davis Handjob with an extended pout on the topic of persecution, i.e., having to suffer the indignity of being challenged on one's opinions, advising people on "what to keep quiet about." Given that I would happily part with a kidney, a lung, and a testicle if only the people I personally know who share his opinions could grant me a few moments of blessed silence each day, rather than thundering indignantly and incessantly like Archie Bunker somehow magically transported atop Mount Sinai, I have to suspect that Vic is employing sarcasm here. Yes, I'm afraid so. I fear he doesn't actually want his fellows to remain silent at all, but rather to redouble their efforts to pummel their opponents into submission with righteously angry sound waves, invigorated by the tonic of Pseudo-Martyr® energy drinks.

Seriously, though, I've never known people who have it so good, yet are so firmly convinced that the entire world is crumbling around them. I would actually welcome the impending Republican midterm victories if I didn't already know from my experience of the first eight years of this decade that being in control doesn't make them any less prone to whining about their victimhood; it just makes them have to stretch harder to invent examples, with the additional effort apparently serving to make them even more cantankerous.

Cosmic Slapstick

From At Home: A Short History of Private Life, by Bill Bryson:

Because of the limits on his funds, Bazalgette could afford to take the sewage only as far as the eastern edge of the metropolis, to a place called Barking Reach. There mighty outfall pipes disgorged 150 million gallons of raw, lumpy, potently malodorous sewage into the Thames each day. Barking was still twenty miles from the open sea, as the dismayed and unfortunate people all along those twenty miles never stopped pointing out, but the tides were vigorous enough to haul most of the discharge safely (if not always odorlessly) out to sea, and ensured that there were never again any sewage-related epidemics in London.

The new sewage outfalls did, however, have an unfortunate role in the greatest tragedy ever experienced on the Thames. In September 1878, a pleasure boat named the Princess Alice, packed to overflowing with day-trippers, was returning to London after a day at the seaside, when it collided with another ship at Barking at the very place and moment when the two giant outfall pipes surged into action. The Princess Alice sank in less than five minutes. Nearly eight hundred people drowned in a choking sludge of raw sewage. Even those who could swim found it nearly impossible to make headway through the glutinous filth. For days afterward bodies bobbed to the surface. Many, the Times reported, were so bloated with gaseous bacteria that they wouldn't fit into normal coffins.

People have been pointing to natural disasters as proof against the existence of a loving God for centuries. What moral lesson can be drawn from mass destruction and casualties following an earthquake? What does the "free will" justification so often used to explain evil in the world have to do with fires and floods?

That kind of suffering is bad enough, but I wonder why events like this don't get similar attention. After all, this isn't just a case of needless death on a grand scale. It's almost like this was designed to additionally inflict the maximum loss of dignity just for the sheer, gratuitous hell of it. But if it was designed, rather than symbolic of an uncaring universe, you'd have to conclude that God is one seriously disturbed motherfucker. Or even more terrifying, perhaps God is something like a character from a Mike Myers or Wayans brothers movie gone stark raving mad, forcing humankind to endure real-life toilet humor just to make Him giggle.

Malachi 2:3 -- "Behold, I will corrupt your seed, and spread dung upon your faces..."

Just Another Dead Fag to You, That's All

Not to diminish what an overstuffed sack of shit Clint McCance is, but I have to say that I'm glad to see some honesty for a change, and none of this mealy-mouthed "hate the sin, love the sinner" bullshit.

Speaking of which, I like the part about how his kids will have "solid Christian beliefs". Maybe he might want to consider something E.L Greggory noticed.

Textual Intercourse

We all approach literature with a slight narcissistic perspective. We can't help but read our own lives and experiences into the story. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that. When we discussed Albert Camus's The Fall in philosophy class, the part that grabbed my adolescent self by the lapels and shook me was the section on pp. 31-32 about friendship, and the line that burned itself into my brain right then and there was, "Who, cher monsieur, will sleep on the floor for us?" At the time, I was watching many of my friends go off to college or careers, wondering if I was ever going to see some of them again, wondering if there were any relationships in my life that would withstand a long separation of time and distance. I was already concerned with a theme that still preoccupies me today; namely, that of trying to create a life that allows time for something besides working and consuming, while fearing that doing so might mean cutting myself off from some of the people I wanted to share it with.

Safe to say that wasn't exactly the main theme of the book. But nonetheless, I wanted to read more by a man who could reach into my brain like that, pluck out an inchoate thought, and articulate it in such a poetic way. And while Dostoevsky is certainly a more complex writer than I gleaned at the time, it was his clear, uncompromising portrayal of Ivan Karamazov's refusal to accept a God and heaven built on the needless suffering of innocents that galvanized that same idealistic, adolescent self and made me want to better understand a mind that could envision such an outlook. I entered through a narrow individual perspective, but doing so led me to much wider considerations.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to my point. I recently read a paragraph from an Alan Watts lecture that touched on a recurring theme of his, one that has since been taken up by numerous people determined to believe that all religious traditions are basically stating the same eternal truths in their own idiosyncratic ways:

One day A gets furious at its natural enemy B and says, "Let us obliterate B." They gather their forces and knock out their enemy. After a while, they begin to get weak and overpopulated. There is nobody around to eat up their surplus members, and they do not have to keep their muscles strong to defend against an enemy. They begin to fall apart because they have destroyed their enemy, and they remember that what they should do is cultivate the enemy. That is the real meaning of "Love your enemy." There is such a thing as a beloved enemy. If the flies and spiders did not have each other, there would be either too many spiders or too many flies. These balances maintain the course of nature. It is exactly the same with the libertines and the prudes. They need each other.

Watts spent a lot of time trying to reconcile a liberal form of Christianity to the Eastern philosophy he preferred before reluctantly concluding that the exclusivity of Christian dogma made it ultimately futile, but he still kept this philosopher-Jesus on hand for frequent reference, as so many people do who want to believe that the inspiration himself would want nothing to do with what's been done in his name. As it happens, I was just talking about this with Noel, one of the denizens I keep chained in the comment section to provide me with repartee -- religious myths are, by their nature, not supposed to provide us with objective truths. They poetically express common themes that apply to the experience of specific groups, or sometimes humanity as a whole, and different people can derive different lessons from them depending on their circumstances. But Christianity is built on the assertion that an individual human, at a very specific point in time, did in fact perform certain historical acts for the benefit of those who willingly believe the story. Biblical scholarship indicates that Jesus, to whatever extent any historical information can be known about him, very much believed in a Manichean state of affairs in which good would eventually obliterate evil, not coexist with it. Now, I agree that Watts's interpretation of the saying is a good and useful one. But it's simply not accurate to project that interpretation backward, and as I keep saying, it's a waste of time to try and reinvent Christianity as an allegorical fable when the majority of believers have accepted its historical claims and expect definite results at some point in the future.

It would have been silly and dishonest for me to pretend that those novels were written specifically for me as a nineteen year-old while ignoring the authors' perspectives and motivations, and it's no less so for people to treat religious texts in the same way. Take whatever you want away from them, but don't forget that not all perspectives are equally valid.

If You Do It Again, I'm Gonna Freak Out

So do it again:

Barack Obama invited some special friends for a first-of-its-kind, in-person White House chat today: liberal bloggers who are always mean to him! And the first report back suggests that they discussed Obama's legislative strategy for repealing DADT. He has one!

Really? That's the big, breaking news from this meeting of the minds? Given a chance to bend the president's ear for a few minutes, this is the issue you would focus on? Sigh. And these are the people who, with no trace of irony or self-awareness, will turn around and boast about being Dirty Fucking Hippies.

I'll never understand this mainstream progressive conviction that one of the best things we can do to help gay people is to make it easier to stick more of them in starchy uniforms, press a weapon into their hands, and send them off to our imperial outposts. IOZ once noted that it's a testament to the inessential nature of much of our military activity that we can afford to discriminate at all; if we were actually in a life-or-death struggle to defend the homeland, rather than occupy someone else's for dubious reasons, we would damn sure make vital use of anyone capable of standing up straight and uncrossing their eyes long enough to aim a rifle. Then again, given all the salacious details we keep learning from Wikileaks about the grim reality of militarily occupying a country whose inhabitants don't want you there, maybe this push to repeal DADT is rooted in the conviction that a group of people who by and large are habitually accustomed to the necessity of discretion and circumspection would be invaluable when it comes to keeping secrets from the wider public. Come on out of the closet, all you would-be warriors, Uncle Sam needs the storage space for all these piles of Iraqi and Afghan bones!

At any rate, I make no claims to being an especially original thinker, but I was starting to feel a bit like a voice in the wilderness for my belief that while discrimination against gays is surely bad on the face of it, there might just be more important issues to consider here, a forest-and-the-trees situation, if you will. So I'm glad to see John Caruso, Radley Balko and Mr. Fish adding their voices to what should be a chorus of the obvious.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Attention Must be Paid

I was reading yet another positive review of Nicholas Carr's The Shallows and wondering if anyone was ever going to point out the fucking obvious. So thank you, Evgeny Morozov:

Had Carr looked beyond the neuroscience, he may have found that many of the problems that he blames on the Internet — constant busyness, shrinking attention spans, less and less time for concentration and contemplation — are rooted in the nature of working and living under modern capitalism rather than in information technology or gadgetry per se. In fact, as Pinker correctly points outs, Carr's are very old complaints.

Exhibit A: back in 1881 the prominent New York City physician George Beard published "American Nervousness", a book about the sudden epidemic of "nervousness" sweeping America, which he blamed, in part on the telegraph and the daily newspaper (the book later proved a great influence on Freud).

Exhibit B: in 1891, almost 120 years before The Atlantic published Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?", the same magazine ran "Journalism and Literature", an essay by the polymath William Stillman, where he attacked the cultural change enabled by the telegraph-enabled journalism much in the same vein that Carr attacks the Internet. Stillman complained that "we develop hurry into a deliberate system, skimming of surfaces into a science, the pursuit of novelties and sensations into the normal business of our lives".

The Internet may be amplifying each of these problems, but it surely did not cause them. When the famed sociologist Manuel Castells speaks of the "black holes of information capitalism", there is as much emphasis on "capitalism" as there is on "information".

If anyone ever listened to me, I'd have probably bored them to death by now as often as I go on about this, but all of our techno-gadgetry fetishes are merely a symptom of a restless mentality that sacralizes work and accomplishment. We've been hearing for a couple centuries that new inventions would relieve us of most of the drudge work that made our lives so punishing...and they did! The problem was, and still is, that we just invent new things to do with all the time we saved, and we expect our gadgets to let us do them all at once. No one knows how to stop and say enough is enough, and quite possibly, they instinctively fear discovering how empty they are even if they did.

The part I found most amusing in the review is that she had to download a ten-dollar program that turns your computer off for you for however long you specify. The idea being, restarting it is such a huge chore that you'll be less likely to just aimlessly drift back online out of habit. I can't help but think that if you're so undisciplined that you can't turn the computer off yourself and walk away to do other things, maybe you should take that ten bucks and go pay someone to teach you how to sit zazen. That's been shown to rearrange neural pathways as well!

Monday, October 25, 2010

And It Is True What You Said, That I Live Like a Hermit in My Own Head

I'm a man who likes to be alone
I'm a man who likes to think alone
I don't want to be the type of guy
Who lives alone, reading books, and never eats a pizza pie

- The Beta Band

But I'm a creep
I'm a weirdo
What the hell am I doin' here?
I don't belong here

- Radiohead

The creep has the respect of the geek, but cannot — usually by choice — enter geek society. The creep can even be social with nerds and non-nerds alike, but if you meet a creep you will feel an impenetrable wall around him. There are, obviously, far fewer creeps than geeks. The creep is usually a man of few words —that’s part of what makes him creepy. The creep is a creature of extremes: for instance, the creep is more likely than other nerds to be a complete teetotaler, but the creep is also more likely to be a severe alcoholic. The creep may have a mild autism-spectrum disorder, such as Asperger’s. The creep is far more likely than the geek to be politically conservative. Libertarianism is an especially popular political sympathy among creeps. The overwhelming majority of creeps are male, though there are anecdotal accounts of female creeps.

Identifying characteristics

Distant, scary look in eyes. Otherwise, most creeps dress and behave much like ordinary people. Creeps usually have no sense of humor: they do not tell jokes or laugh, unless to express derision.

Mating habits

We’re not saying it has never happened, but there has never been a confirmed incident of a creep having sex with another creep. However, the male creep may sometimes have a certain sexual allure to female nerds and non-nerds alike. Often the creep seems entirely asexual—or worse, to have secret sexual proclivities far “kinkier” than the silly and self-congratulatory “kink” of the dork.

Where to find them

Your IT department; houses with Ron Paul campaign signs on lawns; suspiciously sitting alone at unusual times of day in public parks.

Quintessential creep

Theodore Kaczynski, AKA the “Unabomber”

Nervous chuckle. Strained gulp. Um...I'm not politically conservative! My whole blog is a running joke! And doesn't quoting four different bands in one post add a healthy dollop of "geek" to the mixture?


The U.S. said Iran shouldn’t interfere with Afghanistan’s internal affairs following a report that an Iranian official gave an aide of President Hamid Karzai a bag filled with packets of euro bills.

“We understand that Iran and Afghanistan are neighbors and will have a relationship,” Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement “But Iran should not interfere with the internal affairs of the Afghan government.”


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Philosopher Stoned

Nathan Schneider:

The gist is this: most of what goes by the name of religion is really idolatry—especially the appeal to supernaturalism. The only kind of God that satisfies the ancient claim of being the “Highest One” is a God of this world, offering no selfish fantasy of paradise in the next. This God is perfectly in tune with the immanent, Carl Sagan-ite account of science, yet one can also find information about Him in scriptures and religious traditions, selectively read. It’s a God that calls to mind, for instance, Spinoza’s “God or Nature”; J. N. Findlay’s 1948 paper claiming that the object of the ontological argument for God’s existence must be something higher than the God of religion; and sociologist Philip Rieff’s critique of the gods we invent to serve our own desires—religious, clinical, and otherwise. The second half of Saving God features a series of technical moves that, as best I can gather, is an attempt to squeeze some kind of Heideggerian phenomenology into the back door of analytic philosophy, which in turn makes room for introducing a close-to Hegelian view of God as Being’s self-disclosure to beings in history—yada, yada, yada.

All this is to say (and here I am imitating Johnston’s alternating rhetoric referred to above) that God is here and now, not beyond. Inscribed in all the fluff and error of religion—even in the story of the Christian Passion—there are basic truths about the universe and the Mind that pervades it which philosophy, fortunately, has the means to extract.

Ye gads. Heidegger? Hegel? Capital-M Mind? I actually wouldn't mind reading this book one day, but this all sounds terribly reminiscent of Ken Wilber, to name another modern Idealist who tries to buttress run-of-the-mill spiritualism with what appears to be a familiarity with science and philosophy. I don't really mean to suggest that Johnston is on a par with a goofy hack who sells an Integral Life Starter Kit for $200, but I don't find this description too encouraging.

I say again: this desperate attempt to preserve something called God by simultaneously defining it as Everything and Nothing is only ever going to appeal to a small group of intellectuals. Most people are not even remotely interested in a God that doesn't answer prayers and reserve us a seat in the afterworld next to all our family and friends. I am amused, however, at the fact that it's apparently okay for believers to tell the vast majority of their fellows, "Religion: Ur Doin It Wrong," but if an atheist says the same thing, they're being arrogant and intolerant. Whaddayagunnado.

And speaking of mirth, this sounds promising: "...yet one can also find information about Him in scriptures and religious traditions, selectively read." Selectively read, eh? You mean as in cherry-picking scriptures and traditions for whatever appeals to your experience as an educated, twenty-first century Westerner, ignoring any contextual or historical details that contravene the message you're determined to see? You don't see a potential lack of intellectual integrity in this approach? I can admire the brass balls on Thomas Jefferson, acting as a one-man Jesus Seminar long before it existed, brashly cutting out all the parts of the Gospels that he felt didn't belong with the model of Jesus he was envisioning - one who turned out to totally agree with Thomas Jefferson, will wonders never cease - but I daresay it probably wasn't his proudest scholarly achievement.

Middle Finger of the Invisible Hand

Over 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees (over 8,000 of them have doctoral or professional degrees), along with over 80,000 bartenders, and over 18,000 parking lot attendants. All told, some 17,000,000 Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that the BLS says require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree.

...Putting issues of student abilities aside, the growing disconnect between labor market realities and the propaganda of higher-education apologists is causing more and more people to graduate and take menial jobs or no job at all. This is even true at the doctoral and professional level—there are 5,057 janitors in the U.S. with Ph.D.’s, other doctorates, or professional degrees.

This is why I keep saying that on the whole, I'm glad I didn't go to college, despite the fact that I would surely have enjoyed the intellectual atmosphere. And while I'm taking stock of my good fortune, I'm even more glad I never absorbed the romantic myth that our job should be the culmination of our hopes and dreams, the fullest expression of our personalities. It's an exceedingly tiny percentage of people who are fortunate enough to get paid well for doing what they love most of all. Bully for them, of course, but for the majority of people who have to settle for doing whatever pays the bills (including the massive expense of that college education), it's hard to avoid feeling a sense of failure, as if they've missed out on their calling (thanks again, John Calvin, for that stupid fucking notion). And as step one in the escape theory explains, there are often catastrophic consequences to feeling that way:

Most people who kill themselves actually lived better-than-average lives. Suicide rates are higher in nations with higher standards of living than in less prosperous nations; higher in US states with a better quality of life; higher in societies that endorse individual freedoms; higher in areas with better weather; in areas with seasonal change, they are higher during the warmer seasons; and they’re higher among college students that have better grades and parents with higher expectations.

Baumeister argues that such idealistic conditions actually heighten suicide risk because they often create unreasonable standards for personal happiness, thereby rendering people more emotionally fragile in response to unexpected setbacks. So, when things get a bit messy, such people, many of whom appear to have led mostly privileged lives, have a harder time coping with failures. “A large body of evidence,” writes the author, “is consistent with the view that suicide is preceded by events that fall short of high standards and expectations, whether produced by past achievements, chronically favorable circumstances, or external demands.” For example, simply being poor isn’t a risk factor for suicide. But going rather suddenly from relative prosperity to poverty has been strongly linked to suicide.

And Ed's lament is a common one even among those who are fortunate enough to have parlayed an advanced degree into an actual academic career. I have several bright, well-educated friends who suffered like that for years in academia before dropping out entirely.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Odds and Ends

Apparently some evil imp surreptitiously cracked my skull open without my being aware of it and proceeded to fill it with a hornet's nest, pop rocks and cola, and a vibrator left on high speed. So while I mewl softly in a darkened corner, here are some things I've enjoyed reading recently for your entertainment.

• I have a sinking feeling that many of my friends would like to send me an automated response like this.

• It occurs to me that I lack a good book devoted to Socrates himself. Fortunately, Bettany Hughes has rectified this gross injustice by writing one that will be released on this side of the pond in February, and here's an excerpt. You may discuss among yourselves which one of you is going to buy it for me.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Afterbirth of a Nation

One of the strangest things about the teabaggers I know is the way they vehemently deny holding any racist beliefs while making no effort to hide their, well, racist beliefs. I've heard radical right-wingers laugh at black people for being "too stupid" to get out of the way of Katrina, blame them for being the primary group responsible for taking out loans they couldn't afford and thereby crashing the economy, and suggest that the reason Europe can afford to have such strict gun control laws is because "they don't have a problem with the niggers like we do here." A violent incident involving a basketball player leads to muttering about uncivilized thugs, but routine brawls in hockey don't seem to reflect poorly on white people in general. Despite the majority of welfare recipients being white, the ones who always inspire apoplectic tirades about freeloaders and parasites are referred to with names like Shaquanda and Tyreesha (and good luck convincing a teabagger that the majority of their taxes are not going toward keeping "those people" living the high life in Section 8 housing, wining and dining on food stamps). And the only part of our "heritage" that my fellow Southerners seem interested in celebrating are the years 1861-1865. The bolder ones even argue that slavery gave blacks at least a rudimentary work ethic, not to mention Christianity.

It's like they've internalized the idea that being accused of racism is a slur upon their honor, but it doesn't seem to follow that actually being racist is a bad thing. Like I said, strange.

Bad Faith Effort

It's difficult to say what amuses me the most about the way our revanchists do their utmost to deny the separation of church and state. On the one hand, you would think people who are so extremely concerned to make sure that every citizen regularly displays a gaudy excess of sentimental patriotism, lest the nation collapse from a lack of self-esteem, would be constantly harping on one of the things we Myrrhkins can all be justifiably proud of. As I mentioned recently, we've grown so used to the idea that metaphysical differences are not worth bloodshed that it can be easy to forget just how long it took for us to get to that point. Fifteen hundred years of Christianity being synonymous with state power, and we never did get around to acting on all those supposed ethics at its core, but a mere couple hundred years of secularism have already accomplished far more. Even many colonial religious groups understood this, realizing it would be in most of their better interests to keep any one denomination from enjoying state favoritism.

On the other hand, this is a situation that would appear to be tailor-made for the ideological template they favor -- in a country where the government got out of the religion business, where it established a, shall we say, free marketplace of religious ideas, religion in all its forms flourished as a result, and has maintained a dynamic vibrancy ever since. In Europe, where many nations still nominally have an official state religion, the practice of it has become a hollow, empty ritual that no one even cares enough about to bother ending it. But where are the teabaggers with misspelled signs demanding you keep your government hands off their religion? Most of them seem to be just fine with the idea that the full muscle power of the government should be used to make sure no citizen goes five minutes without being reminded that Jesus died for them (the pathetic insecurity underlying this incessant need to preach and proselytize to a captive audience is pretty hilarious in its own right).

There are days when I just say bring it on. Let me just nestle into a nice, remote spot out of the way with plenty of refreshments and watch all these idiots battle in the streets over which group of Southern Baptist splitters gets to preside over the terminal decline of their tradition into meaningless irrelevance.

Rather Be Dead Than Cool

Unfortunately, Axl Rose embracing Nirvana seemed to confirm Kurt Cobain’s worst fears about signing with a major label. For Cobain, Axl Rose represented everything horrible about corporate rock. On a personal level, he found Rose to be a despicable human being, the epitome of racist, sexist, homophobic, proudly redneck and macho assholes that his music was intended to irritate and destroy...Rose signified old-guard, cock-rock superstardom, and Cobain was never more deliberate in his desire to dismantle that institution than in his outspoken criticism of Guns N’ Roses. Cobain’s aversion to turning into Axl Rose bordered on obsession...

It’s convenient shorthand to paint Axl Rose as the meathead rock cliché and Kurt Cobain as the genuine artist, but what gets left out? Looking back, I see the crucial difference between Axl and Kurt being how they chose to act out their darkest, ugliest sides. Both men had troubled childhoods that led to adult lives distinguished by intense mood swings and a compulsive need to control their surroundings. Both men hated the press for spreading “lies” that often turned out to be true, and both were drawn to complicated women who created as much misery as ecstasy in their lives. Both men saw fame as a double-edged sword; it gave them the attention they craved after a lifetime of being ignored, and yet it also seemed to intensify their feelings of self-loathing. They were, to use medical terminology, a couple of fucked-up individuals, which both men expressed eloquently in their music.

Ah, so it was one of those situations where the surface animosity distracted from the underlying similarities, eh? Perhaps Kurt saw more of himself reflected in Axl than he would have ever admitted? If so - may we wildly speculate? - maybe what led Cobain to suicide was a vivid premonition of what a sad joke Axl would eventually turn into, and he decided sticking a shotgun in his mouth was preferable to risking the same fate himself:

Ladies and gentlemen, the man who terrorized parents and teachers for several years in the late '80s and early '90s. No, that's not a Photoshop job. That's an actual outfit that MC Chiquita apparently wore on purpose, un-ironically. I wonder if he was dressed like that when he had his slap-fight with Tommy Hilfiger.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Very Superstitious, Nothing More to Say

Maria Amir:

A believer can never truly stomach a sceptic, because the latter’s refusal to take anything for granted is always perceived as a slight. For some inexplicable reason, a sceptic can never simply be acknowledged as someone who has made the choice to stick with the logical over the illogical and it is always, always taken personally.

I think this is true, but not always in such a straightforward way -- I have no doubt that many believers are able to tolerate the presence of skeptics by viewing them with mildly amused condescension and pity (if not caricatural contempt), although, of course, you could easily argue that such poses are a way to cover for feelings of inferiority. Defensiveness is usually a sign of a lack of confidence and assuredness. Arguing is simply fun to do, of course, but when you find yourself feeling that little extra bit of emotional urgency to prove that you do so know what you're talking about, it might be a sign that you aren't so sure about it yourself. And when it comes to metaphysical beliefs, well, as Mark Twain said, faith is believing what you know ain't so, hence the understandable anxiety about being challenged.

She's talking specifically about skepticism with regards to religion, spirituality and superstition, but this same dynamic manifests itself in other ways, too. As someone who, in many ways, just doesn't neatly fit in with a lot of groups, doesn't care to join in many popular communal activities, I find myself often having to try to gently deflect such invitations without provoking the all-too-common reactions she mentions. In many cases, I honestly don't care what other people enjoy doing and don't think any less of them for doing it, but they do often take a demurral as a personal rejection, not a simple difference of opinion or taste. People don't seem to trust a person who holds too many things at arm's length. Someone who appears to constantly maintain a detached, analytic outlook is someone who can't be counted on (or manipulated). There has to be something you're willing to entirely (and publicly) give yourself over to without any hesitation to appear to be fully human in their eyes, whether it be church, sports, romantic/sexual passion, drinking with the boys, or popular entertainment. Too much self-control makes you seem dangerous.

In the longest and remotest ages of the human race there was quite a different sting of conscience from that of the present day. At present one only feels responsible for what one intends and for what one does, and we have our pride in ourselves. All our professors of jurisprudence start with this sentiment of individual independence and pleasure, as if the source of right had taken its rise here from the beginning. But throughout the longest period in the life of mankind there was nothing more terrible to a person than to feel himself independent. To be alone, to feel independent, neither to obey nor to rule, to represent an individual - that was no pleasure to a person then, but a punishment; he was condemned "to be an individual." Freedom of thought was regarded as discomfort personified. While we feel law and regulation as constraint and loss, people formerly regarded egoism as a painful thing, and a veritable evil. For a person to be himself, to value himself according to his own measure and weight - that was then quite distasteful. The inclination to such a thing would have been regarded as madness; for all miseries and terrors were associated with being alone. At that time the "free will" had bad conscience in close proximity to it; and the less independently a person acted, the more the herd-instinct, and not his personal character, expressed itself in his conduct, so much the more moral did he esteem himself. All that did injury to the herd, whether the individual had intended it or not, then caused him a sting of conscience - and his neighbor likewise, indeed the whole herd! It is in this respect , that we have most changed our mode of thinking.

- Nietzsche

Saturday, October 16, 2010


I asked my friend Arthur what he thought of Kristen Hoggatt's essay, and this is what he wrote back:

Music affects us on a more primal level than language (a fact Schopenhauer made much philosophical use of) and it will tend to overshadow (distort, transfigure) whatever words or lyrics you set to it. A song can survive, even "ennoble" mediocre lyrics; but no lyrics, however brilliant, can survive unmemorable music. It's great when words in songs are intellectually or aesthetically stimulating in themselves, but the qualities that make the words seem to work as poetry when set to music are not necessarily the qualities that would make them work as poems. Who worries whether the librettos of great operas are poetry in themselves? They usually are not, and composers like Richard Strauss, aware of the greater authority of their art viz a viz merely literary merit, have been brutal with the literary pretensions of their librettists (like poor Hoffmansthal, Strauss's collaborator on many of the great operas): give me what works (serves the technical needs and imaginative ambitions of the composer, me), not what seems beautiful or profound to you as a poet.

The poets of our tradition stopped being troubadours centuries ago. Poetry is its own music, both for the ear and for the imagination. It comes into its glory read aloud, but not necessarily when set to music. (Which is not to say that great poems can't be set to great music. But it's surprisingly rare. Schubert was inspired to new heights by Heine, but he could compose equally great songs to fairly fun-of-the-mill poetry.)

Music is a Dionysian art; poetry is Apollonian.

P.S. I forgot to add something about Stevens, a propos of Simon's comments. Strauss often cut out metaphors and verbal associations he thought crowded the aural canvas and distracted from the music. A poet like Stevens wants to pursue verbal associations and imaginative ideas wherever they take him, to let poetry revel in its own extravagance, its own "fictive music." Poetry is the music of the mind in motion among its metaphors, and it addresses something solitary and inward in us--just as music itself often does, when it isn't telling us to get up and boogie.

Which echoes Shanna's observation that good music can make up for insipid lyrics every time. Sometimes trite sentiments or outright surreal nonsense can still be fun to sing if the rhythm and melody are too irresistible.

Dogma Chasing Karma

The notion of karma comes with lots of new-age baggage, but it is an old and very conservative idea. It is the Sanskrit word for "deed" or "action," and the law of karma says that for every action, there is an equal and morally commensurate reaction. Kindness, honesty and hard work will (eventually) bring good fortune; cruelty, deceit and laziness will (eventually) bring suffering. No divine intervention is required; it's just a law of the universe, like gravity.

Karma is not an exclusively Hindu idea. It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced. In 1932, the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget found that by the age of 6, children begin to believe that bad things that happen to them are punishments for bad things they have done.

...The rank-and-file tea partiers think that liberals turned America upside down in the 1960s and 1970s, and they want to reverse many of those changes. They are patriotic and religious, and they want to see those values woven into their children's education. Above all, they want to live in a country in which hard work and personal responsibility pay off and laziness, cheating and irresponsibility bring people to ruin. Give them liberty, sure, but more than that: Give them karma.

"It combines the universal human desire that moral accounts should be balanced with a belief that, somehow or other, they will be balanced." Or, in other words, this is wishful thinking and mythology, plain and simple, and as such, will never be disproven by anything so petty as literally countless examples of people for whom life was never anything remotely fair. Apologies to the honorable MLK Jr., but "justice" is a human concept, not a natural law, the universe itself is amoral, and there is no arc bending toward anything. As I've said before, the only way the concept of "karma" can be useful is when it's made pretty much synonymous with cause and effect. But that, of course, makes it true to the point of banality. Actions lead to reactions? You don't say! What New Agers and teabaggers alike can't seem to grasp is that there's no way it can be made to fit with our notions of permanent individual identity and agency. When you start by assuming that there is a distinct difference, karmically speaking, between actions that you do, on the one hand, and actions that the rest of the world does to you, on the other, well, how can I put this? You've already fucked up. No matter what sort of tortured metaphysical contortions you go through, you're never going to get this to make sense. You're going to spend your life standing around with your hand outstretched, a stupid look on your face, waiting for exact change from a cashier that doesn't exist.

Your actions become part of the flow. They have an effect, however grand or slight, on other people and events, all of which are busy making their own contributions to the whole. What "comes back around" to you may have absolutely nothing to do with your individual action. I would say that there are too many links in the chain to even begin to trace the precise effects of any particular action of yours, but even the metaphorical image of a chain is far too simplistic to accurately convey the enormousness of the process, and my imagination is too impoverished to even think a better one up. You, as an individual, may find yourself like a twig in a raging current, caught up in forces too large for you to control or understand, ones that have nothing to do with your personal morality. War. Economic strife. Environmental disaster. Cause and effect is not limited to relationships between individual people. And the consequences, as anyone with a rudimentary grasp of history can see, take no heed of individuals as they unfold.

I can only stare in amazement at the blithe way in which people, coming from a limited and ignorant perspective, feel confident enough to pass judgment on whether another person's triumphs and setbacks are properly balanced. What system of weights and measurements can you even begin to utilize when comparing two totally different actions or events? Who's to say whether a personal tragedy in someone's life is in direct proportion to whatever pain and suffering they've caused others? Where in the world do people find the nerve to assert that one equals the other?

I find it much more realistic to adopt a perspective akin to Greek tragedy. The gods (or our institutions) are doing their thing, and we just have to do our best to avoid becoming casualties of their indifference and recklessness. In that David Simon interview I linked to several posts ago, he drew a distinction between two different concepts of fate in the history of drama:

This seems to play into what you mentioned earlier, that you were writing Greek tragedy, which certainly had comedic elements.

Yes. Before finishing the first season I’d reread most of Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus, those three guys. I’d read some of it in college, but I hadn’t read it systematically. That stuff is incredibly relevant today. As drama, the actual plays are a little bit stilted, but the message within the plays and the dramatic impulses are profound for our time. We don’t really realize it. I don’t think we sense the power in there because we’re really more in the Shakespearean construct of—

Yes, the individualism kind of thing.

The individual and the interior struggle for self. Macbeth and Hamlet and Lear and Othello...

...It seems to me that people want to be sort of special, unique snowflakes, and the Shakespearean thing addresses that more.

Right! Let’s celebrate me and the wonder that is me. It’s not about society... Now, the thing that has been exalted and the thing that American entertainment is consumed with is the individual being bigger than the institution.

And Alain de Botton explained some of the psychological underpinnings of a belief that life (or society) is inherently fair:

You suggest that the rise of meritocracy has trained us to see the rich as deserving of their fortunes rather than as sinful or corrupt. But, speaking for myself, in the wake of Enron and Martha Stewart, and given the state of modern government, I definitely consider more rich people than ever to be cheaters. I kind of always have.

That's interesting. It's not a typically American perspective. Americans usually tend to have this idea that we're moving toward some system of fair competition where there won't be any more Enrons, and the school system will make everything equal. Personally, I think the whole idea of meritocracy is bananas. I mean, the idea that you can create a society where you arrange people in descending order in relation to their merit as human beings, and give them money in relation to that system is completely illogical. Because there are so many factors that go into people's personalities. The modern worldview is that you can look at someone's resumé and make a judgment about how noble and worthwhile they are. Something's wrong with that: there are just too many other factors at play. I have a lot of sympathy for the old Christian view that the only person who can tell the worth of another human being is God, and He can only do that on the day of judgment. I think we need to be humble in judging other people, and in judging our own value. There's an arrogance that comes over people who think the system is just. The more just you think the system is, the crueler you're likely to be, because if you generally believe that those at the top deserve their success, you have to believe that those at the bottom deserve their failure. That's when you start talking about people as "losers," and saying things like, "Winners make their own luck." So there's a very nasty side to this otherwise very nice-sounding idea that we should make society fairer. Success is never totally deserved just as failure is never totally deserved.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Happy 166th!

Today is Nietzsche's birthday. In lieu of gifts, please consider offering someone a penetrating psychological observation or, alternatively, asking them to consider how they might live their life differently if they learned that every tiny detail of it was destined to repeat in exactly the same way for eternity.

Cutting remarks about the baleful influence of religious belief are always welcome, too.

Domino Theory

Dan Savage:

State-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT people legitimizes the kind of anti-gay attitudes and beliefs that lead directly to anti-gay bullying at the ballot box and anti-gay bullying in schools.

I do believe this is precisely ass-backwards. Or, okay, maybe you could say that state-sanctioned discrimination is emblematic of anti-gay attitudes and beliefs, but to imply that grade-school kids are taking their cues from the military as to whether it's okay to call each other gay as an insult, or to play "smear the queer" during recess, seems, ah, just a bit of a stretch. And conversely, the military being integrated in 1948 didn't do much to ease bullying of black people, at the ballot box or anywhere else. I'm getting a sneaking suspicion that some people are attaching way too much significance to repealing DADT.

And once again, it amazes and saddens me to see that leftist activism, or what passes for it, is more concerned with making sure our military displays a cosmetic diversity than aggressively challenging the size and direction of it. As much as progressive bloggers love to stroke themselves for supposedly being dirty, idealistic hippies, none of them will ever bother suggesting that dramatically slashing military spending should be a priority, even if only for the quixotic fun of it, purely for the sake of starting that conversation and getting people to start thinking about it. Legitimizing it, you might say. It has to start somewhere, doesn't it? Why not among people who incessantly complain that the media and political elite never listen to them anyway? But Chalmers Johnson, who is hardly some wild-eyed refugee from Woodstock, has a new book out, and I'll bet you won't see many of the top progressive blogs even so much as mention it. They're too busy making sure that every eligible citizen gets a fair chance to be chewed up and spit out in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and whoever else we're covertly waging black ops against.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Way That Can Be Improvised Is Not the Way

I liked Stephen Mitchell's translations of Rilke, but I remember hearing his Tao Te Ching as a book on tape (remember those?) lo these many moons ago, and feeling puzzled at how different it sounded from the other versions I'd read. So this is pretty funny (and several months old, but I just happened across it while looking for something else):

Tao Te Ching is an ancient Chinese scripture originally written by Lao-tzu (who some scholars believe is actually an amalgam of various wisdom texts). Mitchell alleges he studied the texts and various interpretations for years, immersing himself in Zen training before writing the book. As a result, "rather than provide a literal translation, the book embodies language that conveys Mitchell's version of Lao-tzu's meaning and the spirit of his teaching," the complaint says. "Accordingly, Mitchell's book is a highly original work."

Well, I guess that's one way of putting it. Another way was memorably provided by Sam Hamill:

When an otherwise notable translator like Stephen Mitchell muddies the waters with something as irresponsible as his wild interpretation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching passed off as translation, it is like a virus in a computer that begins to invade other programs. Mitchell writes that he felt no compunction to study the original Chinese because he somehow got the transmission directly from his Zen master, so felt free to interpret the Tao Te Ching freely. In at least a couple of chapters, there is not so much as a single word brought over from the original. The problem with this kind of practice is that the naïve reader might assume that the English bears some resemblance to the original, which all too often simply isn't so. Or as Chuang Tzu might say, "Not quite there yet, eh?"

To truly understand Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu or most classical Chinese poetry, we would need a large scholarly apparatus to clarify all the allusions and explain a cast of characters and provide an explication of cultural-philosophical contexts and linguistic differences. We would know the Analects of Confucius and the Classic of Filial Piety, the I Ching, and elementary Chinese cosmology.

Adam's Curse

Wrath James Wright:

Like so many other Christians I had chosen to view the story of Adam and Eve as a metaphor for something. I just wasn’t sure for what.

A lot of people have criticized the myth for what seems to be an endorsement of ignorance, a hostility to the sort of knowledge that has improved human existence. But I always liked the interpretation Alan Watts gave, where he viewed the apple as containing the mixed blessing of self-knowledge. Reflective knowledge, if you prefer. Self-consciousness. The sort of abstract thinking we do with the neocortex. We lost the ability to be "natural" like other animals. Our instincts are constantly at war with our considered values. There is no one way, determined by biology and environment, for humans to live. We truly are free to make our own way, but we often want to be free of the responsibility, and we long for the comfort of simply acting without thinking. We ask ourselves questions of purpose that we can't satisfactorily answer. We don't know how to simply be.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Gasp! I am Unmasked

"A lot of bloggers seem to be socially inadequate, pimpled, single, slightly seedy, bald, cauliflower-nosed young men sitting in their mother's basements and ranting. They are very angry people," he told the Cheltenham Literary Festival. "OK – the country is full of very angry people. Many of us are angry people at times. Some of us are angry and drunk. But the so-called citizen journalism is the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night."

Hey, asshole! I'm not bald!

(I wonder if they purposely ran his picture as an ironic accompaniment to those words.)

How Sharper Than a Serpent's Tooth

The problem is that this tidy narrative is an American myth. The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over or shunt to the side. And much of the recent conversation about America’s ideal of religious freedom has paid lip service to this comforting tableau.

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

...America can still be, as Madison perceived the nation in 1785, “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.” But recognizing that deep religious discord has been part of America’s social DNA is a healthy and necessary step. When we acknowledge that dark past, perhaps the nation will return to that “promised...lustre” of which Madison so grandiloquently wrote.

This is what I was saying a while back with regards to another popular myth, most commonly expressed in the form of those COEXIST stickers and t-shirts. And I do mean "myth" in the specific sense of a story that expresses aspirations, values or perennial themes rather than historical truth. Let no one doubt that I'm all in favor of aspiring to create a society where religious beliefs are treated in the same way as other lifestyle choices: expressions of personality, peccadilloes at worst, not worth fighting about. But if you're a religious person, you might regard me warily upon hearing this. Why would a fire-breathing atheist and aspirtualist like myself be supportive of this? Don't I want a scorched-earth campaign against all metaphysical woo-woo to eliminate it for once and for all? Well, no, actually, partially because a society that demands of its members that they subordinate their beliefs about God, the human soul, the afterlife and holy books to a general principle of living and letting live is already a fully secular one.

What irritates me to no end about the COEXISTers is that they act as if this has been the inherent character of religion itself all along. It's almost like a form of ingratitude -- they refuse to recognize what a truly revolutionary innovation it was to separate church and state and how beneficial it was for everyone, especially believers. That is what permeated our cultural consciousness to the extent that we can hardly comprehend a person who thinks doctrinal differences are matters of life and death; after all, aren't all religions just different paths to the same truth, different names for the same God? But at the time that Jefferson and Madison were implementing these new ideas, you could still find examples of people in Europe being tortured and executed as a result of sectarian fanaticism and mob rule, or for such heinous offenses as being rumored to have failed to remove one's hat before a religious procession, as well as possessing a copy of Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary. That sort of thing was still typical behavior in "civilized" Europe, and had been ever since Constantine. It didn't change until it was forced to. By all means, enjoy this postmodern form of domesticated religious tolerance that's so commonplace now! Just don't forget that it was secularism that gave it to you.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Ballad of Naked Man

Get the hell away from me, you goddamned naked man. Go the fuck away from me, back to Naked Land.

I don't have anything to say about the story. But how many times do you get to quote lyrics to an awesome Butthole Surfers song in reference to anything? I couldn't pass it up.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Born Against

Brad Warner:

The history of philosophy throughout the world has been a struggle between two basic fundamental systems -- idealism and materialism. Spirituality is a kind of idealism. It takes the view that the spiritual world, the world of ideas, imagination, and mental formations, is the true reality. Matter is regarded as secondary at best or sometimes even as nonexistent. We are spirits trapped inside bodies made of gross matter - and some bodies are a lot grosser than others - and the way to happiness, according to the idealists, is to get free of this material world and its miseries. In many Eastern philosophies we are told, "I am not this body. I am the spiritual soul within."

First, let me take a moment to say that our marketing department informs us that readers of this here blog tend to have a significant interest in sex, Buddhism, Nazi garden gnomes and plainspoken philosophizing, so with that in mind, I feel confident in asserting that they may find it rewarding to check out Warner's new book (and/or his previous ones) as well as his blog, Hardcore Zen, conveniently located in the sidebar to your right for your browsing convenience. (He doesn't have much to say about the Nazi garden gnomes, but you'll find the other topics covered in exquisite detail.)

So. Regarding his definition of spirituality, well... yes and no. It's certainly true, as the "spirit" part of the word would indicate, that there is a strong ascetic streak of denying or devaluing the worth or reality of the physical, empirical world in spiritual practices, but that's obviously true of traditional religion as well. Now, if you're down with T.O.T.B., yeah, you know me -- I think it's clear that "spirit" and "soul" are useful only as poetic metaphors at best, and there is no such thing as an eternal, translucent essence to living beings that survives the body's death and floats on to inhabit a newborn host like a virus, while carrying with it some sort of moral scorecard that needs to be reviewed and validated every so often. But if not taken to Platonic extremes, the world of ideas, imagination and mental formations is a perfectly nice place to spend one's time. Maybe this more balanced appreciation could be called cerebral, intellectual, reflective, contemplative, or philosophical to indicate a love of "thinking about thinking", as one definition of philosophy has it, a passionate enjoyment of ideas for their own sake, regardless of any necessarily practical import to them. The ascetic tendency, I think, should just be left to its old description of capital-I Idealism.

Another meaning of the word "spirituality" is one I feel to be much more applicable to the way it manifests itself in Western culture: a different brand of religion for those who feel themselves to be too cool or independent for religion. Yes, I'm being snide on purpose in reducing spirituality to the level of a marketing gimmick, much as I would be toward people who think choosing one brand of carbonated sugar water shows them to possess greater discernment and more refined taste than people who prefer the more popular alternatives. It should go without saying, but I'll say it anyway: This clearly does not apply to everyone who self-describes as "spiritual". Some, or even many, of those people are honest, open-minded seekers with an omnivorous appetite for knowledge and a sense of intellectual integrity that keeps them from settling for pat answers. Etymological preferences aside, I have no problem with them, and I trust they can read between the lines when confronted with a quarrelsome bastard like myself and realize I'm not aiming at them. But there are a million other people who will sing their praises. I don't need to be one more. I'm more interested in presumptuously poking at what I see as a frequent display of smug, complacent ignorance that pervades the whole "spiritual-not-religious" culture, and aside from this dude, I don't see anyone else taking that approach.

Warner goes on to explain that spiritualism and materialism are both still "-isms", and as such, are theoretical frameworks about reality rather than the bare perception of reality, which is an important distinction. This is what I've always understood Zen to be, a philosophical tool for clearing away the mental, theoretical debris that prevents us from perceiving what is right in front of our noses, not a belief, practice or official uniform to be accepted from authority. Many people have long recognized Idealism as being full of this sort of debris. I think it's time that we start recognizing that spirituality as popularly described has accumulated a fair share of its own and begin challenging it accordingly.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Leftist History Nerd Porn

From your lips to the collective ears of the Greek pantheon, baby:

What projects will you pursue now that you have the funds?

There's a project that ["The Wire" co-creator] Ed Burns wants to do that reflects on the 1880 Haymarket bombing in Chicago, which was an elemental point in terms of capital and labor in our society. There's a book I'm working on with [longtime Simon collaborator] Bill Zorzi about the drug economy of Baltimore in the '50s and '60s. We're trying to reach as many of the surviving players before they pass on. I'm working with Ed and [Baltimore Sun reporter] Dan Fesperman on beating out scripts for the history of the CIA from 1947 on. That's a long-term project. This grant may enable me to hold onto writers for projects that aren't greenlit yet.

And while I'm in an ecstatic trance over the thought of David Simon doing a TV show about the anarchist and labor movement, Ima link to this excellent (and very long) interview he did with Vice last year. Just because.

Noble Savages

"For now, let's keep the door open to the idea that animals can be spiritual beings and let's consider the evidence for such a claim," he added.

"Meager as it is, available evidence says, 'Yes, animals can have spiritual experiences,' and we need to conduct further research and engage in interdisciplinary discussions before we say that animals cannot and do not experience spirituality."

Oh, gods, please, no. If animals become narcissistic, pompous bores who spend all their time looking for proof that the universe revolves around them, whose company will I be able to keep when I need to recover from the folly of my own kind? I'll have no choice but to finally disappear into bags of elephant tranquilizers and syringes full of heroin.

There's My Flair! And This Is Me Expressing Myself!

"They can't get inside you," she had said. But they could get inside you. "What happens to you here is forever," O'Brien had said. That was a true word. There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover.

Nation of slaves, indeed. Spending your adulthood fearing the potential job you might not get because of something you posted on the Internet once, what a life. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a Facebook Like button...

I had a friend who worked for Pitney Bowes once. She told me with great amusement how she actually got called in to talk with her bosses regarding some concerns they had... over some community college courses she was taking. On her own time. With her own money. They truly felt they had a right to dictate to their employees how they spent their time off the job.

You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Onward, No!

It makes no difference in my experience of the world whether Xris continues to consume deep-fried chicken five nights out of seven, playing Zelda every evening with his wife and childhood friends, working at a dead-end job and visiting with his mom every day. It only bugs the hell out of me because of my unspoken assumption that you have to do something remarkable with your life.

It’s easy to believe, given the sheer volume of literature out there touting perennial self-improvement and excellence as the gold standard, that you are a failure for not contributing to civilization.

I think Shanna's being a bit hard on herself to call it bigotry because, as she says, this sort of attitude is like the air we breathe, taken totally for granted as the natural order of things. Most people never become aware of it at all.

I've long been a proponent of principled slacking, and I periodically have to re-explain my credenda to someone or another when they question my lack of careerist ambition. Just recently, I had to deflect yet more importunate attention from someone determined to make me recognize my, uh, calling as a writer. Lord, preserve me from the good they would do in my name...

Look, the vast majority of the human race, past, present and future, consists of people who don't do anything that "matters" in the big scheme of things. They live simple, unacknowledged lives of piddling accomplishments that are important only to their loved ones before retiring to a grave that no one will visit within a couple generations. To judge by a biased preference for results means having to write off most of the species as a failure, redeemable only by the fact that they served as tiny little cobblestones helping to smooth the way for those with an actual destiny to fulfill, or as minuscule stipples of paint in someone else's masterpiece. That's the shadow of this sort of dizzying, utopian optimism that values ends over means: a sour disgust when you finally realize that most people never will actualize their potential for whatever reason.

But even more importantly, there are very few, if any, unalloyed "goods" in the world. Almost anything you can name as a net positive has eventually led to unexpected negative results as well. In an age of mass education, where the average elementary school student is more literate and scientifically educated than most of the ancient world, we're all too familiar with the strange counter-enlightenment phenomenon of people who have apparently reacted to all this information by taking an insolent pride in being ignorant. Our poor don't necessarily starve to death anymore, but they suffer disproportionately from obesity-related illness resulting from a cornucopia of food like chocolate-chip-pancakes-and-sausage on a stick. We (at least those of us in wealthy countries) vanquish many of the perennial torments of humanity throughout its history, such as plague, famine and barbarian invasions, only to fall prey to depression and ennui. The Taoists used to shake their heads and chuckle at the earnest way Confucians, in their tunnel vision, thought they had all the answers for how everyone else needed to live. How do we know that the good we do today won't be the problem someone else has to solve tomorrow?

This isn't meant to seem like an endorsement of quietism. I, for one, am certainly glad some obsessed geniuses got around to inventing electric guitars, modern medicine and the Internet. And I'm happy to be in unrequited love with writing and music, knowing full well that the more I have, the more I'll need, never entirely satisfied, always reaching for just a bit more. Striving itself is not necessarily a bad thing. A life devoted to achieving tasks and seeking glory is no more or less valid than a life devoted to happiness. It's just that too much of goal-seeking places far too much value on the brief moment of satisfaction with one's accomplishment, which, as we all should know from experience, is never quite as awesome as you've imagined it to be while striving for it, and it's quickly replaced by the hyperactive urge to pick up and get moving again. How many people do we know who spend decades like this, only to conclude that all is vanity because they haven't enjoyed the time they spent getting there? When it comes to work, the activity most of us spend much of our adult lives engaged in, it seems a lot more psychologically healthy to aim to be content, knowing when enough is enough. The idea that things can endlessly improve along a steady upward trajectory is the product of a historically ignorant, linear-minded culture that thinks we can have good without bad, up without down, or the front of a coin without the back. The idea that our "unique" talent is destined to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace, of all things, unless we shamefully avoid owning up to it, is a ridiculous fiction, as daft as anything John Calvin or Ayn Rand ever belched forth. And it's insulting to act as if arête is confined to marketable skills and transactional relationships.

We are not in any way obligated to push everything as far as it can possibly go. I can't possibly stress this enough.

Prose by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

Kristen Hoggatt:

Shouldn’t someone at the forefront of the poetry movement try to discourage the misconception that poetry is highbrow? Poetry kicks ass, and if I were Billy Collins, I would do everything in my power to convince others that it does, using the most powerful verses to get my point across, which naturally include — come on, poets, let’s get off our high horses — song lyrics. At least I can get away with saying this: Billy Collins, you have made a grave mistake. The poetry muses should string you up and throw pointy paper quills at you.

The truth is that lyrics are often the most pervasive way to bring words to a person’s attention. Walk into a restaurant or a clothing store, and likely you will hear lyrics playing in the background. Attend a sports event and lyrics will likely be sounded from the loudspeaker during half time. This is reality — yes, it’s a far cry from hearing Keat’s odes sounded from somebody’s car audio system, but it is far more helpful to focus on the similarities between lyrics and poetry than to polarize the two genres. After all, songs and poems were at one time the same thing.

...Most important of all, both lyrics and poetry are composed of language, one of the true wonders of human development. Lyrics and poems are linked in the way all genres of the written word are, the beauty of language and artistic expression leveling disparity — both lyrics and poetry are literary arts with equal merit. Though naturally I’m biased to say that poems are superior, doing so would only harm the mission to bring poetry into the mainstream. Rather, one should focus on how song lyrics can be a gateway into poetry by making words the focal point, and as such, a person can then realize how powerful words can be by themselves.

I'm certainly one of those who was bored to tears by the way poetry was taught in school, only to discover the intoxicating power of wordsmithery via song lyrics. And while many of the lyrics that struck me as so profound when I was seventeen would make me wince these days for being so maudlin and histrionic, they nonetheless spoke to me and my then-experiences in a way that prim and proper poetry did not. Even now, as undeniably cultured and sophisticated as I am, there are still plenty of alterna-rock musicians who can provide eminently quotable couplets and quatrains which are all the more impressive for having to be tailored to fit the rhythm and melody of the song. And let's not forget that even Homer, "the fount of Western literary eloquence", was basically writing songs for an oral culture, or that Shakespeare was hardly above playing to the crowd himself. Some people will use words to touch and commune with others; some will use them to distance themselves and appear forbidding and unapproachable. I don't see that the rest of the distinctions matter.

I did find it funny that she used Paul Simon's lyrics as Exhibit A when it comes to artists who blur the line between lyrics and poems. There's a guy named, uh, Paul Simon who would take issue with that:

The lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence they call you a poet. And if you say you’re not a poet then people think you’re putting yourself down. But the people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan. They never read, say, Wallace Stevens. That’s poetry.

Tee hee. Anyway, all this reminded me of something my reclusive genius co-blogger Arthur wrote in a recent email. (Yes, he really does exist. He's not one of my multiple personalities or a literary character. He just stubbornly swears he doesn't have anything worthwhile to say when it comes to blogging, which is why I have to trick him into expounding on these things privately, so that I can reprint them here.)

"Graffiti," like all the "graph" words (ultimately meaning "scratch," as in clay tablets), is related to English "carve" (and "writing" itself has this primal meaning)... Surely, the place of writing is part of the meaning of a piece of writing. Ancient shamans wrote or carved or painted in out-of-the-way places so that readers--acolytes, et al.--would have to go out of their way to read them. The remoteness of the place and the effort and sometimes danger required to get there was part of the experience of the sacred. "Sacred" means "set apart".

So while I fully agree with Hoggatt that clever lyrics can indeed be a gateway into an appreciation of the power of words and thus to the realms of officially recognized poetry, perhaps there will always have to be a different level of wordplay, one more remote and inaccessible to the lay reader, and not even purely for the snobbish reasons of wanting to distinguish oneself from the great unwashed. Quibbling over whether or not to properly classify certain lyrics as "poetry" seems a little beside the point. The highbrows will just start calling their work something else.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Friends with Beneficence

I've enjoyed reading Juliet Lapidos's series of essays on platonic friendship. My best friends have usually been women, come to think of it, and knock on wood, I have yet to experience a cross-gender friendship being ruined by sexual frustration or unrequited love. It's never seemed like a complicated balancing act in my mind, but as one of those friends once said to me:

Society at large, however, seems to feel that if you share a passion for anything -- well then! Eyebrows are raised, sly glances shared.

It does seem like the default assumption is that guys are either fucking every slightly attractive woman they see, or at least plotting to do so. I blame that quack Freud. As does Joseph Epstein:

Eroticizing everything, as is their wont, Freudians find that much close male friendship is at its core homoerotic, while the notion of male-female friends outside sexual interest is generally inconceivable to Freudians, who not so secretly believe that all men wish to do with women is jump their bones.

...If I believed in Freud, I could not have written a book on friendship, because friendship doesn't quite exist for Freudians; sexual appetite, evident or obscured, washes it away. Fortunately, I do not believe in Freud. In fact, I have come to believe instead that Freudian psychoanalysts, like Germany after WWII, ought to be made to pay reparations to their poor patient-victims.

...The notion that two healthy people of the opposite sex cannot meet regularly and talk about important things without eventually falling into bed with each other is part of the fading but still enduring Freudian heritage. All other Freudian ideas - from the Oedipus complex to feces being symbolic of money - have been laughed out of the court of reason and empirical science, but the notion that at bottom (also at middle and at top), we are sexual beings, ready at the least chance to have at it, has not. A good Freudian is likely to consider most friendships between a man and a woman as erotic, and for that matter close friendships between people of the same sex as homoeroticism, more or less disguised.

As if harboring, on some level, the unavoidable realization that "Hey, my female friend really is a slammin' hottie," contaminates and invalidates the pure, otherworldly essence of the friendship. It's not that the mere idea of sex with my female friends is repulsive; it's that it would possibly change the dynamic of the relationship in ways that aren't worth the risk. Why is that not allowed to stand as a valid objection to sexualizing the relationship? Why are our basest urges always taken to be more real, honest and meaningful than our reflective ones? Why is it so blithely assumed that biological attraction will always overpower philosophical restraint?


Julian Baggini:

When blogs first appeared, they were compared unfavorably with newspaper and magazine articles. They tended to be shorter, were written more quickly, were light on research and heavy on opinion. But to those growing up on Facebook and Twitter, they must seem ponderously slow and long. For those who value thoughtful, crafted writing, this is a worrying development. However, paradoxically, microblogging might actually help longer, more thoughtful writing. The ever-shortening nature of social networking communications could help revive ‘proper writing’ by re-opening the gap between off-the-cuff jottings and thoughtful prose which blogging temporarily blurred.

This could easily occur as a result of a kind of Darwinian struggle. Those teletrailers who manage to be interesting and pithy in short tweets and messages could attract followers away from those who take 400-word blogs to make their point. Natural selection could result in the survival of the briefest. But, as we’ve seen, the distinctive feature of teletrailing is that it provides a constant streams of hyperlinks to more substantive material. Since people are going to receive many such links a day, there will be another evolutionary struggle, from which a few victors will emerge.

I'm not sure what point he's making here. Is he claiming that blogs are neither fish nor fowl but rather a farrago (I'm feeling alliterative today) of writing styles destined for the rubbish bin of history, a textual Frankenstein's monster doomed to be chased off into the cyber-wilderness by hordes of fearful peasants with Twitter-torches and Facebook-pitchforks? I mean, as he himself says, the whole point of social networking sites, other than to let everyone know about the sandwich you just had or what you dug out of your ear canal, is to point the way toward more substantive material. You mean, like, um, people who write 400-word blog posts?

(By way of reference, the post immediately below this one is a little over 800 words, quotations included. I myself may not be the most interesting writer, but I think it's fair to suggest that if your attention span is so hyper-frenetic that you lose concentration halfway through, you need to kick the caffeine/cocaine/meth habit ASAP.)

I read plenty of "proper" writing online every day, but even so, much of that takes the form of more-or-less colloquial essays. And blogging, to me, serves as a vital means of bridging the silent divide between author and reader. It's true that bloggers are more like pundits than journalists, elucidating issues that other people first bring to everyone's attention, but it was only ever right-wing political bloggers who believed their own nympholeptic rhetoric about being revolutionaries who were going to overthrow the old guard of the hated "liberal media". Those of us who weren't intoxicated and deranged by the pungent fumes of our own effluvia and hubris have only ever seen it as a way for like-minded people to come together and talk about what they see, sort of like sitting down to watch the news with a group of smart friends. Read any article in the New York Times or Washington Post, and then look to see how many blogs are linking to it and commenting on it. How is this a bad thing? And how would it be improved by people simply tweeting the link to the original article?

Anyway, like I said, it's not clear to me what exactly he's getting at. This, though, made me smirk:

The possibility of cashing in on social networks is potentially making many more people commodify themselves. Authors for example, are encouraged by publishers and agents to think about themselves as “brands”, and to blog, twitter, make friends on Facebook and so on. They are not alone: bands, artists, even therapists are turning into their own mini-PR departments, increasingly concerned not just with what they do, but how they can sell it to as many people as possible. High profile but actually quite rare tales of great success encourage creative to go along with this.

I would be a liar if I said I was not caught up in this trend. I would say I have more instrumental reasons for using Facebook than I do other ones, and while I see my twittering is a fun, creative challenge, I’m not sure I would have even started doing it I hadn’t thought that it might be good for my profile. Anecdotal evidence suggests that if I am unusual, it is only in my candour. The problem is that being high-minded and opting out looks like a luxury few can afford. Being active on social networking sites may be far from sufficient for success, but it looks increasingly as though it is necessary.

A luxury? Choosing to dig in your heels and refuse to do whatever you're told is necessary for career success (or simply necessary to please your boss and keep your job) is a luxury? I've said many times that I pride myself on doing all I can to find a way to do an end-run around traditional notions of success and achievement, but, to quote Butchie from The Wire, "Conscience do cost." It costs financially, and it costs in terms of social standing. I'm not complaining, but it's not an easy path to choose.