Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Counterfeiting Aspect of Morality

What is the counterfeiting aspect of morality? It pretends to know something, namely what “good and evil” is. That means wanting to know why mankind is here; its goal, its destiny. That means wanting to know that mankind has a goal, a destiny.

— Nietzsche

Sam Harris:

It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks).

So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000,* and I will publicly recant my view.

So, I've finally gotten around to reading the book. It seems to this layman that the reviews can't be dismissed so breezily. As to whether or not they refute the book's central thesis, or whether it's possible to even do so, well, when there are this many qualifiers and hedged bets in the introduction alone —

I am not suggesting that we are guaranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science. Differences of opinion will remain — but opinions will be increasingly constrained by facts.

...I'm not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery.

...While this leaves the question of what constitutes well-being genuinely open, there is every reason to think that this question has a finite range of answers. Given that change in the well-being of conscious creatures is bound to be a product of natural laws, we must expect that this space of possibilities — the moral landscape — will increasingly be illuminated by science.

— it's hard for me to determine just what it is we're arguing against or disproving. That all sounds definitively vague enough for my taste, carry on! Was anyone literally claiming an infinite range of answers to the question of well-being? The only strong impression I've gotten from the book is that he's really impressed by fMRI studies, and he really, really hates extreme relativists.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Use Your Illusion

John Gray:

Christianity was a reaction against corrosive doubt, a condition that took hold partly as a result of the habit of sceptical inquiry inculcated by philosophy: “What was destroying the world was the lack of illusions. Christianity saved it, not because it was the truth but because it was a new source of illusion.” This new illusion came in the form of a claim to truth that all the world had to accept: an inordinate demand that with the rise of the Enlightenment shifted to science, which has become a project aiming to dissolve the dreams in which humanity has hitherto lived. The result is modern nihilism – the perception that human beings are an insignificant accident in a scheme of things that cares nothing for them or their values – and a host of rackety creeds promising some kind of secular salvation.

Leopardi’s account of the paradoxical process whereby a Christian will to truth gave birth to nihilism has much in common with Nietzsche’s – an affinity that the fiery German thinker recognised. Here as elsewhere, Nietzsche was following a path opened up by Schopenhauer, who wrote that it was a tragedy that the world’s three great pessimists – “Byron, Leopardi and myself” –were in Italy at the same time but never met. (I’m not sure that a meeting between Leopardi and Schopenhauer would have been a success. Unlike Schopenhauer, who lamented the human lot, Leopardi believed that the best response to life is laughter.)

What fascinated Schopenhauer, along with many later writers, was Leopardi’s insistence that illusion is necessary to human happiness. Matthew Arnold, A E Housman, Herman Melville, Thomas Hardy, Fernando Pessoa (who wrote a poem about the Italian poet) and Samuel Beckett were all stirred by his suggestion that human fulfilment requires a tolerance of illusion that is at odds with both Christianity and modern science.

Innnnteresting. Again, I'm intrigued by this Leopardi fellow.

Happy Ever After in the Marketplace

Having just enjoyed a riotous laugh at J. Bryan Lowder's attempt to preserve the Platonic ideal of the concept of privilege, it would only be fair to acknowledge one of his better efforts:

But I would like to take a moment to reflect upon how troubling this and other recent dust-ups regarding some giant corporation’s “feelings” about the gays really are on closer inspection. I’m by no means the first person to say this, but being offended (or for that matter, flattered) by an entity whose sole purpose is to sell things, maybe to you or maybe to someone else, is to unavoidably endorse and enliven the insidious concept of corporate personhood. Barilla is not your enemy and Absolut is not your friend; they are just businesses with PR departments that are at different points along the road toward realizing that influential, “taste-maker” minority groups are worth courting, both for direct patronage and easy image-boost-by-association. It’s unfortunate, I guess, that Barilla (or at least Guido Barilla) is behind the times on this matter, but the earnest anger I’m seeing online about that fact is perplexing. I mean, are you really so starved for approval that you need it to come packaged with pasta?

I realize that the previous paragraph probably makes me sound like an Occupy Wall Street, anti-capitalism type, which is really not the case. My concern with this increasingly common “the gays are for/against X corporation” trope is far more basic than that: I simply resent being told I should change my shopping list every time some old C-suite dude runs his out-of-touch mouth or offers to sponsor my next parade.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The System Will Eat Itself

J. Bryan Lowder:

Only a few years ago, “privilege” was a concept you’d more likely hear discussed on college campuses and other places where people think a lot about how to achieve social justice than in a national publication.

...Some may call it trolling, but the “Privilege Tournament” really only acknowledges that privilege has failed as a social justice strategy, at least outside of more nuanced environs like the academy.

...But denuded of situational context and reduced to a competition between arbitrary categories, the wider privilege discussion has become about points and team pride, winners and losers. In my case, +1 for gay (and maybe .5 for being a little femme), but -5 for white, male cisgendered, middle-class, able-bodied, and allergy-free. So a total of -3.5, tsk tsk. This kind of quantitative score-keeping was never the point. And worse, the turning of privilege into a game has led some to use it to disqualify those deemed to have “too much” from not only participating in the fight for justice, but from even cheering from the sidelines. The ethos of “be quiet, you have too much privilege” is wildly counterproductive, and definitely not the point of any critical exercise.

Ooo, sounds like somebody needs to check his elitist, higher education privilege. Ahem. I mean, yes, by all means, go tell all those social justice warriors to leave the thinky stuff to the educated professionals. I can only imagine the Jacksonian turn that would take: "It's not fair, it's not right," he screamed, and then they were upon him.

As always with intellectuals: the system didn't fail us, we failed the system. Alack and forsooth, who could have possibly anticipated that an idea like this, rather than serving as a means for gazing upon the bare face of truth, would have been used in service to the same base struggles for power or status that have always been the overriding sociopolitical preoccupation? The idea was perfect; it's just that you cretins fucked it all up when you got your grubby hands on it. Funny how often that turns out to be the case when the hothouse flowers of academia are transplanted into the soil of everyday life. Featurenotabug.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Autumn

A touch of cold in the Autumn night
I walked abroad,
And saw the ruddy moon lean over a hedge
Like a red-faced farmer.
I did not stop to speak, but nodded;
And round about were the wistful stars
With white faces like town children.

— T. E. Hulme

I Go Out to Meet the Man Who Contradicts Me and Corrects Me


We’ve stored a huge chunk of what we “know” in people around us for eons. But we rarely recognize this because, well, we prefer our false self-image as isolated, Cartesian brains. Novelists in particular love to rhapsodize about the glory of the solitary mind; this is natural, because their job requires them to sit in a room by themselves for years on end. But for most of the rest of us, we think and remember socially. We’re dumber and less cognitively nimble if we're not around other people—and, now, other machines.

Aikin and Talisse:

In short, we argue in pursuit of truth.  The epistemic conception is concerned with rationally engaging others.  It is, after all, through such engagement that we come to see more fully what reasons and evidence there are, and thus we come to occupy a better vantage point from which to evaluate our options, including the beliefs we already hold.  In this way, the epistemic conception sees argument as a critical activity aimed at the evaluation of views.  But note that argument then is equally a self-critical activity, a process by which we can criticize our own views.  The thought is that by engaging together in pursuit of truth, we can help each other to refine our ideas, even in the face of persistent disagreement.

The epistemic view accordingly proposes its own conception of respect.  The rhetorical theory takes respect to consist in the willingness to reason from another's premises. The epistemic conception locates respect in seeing others as partners in the common pursuit of believing what's right by believing what the best available reasons and evidence favor.  The rhetorical view has it that I respect you when I take you as you are -- with the beliefs you already have -- and attempt to rationally compel you to move in my direction.  The epistemic view holds that I respect you when I regard you as a companion in a common struggle for truth, and thus a fellow source of reasons, ideas, evidence, and objections.

Nigel Warburton:

Without conversation and challenge, philosophy very quickly lapses in to the dead dogma that Mill feared. But that does not mean that every viewpoint is equally valuable, or that we should accept that each person finds their own truth. Every great philosopher has been driven by an attempt to get beyond appearances and to say something important about how things really are. Philosophy is a subject that weighs positions, not just airs them. Conversation without critical judgment becomes mere chatter and airing of different opinions — as William Empson wrote in his poem ‘Let It Go’ (1949):

The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don't want madhouse and the whole thing there.

However, it was John Stuart Mill who crystallised the importance of having your ideas challenged through engagement with others who disagree with you. In the second chapter of On Liberty (1859), he argued for the immense value of dissenting voices. It is the dissenters who force us to think, who challenge received opinion, who nudge us away from dead dogma to beliefs that have survived critical challenge, the best that we can hope for. Dissenters are of great value even when they are largely or even totally mistaken in their beliefs. As he put it: ‘Both teachers and learners go to sleep at their post, as soon as there is no enemy in the field.’

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Irrelevant Thoughts

Alyson Shantell:

Traditional media outlets will still be around to sort out the noise and rumors on Twitter, analyze it and turn it into stories. But no one can beat Twitter for breaking coverage, the fast transfer of thought, and an endless supply of original content that's easy to consume on the go. Twitter will be – and already is – the only way for us all to stay relevant.

Relevant! You know, I admit it. I clicked on the link to an article entitled "Why You Should Care About Twitter," because, well, I figured such directness deserved the benefit of the doubt. The title implies that the author is fully aware that many (most) people do not care about it, and thus, one might expect to hear a strong case presented, one that incorporates all the usual criticism and offers a rebuttal. Instead, we get the above excerpt as a conclusion, confirming that, yes, the social web is every bit the vapid fashion catwalk you thought it was. Marketing, branding and spotlight-seeking for its own sake. Anything more than five seconds old or written above a sixth-grade reading level risks irrelevance. Jesus Aitch.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Drinking Sand

Dorian Lynskey:

You might think that a band letting 17 years elapse between their third and fourth albums was unusual. You might therefore assume that there was an interesting reason for such a hiatus. You might even, recklessly, suppose that they could be pleased to be back. All these thoughts seem reasonable, until you try speaking to Mazzy Star about their new record, Seasons of Your Day.

...There is, I suppose, something impressive about the duo's unwavering purist militancy – their apathy, bordering on revulsion, towards everything to do with music beyond the act of making it. After a miserable hour for all three of us, I'm no longer surprised that they took 17 years to release Seasons of Your Day; I'm amazed they released it at all. Do they even care if anybody beyond their close friends hears their music?

"Maybe, for musicians, it's common to release things more frequently than we do," says Roback. "[We're] like other types of artist. They make their sculpture or painting, they write books or poems, and whether they have an exhibition is almost irrelevant."

Is this a difficult line of work for such reticent people? Pause. "Only when shyness is misinterpreted as arrogance," says Roback. Does that happen in their case? Pause. "I don't really know." Of course not.

I love me some Mazzy Star in any event, but in this social media fishbowl, where needy oversharing is like the water you swim in, I'm particularly delighted by such passive resistance. Reminds me of another favorite artist, Mark Sandman.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Lord Above Gave Man an Arm of Iron So He Could Do His Job and Never Shirk


The Weber argument is interesting, but until now no one really knew whether it was true or not. It’s a good story—that much we’ve collectively agreed on—but it was hard to tell if it was Protestantism or some other factor that led capitalism (and affiliated laws and policies) to spread. Certainly there were predominantly Catholic countries that also had capitalism. Weber’s argument seemed compelling, but, like many economic or historical arguments, it was a story without real proof.

Enter a group of Dutch economists, who have discovered that the Protestant work ethic is real.

...In other words, Protestantism may not make you rich, but it sure makes you unhappy when you’re not rich. The old Calvinist doctrine of a livelihood as the source of one’s value, and a sign of God’s favor, wreaks great havoc on people’s lives when that livelihood is gone. What’s more, this is true even when people practice other religions (or none at all) in largely Protestant countries. They experience the same impulses. What this really indicates is just how important Protestantism is to our concept of work—all of our concepts of work.

...As hard workers attempted to prosper in business in order to show that they were God’s chosen ones, over time hard work became the object in itself, particularly in the United States. This is ultimately sort of ironic because, as Tim Kreider wrote in his recent New York Times article condemning busyness, “The Puritans turned work into a virtue, evidently forgetting that God invented it as a punishment.” But there you have it. We work hard because it’s the American way. And it’s the American way because the Puritans did it.

Comment Chameleons, You Come and Go

Michael Erard:

In the late ’90s, early bloggers expected the level of discourse to be high. In fact, intelligent commenting was seen as a path to gaining respect in the blogging community. At the beginning of 1999, there were only about two dozen blogs (which were mainly lists of interesting Web sites), but as the number exploded, it became hard for bloggers to follow the fragmenting conversations. In 2000, the blog service Blogger introduced permalinks, which allowed each blog entry to have its own URL, and in 2002, Moveable Type implemented the TrackBack, which automatically alerted an author that a permalink from his blog had been posted elsewhere. The TrackBack was meant, at least in part, to blur the lines between commenters and writers; the conversation surrounding one blog post no longer needed to be relegated to the comments section, but could be sprinkled across disparate blogs with the TrackBack as its link. That was great, in theory. But while conversations were the model for interactions, the technology couldn’t sustain what real conversations required.

Chris Clarke:

I think some of the diaspora of commentary on blog posts happened because blog comment threads  are to a first approximation cesspools of stupid hate. As Scalzi says in his post,  the phrase “Don’t Read The Comments” is widely used for a reason. It’s partly because moderating comments is work, and partly because people give inexplicable latitude to vandals whose sole intent is to piss all over your living room rug. Meanwhile? On Facebook? If you post a link to an outside blog post and make a comment on it, and someone replies by insulting you, you have moderation powers. That’s not a bad thing: it’s a democratization of the ability to enforce respectful discourse.

Anyway. What had been a more coherent commentariat for many mid-sized to large blogs has splintered. A provocative blog post might now spawn conversations on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Google+, and a handful of other major venues. With a very few exceptions, I think mainly constituting large blogs that offer their commenters a distinct sense of community, the comment diaspora has happened and I don’t think we’ll be going back to 2005.

My secret to ensuring intelligent discourse in the comments is to have very limited appeal. I've never enjoyed trying to have a conversation in a boisterous crowd; why would it be any different in a text-based medium? As the mawkish poet James Kavanaugh wrote, I do not like many people, love; they bore me, or attack me, or talk too much when there is nothing to say. QFT. The less people who stick around to become regulars, the better the chance of conversing with them as individuals rather than two-dimensional ideological symbols, and the easier it is to feel patient and considerate when they persist in arguing wrongheadedly against your superior wisdom. I know Internet currency consists of pageviews, retweets and likes, and by such standards I'm a po' boy indeed, but at least I've had my fair share of good conversations here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

How Very Interesting. You're a True Vulgarian, Aren't You?


Melissa Mohr comes right out with it on the title page of her history of swearing, though the dust-jacket chastely presents the book as Holy Sh*t. Her argument is straightforward. It is that there are two main sources of bad language. One is the holy, which encompasses making oaths in the name of God or parts of his body, such as ‘by God’s wounds’, which later became ‘zounds’, and which George Farquhar in 1699 describes being comically gentrified into ‘zauns’. The other is the shit, which encompasses taboo bodily activities from buggery and beyond to the child’s favourite ‘poo’. In different periods, she argues, either the holy or the shit is the prime source of obscenity.

...She also speculates that future swear words will probably come from some of the milder taboo areas in modern life, such as death and disability. Should we be quite so cheery about swearing or its future? Swear words and oaths often gain their expletive force from the circumstances in which they are uttered. The badness of saying ‘whore’ or ‘God’s wounds’ or ‘bastard’ depends on who you say it to and why – as Queen Elizabeth I’s lord deputy in Ireland Sir John Perrot discovered when his secretary told on him for saying ‘God’s wounds, this it is to serve a base bastard pissing kitchen woman.’ Oaths can carry their potential to hurt or shock into normal conversation, which is why they can be used simply as intensifiers. Maybe we should just say ‘what the hell’ (or the expletive of our choice) and let this happen, because it does happen and will happen. But it isn’t simply prudish to reflect on the dangers of being foul. Many of us now liberally sprinkle our language with words that show we have a liberal attitude to sex and to bodily functions. But words grounded in racial difference (‘pikey’, ‘yid’, ‘paki’) are generally regarded as toxic. The offensive force of those words crucially depends on who says them to whom. Terms of racial and sexual abuse can and do work their way out of their nasty little corners despite the efforts of the law and social propriety to contain them. They are the most likely sources of future bad language.

Pseu-Pseu-Pseudo, I Just Say the Word

Slavoj Žižek:

And this brings us back to Syria: the ongoing struggle there is ultimately a false one. The only thing to keep in mind is that this pseudo-struggle thrives because of the absent third, a strong radical-emancipatory opposition whose elements were clearly perceptible in Egypt. As we used to say almost half a century ago, one doesn't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows in Syria: towards Afghanistan. Even if Assad somehow wins and stabilises the situation, his victory will probably breed an explosion similar to the Taliban revolution which will sweep over Syria in a couple of years. What can save us from this prospect is only the radicalisation of the struggle for freedom and democracy into a struggle for social and economic justice.

So what is happening in Syria these days? Nothing really special, except that China is one step closer to becoming the world's new superpower while its competitors are eagerly weakening each other.

Oh, he's real, all right.

Now, I won't even pretend to have a single meaningful thing to say about Syria, but I swear by all the fucked mothers of metaphorical yore, Žižek is one shitful motherfucker. A bearded, bloviating, bullfrog of bullshit. He's so full of shit — how full of shit is he? — he's so full of shit that I expect Peezus Myers, another to whom that alliterative description applies, to presently proclaim him the most prescient philosopher today. Fake! False! Pseudo! From the Hegelian heights, much like his rooftop swimming pool in Singapore, this is just him saying fuck you to the insignificant people who failed to redeem their existences by dying in service to the one true teleology, those thousands of spermatozoa wriggling futilely on the washrag of the World-Spirit after an afternoon wank. Thus taxonomized, the messy particulars of geopolitical life which don't conform to some abstract dialectical system can be dismissed so that Žižek, the concrete universal of pretentious, careerist, obfuscatory, academic leftism can get back to storing his underwear in his pantry, or spreading peanut butter on his flat-screen teevee, or whatever other wild and zany antics might impress some airheaded progressive web journalist.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Everything I Say Has Come Before. Assembled Into Something Into Something Into Something. I Am Never Certain Anymore.

William Deresiewicz:

It’s like this: I’ve hit a wall. I’m not completely empty of ideas, but they’re no longer coming fast enough to sustain a column. Imagine a pair of lines on a graph. The one that’s falling is the pleasure that I get from being able to express my thoughts each week in public. The rising one’s the pain that comes from having to. The two lines crossed a few months back, and the prospect ahead is bleak. I’ve never wanted to become a person who repeats himself.

...All Points has concerned itself with culture in the wider sense of our collective self-awareness, and at its best (at least for me), the material for this column has arisen naturally from the daily drift of my attention as I go about my business: reading the paper, listening to NPR, talking to a friend—or more often, free associating about it all later while I make a salad or zone out at the gym. Something gets caught in the net—a way we have of saying things, an assumption that we take for granted. Something shifts enough for me to see a corner of it catch the light. I’ve been staring at it all along, but now I finally notice it. Writing is the act of dragging experience across the threshold of consciousness.

I’ve become habituated, over the last couple of years, to thinking in blog-sized units. That could make a post, I’ll say to myself, the way that fiction writers filter the world for possible stories. It was a useful mindset, for a while: it focused my imagination, and composing the pieces—which took anywhere from a couple of hours to a full day—was the writerly equivalent of doing wind sprints. Lately, though, it’s started to feel confining.

Well, damn. His was my favorite of the weekly columns at the American Scholar. Still, I know how he feels; I've been complaining about the same thing myself lately.

I'm under no illusions that there's any other form of writing that I could be doing. I don't have the vision, skill, or openness to experience to be a novelist, nor do I have the originality or depth of knowledge to be an essayist. No, the small pond of the blog is the perfect natural environment for this particular fish.

One thing I especially appreciate about blogging is the immediacy of it, the conversational aspect. For me, that serves to forestall any perfectionist tendencies to dwell forever on a post, trying to make it excellent rather than merely good. Get the basic idea down, hit publish, and move along. Return to the theme later if something else occurs to you to say about it. The casual give-and-take of the social web presents a challenge that I've been happy to accept — find something worthwhile to say while staying within touching distance of current events. It would be easy to pick one or two topics a month and spend time cultivating my thoughts on them. Is it possible, though, to make a near-daily ritual of it without falling prey to the danger that Deresiewicz himself noted last year, that of refusing to allow the necessary time for thoughts to develop into something worth saying?

I think I've made a respectable effort at it, but the fact is, I only have but so much general knowledge about a smattering of topics, and it's starting to feel like I've exhausted my ability to expound on it. Even that might not be a problem, were it not for the fact that I, too, have never wanted to repeat myself. I'm not producing a product here. I know which posts and topics have attracted the most interest and pageviews, and if I were interested in that sort of attention, I could easily start churning out replicas on the assembly line and put some blogads money in my pocket. Sitting down to eat while absentmindedly scrolling through posts sneering at mindless entertainment like the Kardashians or Duck Dynasty is a form of mindless entertainment itself, and one that plenty of bloggers are happy to sell you along with an inflated sense of superiority. I don't want to peddle my own version of that to anyone. My favorite writers have always been the ones who surprise me with insights that encapsulate thoughts I never even knew I had until then. I'd like to think I could do that for readers, but if not, I'd still rather insult you than flatter your preconceptions or pander to your expectations.

Of course I could be wrong. Perhaps I've just been due for a fallow period. Maybe it's like the dilemma I often heard about rock bands — they had their whole lives to write their debut record, but only a matter of months to produce a follow-up of equal or greater depth. It could be that I had thirty-some years of reading and thinking to draw on for a few years of posts, and it'll just require some patience to replenish the reservoir. Or possibly the Internet has just been unusually dry and boring over the summer, and there will soon be a cloudburst of inspiration to make me look foolish.

I don't suppose there's any tidy conclusion to all this. I'm just thinking out loud. Maybe I'll start posting a bit less, but nonetheless, here I sit, read and write. I can do no other.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Statsplaining

Julie Crisp:

The sad fact is, we can’t publish what we’re not submitted. Tor UK has an open submission policy – as a matter of curiosity we went through it recently to see what the ratio of male to female writers was and what areas they were writing in. The percentages supplied are from the five hundred submissions that we’ve been submitted since the end of January. It makes for some interesting reading. The facts are, out of 503 submissions – only 32% have been from female writers.

...So here’s the thing. As a female editor it would be great to support female authors and get more of them on the list. BUT they will be judged exactly the same way as every script that comes into our in-boxes. Not by gender, but how well they write, how engaging the story is, how well-rounded the characters are, how much we love it. 

I'll Hate You Better

Jonathan Franzen:

One of the worst things about the internet is that it tempts everyone to be a sophisticate – to take positions on what is hip and to consider, under pain of being considered unhip, the positions that everyone else is taking. Kraus may not have cared about hipness per se, but he certainly revelled in taking positions and was keenly attuned to the positions of others. He was a sophisticate, and this is one reason Die Fackel has a bloglike feel. Kraus spent a lot of time reading stuff he hated, so as to be able to hate it with authority.

Freddie deBoer:

The question is whether the effects of this dynamic are salutary or negative. Being the internet skeptic that I am, I personally feel that the dynamic is an unhealthy one. While I believe in the necessity of social conditioning, I think that such conditioning is most appropriate when influencing community behavior, and least beneficial when it comes to arguments and ideas, which suffer if they are too easily influenced by social pressure. In other words, the online world, which much more resembles a debate hall, classroom, or legislative body than a social community, is precisely where we would least hope to find explicit markers of social approval. What’s more, it’s important to think about what kinds of online behavior tend to get these little nods of approval. Jokes, insults, messages of professional regard, and showy displays of disaffection are just as likely to receive these little digital strokes as good writing, thoughtful ideas, or kindness. And by their nature, some of the most important of social values can never be rewarded in this way: humility, reserve, gentleness, restraint, and quiet compassion. If the internet frequently feels like a pit of meanness and obligatory jokes, that’s because those are the behaviors that are most rewardable and are most rewarded.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

I Am Just a Copy of a Copy of a Copy. I Am Just an Echo of an Echo of an Echo.

It's now been eight years since I started this blog, and about five since I started making a serious, consistent effort at it. Maybe in another five years, I'll actually be able to consider myself good at it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Bisy Backson

Elyse Goldstein:

There’s a scene in the film Beyond the Clouds where an archaeologist hires some tribesmen to lead him to an site deep in the mountains. After they had been moving for some time the tribesmen stopped and insisted they would go no further. The archaeologist grew impatient and then angry. But no matter how much he cajoled the tribesmen would not go any further. Then all of a sudden the tribesmen changed their attitude. They picked up the gear and set off once more. When the bewildered archaeologist asked why they had stopped and refused to move for so long, the tribesmen answered, “We had been moving too fast and had to wait for our souls to catch up.”

That’s the kind of living the cult of busy promotes. The kind of living in which we move so fast our souls have no time to catch up, on purpose: so we don’t have to face them.

I've been a lot busier than I like lately, but there's nothing romantic about barely making ends meet, so I'll grin and bear it. Plus, I've also been making more time for swimming, playing computerized chess, working out, and catching up on my dead-tree reading. Unfortunately, writing suffers as a result, but, in an attempt to accentuate the positive, I'm using the downtime to reconsider my own writing, both in content and style. Maybe there are better sites out there I could be using for inspiration, along the excellent lines of 3 Quarks Daily, the Browser, or Bookforum's Omnivore. Perhaps I should aim to post less frequently in order to improve the quality-to-quantity ratio. There are a lot of people who will make snide remarks about the mindless entertainment habits of the average Myrrhkin, only to indulge in the equally mindless pursuit of reading the same blogs every day writing the same posts about the same predictable topics. There but for the grace of nonexistent gods go I.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Dependable, Clinical, Intellectual, Cynical

Adam Gurri:

Popper’s dissection of the open’s society’s enemies was insightful, but his defense was far too rationalist and embedded in Platonic traditions itself. As a philosopher, he put far too much emphasis on the articulated conversation within open societies, and not enough on the unarticulated, practical knowledge which can only survive when left alone.

...Popper understood that adopting rationalism was not itself a rationally-founded choice, but a moral one. He justified this adoption on the grounds that rationalism offered the only path to non-arbitrary decision making. In Popper’s world, it’s either rational debate or chaos, reason-driven decisions or knee-jerk emotional appeals. The reality, as we now know, is that it’s always much closer to the latter. To the extent that there is such a thing as “reason”, it operates very narrowly within the context provided by the people around us and the culture and traditions we are embedded within.

Interesting. Reminds me of an illuminating article by Razib Khan. I'll have to keep that in mind whenever I get around to reading Popper (both volumes of The Open Society and its Enemies are in my Amazon wish list, but of course, there's still a long way to go from that point).

To the Flames

Well, the truth may need some rearranging
Stories to be told
And plain to see the facts are changing
No meaning left to hold

- The Human League

The downward spiral continues. Peezus's shallow leftism has now come to incorporate postmodernism. So utterly predictable, and yet so, so hilarious.

As for the general value of postmodernist "thought", my attempts to understand it led me to the conclusion that the parts that are true are insipid banalities, and the rest is weaponized jargon. I can't do any better than reprint what Noam Chomsky said long ago:

Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I'm missing, we're left with the second option: I'm just incapable of understanding. I'm certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I'm afraid I'll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons. There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out.

Again, I've lived for 50 years in these worlds, have done a fair amount of work of my own in fields called "philosophy" and "science," as well as intellectual history, and have a fair amount of personal acquaintance with the intellectual culture in the sciences, humanities, social sciences, and the arts. That has left me with my own conclusions about intellectual life, which I won't spell out. But for others, I would simply suggest that you ask those who tell you about the wonders of "theory" and "philosophy" to justify their claims --- to do what people in physics, math, biology, linguistics, and other fields are happy to do when someone asks them, seriously, what are the principles of their theories, on what evidence are they based, what do they explain that wasn't already obvious, etc. These are fair requests for anyone to make. If they can't be met, then I'd suggest recourse to Hume's advice in similar circumstances: to the flames.

A clear, cogent summary from an unimpeachable intellect. I'm sure that would be met with a calm and reasonable accusation of rape or pedophilia in return.

Monday, September 09, 2013

This Most Unusual and Loneliest Thinker

I am utterly amazed, utterly enchanted! I have a precursor, and what a precursor! I hardly knew Spinoza: that I should have turned to him just now, was inspired by “instinct.” Not only is his overtendency like mine—namely to make all knowledge the most powerful affect—but in five main points of his doctrine I recognize myself; this most unusual and loneliest thinker is closest to me precisely in these matters: he denies the freedom of the will, teleology, the moral world-order, the unegoistic, and evil. Even though the divergencies are admittedly tremendous, they are due more to the difference in time, culture, and science. In summa: my lonesomeness, which, as on very high mountains, often made it hard for me to breathe and make my blood rush out, is now at least a twosomeness. Strange!

— Nietzsche

Steven Nadler:

Among the boldest elements of Spinoza’s philosophy is his conception of God. Spinoza’s God, as presented in the Ethics, is a far cry from the traditional God of the Abrahamic religions. What Spinoza calls “God or Nature” (Deus sive Natura) lacks all of the psychological and ethical attributes of a providential deity. His God is not some personal agent endowed with will and understanding and even emotions, capable of having preferences and making informed choices. Spinoza’s God does not formulate plans, issue commands, have expectations, or make judgments. Neither does Spinoza’s God possess anything like moral character. His God is neither good nor wise nor just. It is a category mistake to think of God in normative or value terms. What God is, for Spinoza, is Nature itself—the infinite, eternal, and necessarily existing substance of the universe. God or Nature just is; and whatever else is, is “in” or a part of God or Nature. Put another way, there is only Nature and its power; and everything that happens, happens in and by Nature. There is no transcendent or even immanent supernatural deity; there is nothing whatsoever outside of or distinct from Nature and independent of its processes.

...Perhaps the most deleterious superstition of all is the belief in the immortality of the soul. Like the notion of a providential God, the idea that a person will experience a postmortem existence in some world-to-come is a part of all three Abrahamic religions. While there is, of course, much diversity among the major faiths about what exactly happens to a person when he dies, and while Judaism, at least, generally does not make the belief in immortality a necessary tenet of the faith, the eternal fate of the soul was of the utmost importance to the great majority of Spinoza’s contemporaries, and this is what he found so troubling. In his view, a robust doctrine of personal immortality, like the eschatology that accompanies it, only strengthens those harmful passions that undermine the life of reason. He devotes a good deal of the final part of his Ethics to showing that while there is, in a sense, an eternal part of the human mind that remains after a person’s death—namely, the knowledge and ideas that she has acquired in this lifetime—there is nothing personal about it. When you are dead, Spinoza is saying, you are dead.

Sonic Therapy

Leah Sottile:

But that’s the funny thing: In my experience, metal isn't for angry people. It’s bigger than anger. Better, even. I've found most metal musicians and heavy music aficionados aren't nearly as pissed off and angry as people assume.

And that got me thinking: Is it possible that listening to angry music could make people happier? Do hours and years of loud riffs and screeching vocals pummeling your ear drums actually mellow you out? It’s a theory backed up in a recent study conducted by Maya Tamir and Brett Ford, researchers from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

A theory, a study! Hell, I thought that was conventional wisdom if not outright cliché. I lost count a couple decades ago of how many musicians credited punk and metal with keeping them alive and out of jail. Just to take one example of many off the top of my head, here's Pepper Keenan of Corrosion of Conformity/Down in an interview with RIP from early 1992:

"I couldn't find a better outlet," Cajun guitarist Pepper Keenan swears. "At the time I was in high school. You had all these rich kids who went to therapists to get their heads together. I just went to a Black Flag show and beat the shit out of people for a half an hour, just sweated like a maniac, and everything was cool Monday morning when the first bell rang. It totally got me through high school!"

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Refusal to Engage

Jonathan Vernon:

Garcia’s evidence prompts serious questions about the way we write history – and not all of the kind that you might expect. It is not that we are required to doubt Picasso’s core beliefs, his hatred of fascism, or the sincerity of a picture like Guernica. Indeed, it is precisely the urge to do any of the above that these revelations most urgently address. That our idea of a figure should be so brittle underscores the very desire that first shaped the ‘political myth of Picasso’: that of subjecting thought – and political beings, in all their complexity – to party lines.

Gina Apostol:

What is it about the writer in the First World that wants the Third World writer to be nakedly political, a blunt instrument bludgeoning his world’s ills? What is it about the critic that seems to wish upon the Third World the martyred activist who dies for a cause (O’Connell: “In his own country, six coups d’etat and three dictatorships” — one hears exclamation points of disappointment)? Where does this goddamned fantasy come from — that fantasy of the oppressed Third World artist who must risk his life to speak out, who’s not allowed to stay in bed and just read Kidnapped? I have to say, look at it this way: It only benefits dictatorships when all the Ken Saro-Wiwas die — and the loss of all the Ken Saro-Wiwas diminishes us all. Why is it not okay that an old man in Argentina lives for his art — and yet it is okay for a writer in The New Yorker whose country is targeting civilians abroad in precision assassinations to merely sit and write reviews about dead Argentines whose political feelings are insufficiently pronounced? Where is the great American artist leading his fellow citizens in barricades against the NSA? And why are these New Yorker critics not calling them out for their “refusal to engage with politics”?

Saturday, September 07, 2013

No Condom for Consumption


Alan: Some argue that population is in fact self-correcting, and that the correction is already underway. But it’s a little like saying a house fire is self-correcting, because it will eventually put itself out. Unfortunately the damage is done. One way or another, when a species exceeds its resource base, the population will come down. Nature does that in 100 percent of the cases in the history of biology. The question that I keep coming back to is how soon is that going to happen?

Andrew: And will it be in time?

Alan: Exactly. If our population is coming down because nature is going to do it for us, well, it’s going to be, frankly, unpleasant to watch. When nature does in a horde of locusts because they eat themselves out of sustenance, it’s interesting for us to observe. When it happens to our own species, it’s not going to be very pretty.

The whole reason for writing this book was to ask the question, should we take the responsibility to try to manage population decline gracefully, and possibly speed it up? We can do it humanely if we decide to manage it rather than let nature take its course.

Andrew: Is it the sheer number of people or is it the amount that we consume that matters, particularly in the so-called developed nations. Or is it simply that we live too long?

Alan: The answer to all of that is yes. All of those things are involved. I’m always curious about what people are thinking when they say, “It’s not population; it’s consumption.” Who do they think is doing all the consuming? The more consumers there are, consuming too much, the more consumption.

Monday, September 02, 2013

There are Many Copies Around, But This, My Man, is the Original

For we are all insulted by
The mere suggestion that we die
Each moment and that each great I
Is but a process in a process
Within a field that never closes...

— W.H. Auden

Owen Flanagan:

The wisdom part consists of the recognition that everything is impermanent (annica), that I am among the impermanent things (anatman or no-self; annata, Pali), that everything that happens is caused to happen by prior events and processes and will yield other events and processes (dependent origination), and that if you try to find where things bottom out, you will be led, Zen-like, to find that they don't bottom out, analytic deconstruction never comes to an end (sunyata, emptiness). Buddhist wisdom says that everything is becoming. What there is, and all there is, are events and processes. Things and substances insofar as they exist at all are simply slow-moving events and processes. Compare: many scientists think that glass is a slow-moving liquid.

As you've no doubt noticed, the telling reference to liquid betrays the panta rheist origins of this so-called Buddhist wisdom. You see this a lot in other derivative philosophies as well.

Behold the Man

Regular readers will know that I have an extraordinarily literate friend named Arthur, and that I occasionally abduct passages from his emails and press-gang them into service as galley slaves on the rowing benches of this here blog. Well, he's finally started his own blog, where he promises to publish more of that lucid commentary when he's not busy frolicking with his true love, poetry, and unlike me, he would be thrilled to have plenty of visitors. You should stop in there yourselves.

In all seriousness, I had been corresponding with him for a few years before I ever thought to try having a blog of my own. I've always been a voracious reader, and I always had a natural aptitude for English class, but that raw material alone likely wouldn't have shaped itself into anything at all had it not been for those years of writer's boot camp in which I had to consciously strive to make my contributions worthy of the conversation. If you like what you read here, you might want to make time to visit my mentor as well.