Tuesday, January 31, 2012

All You True Believers, You Gotta Move On With Your Lives

Ian Astbury:

I think what needs to be said is that we have to start looking inward. Our spiritual lives are almost bankrupt. The material systems are not going to fix where we are. Moving the furniture around, metaphorically moving the furniture around – getting a new president, or putting a new, fresh coat of paint on something – isn't necessarily going to change the root causes. We're human beings, we're organic, we're dependent upon the environment, we're dependent upon this living planet. It's a fact. And it's a fact that we cannot fight. But all our fighting is more about semantics, political systems, languages, structures, charts, graphs. It's almost like we want to be right, but we don't want to win.

...Now I think if people were fair, when they make their opinion, they have to make their credentials available. If you're critiquing something, if you're a critic, you have to make your credentials available.

What do you mean by credentials?

Your life experiences. Not your education, not just like, "I went to this college or traveled." What have you experienced? What were the major events of your life that give you this kind of unique perspective? Give us some insight into who is sharing this critique with us. It'd be more likely to see an authenticity in that critique.

...Even Feist's Metals record intimates what I'm talking about, and PJ Harvey's record. I think they intimate something not quite right in the zeitgeist, and it's not in a material place, it's in a spiritual place. And the word spiritual has almost become almost tired. You think Barnes and Noble, books on the Dalai Lama and crystals. It's become hokey. And I think that that again is a smear campaign from those who want to perpetuate this ego-driven, "I am right, I am right, I'm first, I'm right, look at me, here I am, I know everything, I've got all the knowledge, I know everything about krautrock, I know everything about obscure art forms, it's me, I'm the one, put me on, flog me, here I am." We're lost.

I still have a RIP magazine interview from 1991 when he was preoccupied with the exact same things:

The images represent a longtime Cult fascination with a human spirit that's become extinct because of its passion for power in a world it methodically destroys. Pretty heavy shit if you stop and think about it, and Astbury often does. "Human philosophy is that the earth belongs to man. But here we are, with all this pestilence, famine and diseases, because of these stupid ideas we have about the world and our place in it," he said earlier in our conversation. "Everything's become retarded. Our spiritual growth is definitely retarded. In fact, there's a spiritual decline that's been happening over the past 2,000 years, since the advent of organized religion. If we want to cleanse ourselves, then we should get in touch with the indigenous people of this world (i.e. the Indians), because they're the ones with the answers. They have observed the way the world has evolved. Their sense of order and harmony with the universe is greater than we could achieve with modern science or philosophies. But instead people are looking to outer space for answers. You think the big shit's going to stop if we get to outer space?"

...While some [critics] regale him as the second coming of Morrison, others dismiss the band's viewpoints as some useless hippie trip revisited. "They're very hard on me," Astbury admits. "When I was 24 in England, they did this cartoon of me in a paper that was like Frankenstein's monster. They had bits of Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin put all together. I looked at this, and it really choked me up. I thought about my life previous to that, and I was really upset, because they didn't know me, or know what I had been through growing up. They didn't know the experiences that made me an individual, and I felt they had no right to judge me."

When I was an aspiring teenage rocker, he was one of my role models for being the kind of contradictory, charismatic figure - "a biker with a poet's passion", as RIP also called him - who addressed issues like that within the lowbrow medium of rock music. But there's something a little poignant about seeing him still stuck on the same, yes, useless hippie trip, repeating the same romantic clichés about nature worship and noble savages, convinced that anyone who dislikes or dismisses him must be mired in inauthenticity.

And while in his time he may have been a hero,
he is a leaf that, when we grow, falls away.

- Rilke

I do still admire him for his unbridled zest for new music, new art in general, for the way he's always been enthusiastically open to new influences while avoiding artistic ossification. This is the guy whose "Gathering of the Tribes" created the template that Perry Farrell would turn into the far more lucrative Lollapalooza, after all, and he was hyping the Seattle scene long before it smashed like an asteroid into the L.A. hair metal environment to the bewilderment of his stupidly-blinking dinosaur peers. But still, you'd think by now a life of world travel and constant exposure to new people and ideas should have disabused him of such tired old fables.

My Personal Growth, Let Me Show You It

Laura Miller:

In adults, the old Puritan attitude leads us to treat fiction as the delivery mechanism for instructional or inspirational messages. Whenever a novel’s merits are described in terms of the “life lessons” that it “teaches,” you can detect that old uneasiness over the “sporting lie” being appeased. In movies and television, literature class discussions almost always consist of students earnestly announcing that what Fitzgerald (or Hemingway or Shakespeare) is really saying is that you should follow your heart (or face your fears or be true to yourself — pick your empty nostrum).

...Ultimately, all of these attitudes — and the standardized tests that Stone and Nichols complain about — boil down to the belief that reading can only be the means to an end, whether that end is moral betterment or worldly success (two classic Puritan preoccupations). For some of us, however, reading is an end in itself, and what fiction has to offer isn’t lessons but an experience, a revelation, a sudden expansion of the spirit. Like any art, it can teach or motivate, but it doesn’t have to, and it’s often better when it doesn’t.

Now, that's funny, not least of all because I'm sure Miller can't help but be aware that seemingly every third article on Salon (or Slate, or any other similar webzine) is cut from that cloth. Rarely do I visit those sites without asking the silent rhetorical question at least once during my stay: who the hell are you and why should I care what trite lesson you learned?

Sunday, January 29, 2012


Stephen Cave:

When the revolutionaries of France began building their new order, they knew it would have to include religion. Even the atheists among them saw that the people needed comforting rituals and sanctioned celebrations to usher them through life. The Christian God, however, had been sent to the guillotine; an alternative was required. Their answer was the Cult of Reason.

Just like old-style religion, the Cult had centres of worship, virtue-stiffening sermons and a calendar of festivities. These climaxed with the Fête de la Raison of November 1793, for which churches across France were renamed “Temples of Reason”. The altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame was replaced with a model mountain, atop which a mini Greek temple stood dedicated “To Philosophy”. Beside it burnt the Torch of Truth and the lengthy proceedings culminated with the appearance of an attractive women dressed in red, white and blue embodying the Goddess of Reason.

...After all, stealing the best ideas of other faiths is itself a venerable religious tradition. The great creeds have never been afraid to appropriate rituals, saints or myths from earlier belief systems – even Christmas and Easter, Christianity’s two most important festivals, are revamped versions of older rites. Secular society too should therefore be unembarrassed about adopting what is best from the believers. It is time for a new Cult of Reason.

I'm going to ignore the low-hanging fruit about how well that worked out for the Jacobins and instead reach higher up the tree for the suggestion that obedience to authority, ritual repetition of empty slogans and deference to symbols learned by rote, and, last but certainly not least, the very idea of a "cult" itself are all anathema to what most people who use the term reason in opposition to religion understand it to represent. Good thing I don't have an irony meter.

Ritual de lo Habitual

Will Doig:

These crowdsourcing tools have transformed the way we experience cities, often for the better — they help us streamline our lives and avoid wasting time with subpar businesses. It’s now easier than ever to avoid bad meals and dingy hotel rooms...But for all Yelp’s virtues, pre-screening every experience can inhibit us, too. These days, many of us wouldn’t think of trying a new hairstylist or hotel without first checking others’ impressions online.

...“The efficiency that the Web has brought has downsides,” says Edward Tenner, a historian of technology and culture. “On balance, it works against happy accidents.” Tenner calls this counter-serendipity: when preconceived notions prevent lucky flukes. For instance, a poorly rated restaurant on Yelp might have a few die-hard fans — outliers who, for whatever reason, love the place. Their reviews might even be posted. But many of us go with the general consensus, writing off anywhere with a three-star ranking or less. “Is it possible that a place you really would have liked doesn’t have many positive comments, but you would have been one of the few positive ones?” asks Tenner.

Even if the ranking doesn’t deter us, by the time we do go to the club or the restaurant, we’ve sometimes seen so much of the place online that we’ve basically pre-experienced it. Having online access to so many venues might make us more adventurous in one sense, prompting us to try things we never would have tried or even have known about. But in another sense, it becomes a less-adventurous adventure, certified for us by hundreds of others who’ve already checked it out, assured us we’ll like it, testified to its quality, cleanliness and safety.

Today’s world wide web has developed to organise, and make sense of, the exponential increase in information made available to everyone by the digital revolution, and it is amazingly good at doing so. If you are searching for something, you can find it online, and quickly. But a side-effect of this awesome efficiency may be a shrinking, rather than an expansion, of our horizons, because we are less likely to come across things we are not in quest of.

...We have our paths, our bookmarks and our feeds, and we stick closely to them. We no longer “surf” the information superhighway, as it has become too vast to cruise without a map. And as it has evolved, it has become better and better at ensuring we need never stray from our virtual triangles.

...Cohen worries that even as the volume of media has grown exponentially, “our propensity to explore it is diminishing”. Driven by the needs of advertisers keen to hit ever more tightly delineated targets, today’s internet plies us with “relevant” information and screens out the rest. Two different people will receive subtly different results from Google, adjusted for what Google knows about their interests. Newspaper websites are starting to make stories more prominent to you if your friends have liked them on Facebook. We spend our online lives inside what the writer Eli Pariser calls “the filter bubble”.

To escape it, we can leave our screens and walk outside. But some of our most serendipitous spaces are under threat from the internet. Wander into a bookshop in search of something to read: the book jackets shimmer on the table, the spines flirt with you from the shelves. You can pick them up and allow their pages to caress your hands. You may not find the book you wanted, but you will walk out with three you didn’t. Amazon will have your book too, but its recommendation engine doesn’t even come close to delivering the same stimuli. Similarly, a librarian isn’t as efficient as a search engine, his memory isn’t nearly as capacious, but he may still be better at making suggestions to a reader in search of—well, something.

So, to sum up: the Internet and social media change the scale and efficiency of our lives as consumers, and as with absogoddamnlutely everything in life, there are advantages and disadvantages to this, but with topical references to shiny new technogadgetry, we're going to pretend this is somehow interesting and informative. If only we could work in the ubiquitous "brain scans show that...", we could have this year's version of The Shallows.

All of this romanticization of pre-Internet life does some serious question-begging as to how adventurous we really were back then, and the paranoia of influence here is just laughable. Maybe I just have an indomitable will of titanium steel -- okay, yes, yes I do -- but I'm capable of reading dozens of opinions while only considering the information I find relevant and dismissing the rest. If I read about a restaurant online, it's only to get a basic idea of their prices and selection, and to make sure there aren't, say, repeated complaints of rodents and insects showing up in the food. When I read about an album on iTunes, the repeated generic assertions that it rocks, kicks major ass and rules yr world don't even register in my awareness. And though I sho nuff love me some brick-and-mortar bookstores, I have found countless books through Amazon's recommendations that I would have never known existed otherwise, having never seen them on the shelf during their limited print run. In short, both signal and noise have increased exponentially thanks to the Internet. Plus ça change.

And honestly, whose friends and bookmarks mirror them so perfectly that they never get exposed to anything new during the course of a day online? I daresay you've gotta be one dull sunnamabitch if that's the case. Even the sites I absolutely love visiting are mostly filled with topics and links I don't actually have any interest in reading about in depth. A lot of it is passed over at a glance and quickly forgotten, but some of it comes bubbling back up at the most unexpected times thanks to some random trigger, sending me on a vague, fumbling search to try to find the newly relevant source again. Is that not serendipity? It happens to me a lot more on the Internet than it ever did in meatspace, I'll tell you that much.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

You Can Do It Your Own Way if It's Done Just How I Say

Tauriq Moosa:

To silence free speech is not simply removing an expression that upsets you: it is shutting down the only means we have to convey to another person what we think. If we cannot tell others what we think, then we are being told what to think. If we are dictated to, then we have lost an important – if not the most important – aspect of freedom: the ability to engage fully with an idea.

If the idea is wrong, then that can be shown, through argument and engagement – in other words, it can be destroyed through the very same mechanism that brings it into existence: free speech and engagement. If all that you can do to oppose an idea or view is to restrict others knowing it, then it is a sign of your own viewpoint’s weakness, not that of your target. If your argument is better than the one proposed, I for one would want to know what it is: you are doing the world a disservice if all you do is cut an idea off by the root, rather than indicate why it is, in fact, a weed. You are denying knowledge that is, perhaps, needed. You do yourself and everyone a favour by indicating the stupidity or ineptitude of a view. But you help no one by merely censoring the view.

I agree totally, but the older I get, the more I despair of most people ever setting aside their righteous outrage and world-saving urges. Everyone has internalized the understanding that "censorship" is a terrible thing, but they justify the boycott/quarantine approach to eradicating bothersome opinions by saying that only heavy-handed government interference can truly be considered censorship. I got sick of the whole charade around the time that the progressive political blogosphere launched a pathetic, ineffective boycott of Whole Foods because the CEO offended their tribal sense of faux-hippie identity by publishing an op-ed in the WSJ in opposition to Obama's health care plan.

I've said it before, I'll say it again: being offended is not such a terrible thing, and can even be a useful stimulus if you just take a deep breath and relax your sense of self-importance.

With Us In Spirit

Huh. If Christopher Hitchens is going to be there, a violent rethinking of basic principles will be in order. Why, I'd go so far as to say his presence might just invalidate the entire event. I hope there will be a Q&A session...

Friday, January 27, 2012

So Then It is His Children Who Go Out Into the World, Seeking the Church that He Forgot

"My dad was a slightly stricter version of Richard Dawkins," says Alain de Botton. "The worldview was that there are idiots out there who believe in Santa Claus and fairies and magic and elves and we're not joining that nonsense." In his new book, Religion for Atheists, he recalls his father reducing his sister Miel to tears by "trying to dislodge her modestly held notion that a reclusive god might dwell somewhere in the universe. She was eight at the time." It's one of few passages in his unremittingly mellifluous and genteel oeuvre that sticks out with something like anger.

...But asking about De Botton's father is irresistible because Religion for Atheists is, he readily concedes, an oedipal book. "I'm rebelling," he says. "I'm trying to find my way back to the babies that have been thrown out with the bathwater." He's elsewhere described his father as "a cruel tyrant as a domestic figure, hugely overbearing".

Suddenly the whole business with him wanting to build an atheist temple makes much more sense. And yet, I agree with him that there is a yawning chasm between philosophy for the highly educated and self-help platitudes for the masses, and that it wouldn't be a terrible thing for someone to try and make the fruits of high culture more accessible to the average person. I would suggest that those old religious structures and customs he wants to reappropriate are haunted and likely to possess and warp the rational intentions of those who inhabit them, but what do I know. A lot of people I know joined a religion precisely because they wanted to salve their existential aches by belonging to a group, and a church happened to be the most available and welcoming one. Maybe there are some people who need something like that as an intermediate step.

But anyway, I find this interesting for a couple reasons. I've long suspected, protests about ad hominem fallacies notwithstanding, that much philosophy actually reduces to psychology. The logical consistency of de Botton's propositions could be quite firm, but they still wouldn't resonate with someone who doesn't share the emotional need for an authority figure to provide them with unambiguous answers. Secondly, as the above anecdote demonstrates, unintended consequences seem to constantly interject themselves into our best-laid, logical, progressive plans.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Rinse, Repeat

John Cook:

Mormons, of course, are known for their habit of posthumously converting dead souls. They also believe that families are reunited in eternity after death. So the incentive for Ann Romney to convert Edward Davies in death so that they may one day frolic together in the interplanetary afterlife was presumably fairly powerful. Did she posthumously baptize him, despite his belief while he lived that such a baptism and the beliefs that undergird it are pure "hogwash"? I have asked both the Romney camp and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints in the past; both declined to say.

Stories like this remind me of stories like this, and as always, I am strangely amused and cheered by further evidence that our species is congenitally insane.

Anyway, my grandfather had an interest in genealogy, and he told me that while our Amish ancestors stayed in Pennsylvania, another branch of the family tree extended west and became Mormons. Perhaps someone out in Utah is keeping tabs on me and the rest of the clan for just such a purpose, but if so, I'm afraid it's too late. I was actually baptized Methodist, but I read in a collection of folktales about witchcraft about a girl who cheerfully confessed to the charges against her, claiming that she renounced her baptism by putting one hand on her crown, the other on the soles of her feet, and giving everything in between her two hands to the Devil. So that's what I did as well. Good luck haggling over my soul with him.

Hic Sunt Dracones

The Greeks, in a way of life in which great perils and upheavals were always present, sought in knowledge and reflection a kind of security and ultimate refuge. We, in an incomparably more secure condition, have transferred this perilousness into knowledge and reflection, and calm ourselves down with our way of life.

- Nietzsche

Winifred Gallagher:

The history of curiosity testifies to society’s strong influence in determining whether neophilia is a virtue or a vice. Even the philosophical Greeks and Romans were wary of inquiring too deeply into the way things are. Christianity only intensified this wariness...Like individual rights, the concept of curiosity as a laudable urge is an innovation from the Age of Reason.

The wild beasts that lurk in the shadows of life in the developed world have morphed and become insubstantial; we've banished lions, wolves and dragons, only to fall prey to depression, angst and ennui as our passion for exploration became more interiorized.

Lose Your Illusion

Why couldn't the world that concerns us – be a fiction? And if somebody asked, "But to a fiction, surely there belongs an author?" – couldn't one answer simply: why? Doesn't this "belongs" perhaps belong to the fiction, too?

- Nietzsche

Sam McNerney:

That the unified self is largely an illusion is not necessarily a bad thing. The philosopher and cognitive scientist Dan Dennett suggests that it is a convenient fiction. I think he’s right. With it we are able to maintain stories and narratives that help us make sense of the world and our place in it. This is a popular conviction nowadays. As prominent evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker explains in one of his bestsellers, “each of us feels that there is a single “I” in control. But that is an illusion that the brain works hard to produce.” In fact, without the illusion of selfhood we all might suffer the same fate as Phineas Cage who was, as anyone who has taken an introductory to psychology course might remember, “no longer Cage” after a tragic railroad accident turned his ventromedial prefrontal cortex into a jumbled stew of disconnected neurons.

However, according to the British philosopher Julian Baggini in a recent TED lecture the illusion of the self might not be an illusion. The question Baggini asks is if a person should think of himself as a thing that has a bunch of different experiences or as a collection of experiences. This is an important distinction. Baggini explains that, “the fact that we are a very complex collection of things does not mean we are not real.” He invites the audience to consider the metaphor of a waterfall. In many ways a waterfall is like the illusion of the self: is it not permanent, it is always changing and it is different at every single instance. But this doesn’t mean that a waterfall is an illusion or that it is not real. What it means is that we have to understand it as a history, as having certain things that are the same and as a process.

Ah, but the self is an illusion. The key is to distinguish between an illusion and an error.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Arrows of Longing

From David C. Smith's The Transcendental Saunterer:

Thoreau's walking experience reveals not only the tensions in his own life between the pull of nature and the pull of society, it also demonstrates his inability to fully resolve the conflicts he experienced between his desire for solitude and his yearning for meaningful human companionship.

It's the taken-for-granted normative implication that gets me: why must we assume that conflicts can and should be resolved? What if the friction between opposing drives is the source of a creative spark in one's personality? To borrow a Nietzschean metaphor, what if the tension in one's personality is the tension of the taut bowstring which enables arrows to fly farther? Or what if we prefer the stimulating differences of Isaiah Berlin's value pluralism to the entropy of conflict resolution?

Monday, January 23, 2012

Fresh Roses by Any Other Brand Would Not Smell as Sweet

If it weren't for the cigarette smoke, I would totally enjoy hanging out with this dude and having an olfactory discussion. It's not often that people genuinely surprise me by defying easy classification and stereotyping, but it's always cheering when it happens.

Got Nothing to Lose but Bitterness and Patterns

Phil Oliver:

People often demur, when asked if they consider themselves atheists, on the grounds that it sounds too confident and cocky to say they don’t believe in a transcendent/supernatural creator God… even if they really don’t. But why should it seem any more cocky to say “I don’t believe X” than to say “I do,” when it’s already been conceded all around that nobody-but-nobody knows for sure? If we’re really flinging open the closet doors and inviting everyone into the fresh air and honest sunshine of truthfulness, it should not. No double-standards need apply.

And what's so terrible about being confident anyway? What's so terrible about possibly being wrong? I maintain that it makes no sense to be wary to the point of paranoia over metaphysical commitment unless one is still laboring under the cultural inheritance that teaches that pride is a deadly sin and God is a vindictive, jealous God who will settle all scores and avenge even the most trivial slights. You clucking hens who are so quick to condemn atheists for cockiness, is that where you're coming from? Have you even thought about it? Shame on you either way.

The inability to change one's mind when presented with new evidence is a deficiency, yes, but making a fetish out of a stubborn refusal to take a stand one way or the other is no less so. I don't know which is more pitiful, the cowardly inability to shake off the fear of offending a celestial petty tyrant, or the incredibly self-absorbed delusion that our individual personalities are actually significant in the grander scheme. "What do we matter? Our whole lives are experiments, let us also want to be them!"

People of the Potboiler

Rachel Aviv:

In The Church of Scientology, one of only a handful of academic treatments of the subject, Hugh Urban is less interested in the experiences of Scientologists than in the legal processes and semantic twists through which a set of beliefs becomes a religion. A professor of religious studies at Ohio State, Urban is interested in secrecy in religion, and in this book he chronicles the way Hubbard reacted to legal and political challenges to his authority by attempting (largely successfully) to conceal his theories from the public. Had he stuck with his original conception of Dianetics, his practices could have been investigated and judged according to scientific standards. A religion, on the other hand, can turn self-help platitudes into a scarce and privileged resource; criticism can be dismissed as intolerance, or persecution.

I was in a synagogue last weekend for a book sale, and listened with great amusement as a couple of Jewish volunteers, pitching their voices so as to be heard by anyone within earshot, used a copy of Dianetics as an opportunity to scorn Scientology as an "invented" religion.

Spread your arms wide. Breathe deeply. Feel the irony in all its glorious weight, like a heavy mist that slowly penetrates and saturates your clothing.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

This I Act As If I Believe

Eric Schwitzgebel:

The best way to conceptualize “belief”, I think, is that to believe something is to steer one’s way through the world as though it were true. And although reaching explicit judgments about things is an important part of steering one’s way through the world, much else is even more important. Suppose, for example, that you are disposed to say, in all sincerity, that all the races are intellectually equal. You will argue for this claim against all comers and really feel that you believe it in your heart of hearts. It doesn’t follow that you really do steer your way through the world as your egalitarian utterances would suggest. You might really be incredibly biased. You might really always treat people of a certain race as though they were stupid. In that case, I don’t think we should say that you really, fully believe in the intellectual equality of the races. Instead, I think, you’re in a mixed-up condition in which it’s neither quite right to say that you believe the races are intellectually equal nor quite right to say that you fail to believe that. I call this an “in-between” state of believing. It’s in-between but it’s not at all like being uncertain. You might still feel unshakeably certain.

I think such in-between states are very common for the attitudes we regard as most central to our lives. Do you really believe that God exists? Do you really believe that family is more important than work? Let’s not look just at what you sincerely say to yourself and others but at how you act and how you react. Let’s look at your spontaneous valuations of things. Often, the match between sincere words and in-the-world reactivity is poor. And I doubt we have very good self-knowledge about any of this.

It might help repair our ignorance about such matters if we had good knowledge of our stream of experience. If I knew, for example, that I was frequently having angry thoughts about my children, or if I knew that I felt a kind of emotional soaring at the prospect of a new project at work and an emotional crash at the prospect of having to come home early to have lunch with the family – that might provide an important set of clues. But we don’t know such things about ourselves, and in fact we regularly fool ourselves in such matters to protect our self-conception.

One of the more wearying tropes I've encountered over the years while reading blogs is the bizarre obsession with what some outrageous public figure says and whether they really "believe" it in their heart of hearts, or whether they're just putting on a cynical show for the money and power. As if it's that straightforward. Half of the things we profess to believe are things we've accepted provisionally while attempting to talk ourselves the rest of the way past our doubts. The drive to obtain objective truth for its own sake has to compete against the drive to cultivate and defend our sense of self as well as the drive to feel secure and adequate within one's social group, just to name a few. "Belief" is a deceptively simple term that often encompasses knowledge, hope, and fear, all at once, in an unstable mixture.

Lucubratio (XI)

I've always done some of my best thinking deep in the still of the night. And on that note, I recently came across an arresting passage from Thoreau's essay Night and Moonlight:

"As the shades begin to gather around us, our primeval instincts are aroused, and we steal forth from our lairs, like the inhabitants of the jungle, in search of those silent and brooding thoughts which are the natural prey of the intellect."

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Freud Where Prohibited

John Gray is another thinker whose output I generally appreciate, but, uh, what?

Yet several generations of intellectuals were in no doubt that he was a thinker of major importance. It is only recently that his ideas have been widely disparaged and dismissed. Initially rejected because of the central importance they gave to sexuality in the formation of personality, Freud’s ideas are rejected today because they imply that the human animal is ineradicably flawed. It is not Freud’s insistence on sexuality that is the source of scandal, but the claim that humans are afflicted by a destructive impulse.

...Freud’s thought is a vital corrective to the scientific triumphalism that is making so much noise at the present time. But more than any other feature of his thinking, it is his acceptance of the flawed nature of human beings that is offensive today. Freud’s unforgivable sin was in locating the source of human disorder within human beings themselves. The painful conflicts in which humans have been entangled throughout their history and pre-history do not come only from oppression, poverty, inequality or lack of education. They originate in permanent flaws of the human animal. Of course Freud was not the first Enlightenment thinker to accept this fact. So did Thomas Hobbes. Like Hobbes, Freud belongs in a tradition of Enlightenment thinking that aims to understand rather than to edify. Both aimed to reduce needless conflict; but neither of them imagined that the sources of such conflict could be eliminated by any increase in human knowledge. Even more than Hobbes, Freud was clear that destructive conflict goes with being human. This, in the final analysis, is why Freud is so unpopular today.

I'm afraid Gray is waggling his Freud puppet on his fingertip here, as partially evidenced by the fact that he doesn't provide any examples of Freud's thought coming in for fresh disparagement as an object of scandal. I daresay you could substitute Gray's name for Freud's in most of the excerpt above and get much closer to the heart of it, which might even be a modified version of what somebody once classified as "projection". Granted, I don't follow developments in the field very closely, which is to say at all, but as far as I'm aware, most people's objections to Freud begin and end with the fact that his "scientific" theories were extracted from deep within his colon. Yes, I used an anal metaphor to dismiss Freudianism. Let the psychoanalysts stagger under the weight of the immense ironic density, bwa ha.

Artsy Impartsy

Alain de Botton, to whom I normally feel kindly disposed, continues his unfortunate quest for a secularized form of religion with a plea for art museums to become bastions of moral instruction, with curators apparently assuming the role of priests:

The problem is that modern museums of art fail to tell people directly why art matters, because modernist aesthetics (in which curators are trained) is so deeply suspicious of any hint of an instrumental approach to culture. To have an answer anyone could grasp as to the question of why art matters is too quickly viewed as "reductive". We have too easily swallowed the modernist idea that art that aims to change or help or console its audience must by definition be "bad art" – Soviet art is routinely trotted out here as an example – and that only art that wants nothing of us can be good. Hence the all-too-frequent question with which we leave the modern museum of art: what did that mean?

...Try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us a bit more sane, or a little bit wiser and kinder – and tried to use the art in their possession to prompt us to be so? Perhaps art shouldn't be "for art's sake", one of the most misunderstood, unambitious and sterile of all aesthetic slogans: why couldn't art be, as it was in religious eras, more explicitly for something?

Modern art museums typically lead us into galleries set out under headings such as "the 19th century" and "the Northern Italian School", which reflect the academic traditions in which their curators have been educated. A more fertile indexing system might group together artworks from across genres and eras according to our inner needs. A walk through a museum of art should amount to a structured encounter with a few of the things that are easiest for us to forget and most essential and life-enhancing to remember.

There are numerous problems here, the most obvious being: Alain, buddy, the death of God does not weigh heavily upon me. I do not have a God-shaped hole in my life that requires filling. My "inner needs" are--

When people try to benefit someone in distress, the intellectual frivolity with which those moved by pity assume the role of fate is for the most part outrageous; one simply knows nothing of the whole inner sequence and intricacies that are distress for me or for you. The whole economy of my soul and the balance effected by "distress", the way new springs and needs break open, the way in which old wounds are healing, the way whole periods of the past are shed – all such things that may be involved in distress are of no concern to our dear pitying friends; they wish to help and have no thought of the personal necessity of distress, although terrors, deprivations, impoverishments, midnights, adventures, risks and blunders are as necessary for me and for you as are their opposites.

Ahem! Chill out, I've got this! Sorry, Nietzsche was eavesdropping. He had heard enough, and couldn't resist interrupting. But, uh, yeah, he's right.

Anyway, de Botton seems to be using "modernist" problematically, when he really appears to mean "elitist". I can sympathize, though I think he carelessly suggests cryptic pretension is best countered by exhortatory preaching. I too want to see artists - poets and musicians, not just painters - illuminate more of the personal intellectual and emotional context surrounding their work, not because I need to be told what to think and how to feel, but so that I can feel like I'm having a conversation with a distinct point of view. I already know what I think; that's the most easy and boring thing in the world. Tell me what you think, what made you express it in that way. Surprise me with a different perspective.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

All the World's an Action Flick

I issued an official position paper on Mark Wahlberg's nonexistent acting skills some time ago, and proceeded to do my best to forget he even existed. But in the course of my web browsing last week, I saw a blurb for this review from Dana Stevens; its gushing reference to Marky Mark's masculinity made me choke back a laugh/cough before doing my best to scrub that memory from existence as well.

I won’t try to make the case, as Adam Sternbergh half-jokingly did on the Times’ 6th Floor blog early this week, that Wahlberg has been cheated of his due as the greatest actor of his generation. Though there’s no question he’s been wonderful in movies as diverse as Three Kings, Boogie Nights, The Fighter, and I Heart Huckabees, Wahlberg is no accent-mastering shape-shifter, no saturnine Leo Di Caprio or whimsical Johnny Depp: What you see is what you get. But this true-to-his-word decency, this simplicity, is precisely what you cast Wahlberg for. I had plenty of time to consider the actor’s appeal during the unspooling of the otherwise nondescript Contraband, and here’s what I came up with: Mark Wahlberg is attractive because he seems genuinely, effortlessly masculine rather than anxiously, compensatorily macho. You believe he could singlehandedly spearhead an international smuggling scheme while also believing he’s a sweet, vulnerable family man hopelessly in love with his wife.

Oh, you do, do you? Well, apparently, he believes it himself, if nothing else:

On being scheduled to be on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11:

“If I was on that plane with my kids, it wouldn’t have went down like it did. There would have been a lot of blood in that first-class cabin and then me saying, ‘OK, we’re going to land somewhere safely, don’t worry.’”

I like to imagine the scene as a story of three faces: the interviewer struggling mightily to maintain a poker face as he/she dutifully records the soundbite that will launch a million page hits, the publicist with eyes frantically bugging out, grimacing, and making an abrupt throat-slashing gesture, and, of course, the utterly vacant, expressionless gaze of Wahlberg himself, his beady eyes staring off into the distance as he softly hums a stirring film score to accompany his not-at-all anxious or overcompensating fantasy.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Nuclear Reprocessing

Katherine Newman:

In poorer households, these accordion families have always been there. There’s nothing new there, because lower-income people have had to pool their incomes for generations, because to keep the household afloat you had to have everybody working and everybody contributing – and by the way, that was true for many middle-class households before the Second World War.

So this period of time which we come to see as normal – of young people leaving home; and spending time on their own before they marry; and their parents having an empty nest – that’s a phenomenon of the post-Second World War period of great affluence. It created a huge boom in wages, and burgeoning opportunities in the white-collar world. We’re not there anymore and we might not be again. We think of it as normal – and I think this is an important point – because the generations that experienced that “normal” are so huge. They dominate the social scene. They’re the baby-boom generation. That was their normal, but it wasn’t normal before them and it may not be after them.

A number of college grads not having a really clear, defined career path are often returning home to “figure out what to do next.” Is this a privilege of class or reflective of a deeper social or cultural value?

Class has something to do with it, but there is something else going on. When I [used to] talk to my grandparents, they never thought that work was something that gave you meaning – it was just the way you put the roof over your head. But suddenly in the boomer generation, you have a very different way of thinking about work: It’s to be valuable, meaningful, honorable, enjoyable, a source of identity. That has now become a kind of standard for the way we think work should be. We have accepted the notion that our children ought to have jobs that are meaningful, not just a job that puts a roof over your head.

She took the words right outta my mouth, she did. It's like Emerson said -- "...a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another." No shame here, though; I'm just glad to hear someone else saying it.

I wonder, though, if her book addresses one of the most far-reaching consequences of this likely return to prewar standards of living; namely, the loss of the ne plus ultra of Internet insults, the scarlet L of loserdom: accusations of dwelling in the basement of one's parents.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

When Someone Smiles at Me, All I See is a Chimpanzee Begging for Its Life

Has life treated you unfairly? Do you have a nagging suspicion that other people, are, on balance, happier than you are? You might want to get off of Facebook.

A newly published study suggests the phenomenally popular social networking site may be skewing the way users perceive their lives. It finds those carefully selected photos of cheerful, contented people cumulatively convey a self-esteem-shattering message: Our lives are fantastic! What’s wrong with you?

Just a few months ago, they were reporting from the other side of those pearly whites:

College freshmen whose Facebook profile pictures featured intense smiles were more likely to feel satisfied with their lives 3½ years later.

You can learn all sorts of information by perusing a person’s Facebook page. But newly published research suggests you can ascertain a key fact about that individual – how satisfied they are with their life – without reading a word. Just check out their profile picture, and gauge the intensity of their smile.

The lesson here is clear. No matter how banal or useless the subject, there are evidently people out there who will throw bundles of money at you to publish a study on it as long as you connect it to social media in some perfunctory way. Help me brainstorm here; there's gotta be a way we can get in on this before the shininess wears off.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Dependent Arising

To explore the whole sphere of the modern soul, to have sat in its every nook – my ambition, my torture, and my happiness.

How little you know of human happiness, you comfortable and benevolent people, for happiness and unhappiness are sisters and even twins that either grow up together, or, in your case, remain small together.

- Nietzsche

There survives another concept of happiness, more nuanced and yet, at the same time, more down-to-earth. It affirms that healthy, robust, authentic happiness – “authentic” in the sense existential psychoanalysis deploys the term – must have a place for unhappiness. Aoki talks about the sadness of unrealised hope and the struggle to acquire a language in which to talk about happiness. In such instances, the presence of the unpleasant does not necessarily mean the diminution of happiness. It becomes part of a happy life that oscillates between the pleasant and the unpleasant, achievement and failure, being and becoming, work and play. In such a life, work becomes vocation and leisure need not be reinvented as the antithesis of work. Vocation includes leisure, exactly as a pleasurable pastime may comprise some amount of work. The idea of perfect happiness is consigned either to the domain of the momentary or the transient or to the mythic or the legendary. It cannot be achieved in life, but may be realised in exceptional moments.

Well, Less Is Not Necessarily More, I am Judged

Pico Iyer:

"Your sentences are so long," said a friend who teaches English at a local college, and I could tell she didn't quite mean it as a compliment. The copy editor who painstakingly went through my most recent book often put yellow dashes on-screen around my multiplying clauses, to ask if I didn't want to break up my sentences or put less material in every one. Both responses couldn't have been kinder or more considered, but what my friend and my colleague may not have sensed was this: I'm using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.

...Yet nowadays the planet is moving too fast for even a Rushdie or DeLillo to keep up, and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the "gaps," as Annie Dillard calls them — that don't show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can't be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won't be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we're taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying "Open wider" so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it's not the mouth that he's attending to but the mind).

...Many a reader will have no time for this; William Gass or Sir Thomas Browne may seem long-winded, the equivalent of driving from L.A. to San Francisco by way of Death Valley, Tijuana and the Sierras. And a highly skilled writer, a Hemingway or James Salter, can get plenty of shading and suggestion into even the shortest and straightest of sentences. But too often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude. The short sentence is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity's greatest adornment).

...There'll always be a place for the short sentence, and no one could thrill more than I to the eerie incantations of DeLillo, building up menace with each reiterated note, or the compressed wisdom of a Wilde; it's the elegant conciseness of their phrases that allow us to carry around the ideas of an Emerson (or Lao Tzu) as if they were commandments or proverbs of universal application.

But we've got shortness and speed up the wazoo these days; what I long for is something that will sustain me and stretch me till something snaps, take me so far beyond a simple clause or a single formulation that suddenly, unexpectedly, I find myself in a place that feels as spacious and strange as life itself.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise to you that I try to use my writing as the same kind of protest. I don't mean that I go out of my way to write long, snaking sentences filled with baroque vocabulary, just that I have no interest in making myself more accessible to the feeble-minded who use phrases like "tl;dr" and read everything on a smartphone screen. Luxuriating in language is one of the great joys in my life, and I feel sorry for anyone incapable of ever slowing down enough to appreciate the musicality of an artfully constructed phrase.

I'll again quote Nietzsche on why it's sometimes necessary to raise our language above the colloquial and bare-bones:

When one writes a book and thus steps into the public light, that is always a significant act deserving of a certain solemnity, so that one has to put aside everyday language. You have a good example in Catholicism, toward which, as you perhaps know, I am not exactly friendly, but this does not prevent me from recognizing the great worldly wisdom with which Rome has been conducting its business over the ages. Why does Rome still have the Mass read in Latin? To give the solemn act, veiled in mystery, a special solemnity even externally. But that must not be at the expense of clarity or intelligibility. If thoughts were thereby hidden, if the real meaning became hard to understand, that would of course be false, that would no longer be solemn, that would be foolish.

Protestant simplicity for the transfer of essential information, Catholic grandeur for the playful spirit of creativity. Wouldn't that be a good balance? Unfortunately, it feels like too many people are possessed with the spirit of Martin Luther when it comes to language these days, seeing the devil of artifice behind every unfamiliar word and an obfuscating fog in every wisp of incense smoke.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Neither Do Men Light a Candle and Put It Under a Bushel

David William:

If I walked into someone’s house and saw a collection of their trophies on a shelf, I’d laugh. Shiny metal statues, a parody of the sports and activities they represent. Fortunately, I haven’t really seen that often. But I began to notice the equivalent that bookshelves have to the trophy case. Both are meant for public display, whether we admit it or not. Oh, please admire the depth of my quest for knowledge. If you still disagree, then keep your books boxed up or make a bookshelf closet. Yeah, it’s nicer to have them on display.

I’m absolutely guilty of this. There is a charm and mystique (and respect!) that comes with a well put together bookshelf. It’s no surprise that one of my favorite tumblr blogs is Bookshelf Porn. Books are a trophy of sorts. They are dated, dusty, often unmoved, and represent what we want to see and remember of ourselves. Yeah, I know. You just looooove to hold a book, smell the scent of the pages, the degradation of lignin… yeah yeah yeah we get it. I do too.

Man, I love my bookcases. I love the way they look, just as furniture alone, especially the matching pair of handmade ones I got from a relative. And honestly, the only person who has ever given my bookshelves more than a passing glance is my mom, so if I were arranging them in the hope of attracting awestruck compliments, I would have long ago fallen into despair and fed the books to the woodstove.

I'm sure there are people who buy books just as ego baubles, but one thing I'm proud of is that I only buy books I intend to read. If nothing else, I don't have money to throw away on stage props for a nonexistent audience! But, yuh know, being fake doesn't just mean striving for undeserved attention and praise. False modesty - like hiding a passion of yours away - is just as much a case of pretending to be someone you're not.

If There Were Gods, How Could I Endure Not to be a God?

Laurie Anderson:

The main thing that attracts me to Buddhism is probably what attracts every artist to being an artist—that it’s a godlike thing. You are the ultimate authority. There is no other ultimate authority... Part of it is the pure fun of making things and thinking about things, and, like I said about Buddhism, being an artist is a totally godlike thing to do—and I have a god complex.

BLVR: A godplex.

LA: Yeah, a godplex! I’m thrilled by the fact that I made something out of nothing. There it is! It wasn’t there before: there it is—I made it! That’s pretty powerful, and that’s the power that Buddhists give to every single person. There is no one judging you; you are the Buddha. And that’s a frightening thought and a liberating thought, that you are the ultimate authority.

Sigh. A little learning is a dangerous thing, indeed. Buddhism, existentialism, solipsism, narcissism, what's the diff.

To the Manner Born

David Hadju:

Recently reading Harper’s, I came across an advertisement for a mail-order audio course entitled Life Lessons of the Great Books. Over 36 lectures, it promises to teach “how great books...provide you with insights on how to conduct yourself in times of trouble, how to handle the joys and frustrations of love, how to appreciate the simple moments in life, and so much more.”

Great idea, I thought! In fact, I’ve decided to start my own line of courses, mining the works of all forms of literature for lessons that can be directly applied to solve everyday problems.

Biting sarcasm ensues.

I've never read a self-help book, but I'm open to the idea that the style can be done intelligently, without necessarily sacrificing nuance to lowest-common-denominator expedience. I can't help but note, though, that the literary cognoscenti seem to have a much harsher view:

The idea of reading Jane Austen to learn lessons about life is totally repugnant to me. Equally repugnant are memoirs about lessons learned from reading her. I read Jane Austen for pleasure, for the instant delight of, say, the opening of Persuasion: “Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one…”

The poised irony of this character sketch, the rhythm of the sentence with its paradoxical tone – Jane Austen’s style – makes me laugh out loud. Vladimir Nabokov, in his 1950s Cornell lecture on Mansfield Park (published in Lectures on Literature, 1980) ends by reflecting upon Jane Austen’s style, and particularly what he calls “the epigrammatic intonation, a certain terse rhythm in the witty expression of a slightly paradoxical thought. The tone of voice is terse and tender, dry and yet musical, pithy but limpid and light.”

That style is what gives endless pleasure to readers of her novels, not the “life lessons” touted by Brownstein and Deresiewicz. Austen’s style is what is lacking in film or TV adaptations of her novels, however faithful they are to the dialogue and the plot. So in the 2008 BBC version of Persuasion, Sir Walter is portrayed as a vain snob, just as Jane Austen declares him to be, but not as foolishly comic, which her irony renders him. Underpinning the style is her command of language, the acuity of her observations, her finely nuanced moral sensibility and her natural wit.

All six of her novels are about love and marriage among the county gentry. To find “lessons” in them is to lose sight of them as comedies of manners, in which bad behaviour keeps breaking out.

Gulp. If I were a braver man, one that didn't fear having his head removed in a snarling flash of teeth, I might meekly raise my hand at this point and venture a query: Couldn't the reader possibly do... both? Is it really an either/or dichotomy? Might it not even be conceivable that readers who initially approach The Great Works with the base aim of pilfering some self-centered lessons might find themselves captivated by the exposure to a different perspective and sticking around for genuine learning? (I've suggested as much before.) Kitson says without elaborating that she reads for "pleasure", which I take to mean pleasure in the artistry, but why is that inherently superior to the more mundane pleasure of self-improvement? What about those of us who fail to be impressed overmuch by Austen's rhythm and tone even after having it called to our attention? Are we possessed of a ghastly deficiency, or have we simply frittered away the evenings in dissolute tomfoolery when we should have been attending to Nabokov's Cornell lecture?

Sometimes I suspect that this is all just a lingering inheritance from the good old days of aristocracy, and the real affront here is the artlessness of naked ambition, the gauche grasping after personal advancement, the sweat that accompanies striving. You're supposed to act as if you were born knowing this sort of thing, you peon. Now get back to sweeping my chimney.

Which also reminds me of something from Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason:

Middlebrow culture, which began in organized fashion with the early nineteenth century lyceum movement – when no one thought of culture in terms of “brows” – and extended through the fat years of the Book-of-the-Month Club in the 1950s and early 1960s, was at heart a culture of aspiration. Its aim was not so much to vanquish the culture of the gutter, although that was part of the idea, as to offer a portal to something more elevated.

[…] We did indeed, as (Virginia) Woolf observed disgustedly, have “pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters” on our walls; my mother’s taste ran to Van Gogh, Renoir, and Degas, I can still see the Degas ballerinas who adorned my bedroom walls, and it would not surprise me if that early exposure to middlebrow reproductions had something to do with a passion for art that did not emerge until my mid-twenties.

[…] The distinctive feature of American middlebrow culture was its embodiment of the old civic credo that anyone willing to invest time and energy in self-education might better himself. Many uneducated lowbrows, particularly immigrants, cherished middlebrow values: the millions of sets of encyclopedias sold door to door from the twenties through the fifties were often purchased on the installment plan by parents who had never owned a book but were willing to sacrifice to provide their children with information about the world that had been absent from their own upbringing. Remnants of earnest middlebrow striving survive today among various immigrant groups, but the larger edifice of middlebrow culture, which once encompassed Americans of many social classes as well as ethnic and racial backgrounds, has collapsed. The disintegration and denigration of the middlebrow are closely linked to the political and class polarization that distinguishes the current wave of anti-intellectualism from the popular suspicion of highbrows and eggheads that has always, to a greater or lesser degree, been a part of the American psyche. What has been lost is an alternative to mass popular culture, imbibed unconsciously and effortlessly through the audio and video portals that surround us all. What has been lost is the culture of effort.

[…] I look back on the middlebrow with affection, gratitude and regret rather than condescension not because the Book-of-the-Month club brought works of genius into my life but because the monthly pronouncements of its reviewers were one of the many sources that encouraged me to seek a wider world. In our current infotainment culture, in which every consumer’s opinion is supposed to be as good as any critic’s, it is absurd to imagine that a large commercial entity would attempt to use an objective concept of greatness as a selling point for anything. That people should aspire to read and think about great books, or even aspire to being thought of as the sort of person who reads great books, is not a bad thing for a society.

Monday, January 09, 2012

You Know Nothing of the Crunch

Julian Baggini:

When it comes to the crunch, it seems that very few genuinely embrace, or are prepared to admit they embrace, a form of religion that doesn't make supernatural claims. This finding was backed up by two surveys I conducted, which while far from authoritative strongly suggest that churchgoers do, indeed, hold traditional beliefs about such things as Christ's resurrection and the need to worship God. (Oddly, many people have claimed I was surprised by these results, when, as I explained in a reply, I have never expressed any amazement at all.)

So where does this leave me and does it constitute progress? The more procedural points merely clear the way for progress, so at best they represent a kind of proto-progress. It is a kind of negative progress to discard, set aside or reduce in importance aspects of the debate that are red herrings or have become too central. On the positive side, I think the real movement has come from grappling with the question of how important literal belief is to religion.

I'm fine with the idea of religion staying locked in a cyclical battle with disbelief for eons. What I'd like to do away with is this fetishization of linear "progress" in human psychology, this Hegelian faith that every thesis and antithesis can be synthesized, this tiresome pose of being the hero with enough balance and level-headedness to lead us safely between Scylla and Charybdis.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

I Think That I Will Grow an Elfin Beard

Christopher Howse:

It is true that the park becomes another world after dark, but historically it is just the place for a hermit.

When St James’s Park was being re-arranged in the first half of the 18th century, William Kent, who designed the pepper-pot topped Horse Guards, also ran up for Queen Caroline a hermitage called Merlin’s Cave. This rum cross between a grass-roofed African hut and a gothic ruin was installed in the gardens of Richmond Lodge. The Queen then appointed Stephen Duck, “The Thresher Poet”, as her ornamental hermit.

Ornamental hermits were quite the thing in the Age of Reason. No grotto was complete without one.

This is the bright side of the 1% accumulating so much of the nation's wealth -- a niche like this opens up for people like me.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

With Our Tongue Will We Prevail

While I'm on the subject, I should note that, as always, even unobjectionable ideas can easily be taken to absurd, facepalming lengths:

What if we transformed the meaning of occupy yet again? Specifically, what if we thought of Occupy Language as more than the language of the Occupy movement, and began to think about it as a movement in and of itself? What kinds of issues would Occupy Language address? What would taking language back from its self-appointed “masters” look like? We might start by looking at these questions from the perspective of race and discrimination, and answer with how to foster fairness and equality in that realm.

Occupy Language might draw inspiration from both the way that the Occupy movement has reshaped definitions of “occupy,” which teaches us that we give words meaning and that discourses are not immutable, and from the way indigenous movements have contested its use, which teaches us to be ever-mindful about how language both empowers and oppresses, unifies and isolates.

For starters, Occupy Language might first look inward. In a recent interview, Julian Padilla of the People of Color Working Group pushed the Occupy movement to examine its linguistic choices:

To occupy means to hold space, and I think a group of anti-capitalists holding space on Wall Street is powerful, but I do wish the NYC movement would change its name to “‘decolonise Wall Street”’ to take into account history, indigenous critiques, people of colour and imperialism… Occupying space is not inherently bad, it’s all about who and how and why. When white colonizers occupy land, they don’t just sleep there over night, they steal and destroy. When indigenous people occupied Alcatraz Island it was (an act of) protest.

This linguistic change can remind Americans that a majority of the 99 percent has benefited from the occupation of native territories.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Yeahhhh—Did You Get That Memo?

A year and a half ago, I issued a call for greater accuracy in our invective, greater precision in our obloquy. Strangely, my words have apparently fallen on deaf ears (or blind eyes, I suppose).

I mean, really -- would you entrust your penis to Donald Trump's mouth? Calumny requires verisimilitude for maximum effect!

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Cashing Satan's Checks With My Dick In My Hand

Well, fuck. If it's the coveted Vile Scribbler endorsement you want, I've been using Google Chrome for a couple years now (mainly because I got tired of having to update Firefox every ten minutes), and I'm saying that for free. Of course, if someone would like to send me some backpay as a result, I certainly won't object. Nudge nudge wink wink.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Let Our Brilliance Make Them Look Dark

Let us stop thinking so much about punishing, reproaching, and improving others! We rarely change an individual, and if we should succeed for once, something may also have been accomplished, unnoticed: we may have been changed by him. Let us rather see to it that our own influence on all that is yet to come balances and outweighs his influence. Let us not contend in a direct fight – and that is what all reproaching, punishing, and attempts to improve others amount to. Let us rather raise ourselves that much higher. Let us color our own example ever more brilliantly. Let our brilliance make them look dark. No, let us not become darker ourselves on their account, like all those who punish others and feel dissatisfied. Let us sooner step aside. Let us look away.

- Nietzsche

I always thought that was one of the most beautiful things he ever wrote, and so at odds with the crude stereotype of his philosophy. I was reminded of it while reading this passage from American Nietzsche:

Bourne worried, however, that Nietzsche needed rescuing from his friends more than from his enemies, and he turned to Mencken's Nietzsche-derived critique of American Puritanism as a case in point. Bourne argued that Mencken exemplified the tendency among anti-Puritan "crusaders" to resort to the very morality-based essentialism they set out to destroy. "One wishes Mr. Mencken had spent more time in understanding the depth and subtleties of Nietzsche," Bourne wrote, "and less on shuddering at Puritanism as a literary force." Had Mencken done so, Bourne argued he might have understood that the "attack must be, as Nietzsche made it, on that moralism rather than on its symptoms." According to Bourne, the value of Nietzsche's analysis of the priestly zealotry of Christian slave morality was that it enabled the critic not to ferret out the zealotry of others but to recognize it within one's self. Nietzsche didn't respond to finger-wagging with more of the same, nor did he advocate a simple inversion of slave morality for master morality. Rather, he employed genealogy to demonstrate the relativity of all moral values.

That relentless moralizing sneer certainly is one of the more tiring things about reading Mencken; see also George Bernard Shaw. I mean, look: even in an age of widespread literacy and easy access to education opportunities, most people are not intellectually inclined. It's just how it is. But the familiar pose of the disappointed idealist really is the mirror image of the judgmental, provincial busybody. In both cases, there's an unquestioned assumption that there is an ideal type of personality and lifestyle that all people should aspire to. One of the most valuable concepts I first encountered in Nietzsche was that we should check our proselytizing instinct at the door and think about what a great thing it is that other people are different from us, since it gives us that much more room to develop our own distinctive lives, using them for contrast and relief.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Shadow Puppets

Jonathan Sacks:

Religion survives because it answers three questions that every reflective person must ask. Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? We will always ask those three questions because homo sapiens is the meaning-seeking animal, and religion has always been our greatest heritage of meaning. You can take science, technology, the liberal democratic state and the market economy as four institutions that characterise modernity, but none of these four will give you an answer to those questions that humans ask.

Science will explain how but not why. It talks about what is, not what ought to be. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive; it can tell us about causes but it cannot tell us about purposes. Indeed, science disavows purposes. Second, technology: technology gives us power, but it does not and cannot tell us how to use that power. Thanks to technology, we can instantly communicate across the world, but it still doesn't help us know what to say. As for the liberal democratic state, it gives us the maximum freedom to live as we choose, but the minimum direction as to how we should choose. The market gives us choices but it does not tell us what constitutes the wise or the good or the beautiful choices. Therefore, as long as we ask those questions, we will always find ourselves turning to religion.

... Individuals may live good lives without religion — the moral sense is part of what makes us human — but a society never can, and morality is quintessentially a social phenomenon. It is that set of principles, practices and ideals that bind us together in a collective enterprise. The market and the state may be driven by the pursuit of interests but societies are framed by something larger and more expansive, by a shared vision of the common good. Absent this and societies begin to fragment. People start thinking of morality as a matter of personal choice. The sense of being bound together — the root meaning of "religion" — in a larger enterprise starts to atrophy and social cohesion is lost. The West was made by what is nowadays called the Judeo-Christian heritage which gave it its unique configuration of values and virtues. Lose that and we will lose Western civilisation as we have known it for the better part of two millennia.

Damn, that's pathetic. Sacks sounds like a terrible ventriloquist reduced to tearfully pleading with his audience to stay in their seats and please refrain from pointing out how often his lips move.

If we've reached a level of awareness wherein we can openly discuss God's existence in such mercenary, calculating terms, then surely we can take that next tiny step and agree that the values that we generally call "Judeo-Christian" are worth preserving even if the presumed author of them has turned out to be a pseudonym without even an actual being behind it. Would Shakespeare's plays be any less profound in their effects if it turned out that they had indeed been produced by hundreds of monkeys on hundreds of typewriters over hundreds of years? Meaning is a relationship, one that we are constantly updating and recreating, not a solid object with a fixed place of residence.