Wednesday, November 30, 2011

This is the Autumn, It Will Break Your Heart

Matthew Gallaway:

These days when I go out in the garden, I’m reminded of how, as a kid, I used to feel at the end of August, when the start of school loomed and you could already hear the gates to freedom and laziness clanking shut. As an adult, it’s a dread of winter tempered by the last of the color; the brightness is all the more striking for being found in a web of leafless, grey vines and branches. There's a certainty that what remains is about to end.

...Then there are the conifers, which, for staying green all year round, must be considered the optimists of the garden (or perhaps the insomniacs). They actually look forward to the snow, which is why we must regard these trees with equal parts admiration and skepticism—they're not the kind of someones you'd necessarily want to start a business with. And finally it’s important to acknowledge the moss, which as it slowly creeps over the brick reminds us that all paths lead to the same end.

I've really come to appreciate November in particular among the triptych of my favorite months of the year. October gets all the attention due the standard-bearer of all things beautiful about autumn, and December, well, you know how that goes. But there's the middle child, November, overlooked and underappreciated by its more flamboyant siblings. Cold enough to be pleasant, not quite cold enough yet to make your bones ache. Smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, allowing enough time to have savored some while still anticipating others. And honestly, some years it seems that the leaves don't reach their peak display until the beginning of November anyway.

On the horticultural side of things, I've never felt saddened by bare branches and dead leaves. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of walking for hours during the Christmas break among the vast-to-my-young-mind expanse of conifers behind my house (many of which have been replaced by more and more houses in the last couple decades, to my chagrin every time I go back to visit my parents). I have several ringing my yard here, and I hope to plant more in the spring.

The last day of November already? I'm a bit sad, I have to say.

This is Not an Ad

When I was seven years old, I desperately wanted a pair of Zips shoes because I was always one of the smaller, younger kids in my grade, and not especially fleet of foot. I remember one of my classmates scornfully proclaiming that "Zips don't really make you run fast!" But trusting as I was, I still wanted to believe in the promise held out by those commercials, so I finally got a pair. I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that my wise-beyond-his-years Doubting Thomas friend (or, rather, Doubting Hank, since that was his name) was correct; I still came in second in an important relay race on Field Day at the end of that school year. Well, I may have had to settle for a red ribbon instead of a blue one on that sad day in May, but the lesson of armoring oneself with jaded skepticism toward people who want to sell you something has stuck with me all along.

So I dunno; I thought it was common knowledge (Adbusters has been going on about this kind of thing for as long as I remember) that advertising is all postmodern/ironic/de-signified/ultrameta nowadays. We all like to fancy ourselves savvy consumers, too worldly to be taken in by simple appeals to insecurities and impulses. Advertising had to morph in such a way as to let the consumer in behind the curtain. No, of course our product won't make you sexier or more popular or fill in that gaping hole in your psyche, but we're admitting that to you up front, so you know we're good guys. It's just another product among many, but we've got a sense of humor. We're all postracial, postsexual, whatever. We're just messing with these old cultural stereotypes from a detached distance, which we know you'll appreciate, because you have that same kind of rarefied, discerning awareness that we do. It's all just a big put-on, all of it. You know it, we know it. You want some cool stuff which is by no means the sum total of your unique personality, we want your money. Aboveboard, straightforward, no hard feelings. A'ight. Dap.

But, yuh know, go ahead and buy our stuff.

Also, this. I have a feeling that it's not so much any strong sort of moral conviction that ignites the outrage here, just the artless, transparently inauthentic way that Patagonia went about trying to appear above such base motivations. For the sort of New York hipsters who write for Gawker, the cardinal virtue is taking frivolous amusement in sneering at other people's dickishness while never appearing to be a dick yourself. We fake it so real we are beyond fake.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Fitful Dozing of Reason

Alan Ryan:

OWS, as it has come to be known, by contrast gives the impression of being constituted by entirely rational people, mostly young but afforced during daylight hours by writers, academics, curious bystanders and members of the Class of '68 eager to show solidarity with their grandchildren.

They do seem awfully rational at that, the utopians among them, at least. I often find that to be the case -- some people seem so earnestly convinced that deep down, we all want the same things, and with just enough effort and sitting down to to talk things out, we'll get there. It's like such a quaint little pocket of Enlightenment rationality, right here in the midst of all the bizarre incoherence that people continually prove themselves capable of. Speaking of which:

I once had a landlord who was an arch Republican with signed pictures of various Republican figures (George W. Bush, Jesse Helms, Ronald Reagan) on his walls. He was also an avid dowser, past-life regresser, and astral projector. He cured the neighbor’s apple tree of a worm infestation, found people’s lost objects over the phone, and attempted to heal my terror of snakes through a visualization technique that involved repetition and tapping on my sternum (the last one didn’t work and can’t speak to the second, but there weren’t worms in the apples when I lived there). He was an aficionado of conspiracy theories, a veritable archivist. I have never had so much fun talking to anyone with whom I disagreed so much. He was a truly marvelous person. But every time I try to describe the man to someone, the story is met with wonderment that a person could be both a conservative and a new age mage. Some sort of inauthenticity is implied in the discomfort. Yet why should it be so? What is our anxiety about dissonance? What is the landlord out of tune with but our own conceptions of harmony?

She goes on to sing the praises of seeming contradictions and the wonderful new possibilities they represent, but in this particular instance, I don't see much to wonder about. My mom is the same way, and my brother, to a much lesser extent. Rabidly conservative politics and completely loopy new age beliefs manage to spoon each other in a loving embrace in her mind. To me, the common thread between them is an extreme self-centeredness, which may not be one of the qualities immediately associated with the image of Age of Aquarius-types, but believe me, it's there in abundance. From their preoccupation with extending and customizing both their physical lifespan and the supposed afterlife to follow to their unshakable belief that the entire world exists as the backdrop to their own personal spiritual journey, New Agers have been some of the most narcissistic people I've ever met.

Monday, November 28, 2011

If You Wish to Strive for Peace of Soul and Happiness, Then Believe; If You Wish to be a Disciple of Truth, Then Inquire

Some Western Buddhists have argued that principles such as reincarnation, anatta, and enlightenment are not essential to Buddhism. In Buddhism Without Beliefs and The Faith To Doubt, the British teacher Stephen Batchelor eloquently describes his practice as a method for confronting—rather than transcending—the often painful mystery of life. But Batchelor seems to have arrived at what he calls an "agnostic" perspective in spite of his Buddhist training—not because of it. When I asked him why he didn't just call himself an agnostic, Batchelor shrugged and said he sometimes wondered himself.

All religions, including Buddhism, stem from our narcissistic wish to believe that the universe was created for our benefit, as a stage for our spiritual quests. In contrast, science tells us that we are incidental, accidental. Far from being the raison d'être of the universe, we appeared through sheer happenstance, and we could vanish in the same way. This is not a comforting viewpoint, but science, unlike religion, seeks truth regardless of how it makes us feel. Buddhism raises radical questions about our inner and outer reality, but it is finally not radical enough to accommodate science's disturbing perspective. The remaining question is whether any form of spirituality can.

Yeah, the article is almost nine years old, but it's new to me. And since I was just going on about the same topic, I had to excerpt it.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

But the Politics Were Too Convenient

Nathalie Rothschild:

On Black Friday, the true colors of the Occupy Wall Street movement really shone through. Premised on the idea that it speaks on behalf of 99 percent of Americans, the Occupy movement is in fact deeply contemptuous of the masses. In no way was this made clearer than through the alignment of the Buy Nothing Day campaign and the Occupy movement.

...But of course Occupy Wall Street never spoke for 99 percent of Americans. This was always a fantasy figure that lent itself well to sloganeering and to presenting a black-and-white view of the world, according to which the powerless masses struggling to get by are on one side, and the fat cat CEOs and reckless bankers are on the other. In this Star Wars-like narrative, the Occupiers serve as the heroes who will purportedly save the masses from their downfall by enlightening them and campaigning on their behalf.

The message that the Occupiers want to send through their anti-consumption campaign is that Americans have been brainwashed by corporations, that they have been induced to blind over-consumption and unthinking acceptance of the messages put out by 'the 1%'. This is the Occupier's Burden, a kind of re-vamped version of the civilising mission described by Rudyard Kipling: to 'de-program' Americans and, in the meantime, render them voiceless and clueless so that the apparently enlightened Occupiers can justify stepping in to define their interests for them and to speak on their behalf.

The message of Buy Nothing Day follows in this vein. Initiated by Adbusters, every anti-consumption hipster's must-have mag, the campaign is essentially promulgation for mass austerity -- a point well-made on the American Situation blog -- and it is an elaborate way of telling people they are stupid, irresponsible, greedy and shallow.

I'm not sure if she's more upset by the anti-consumption message or the masked elitism, but she does apparently write for Spiked, so maybe she just has to be contrary the way most people have to breathe.

Anyway. The idea that there can ever be a perfectly horizontal social movement, appearing everywhere at once from nowhere in particular, is indeed a silly one. It's impossible to get even a tribe or a village to move as one without some type of coercion being involved; it's a pure pipe dream to think that a nation of 310 million could possibly be run through General Assemblies and consensus and mic checks. Anyone with the sort of grand vision and charismatic personality to set themselves up as revolutionary leaders should probably be tranquilized and confined before they freedom and liberty the shit out of you for your own good.

But there's nothing hypocritical about pointing out that within American society itself, the overwhelming majority have indeed been getting brutally fucked over and made to pay for the privilege by the unrestrained greed of the ultra-rich, while within the global community, Westerners in general and Americans in particular have been benefiting from the misery of a few billion other people in order to fill their empty, grasping lives with shit they don't need, financed by money they don't have.

Frankly, a lot of this kind of tired gotcha-style accusation could be buried if people would finally stop acting as if the very concept of elitism is radioactive, but I guess that's a whole 'nother topic.

All the Little Birds on Jaybird Street Love to Hear the Robin Go Tweet, Tweet, Tweet

Bill Gurley:

Twitter suffers from two key misperceptions that need to be resolved before the business can reach its true potential. The first misperception is that Twitter is simply another social network, like Facebook. People commonly think of Twitter as a variant of Facebook. The press frequently positions the two together as “leaders in social networking.” This pairing erroneously implies that the two services are used for the exact same thing, even though the two platforms are very different. Facebook is a few-to-few communication network designed for sharing information and life events with friends. Twitter, on the other hand, is a one-to-many information broadcast network. The only way magic happens on Facebook is through reciprocity: I friend you and you friend me back – then information flows. But on Twitter, I can get something out of following Shaquile O’Neil who has no social obligation to follow me back.

...In many ways, Twitter is much more of a competitor to other “discovery tools” and “information sources” than it is to Facebook. Facebook is unquestionably the number one resource for “sharing with the people in your life.” From this perspective, Facebook competes (extremely well) with email, instant messengers, and certainly other symmetric social networks like MySpace. Twitter, on the other hand, competes most directly with other tools that help you find important links, news, and information. It is in this broad, non-friend based crowd-sourcing and speed of discovery where Twitter truly shines.

Some who understand this point have suggested that Twitter is merely a “Better RSS reader.” While this analogy is directionally more accurate than the Facebook comparison, it greatly underestimates the power and value of Twitter. RSS feeds are simply computerized information “routers” that require complex setup, initialization, and maintenance. Twitter has three breakthroughs that make it dramatically more powerful than simple RSS. First and foremost, your personalized Twitter feed is human-curated by a potential universe of millions of curators. When you “check Twitter” you are looking at the specific articles and links purposefully chosen by people you have chosen to follow. That is powerful leverage. Second, it is easily extensible. Due primarily to the concept of “retweeting,” the simple act of using Twitter exposes you to new and interesting sources to follow. It evolves into a richer and more customized offering over time. You discover new people as well as new information.

Okay, I can get that. Three things, though. One, it greatly amuses me that anyone would choose Shaquile O'Neal as the prime example of someone from whom you can "get something" by following his random fun-sized thoughts. Two, I'm no Luddite, but all this jabbering about information, irrespective of quality and content as long as it's fasterfasterfaster, makes me want to go re-read Theodore Roszak's The Cult of Information. And three, I'm so old, I remember when people used to have these things called "blogs" or even "websites" where they could post news and essays of their own as well as link to other people's. If most tweets of value are just links back to more substantial fare, why not eliminate the middleman? I mean, I have a long list of blogs and sites I check every day, and that gives me all the food for thought I need, really. I just trust that anything worth my attention will eventually get caught up in that net without me having to go frantically searching for it the second it appears.

The Theatrical Declaration of the Death of Things is Dead

What's the Latest Development?

As an innovative messaging system, email is dead. And for anyone whose job feels taken over by their inbox, this won't come as bad news. Social media programers are already looking past email toward a communication media that better suits the demands of business and casual interaction. While email served as a good point-to-point too, social media has shown us the advantage of flow tools such as wikis, micro-blogging and internal social networks.

What's the Big Idea?

Email is growing, to be sure. "Technology market researchers Radicati see the number of email accounts worldwide growing from 3.1bn in 2011 to nearly 4.1bn by 2015." But its influence in our communication is set to decline, say business professionals and social media gurus. Dave Coplin, head of Microsoft's Envisoneers team, says: "I think that email is dead when it comes to social media in the same way that snail mail was dead when it came to email."

That's a post from the editors of Big Think in its entirety. The title was "Email Is Dead. What's Next?" Now, you may have noticed that little aside at the beginning of the second paragraph noting the startlingly life-like growth projections of email over the next few years. Lazarus, eat your heart out! But yes; perhaps you were puzzled by this. Perhaps, as I did, you raised a questioning finger in the air and said "Um." Well, the editors provide a link telling you to read more at BBC News. So I did. Here's a smattering of what I found (to be fair, they may have been too busy monitoring their Facebook and Twitter feeds to notice that Coplin had a lot more to say on the topic than the little bit they excised to suggest ambivalent support of their grandiose, trendchasing conclusions):

One man with more reason than most to have an opinion on the matter is email specialist Mimecast's chief scientist Nathaniel Borenstein, co-creator of the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) protocol. This is the internet standard that lays down how messages are formatted. It lets your email contain different characters, have attachments, and contain other types of files, among other things. Mr Borenstein says it is used more than a trillion times a day.

"Email is still growing," he says. "There's no real sign that social is making a major dent in it. For the most part I think they fill different functions, but that they connect with each other. I think they're symbiotic. I'm reluctant to cast them into opposition."

...Not everyone is as sunny as Mr Borenstein when it comes to the future of email, however. Lee Bryant is co-founder of Headshift, the world's biggest social business consultancy. He believes email's dominance over business communications is coming to an end.

...Nevertheless he says he doesn't see email going away anytime soon.

"You narrow down email primarily to what it was designed for, which is one-to-one communications."

...Head of Microsoft's Envisoneers team and self-confessed "social media luvvie", Dave Coplin, is not impressed.

"I think that email is dead when it comes to social media in the same way that snail mail was dead when it came to email. Time and again, it's always the same thing. Enter the bright shiny new technology stage right, therefore old boring technology must exit stage left. Of course it never happens that way."

"The functionality offered by email is in many ways not well represented by social media. The asynchronous nature is really important, the ability to attach things, the ability to have a secure conversation, all of those things are crucial."

But however shiny the future may be, email is in rude health in the present, according to Mr Coplin.

"The key thing for me is to dispel the myth that a lot of social media luvvies would have you believe, that email is dead. To me it's shiny penny syndrome."

I especially like how Big Think's tagline reads: "A forum where top experts explore the big ideas and core skills defining the 21st century." I guess core skills like contextual understanding and reading comprehension are just sooo 20th century.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Snot, a Sot, a Trot

Reading this interview with Terry Eagleton made me think of this recent article kicking the everloving shit out of his Marxist apologia. But it also reminded me of a recent email exchange I had with my friend Arthur, where I had occasion to share with him Matt Taibbi's famous description of Eagleton as "physically resembling a giant runny nose". That in turn inspired a bit of deliciously mean-spirited verse from Arthur, which I am now sharing with you:

‘A runny nose in person and a snot
In prose?’ You must mean Eagleton. A sot,
A Trot with three cribs snagged by playing prole,
He loves sweet dogma in his Catholic soul.

Capitalism is a mortal sin
On which to trade in Theory and cash in
In fact—highest ideals make deals with merest
Point-scoring twaddle of a sharp careerist.

The words of academic politicians
Repeat the same text in revised editions,
But books that trend so well when newly minted
May not wear well enough to be reprinted.

The Question Is Which Is to be Master—That's All

More from that same Owen Flanagan piece:

The first half of my book, The Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized is devoted to the question of whether Buddhism is science friendly. The current Dalai Lama is personally very interested in science. He says that the belief in rebirth would have to go if science proved it impossible. The trouble is however, the standard of proof and disproof he recommends makes it impossible to prove or disprove the existence of anything. All the empirical evidence in the world can’t disprove the claim that I am a reincarnation and that I will have a rebirth nor can it prove that you are reading these words. There is truth and there is proof. Only mathematics trades in proof and disproof. Proof to one side, the 14th Dalai Lama is very interested in and enthusiastic about establishing neuroscientifically that Buddhist practices, and in particular meditation, can make one happy. I examine the question of whether happiness is something in the head that can be assessed by MRI. Before that though, I need to address the question of whether Buddhism promises happiness. If so, what kind? My answer to this is that there is no good evidence that Buddhists are happier than anyone else. The second half of the book takes up the question of what Buddhism would look like if one subtracted the hocus pocus about karma and rebirth. Can there be such a thing this is “Buddhism Naturalized”? My answer to this is that Buddhism can be naturalized, and that what is left is a deep, credible philosophy for our time.

Whether Buddhism contains a philosophy that really could be attractive to 21st century secular humanists means that it would require at a minimum, that Buddhist theory was consistent with science and thus broadly naturalistic, and so beliefs in karma, rebirth and nirvana would have to go. Can there be Buddhism without these beliefs?

There can be meaningful existence without those beliefs, but I, for one, would not want to wade into the tar pit of argumentation over who rightly gets to claim the Buddhist label for themselves, any more than I wanted to over what constitutes zazen. I agree that the thing he's referring to, the crucible of metaphysics, epistemology and ethics he names "Buddhism naturalized" is a fine guide to living and one that deserves to have attention called to it, but I'm not the least bit interested in the bitter fights over copyright and branding that are sure to follow. In the tug of war over language, I offer no resistance. You can have whatever words you want. I'll stick with the experience, which I don't really need to talk about anyway.

My Life Did and Does Smack Sweet

Owen Flanagan:

Does Buddhism promise happiness, and if so, what kind? Presumably it is not the familiar “happy-happy-joy-joy kick your heels” kind of happiness, not the Hugh Hefner kind of happiness, and it is not the ephemeral happiness that comes from winning the lottery. Instead, some say that Buddhism offers no kind of happiness, but it offers an end to suffering, which is very different. You have a headache. I give you aspirin. You are not suffering. But are you happy?

There is much hype in recent years about the good effects of Buddhist meditation on health, well-being, and happiness. This, plus the fact that in Buddhism there is no creator God, makes Buddhism especially attractive to liberal post-Abrahamic folk who think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” But is happiness important? Were Jesus, Confucius, Buddha, Socrates, or Martin Luther King Jr. happy? It seems an odd question. They each lived great lives. They mattered. Aristotle said that happiness is not the most important thing, but meaning, purpose and fulfillment are. A malevolent person could be happy, but the meaning and significance of his life are worthless and evil. According to Aristotle, one cannot tell whether an individual flourished or lived in a fulfilled and fulfilling way, until after he is dead and gone, one sees how the grandchildren turn out. This means that flourishing, purpose and meaning are not completely subjective, not located solely in the head, and thus not to be seen there on brain scans. It became clear to me that although American culture hypes happiness, it is generally of a shallow type and that no great spiritual tradition ever promises anything like that sort of happiness.

I maintain that it makes more sense to think of happiness as a point around which we travel in an elliptical orbit, sometimes closer than others, but never a point to be occupied, possessed. The harmony and symmetry of the orbit are the sublime parts.

I sit here this morning, amply fed and sufficiently warm. I'm enjoying the look of frost on the ground outside my window and the sound of choral Christmas music on the stereo. I'm fretful over whether or not my financial goals for this week will be met, and if not, what that will bode for the next couple months. I'm eagerly anticipating the next batch of library sales, both as a salve for those financial worries as well as the pure joy of the hunt for new books. I'm wistful and slightly melancholic as I recall that today marks two years since my closest canine companion died from cancer, and I spent a few minutes in sober contemplation as I held the bag of his ashes and relived that day. I have an indescribable mix of thoughts and feelings left over from yesterday after visiting my childhood home, encountering the usual spurs to reminiscence, and listening to my parents talk about health and aging, which prompted a slightly more vivid awareness of mortality, both theirs and mine. I'm excited to be able to spend the day at home cleaning and decorating and even playing video games if I want. I'm fearing for Liverpool's chances against Manchester City on Sunday, but glad to be able to sit and watch soccer games this weekend. And I'm contented by the steady, comforting presence of my girlfriend.

In other words, a typical day. What does it even mean to try to sum it all up by saying yes or no to the question of happiness? I'm alive, that's good enough.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A White Picket Fence in the Void

Adam Kirsch:

Why does this kind of complacency about the Nietzschean challenge, the certainty that one can have one’s nihilism and eat it, feel so quintessentially American? One reason, American Nietzsche clarifies, is that Americans have been adept at taking from Nietzsche only those ideas that reinforce their own beliefs or political goals.

...In America, the readers most receptive to the idea of the Übermensch turn out to be the most lumpen of Untermenschen: the deluded, frustrated and envious—exactly the kind of people Nietzsche would have denounced as the herd. Thoughtful and educated Americans, on the other hand, usually managed to make Nietzsche the servant of their own purposes, no matter how different those purposes may have been from his own.

...Depending on how you look at it, there is something either pathetic or reassuring about America’s ability to learn from Nietzsche without becoming Nietzschean—or, in Ratner-Rosenhagen’s words, to create a “philosophy that never abandons… humanistic promises.”

...The prospect that tomorrow may not bring pleasure and power, but in Nietzsche’s words “profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished” is—even in these days of recession and uncertainty—a notion as remote from American thought as from American experience.

On the one hand, I remind you again that Nietzsche himself famously said that one repays a teacher badly if one remains only a student, so the concept of an army of "Nietzschean" disciples may very well have made him throw up his hands in disgust in a Life of Brian moment. And as should be common knowledge by now, he disagreed fundamentally with the very notion of an internally consistent philosophy that contained absolute truths, saying, "I mistrust all systematizers and I avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity." He was more of a poet and an intellectual provocateur than a philosopher in the scholarly sense, so it makes sense that he would serve as a fertile source from whom all sorts of new perspectives might grow, rather than a top-down arbiter of truth. There's nothing necessarily wrong with making use of him for our own ends. Being a perennial spur to Dionysian creativity might very well be the way he would have been happiest to be remembered.

On the other hand, it's true that there is a typically Myrrhkin trait of wanting to turn every fucking thing into a "teachable moment" in a slightly narcissistic quest for endless self-improvement, and in that sense, it's true that many of them are being superficial and dishonest in refusing to seriously consider his affront to their buoyant progressive optimism.

Monday, November 21, 2011


Jessa Crispin:

...I had a hard time finding any sympathy for Teofilo Ruiz while reading The Terror of History: On the Uncertainties of Life in Western Civilization. Ruiz follows Frazer’s model pretty well, offering up a historical document with a helping of his own personal problems on the side. The book ostensibly explores how men and women throughout time have dealt with the immense weight of living in a world with incredible suffering and pain — through religious belief, through art and aesthetics, through decadence and hedonism. Like Frazer, he tracks particular behaviors to find their universality. For example, some of the citizenry responded to the Black Death that killed half the population around them by imagining they were being punished by God and tried to make amends. Others decided to eat, drink and screw until the end came for them. And then others wrote a collection of tales about a society trying to function amid the backdrop of plague and terror and called it the Decameron.

If Ruiz is writing about humans’ avoidance behavior, looking for all the ways we manage not to take responsibility for the state of the world, he is doing so with a significant amount of judgment. The word “avoidance” does not have a positive connotation, nor does “removal” or “ahistorical,” other words he uses instead of “coping strategy.” For Ruiz, there is something shameful about these methods of distracting ourselves from what he sees as the “meaninglessness” of existence. The religious are particularly scorned, as Ruiz believes they use the promise of an afterlife to check out from the here and now. He somehow forgets that throughout history, Christianity was the one reason not to check out.

...Frazer held the religious as superior over the magical. Magic was superstitious, but religion was a higher state. Ruiz takes that further — religion is an emotional crutch, an "attempt to step out of historical processes, to escape the crushing reality of everyday expectations," and pure rational atheism is not only a more honest belief system, but also a more ethical way to go through life.

...Agnosticism is at least an open, fluid, humane state of being. Pessimism, rigid disbelief, and a view of life as essentially meaningless is its own avoidance behavior. Frazer wrote that there is no true religious belief without action. Religion is (supposed to be) about engagement, not hiding or twisting away from life. Believing that we're all fucked no matter what, as Ruiz appears to think, is a way of avoiding reality, or at the very least, of refusing to be a part of the rehabilitation process.

It might be churlish of me to point out that Crispin has already shown herself to be highly defensive over this topic and therefore sure is one to talk about authors letting their prejudices spill into the story they're telling, but I'll do it anyway, because I am an ornery li'l cuss, after all.

Not having read Ruiz's book (though it is on my wish list, hint hint), I can't say whether he is indeed being unfair. I will say that Crispin is overreaching in trying to define religion according to her sensibilities, in suggesting that clearly seeing the fiction of inherent, universal meaning is just another form of avoidance, and in implying that only a progressive, teleological view of human nature and history allows one to act compassionately and morally. Some of us just do the right thing for its own sake, tautologies be damned, even if human history is cyclical, even if the earth will one day be swallowed up by the sun and render this all moot. But arriving at that point does indeed mean letting go of comforting old fables.

Quot Libros, Quam Breve Tempus (III)

This is my current stack of unread books, a few of which have been hanging around for a year or so, other books constantly butting in front of them in line, but many of these only joined the fold in the last couple months as I traversed hill and dale, mountain and valley, metropolis and hamlet in search of books to buy and sell. Those are the ones that I took a shine to and kept for myself. Best of all, I hardly had to spend a farthing or a ha'penny on them; some of them were at most a couple dollars, some of them were free, free as a bird on the wind.

Feel free to critique, speculate, pontificate, enthuse, query, or offer your own list in response (and you can click the pic to embiggen it).

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Dry Bones

Brian Leiter:

Why does Nietzsche write in such an unusual, more aphoristic style?

The explanation really comes in the first chapter of the book where Nietzsche tells us that the great philosophers are basically fakers when they tell you that they arrived at their views because there were good rational arguments in support of them. That’s nonsense, says Nietzsche. Great philosophers, he thinks, are driven by a particular moral or ethical vision. Their philosophy is really a post-hoc rationalisation for the values they want to promote. And then he says that the values they want to promote are to be explained psychologically, in terms of the type of person that that philosopher is.

The relevance of this is that if this were your view of the rational argumentation of philosophers, it would be quite bizarre to write a traditional book of philosophy giving a set of arguments in support of your view. Because in Nietzsche’s view consciousness and reasoning are fairly superficial aspects of human beings. What really gets us to change our views about things are the non-rational, emotional, affective aspects of our psyche. One of the reasons he writes aphoristically and so provocatively – and this, of course, is why he’s the teenager’s favourite philosopher – is connected to his view of the human psyche. He has to arouse the passions and feelings and emotions of his readers if he’s actually going to transform their views. There’d be no point in giving them a systematic set of arguments like in Spinoza’s Ethics – in fact he ridicules the ‘geometric form’ of Spinoza’s Ethics in the first chapter of Beyond Good and Evil.

The longer I live, the more convinced I am of the truth of this idea. It's not impossible for rational arguments to persuade someone to change a course of action, of course, but even I, as far-seeing and judicious as I am, can struggle to present such a change to myself in a way that doesn't make me feel diminished or threatened by it. How much more difficult, then, for ordinary mortals to face up to the crushing awareness that they are wrong, wrong, wrong!

This also reminded me of a passage from Thomas Levenson's Newton and the Counterfeiter:

As Newton developed his thinking, his new physics grew ever more hospitable to his vision of an omnipresent, omnipotent, all-knowing, and above all, an active deity, fully present in the material cosmos of space and time. He explicitly offered the Principia as testimony to the existence and glory of all-creating divinity: "When I wrote my treatise upon our System, I had an eye on such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity," he wrote to Richard Bentley, an ambitious young clergyman preparing the first of the series of lectures Robert Boyle had endowed in defense of Christian religion. "Nothing can rejoice me more," Newton added, than that his work would prove "useful for that purpose."

...Newton's God existed everywhere, "substantially"—really, materially there, able to impinge on matter instantly, through all of space and time. The observed fact of cosmic order, combined with Newton's demonstration that human mathematical reason could penetrate that order, implied (necessarily, to Newton) the existence of that perfect being from whom both order and intelligence derived. Newton's natural philosophy was thus, as he told Bentley, explicitly an inquiry into what could be discovered through the properties of nature about the divine source of all material existence.

Newton was convinced. Nonetheless, some uncharitable louts remained unpersuaded, disdainful. Leibniz, for one, ridiculed the notion of a divine sensorium and what he saw as Newton's flight to an occult explanation for gravity. What was wanted, what Newton sought, was an eyewitness demonstration of divine action in nature. Hence, alchemy. Alchemy seemed to offer a way for him to rescue his God from the threat of irrelevance—salvation through the ancient alchemical idea of a vital agent or spirit.

...He knew that all the theorizing, all the theological argument, all the indirect evidence from the perfect design of the solar system could not match the value of one actual, material demonstration of the divine spirit transforming one metal into another in the here and now. If Newton could discover the method God used to produce gold from base mixtures, then he would know—and not just believe— that the King of Kings would indeed remain triumphant, forever and ever.

Moreover, Kant, one of Nietzsche's favorite targets, was startled into the thinking that would result in his Critique of Pure Reason by David Hume's radical skepticism, thinking that was explicitly enlisted to "beat back reason to make room for faith." It didn't honestly work, of course; the fact that so many people took, and continue to take, seriously Kant's idea of a noumenal realm existing outside our apprehension or comprehension (which can somehow magically still be asserted to exist at all) simply speaks to the yearning so many have felt these last few centuries to keep finding a way to believe in the personal God of monotheism -- a God, it greatly amuses me to point out, who was apparently done away with by the rigorous search for pure, objective truth engendered by monotheism to begin with.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lucubratio (IX)

Point/counterpoint, with Adam Nicolson:

Here is the miracle of the King James Bible in action. Words from a doubly alien culture, not an original text but a translation of ancient Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, made centuries ago and thousands of miles away, arrive in a dusty corner of the New World and sound as they were meant to—majestic but intimate, the voice of the universe somehow heard in the innermost part of the ear.

You don't have to be a Christian to hear the power of those words—simple in vocabulary, cosmic in scale, stately in their rhythms, deeply emotional in their impact. Most of us might think we have forgotten its words, but the King James Bible has sewn itself into the fabric of the language. If a child is ever the apple of her parents' eye or an idea seems as old as the hills, if we are at death's door or at our wits' end, if we have gone through a baptism of fire or are about to bite the dust, if it seems at times that the blind are leading the blind or we are casting pearls before swine, if you are either buttering someone up or casting the first stone, the King James Bible, whether we know it or not, is speaking through us. The haves and have-nots, heads on plates, thieves in the night, scum of the earth, best until last, sackcloth and ashes, streets paved in gold, and the skin of one's teeth: All of them have been transmitted to us by the translators who did their magnificent work 400 years ago.

Christian belief suffered a serious setback in the first half of the 19th century, when critics like Ludwig Feuerbach and David Friedrich Strauss suggested that the Bible was a story-book like any other – a multi-authored compilation of fact, fiction, folktale and fantasy, a fabrication on a par with the Iliad, the Aeneid or the Niebelungenlied. In theory the Christians could have turned the challenge back on their assailants: they could have accepted that their holy books were works of myth-making, while affirming that they told the greatest stories in the world. In practice however the case was not so easy to make. You cannot spin much depth of character or narrative suspense from the conviction that Jesus saves and that all manner of things will be well.

If a character born with every perfection is a poor premise for a story, then a God who is almighty, omniscient and eternal is even worse. You can make a case that monotheism was a historical precondition for the rise of modern science, since the idea that the universe is created and controlled by a totally intelligent supreme leader implies a rational order behind the rough and tumble of everyday experience. But if monotheism is a gift for science, it is likely to be poison for the art of narrative. Genesis got off to a bad start, narratologically speaking, with God creating one good thing after another and seeing that each of them was good: the device has the makings of a bedtime soporific rather than a page-turner. God, it would seem, is the death of narrative, and narrative the death of God.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Cool World Need a Savior, Baby, Maybe It Could be You

Freddie deBoer:

This, then, is the role of the resentment machine: to amplify meaningless differences and assign to them vast importance for the quality of individuals. For those who are writing the most prominent parts of the internet—the bloggers, the trendsetters, the über-Tweeters, the tastemakers, the linkers, the creators of memes and online norms—online life is taking the place of the creation of the self, and doing so poorly.

This all sounds quite critical, I’m sure, but ultimately, this is a critique I include myself in. For this to approach real criticism I would have to offer an alternative to those trapped in the idea of the consumer as self. I haven’t got one. Our system has relentlessly denied the role of any human practice that cannot be monetized. The capitalist apparatus has worked tirelessly to commercialize everything, to reduce every aspect of human life to currency exchange. In such a context, there is little hope for the survival of the fully realized self.

All well and good, the parts about petty differences in aesthetic taste being magnified into such a huge distinction in Internet culture. But I suggest to you that the idea of the "fully realized self" being equally available to all is also a product of our consumer culture, as well as the luxury of sitting around worrying about authenticity and originality in the first place. It's a fine thing to cultivate the wiredrawn aspects of our personalities and intellects, of course. But do we have to go as far back as a few centuries to consider the existence of small-town villagers and peasants, or can we stop at our grandparents' generation in order to realize that for many people, life was about growing up in the same area as the rest of your extended family, doing the same kind of work that they did, never traveling more than a few day's journey in any direction, and settling down to raise a family and grow old without ever pondering whether there was anything else to it?

Most of the artists and thinkers who cultivated such well-rounded lives were aristocrats themselves or depended on them as patrons; for the rest of us, money has always played a major role in defining (or, should I say, limiting) our horizons, our relationships, and our potential. The system has denied the role of any human practice that cannot be monetized? Well, why are you looking to the system for validation?

No Recess

Jonathan Lethem:

Many readers also come to literature with a longing to get beyond the pettiness of the world. There’s a dream that you can finally escape small-p politics, competition, envy — all the things that are evoked by the label “high school.”

You would think that the more I rose into this status called “major,” the more privileges I appeared to enjoy, the more free I would feel, the more I would have left “high school” behind. I would have graduated. In fact, in many ways it was the opposite.

When I was a marginal, dark horse operator, I felt very out of “high school.” I could talk about all the different things I was excited about, talk about out-of-print writers and my love of vernacular cultural things — pop music, science fiction, Hollywood film. I could do high/low at once and no one was patrolling that. That, to me, felt like graduation.

But after taking on more importance in my publisher’s view and some critical frameworks, I felt handed a script that was a lot more like “high school.” There were things it wasn’t cool to say. There were people you weren’t supposed to mention anymore. When I got to be one of the cool kids, all I was supposed to do was answer questions about the cool kids and act like there were no other kids around.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of making a living through music. Even then, I was aware that actually admitting to a desire to be a rock star was verboten if you wanted respect, but that was essentially what I wanted. Not so much the fame, but the money and the ego nourishment of having a huge audience enjoying my artistic creations? Hell yeah.

It didn't take long before I realized that I was visualizing a fantasy life; essentially, a complete revamping of my personality that would somehow magically occur once I reached a certain level of success. I began to realize more and more that I would still be the same person dealing with the same petty hassles of daily life, and it was obvious that many of the people who had achieved that kind of success were still unhappy. And I finally admitted that my personality simply wasn't the kind that would thrive under the bright lights of stardom in any event.

I still like to write and record music. I still like the idea of other people being as moved by it as I am by the music of my favorite artists. And if I somehow stumbled across the opportunity to make a mint from a one-hit wonder, I'd go ahead and grab it before disappearing back into my cave. But I'm free to enjoy myself recording on my computer at my pace, my leisure, with no outside pressure of any kind. That's really the kind of contentment I originally thought I'd find through success. And it's the same reason I enjoy the kind of writing I do. Honestly, I don't think an awful lot of my writing ability. I'm sure it'll never be anything other than a moot point, but even if I had the chance to make regular money from my writing, I wouldn't do it. I already know when things are good enough.

I'll Try Being Nicer if You Try Being Smarter

Julian Baggini:

So there are three factors at work with how we believe: the clarity and comprehensiveness of the belief; the conviction we currently have of its truth, and our willingness to contemplate its potential falsity. And it's the third factor that is most important when it comes to identifying what constitutes militant or aggressive belief. People are often accused of being aggressive if they criticise opponents directly and strongly. But it seems to me there is no virtue in itself in being either intellectually pugnacious or accommodating. What matters is not how strong and clear own our views are, nor how vigorously we defend them, but how much we really engage with our critics. It's about taking seriously the best case for the opponent being right and the strongest case that you might be wrong. What is really objectionable is not conviction and clarity, but the abuse, mockery and refusal to acknowledge any weakness that signals a lack of openness to the possibility of being wrong, and sadly, this is all too common.

That's why the fluffy brigade can be as guilty as engaging in pointless argument as their supposedly more aggressive peers. It may appear respectful and polite not to challenge your opponent at all, but in reality, all that means is a refusal to engage with the deep differences between you. As Frank Furedi puts it in his latest book, "instead of serving as a way of responding to differences in views, tolerance has become a way of not taking them seriously."

I readily admit that I can be irritable, impatient and generally prickly in close quarters. That can carry over into my attitude toward metaphysical beliefs. It's not that I'm unwilling to contemplate the possibility of something like the traditional concepts of God and the soul being true, it's just that I have been around the block a few times, I have spent a lot of time following painstakingly pedantic debates and arguments about those topics, and I feel it's a safe bet that you're not going to be the one to finally advance the same old "proofs" that have been around since the Scholastics. I did my homework, and I don't feel like starting from square one each new day. I apologize for any bruising to your self-esteem, but your feelings, whether agreeable toward the possibility of a happy afterlife or disagreeable toward me for being crotchety, do not constitute an argument.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Beast Inside of Me Is Gonna Getcha, Getcha, Yeah

So why are atheists “among the least liked people … in most of the world,” in the words of a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Will Gervais? In a newly published paper, he and his colleagues provide evidence supporting a plausible explanation. Atheists, they argue, are widely viewed as people you cannot trust.

“People use cues of religiosity as a signal for trustworthiness,” the researchers write in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Given that “trustworthiness is the most valued trait in other people,” this mental equation engenders a decidedly negative attitude toward nonbelievers.

Oh, izzat so? Well, good. I didn't want to borrow your money or babysit your fucking kids anyway. Seriously, whatever. More fuel for the flames of my smug sense of superiority, that's all.

Let me remind you, though, as I've noted before, that we facially behaired people are also seen as untrustworthy. When you combine beardedness and godlessness in one perilous package such as myself, well, as Nietzsche said, I am no man, I am dynamite.

Be afraid.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


While haunting libraries in Charlottesville these last few days, I have made some discoveries. Would you like to hear what they are? Of course you would; you've probably been beside yourselves waiting for my next missive, you poor dears.

My philosophy professor wrote a book. Apparently, she wrote another one before this that was a bestseller. I had always meant to give her a call one day and tell her that the shiftless ne'er-do-well student in the back of her class has never lost a passion for philosophy that she instilled in him, but now I don't know. Maybe she has people for that sort of thing, people who handle pedestrian tasks like answering phones for her now.

This author used to live on my street growing up. His son and daughter went to school with me through middle and high school. I thought he was a doctor, didn't know he had written several books.

Thinking of him reminded me that Rita Mae Brown lived a couple houses down from him, at the end of our road. I never met her, but her black Great Dane named India used to wander down to my house all the time and accompany me on walks through the woods.

Anyway. Just thought I'd share.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Another Song, Another Mile

Brad Warner:

But I did tell them that sitting in chairs was not zazen. Zazen is a physical practice. To sit in a chair and call it zazen is incorrect. It's not that sitting on a chair will lead you to Satan and cause your eternal soul to burn forever in Hell. It's not evil. It's just not zazen.

...So this weekend in Antwerp and next weekend in Manchester, England I will be allowing people to sit in chairs if they insist upon it. I'll be glad to have their participation. I won't be mean to them or shout at them or tell them they're doing something wrong. I don't bite. I always allow people to do what they want as long as it doesn't disrupt others. People sitting on chairs will be welcome to be with us and share in the experience in their own way. But they won't be doing zazen. Not a big deal. It just isn't zazen if you sit on a chair, unless there really honestly is no other way you can do it. That's all.

It's funny to me that people are so lacking in self-confidence, so unsure of their own experience, that they feel threatened by something like that. I just shrug and say okay, I guess I'm not doing zazen, then. I'm just meditating. The label isn't important.

And as it happens, I found a book for a dollar at a library sale today that talks about my favorite style of meditating: doing it on the road. From the jacket copy:

You may well ask, what is Zen driving? The Japanese word Zen literally means meditation, and meditation means being fully aware, fully in touch with your surroundings. When you are in a meditative state, you are in your natural self, your Buddha self—and you can do it while driving.

That's what I'm talkin' 'bout. Electronic music works best for me, but I can get absorbed in just about any kind of rhythm or melody. Having just returned from a whirlwind five-state jaunt, I got to spend a lot of time over hundreds of miles letting my mind sort itself out accompanied by a soundtrack. If that's doing meditation wrong, baby, I don't ever wanna be right.

Friday, November 11, 2011

That Journey a-Have Its Way, and Have Me Wanderin' All My Days

“We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different.”

- Kurt Vonnegut

I might return to this later, but for now, I'll just present this buffet for thought by Elisabeth Camp:

Wordsworth is thus presented to a reader of The Prelude as a blessed soul, gifted with a high calling and the imaginative powers to achieve it. To a mainstream analytic philosopher, though, Wordsworth’s faith in his fortunate fate is likely to look like a bad case of wishful thinking and metaphysical confusion. He is lucky only in the sense that he has succeeded in deluding himself into a self-aggrandizing lie. It may well be right, as Wordsworth claims, that we ‘spread the sentiment of Being’ over the earth, by imbuing the objects and events around us with a moral life. Hume makes much the same point, in much the same terms, claiming that the faculty of taste “has a productive faculty, and [by] gilding or staining all natural objects with the colours, borrowed from internal sentiment, raises, in a manner, a new creation.” It might even be true that Nature participates in or guides this ‘spreading’ or ‘staining’ in the sense that there is some general evolutionary advantage to projecting moral and aesthetic properties onto nature. But it is most certainly not the case that Nature designates individual people for particular tasks, like being a Poet, and then manipulates their surrounding circumstances—conjuring an advancing storm, say, or orchestrating their discovery of a little boat on a lake—to mold those individuals into agents capable of performing their allotted tasks.

A natural way to respond to the accusation that The Prelude manifests nothing so much as self-serving delusion is to point out that the accusation depends on treating The Prelude in a flat-footedly literal manner, one which ignores the various ways in which Wordsworth the author signals that he is creating a character—the hero of an epic poem—in the service of a larger project of promoting a secular, naturalized, neo-Humean conception of imagination, beauty and morality. This response is fair enough as a matter of literary analysis. Indeed, it allows us to identify another source of The Prelude’s rhetorical power: its appropriation and adaptation of heroic tropes from earlier epics like the Odyssey, Aeneid, Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost. However, precisely because this response takes The Prelude’s ‘literary’ status so seriously, it also renders The Prelude problematic as a model for a narrative conception of self-identity. Many people in the past have believed, and many today continue to believe, in a powerful, purposive Agent who selects a particular destiny for each person and guides us toward its fulfillment. However, such a view is not seriously supportable by contemporary intellectual standards. Even proponents of Intelligent Design do not claim that specific, substantive self-identities are ontologically given or objectively determined; and Intelligent Design is itself at best a highly marginal view in serious academic discussions. Further, naturalistic teleological conceptions of evolution as a mechanism for explaining apparently adaptive properties of entire species have come under sustained attack over the last thirty years. More fundamentally, however, many philosophers—especially, analytic philosophers—argue that a clear-headed examination of the metaphysical facts reveals that there is no self in the substantive sense required to determine a distinctive ‘bent’ or ‘office’ for any particular individual.

...One might wonder why autobiographical narratives need to take as specific a form as that of anything resembling a ‘quest’. Some theorists, like Jerome Bruner and perhaps Kenneth Burke, appear to simply assume that all narratives are inherently structured in terms of agents pursuing goals through obstacles; but this is clearly too restrictive, insofar as it rules out many narrative histories, such as those concerning families and nations. However, I think we can justify something very close to this restriction within the context of an individual’s biography. If a person’s life is to be explained in narrative terms, then it must be governed by an overarching, forward-looking explanatory trajectory; and if that explanation is to be plausible and compelling, then it must have some significant causal basis. But further, if this explanatory-causal role is not to be filled by an external agent who manipulates the biography’s focal subject, as in Augustine’s Confessions or Wordsworth’s Prelude, then it must be occupied by the subject herself. That is, the subject must be an agent who imposes an explanatory unity on her unfolding life by striving to achieve some goal. Otherwise, we are left either with no unifying, sense-making ‘rationale’ for the narrative at all, or else with a ‘rationale’ that is presented as merely epiphenomenal: as emerging mysteriously from out of a miasma of blind contingency.

...Similarly, some people—what Galen Strawson calls “Episodics” —move through life without any special commitment to long-term, identity-defining goals at all. Instead, these people savor each moment, and meet each temporary challenge and opportunity as it comes. (As examples of Episodics, Strawsoncites himself, along with such luminaries as Montaigne, Stendhal, Woolf, Borges, Murdoch, and Bob Dylan.) In neither case do we want to conclude that these people cannot have selves, or that their selves must be deeply fractured, simply because there is no narratively compelling connection among the disparate episodes or strands of their lives.

A second class of narratively problematic selves does live a strongly goal-oriented life, but in a way that produces spectacularly boring narratives. These people have as their overarching goal simply to be a certain kind of person: to achieve a particular personality trait, like serenity, for instance, or a certain professional status, like being the town doctor. When things go as planned, they achieve that crucial, self-defining quality quite early, and simply manifest it in a consistent, ongoing way from then on. The stereotypical pater familias, farmer, or town doctor coasts through life indefinitely, savoring the pleasures and confronting the challenges of each day and season, but without any particular expectation or hope of substantial change. Asked to tell the story of their lives, they’d say there wasn’t much to tell, or proudly offer a one-line characterization. Much like Episodics, they accumulate many anecdotes—variations on an unchanging theme—in lieu of a compelling developmental narrative. I take it that this is an utterly familiar, even paradigmatic type of selfhood. But because the narrative conception focuses so strongly on becoming at the expense of mere being, it is forced to disvalue these selves.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Across The Youniverse

Josh Rothman:

[C]hemicals organize[d] themselves into complex patterns requiring the coordination of trillions of molecules. And they did this with no instructions. No human organized them. Nor did they have a genetic blueprint that guided their actions. Their own intrinsic self-organizing dynamics directed these complex interactions.... The deep truth about matter, which neither Descartes nor Newton realized, is that, over the course of four billion years, molten rocks transformed themselves into monarch butterflies, blue herons, and the exalted music of Mozart.

This scientific story, the authors argue, should make us rethink our own relationship to the environment, and call into question our tendency to see the non-living world as inanimate. In fact, physics shows us that the non-living world is incredibly dynamic, surprising, and creative -- it's just that the creativity happens over very long scales of time. It's an important fact, they write, that the universe is itself 'set up' for creativity. The universe, they argue, isn't anarchic, meaningless, absurd, or pointless; it's creative in its essence. This should make a difference in the way we think about the meaning of our own lives: By being creative and creating novelty, we're participating in a universe-sized process.

As Bakunin said, the urge to destroy is also a creative urge. What I mean by invoking that in this context is that molten rocks also transformed themselves into lethal viruses, genocidal tyrants and nuclear weapons, and thus we're still left with the age-old question of how to live meaningfully in a world frequently indifferent or hostile to individuals, and that question isn't resolved by simply trying to make the focus of one's identity the universe itself. It's true that we really are all one in an important way, but we can't live day-to-day on that level of awareness. No one is comforted in a meaningful way by the fact that our atoms, which may once have been part of a comet or an underwater volcano, will also one day be part of other living organisms, and perhaps return to being stardust countless years hence. It's sublime to contemplate, sure; but sublime is not the same thing as beautiful, you know.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Girl, I Oughta Warn Yuh, My Reputation's Unkind

Adam Lee:

Looking at the religious aspects of many intergroup conflicts, at the violence carried out by zealots in the name of religion, some people conclude that the world would be safer "religion-free." They may even try living this way themselves. But too often they only practice a form of self-delusion. Nature abhors a vacuum and so does the human spirit. As C.S. Lewis said, the opposite of a belief in God is not a belief in nothing; it is a belief in anything. Sweep the demon of religion out the door and, like the story in the Gospels, you may only succeed in making room for an evil spirit worse than the first — this one accompanied by seven friends (Luke 11:24-26; Matt. 12:43-45). Zealous atheism can perform this role of demonic pseudoreligion.

This language could have come straight out of a Christian gospel tract: saying that atheists are in the grip of self-delusion, that we're worse than the violent zealots we condemn, or that we're practicing a "demonic pseudoreligion". And, lest I overlook it, this passage clearly implies that it's necessary to believe in God to be a UU - or even just to be a good person. I expect this kind of hostile, sneering denunciation from Bible-thumping fundamentalists, but to hear it from the mouth of a Unitarian Universalist minister was an awful shock.

I don't really care what the official UU stance is on atheism; as a doctrinaire grouchomarxist, I likewise declare that I wouldn't want to belong to any group that would have me as a member. No, my eye was caught by the other excerpt. With all due disrespect to C.S. Lewis, he's so full of shit, I'm surprised he wasn't covered in flies when he wrote that.

I was recently called a nihilist in all innocence; no insult intended. It's just one of those things we take for granted -- you don't believe in God, so you must believe in nothing, right? Well, no. Now, bear with me here. I'm not splitting hairs to be difficult; this is just a fine but very important distinction. A nihilist is someone who is still desperate to believe in something, anything. Nihilists take the concept of nothingness and reify it, raise it to the level of Absolute Truth where their God used to reside. They still want to believe in the sort of one-size-fits-all universal truth common to Platonic philosophy and Christianity, but if they can't believe anymore in some kind of eternal meaning, they'll settle for believing that nothing ever means anything. The enveloping, inescapable rule of Nothingness becomes the blanket they cover up with to keep out any existential drafts. It's what allows them the security of being able to shrug off responsibility and say "I was just following orders." The poor melodramatic fellow we had such fun laughing at last month is a nihilist; he's just frantically trying to cover up the sour stink of his fear with some Jesus-scented air freshener, and probably not even fooling himself. Nihilism is quite literally the shadow of God.

I feel that it's quite apparent to anyone who looks carefully that there is no inherent meaning in anything. There are no souls, no absolutes, no guarantees. Meaning is something we create out of the contingent pieces of our shared existences, themselves contingent, and it is always an unfinished work. The absence of belief in inherent meaning is not a positive affirmation of the substance of meaninglessness. So how, then, as my interlocutor asked, does the non-nihilist person live in the absence of such active belief? Well, as Suzuki Roshi said, you do it every day.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

She Used to be a Painted Bird, Yeah

Buffy Martin Tarbox was 22 when she got her first tattoo. It was a 4-by-3-inch, black and red circle above a cross — the symbol for women—on her arm. Less than a month later, she added a second tattoo: a black Celtic knot on her other arm. But when Martin Tarbox reached her mid-30s, she decided it was time for the ink to go. “When I got the tattoos, like most people, I was young,” she says. “Believe me, I regret it. I’m a professional woman now.”

Roughly a third of Americans between the ages of 25 and 29 have at least one tattoo, according to a 2008 Harris Poll. So do a quarter of 30- to 39-year-olds. Like many trends, celebrities are helping to drive the desire to get inked — roughly 70 percent of NBA basketball players are tatted up, according to Andrew Gottlieb’s In the Paint: Tattoos of the NBA and the Stories Behind Them, as are a slew of entertainers from Lil Wayne to Lady Gaga.

But tattoo remorse is leading many of the painted masses to rethink their ink and opt for increasingly available laser removal procedures. They are fueling a burgeoning business: specialty removal shops, like California’s Dr. Tattoff, Chicago’s Hindsight Tattoo Removal, and Zap A Tat in Virginia, are thriving.

Huh. Me, if I were worried about my professional status, I'd get the name "Buffy Tarbox" scrubbed off of my birth certificate long before I'd worry about removing two piddly tattoos from my arms, but it takes all kinds, I suppose.

I remember back in freshman comp, when a guy sitting at my table saw me showing off my first two tattoos to a couple of my friends. "You're going to change, you know," he said, as he suggested that I would regret it one day. Well, as one of that quarter-of-Americans demographic cited above, I can say here and now that I REGRET NOTHING. So, uh, there you go; fuck you, random know-it-all blond guy from English class. Hope you're enjoying your "natural" male pattern baldness and paunchy gut!

Ten Men Love What I Hate

Marc Hogan:

Critical reception of Coldplay has been thawing a bit, too. (Beloved Swedish pop singer Robyn’s killer cover of “Mylo Xyloto’s” initially panned lead single, “Every Teardrop Is a Waterfall,” hasn’t hurt much, either.) Just in time, too. “Mylo Xyloto” could easily go down as Coldplay’s best album. It’s definitely where they best balance their obvious desire for artistic respect with their undeniable ability to write songs that throngs of people want to chant along.

...It’s not that Coldplay have given up on competing for artistic cachet. Quite the opposite, given how obsessively Martin focuses in the New York Times piece on what Bruce Springsteen and U2 did at similar points in their careers. They’re just integrating their influences less obtrusively now.

The power of the Doors’ music is that it is so unabashedly arty that it begs to be made fun of, especially by older people or those who went through Doors periods themselves and are now into Steely Dan or Animal Collective or some other less embarrassing musical endeavor.

And why embarrassing? Because the Doors reflect a conflict many of us have with artists we think we have outgrown. For those with a youthful bent, sustained naïveté, or a poetical inclination, the combination of the Doors’ music and Jim Morrison’s lyrics can be transformative.

...While I’m not terribly interested in the interminable debate over whether rock lyrics qualify as “real” poetry, it turns out one can’t avoid it entirely when we speak of Jim Morrison, Gateway Poet, as a serious writer. It is mostly a losing proposition, I know. It is absurd. And yet I’m not willing to completely disregard what the eighth-grade me found so moving.

...Just how seriously Jim Morrison can be taken as a poet depends on whom you ask, but there’s no question that he regarded himself as the real deal. Starting with No One Here Gets Out Alive and each subsequent biography, Morrison is portrayed as carrying Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry books in his pocket or quoting from Nietzsche, all by way of suggesting the singer should be taken seriously as a poet, without many other reasons why.

Music snobbery - or art snobbery in general - is one of those topics, like religion and politics, that it's best to avoid in polite company, because there's just no reasoning with people over their sense of identity. But anyway, it's a shame when popular art forms get caught up in painful self-consciousness and a desire to be taken seriously. The worst thing you can do is let the cool kids know you desperately want to hang out with them; once they know they have that power over you, they'll never let you stop squirming.

Catching up with a friend once, I asked her what she'd been listening to lately. She didn't answer at first, and when I persisted, she named a few bands (while mentioning that one of them had gotten "too commercial", and then asked in a surprisingly defensive tone whether I was disappointed in her for her pedestrian taste. I guess she assumed that because music was such an all-consuming passion for me, I must disdain anyone who didn't match my obsession or, uh, knowledge. Of course, there are plenty of songs and artists I can't stand, but there's always a surreptitious grin in it for me; it's just something fun to joust about. There are plenty of people who probably get something from those artists, and good for them.

I'm actually listening to the new Coldplay right now. I consider myself a fan; their first two albums are particular favorites, and the others all have at least a few good songs on them. Shrug, I dunno -- I don't need them to be anything other than what they are. There are enough serious artists out there that I don't begrudge anyone who just wants to write catchy tunes or those who enjoy them. Cheering someone up with a pretty melody is just as noble an endeavor as shocking the bourgeoisie, I reckon.

Art, for me, is a relationship in flux rather than an essential property of a person or thing. The motivations of the artist, the skill of their craft, and the headspace in which it reaches the listener are all part of its character. Profound thoughts can develop while daydreaming along to ear candy. Pretentious artists can be misled by the puritanical obsession with ascetic standards, the idea that anything enjoyable or easy to understand must be insipid and bad for your character. The most valuable thing about art to me is the way it enables new perspectives, and I've lived long enough to know that those can come from some very unlikely sources.

Our Interest's on the Dangerous Edge of Things

Why, I believe I was just talking about this concept:

And truths to be pursued: Emerson and Nietzsche, ultimately, share Plato’s vision that philosophic inquiry is a heroic enterprise: the bold seeker is on a quest for truths undetectable by slaves to conformity, truths they know will be superseded. “How much truth can a spirit bear, how much truth can a spirit dare,” Nietzsche tells us, is the ultimate “measure of value.”

First things first: I MUST OWN THIS BOOK. You all may now commence fighting over which one of you will purchase it for me.

Secondly: Neech himself said one repays a teacher badly if one remains only a student, and here is one of the points at which I feel his concern to be a bit antiquated, where his truth has been superseded -- as a cultural ideal, the heroic search for capital-T truth is destined to end at the same blank wall in the same existential cul-de-sac; it's just something each person goes through in their own way at their own pace. The only Truth is that there is no Truth, to get all koan-ish about it. Logic is an ouroboros. Words become acidic, dissolve themselves, and you tumble through the resulting hole in the dictionary, finally liberated from the futile effort of trying to jam-pack existence into concepts and linguistic boxes. Then you just live day to day, taking pleasure from contingent experiences.

Ah, but a Man's Reach Should Exceed His Grasp

Tim Minchin:

I, on the other hand, don't tend to walk around with glowing atheist belt buckles. I've been atheist since I became aware of the term, but my material is not all about religion – not by a long shot – and when I do address the topic it is to point out where religiosity meets discrimination. Many comics write about what makes them angry, or, at least, what they observe in the world that is at odds with how they feel it ought to be. This is the case when Seinfeld talks about muffins or McIntyre talks about Argos (brilliantly, I hasten to add). I just happen to be less preoccupied by parking spots and soup nazis, and more by homophobes and creationists.

Most people don't know I'm atheist, though I do confess to a fair collection of kitschy t-shirts advertising the fact in one way or another (though I tend to save those for times when I don't plan to meet up with anyone I know). But here on the Internet, where I have yet to meet one more godless than myself, I like to part company with my more conciliatory brethren, who are happy with benign mistakes as long as they lead to beneficial results, and take it a little further: it's easy to condemn religion for its ill effects; it's a little more sporting to me to criticize it for being rooted in irrational soil to begin with. I'm glad that some people manage to be religious while embodying it in a way of life that coexists easily with mine, but I'd be happier if they took a more direct route to that understanding.

Granted, pure rationality is neither attainable nor desirable. And I honestly don't have any desire to convert as many people as possible to my way of thinking. But I think as a general rule that you should still endeavor to see as clearly as possible, even at the cost of personal discomfort, and I like the idea of serving as a prod, a stimulus, an irritant, a gadfly to perhaps push other people in that direction.

By the way, it's funny, that Browning quotation -- when I heard it, I took it as a suggestion that heaven is actually unattainable, simply a projection. I don't know what he meant by it, though.

The Apparition Among the Stacks

I've been traveling a lot these last few days, and yesterday I found myself in Alexandria, a suburb of D.C., at a library sale. As I was browsing the shelves downstairs, an elderly man in the grey work clothes of a janitor glanced over at me as he made his way to the elevator and suggested I check out the books upstairs too. I assured him I'd be up there momentarily, and when I did make my way up the stairs, I found it to be a veritable treasure-trove of great books, many of which I hadn't seen for sale at any other libraries. Quite a few copies were signed by their authors. Rock-bottom prices. Why, it was sort of like a dragon's hoard, if dragons collected books instead of gold.

But I had only been up there for ten minutes or so when the woman at the desk said that they were closing the upstairs section now! We had been given erroneous information, and the sale was ending four hours earlier than we thought! Aaahhh! Quick! Mad scramble! There's too much good stuff in here that I haven't seen yet! But just as my panic level began to rise, into the room stepped the grey-clad janitor again.

"It's okay, you can leave it open. I'll close things up when I leave. I've got nowhere to be," he said to her. And so he settled down into a chair and allowed us to keep browsing. "You sure I'm not inconveniencing you?" I asked. "No, no, it's fine. I've got nowhere to be," he repeated. "You look like you're going to spend some money," as he nodded toward the several canvas bags full I was dragging behind me, "and I'm not going to stop you." And so we made small talk for the next 45 minutes as I had the room to myself, my girlfriend taking care of the outer area.

He told me he was a retired government worker who volunteered at the library because it allowed him time to browse through all the fiction that no one else was interested in. He claimed to have read every biography of Benjamin Franklin, having grown up in the first town in America named after him, where knowledge of the great man was drilled into you as a kid in school. He'd been around used books all his life, a friend of his owning a store that he spent a lot of time at. He said that when he retired, he thought he'd open up a store of his own, but he soon found it to be too much work. So it was the life of a library volunteer for him now. We talked about living the simple life, trying to avoid the rat race, the joy of finding rare and unknown (to us) books, and how much we wished finger cancer upon those stupid bastards who insist on writing inside of books and ruining their value. Finally, we added up all the books and I wrote him a check. My girlfriend came in with four more a minute later, and I got out my checkbook again, but he stopped me with a shake of his head. "Nah, don't worry about it," he said with a dismissive look. "You two alone have spent half as much as everyone else today combined. In fact," he added, "you're probably parked in the big lot, aren't you? Tell you what; put all your bags in that blue bin out there and I'll meet you down at the loading entrance." We loaded up the bags into one of those containers on wheels that they use at the post office, and headed out to the van.

After situating them in the backseat and shutting the door, we chatted with him a bit more as he took a smoke break, told him where we were headed next, talked about the merits and drawbacks of different libraries, sales, and locations, and he wished us luck as we promised him we'd be back regularly, exchanged names and handshakes, and thanked him profusely for all his generosity.

So we called the library back this morning to confirm what days and times their sale would be next taking place, and mentioned what a great help Mr. Higgenbottom had been to us yesterday. "Mr. Higgenbottom?" the lady said with a puzzled tone. "Mr. Higgenbottom... why, he passed away thirty-two years ago, reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin at his desk in the office upstairs! Are you sure that was his name?"

"Uh... no, I'm sorry, I must have misheard. Thanks anyway; see you next month."

Okay, not really. I'm just kidding about that part. Or am I??

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

It's a Small, Small World

I was at a library sale outside of D.C. last week, and picked up one book that looked interesting, though it had a low sales rank and no resale value, so I decided to keep it for myself. I started reading it last night, and noticed that the author's bio mentioned him living in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia. A few dozen pages in, he mentioned having been the proprietor of a bookstore in Charlottesville. Glancing at his picture again, the wheels started turning in my head, shaking off the cobwebs. The tone of this book sounds familiar... a bookstore owner... hey, wait, what was that guy's name again...? Tom...? So, a quick Google search later confirmed my vague suspicion; this was the guy who used to run my favorite used bookstore downtown. I traded in many a book for credit in his store, though the only real conversation I recall having with him was over the issue of Leonard Peltier's conviction (he felt Peltier was guilty, railroaded or not; I wasn't so sure). I never knew he wrote books himself, though. What a cool coincidence.

A few days later, I was in the southern part of the state and found another book with a wry take on the whole self-help genre. And once again, the author turned out to be from Charlottesville. I've never met her, though.

I had no idea I had grown up in the crucible of the rebellion against mushy, feel-good, self-help platitudes. Why, I take a little pride in knowing that now.

Enemies Closer

Richard Coles:

I wouldn’t argue that Dawkins and Hitchens are crypto-believers, far from it, but it interests me that religion continues to hold a fascination for them, even if it is an appalled fascination. That tells you something about religion’s persistence, endurance. When I read Hitchens’s God Is Not Great – which I found good in parts – I liked his passion, but there is something so angry and disappointed in that literature, and you think, ‘Why do you care so much?’, and then I think it must be because of the way followers of Jesus Christ fail so lamentably to follow what Jesus preached.

Well, I suppose if there's nothing else in the philosophical pantry, we can always reheat some Freud. Perhaps Dawkins and Hitchens are like little boys shooting spitballs at a girl to show how much of a crush they have on her.

Look, I'm not sure it really needs any explication as to why people should have an interest in the Big Questions, or in those those who claim to have the final answer, and if I may get all Nietzschean about it for a moment, it's equally natural to be concerned about a belief system which has had great power for thousands of years, especially if one considers oneself to be an ideological enemy of it. And continuing in that vein, I'll add that outright disbelief is still enough of a novelty in our culture to provide an iconoclastic opportunity for distinguishing oneself. Oh, sure, I'll admit it: there's a bit of an egotistical thrill upon feeling as if you've seen through a venerable deception that has gulled so many important and powerful people.