Saturday, January 31, 2015

What Are You Rebelling Against? Whaddaya Got Left?

The fact of progress is not denied, but increasingly large numbers of people experience the results of progress with an anguished sense of loss and isolation. Once again, progress is decadence and decadence is progress. The true opposite of decadence — as far as the biological connotations of the word are concerned — is perhaps regeneration. But where are the barbarians who will regenerate our exhausted world?

— Matei Calinescu

Adam Thirlwell:

If a work of art dismantles the ruling ideology, it will be intrinsically offensive to those who continue to believe that ideology.

Thirlwell offers up this glimmer or self-unawareness in an essay pining away for the good old days when avant-garde artists were ruthlessly exposing the lies, hypocrisy and emptiness of bourgeois society like it was going out of style, pun intended. He's so wistful for shock value, he's even making moon eyes at Pussy Riot (at least he didn't get tattooed). But in a Shyamalany twist, we the audience realize, even if he doesn't, that the reason he can't see any social mores ripe for artistic undermining is because the former boorzhwazee-shockers have become the establishment!

Hungry Like the Wolves

Wolfsburg - VfL Wolfsburg breathed new life into the title race with a thrilling 4-1 win over Bundesliga leaders FC Bayern München at the Volkswagen Arena.

Wolfsburg is my co-favorite German club (along with Borussia Mönchengladbach). (For those of you following along at home, Fiorentina is my Italian club, and Valencia is my Spanish club.) This was a gloriously sweet game to watch. Even more so, given the ever-arrogant Thomas Müller's recent remarks that facing Bayern's reserve squad in training was more of a challenge than that posed by most other teams in the Bundesliga. Speaking of Müller, he was substituted early in the second half, having done nothing more impressive than helping to give the ball away for Wolfsburg's first goal, and later blocking two clearances with his ugly mug (probably not the first time he's had two balls bouncing hard off his face, hey-yoooo!)

I am pleased. If the Wolves manage to make a proper title race out of it, I will be over the moon.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Return of the Locusts

Jonathan Chait:

But it would be a mistake to categorize today’s p.c. culture as only an academic phenomenon. Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.

...The most probable cause of death of the first political-correctness movement was the 1992 presidential election. That event mobilized left-of-center politics around national issues like health care and the economy, and away from the introspective suppression of dissent within the academy. Bill Clinton’s campaign frontally attacked left-wing racial politics, famously using inflammatory comments by Sister Souljah to distance him from Jesse Jackson. Barbara Jordan, the first black woman from a southern state elected to the House of Representatives, attacked political correctness in her keynote speech. (“We honor cultural identity. We always have; we always will. But separatism is not allowed. Separatism is not the American way. We must not allow ideas like political correctness to divide us and cause us to reverse hard-won achievements in human rights and civil rights.”)

Yet it is possible to imagine that, as the next Clinton presidential campaign gets under way, p.c. culture may not dissolve so easily. The internet has shrunk the distance between p.c. culture and mainstream liberal politics, and the two are now hopelessly entangled. During the 2008 primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the modern politics of grievance had already begun to play out, as each side’s supporters patrolled the other for any comment that might indicate gender or racial bias. It dissipated in the general election, but that was partly because Obama’s supporters worried about whether America really was ready to accept its first president who was not a white male. Clinton enters the 2016 race in a much stronger position than any other candidate, and her supporters may find it irresistible to amplify p.c. culture’s habit of interrogating the hidden gender biases in every word and gesture against their side.

Or maybe not. The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out.

I've seen Chait's article getting linked everywhere for the last few days, but I almost didn't bother to read it. Too much of a muchness, basically. Attempting to summarize the sensibility which has taken over much of the web in the last few years makes me feel exhausted. Still, it's a very good article, and I hope it signals some kind of turning point.

He mentions the zenith of the last outbreak in the early '90s, but doesn't note the neat correlation with the emergence of what would soon be officially named Generation X. Perhaps it wouldn't meet Chait's criteria for exerting hegemonic influence over the intellectual atmosphere, but the soundtrack to that generation, which would be officially named "grunge", was dominated by a similar leftish puritanism, typical of kids who had just dropped out of college to start bands. (Recall the furor surrounding the song "Sex-Type Thing", the first single from Stone Temple Pilots, in which singer Scott Weiland was mercilessly attacked as a macho misogynist for writing ambiguous lyrics from the perspective of a date-rapist; the same sort of manufactured, witch-trial hysteria surrounded Robin Thicke's song "Blurred Lines" last year.) The same ideas we're being inundated with today were out there among young, smart kids of my generation; lacking social media, we just had to make do with 'zines and mimeographed flyers to get the word out.

Attentive readers will likely remember my own hypothesis: we are currently experiencing the emergence of a mini-baby boom, a new generation commonly referred to as Millennials, the bulk of whom are in their mid-to-late twenties right now. The web is currently dominated by their perspectives and obsessions. I suggest to you that this phase of p.c. culture will fade out in the next several years, partially because, as Chait suggests, it has a predictable habit of eating its own and getting indigestion, and partially for a more prosaic reason: as these kids inevitably start to settle down with marriage, kids, and full-time careers, they will find their perspectives maturing away from the strident militancy of the freshly-minted college graduate, and their new responsibilities will leave them with very little free time to spend on social media, arguing vociferously over the finer points of gender studies and critical theory.

Assuming the political system retains its dysfunctional stability in the interim, expect to see the next wave in the late '20s, early '30s.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

One Day There Will Be Associated with My Name the Recollection of Something Frightful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 25, 2015

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

Larry Siedentop:

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Let My People Go

Steven Pinker:

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

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

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

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

Where There Are Rocks, Watch Out!

Oliver Burkeman:

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

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

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

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

We Are Never Satisfied

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

YOUNG: Do you think fame is an addiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 17, 2015

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

The Black Crowes call it quits, seriously bumming out 1992

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Who Got the Power, This Be My Question

Scott Alexander:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

I Was Tutored in the Ancient Mysteries By a Wizened Philosophe

Matthew Sharpe:

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 11, 2015


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

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

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

Point the Finger, Slow to Understand

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

Friday, January 09, 2015

Shamanic Reading

Jeffrey Williams:

Literary criticism once had an outsize reach, influencing the terms and concepts of disciplines like art and legal studies. With it came an outsize ego. During the 1970s and 80s, the heyday of literary theory, scholars aimed to explode the foundations of Western metaphysics, foment a revolution of the sign, overturn gender hierarchies, and fight the class struggle.

...Since the 1950s, the dominant practice in academe has been "criticism"; not the dusty excavation of facts about literature that had marked the field before that—the linguistic and historical background on Elizabethan England or Norse verb forms, or whether Chaucer traveled to France to hear his tales—but analysis and interpretation. Critics became seers who uncovered the special significance of texts, or warriors who critiqued society. Today they are still interested in "reading" texts, but their approach to what they read is different.

...A good deal of contemporary criticism has performed "symptomatic reading," a term that conveys looking for the hidden meaning of a text, using, for example, Marxian, Freudian, or deconstructive interpretation. Fredric Jameson has been one of its most influential practitioners, codifying the approach in his 1981 Political Unconscious to look for "a latent meaning behind a manifest one." Surface reading instead focuses on "what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts," as Best and Marcus put it. Thus the critic is no longer like a detective who doesn’t trust the suspect but more the social scientist who describes the manifest statements of a text.

Again with the Marx and Freud! I'm beginning to think that Peter Watson wasn't being overly hyperbolic when he suggested that a large part of the reason why the left became increasingly moribund throughout the twentieth century, both culturally and politically, was because of its compulsive obsession with trying to force reality onto the Procrustean bed of those two ludicrous theories.

Anyway. In all these years of autodidactic learning, I had never heard, in so many words, of "symptomatic reading". Yes, I'm familiar with the concept as described, but I still didn't know it had a specific name, let alone that its counterpart, "surface reading", required a theoretical designation as well, as if it's some kind of revolutionary new invention, rather than simply "the way most non-academics would intuitively go about reading a book" (sorry; "interrogating a text").

Today’s modesty may not bode an academic withdrawal from public life. It may simply register an unsettled moment, as past practices cede and a new generation takes hold. The less-optimistic outlook is that it represents the decline of criticism as a special genre with an important role to investigate our culture. While realism carries less hubris, it leaves behind the utopian impulse of criticism.

Oh, I don't know about that. Practicing and facilitating clear, informed communication seems idealistic and revolutionary enough to me.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

An Age of Superstition

Peter Watson:

What the French thinkers (and Habermas) produced was essentially a postmodern form of Marxism. Some of the authors seem reluctant to abandon Marx, others are keen to update him, but no one seems willing to jettison him entirely. It is not so much his economic determinism or his class-based motivations that are retained as his idea of 'false consciousness', expressed through the idea that knowledge, and reason, must always be forged or mediated by the power relations of any society — that knowledge, hermeneutics, and understanding all serve a purpose. Just as Kant said there is no pure reason, so, we are told from the Continent, there is no pure knowledge, and understanding this is emancipatory. While it would not be true to say that these writers are anti-scientific (Piaget, Foucault and Habermas are too well-informed to be so crude), there is among them a feeling that science is by no means the only form of knowledge worth having, that it is seriously inadequate to explain much, if not most, of what we know. These authors do not exactly ignore evolution, but they show little awareness of how their theories fit — or do not fit — into the proliferation of genetic and ethological studies. It is also noticeable that almost all of them accept, and enlist as support, evidence from psychoanalysis. There is, for anglophone readers, something rather unreal about this late continental focus on Freud, as many critics have pointed out. Finally, there is also a feeling that Foucault, Lacan and Derrida have done little more than elevate small-scale observations, the undoubted misuses of criminals or the insane in the past, or in Lacan's case vagaries in the use of language, into entire edifices of philosophy. Ultimately, the answer here must lie in how convincing others find their arguments. None has found universal acceptance. At the same time, the ways in which they have subverted the idea that there is a general canon, or one way of looking at man, and telling his story, has undoubtedly had an effect.

This is from a chapter on the French intellectuals of the late twentieth century. Most of the time, when you hear someone disparaging postmodernists, these are the people whom they have in mind. (Lacan's most famous disciple, of course, is the grotesque caricature-wrapped-in-a-parody-inside-a-bullshit-farce, Slavoj Žižek.) Anyway, banalities elevated into profundities aside, false consciousness has indeed proved to be one of Marx's most enduring ideas. You hear its echoes when people are said to be "voting against their own interests", as if the speaker knows better than them what they really want or need, or when, say, minorities and women feel that their individual perspective trumps the imperatives of their race or gender (as dictated to them by the self-appointed intelligentsia). The truism that there is no such thing as knowledge outside of perspective becomes, in practice, Foucault's "genealogical method", where the aim of an argument is not to rebut specific assertions, but to identify the supposed wellspring of your opponent's thought and declare it hopelessly polluted, thus implying, without needing to openly assert, that everything downstream is likewise poisoned.

It wasn't just the French, though; the Frankfurt School is noted earlier in the book for being preoccupied with "the attempted marriage of Freudianism and Marxism." Watson also quoted Friedrich Hayek: "I believe men will look back on our age as an age of superstition, chiefly connected with the names of Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud." It's funny because it's true! In an age in which science was quickly colonizing all forms of human experience, almost the entire intellectual class of Europe and America was captivated by two systems of thought which look increasingly ridiculous the further they appear in hindsight. And so I still wonder: what will our descendants think about the water in which we're swimming now? Why should we assume that we aren't living under the spell of superstitious nonsense while priding ourselves on our cutting-edge scientific awareness just as much as people in the last century were?

Sunday, January 04, 2015

There Is Freedom Within, There Is Freedom Without

Peter Watson, speaking of Maya Angelou:

[B]ut her books emphasize that life is made up of two kinds of freedom: one big political freedom, and countless little freedoms that come from education, strength of character, humor, dignity, and thought.

I like the way he put that. There are enough people who focus on the macro-level factors that shape our existence. As Steven Pinker says:

We live in an age of social science, and have become accustomed to understanding the social world in terms of "forces," "pressures," "processes," and "developments." It is easy to forget that these "forces" are statistical summaries of the deeds of millions of men and women who act on their beliefs in pursuit of their desires. The habit of submerging the individual into abstractions can lead not only to bad science (it's not as if the "social forces" obeyed Newton's laws) but to dehumanization. We are apt to think, "I (and my kind) choose to do things for reasons; he (and his kind) are part of a social process."

The temptation is fierce to find a Sociopolitical Theory of Everything for explanatory and predictive purposes. Wealth, race, gender, nationality, etc. are the pavement that makes theoretical travel easier, but those little freedoms are the grass inevitably growing up through the cracks.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Forget It, Scott. It's 'Ginatown.

Scott Alexander:

Go back to the original Amanda Marcotte article. Check the title. “MIT Professor Explains The Real Oppression Is Having To Talk To Women”. That phrasing, “the real oppression is…”, carries a pretty loaded assumption. I’d say “hides a pretty loaded assumption”, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much work to hide it.

If you look through Marcotte’s work, you find this same phrasing quite often. “Some antifeminist guy is ranting at me about how men are the ones who are really oppressed because of the draft” (source). And she’s not the only one. If you Google the term “are the ones who are really oppressed”, you can find an nice collection of people using this exact phraseology, including a few examples from a charming site called “Nerds Fucking Suck”.

But Aaronson is admitting about a hundred times that he recognizes the importance of the ways women are oppressed. The “is really oppressed” isn’t taken from him, it’s assumed by Marcotte. Her obvious worldview is – since privilege and oppression are a completely one dimensional axis, for Aaronson to claim that there is anything whatsoever that has ever been bad for men must be interpreted as a claim that they are the ones who are really oppressed and therefore women are not the ones who are really oppressed and therefore nothing whatsoever has ever been bad for women. By Insane Moon Logic, it sort of makes sense.

As a result, Marcotte is incapable of acknowledging that Aaronson feels pain or has feelings more complicated than “all women exist solely to be my slaves”. She has to be a jerk to him, otherwise it would be a tacit admission that he has problems, which means only he has problems, which means no woman has ever had problems, which means all women are oppressors. Or whatever.

I read the comment by Aaronson which has inspired such a web-wide hullaballoo, and though I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that it offended the perpetually 'n' predictably offended, even I was taken aback by the callous, willful misreading of it by the ever-execrable Marcotte. I swear, if she didn't exist, Rush Limbaugh would have to invent her.

Anyway, it's a very long post, so I've excerpted what I think is the main takeaway from it. As other people have basically said before, the Venn diagram of "Ass-slapping, catcalling, wolf-whistling dudebros" and "Guys who are willing to read and take to heart angry screeds by social media feminists" doesn't really have any overlap. In practice, then, feminist vitriol is often aimed not at the right targets, but at the "right here, right now" targets — the guys who take these issues seriously enough to actually show up and talk about them, while the real sexists would only laugh at the thought of sitting through an impromptu women's studies lecture. You read Aaronson's comment and you see a guy who has put himself through immense emotional turmoil in trying to measure up to what he imagines is the male feminist ideal, a guy who, as Alexander says, "is now 97% on board with feminism, but wants people to understand that when done wrong it can be really scary", and yet Marcotte and her Tumblr epigones are treating him with the same exact scorn and hostility they would use for an official enemy.

This is the inevitable result of the zero-sum logic people like her employ. Like a dragon jealously guarding its hoard, she can't tolerate anyone else getting a piece of her oppression narrative, and she's either incapable or unwilling to see how it makes her look in the eyes of anyone who's not already in total, unquestioning agreement. I submit to you that most people who read what Aaronson has to say will come away feeling very sympathetic to him, and seeing a reaction like Marcotte's will only reinforce the suspicion that nothing less than groveling submission will ever be good enough for the likes of her. I leave it to your understanding of basic human psychology to judge whether the average guy will find that acceptable.

I've noticed a few year-end retrospectives around the web with titles like "2014: The year women won" (or, if you prefer a more honest look at the toxic resentment underlying so much of this kind of feminism, "2014: The year women got even"). If this episode is any indication, I'm looking forward to seeing 2015 being designated the year of feminists scoring own goals.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Just Looking for a New Direction in an Old Familiar Way

Name, though it seem but a superficial and outward manner, yet it carrieth much impression and enchantment.

— Francis Bacon

In the spirit of new beginnings, I've decided to change my pen name. Henceforth, I will sign my posts as Strix Cratylus. The new avatar comes from this painting by CJ Tanedo.

It's been a good six and a half years as The Vile Scribbler, but I feel like the name represents an attitude I've somewhat outgrown. You may recall that I initially chose the name thinking that I had once heard it applied to Voltaire by one of his critics. I never could find any confirmation of that supposed fact when I went looking for it, but I decided I liked the ironic self-depreciation regardless. And since I saw myself primarily as someone carrying on a similar campaign of provocation against the religious (or spiritual-not-religious) certainties of our age, I went with it.

Over the intervening years, I've exhausted my interest in some of the main subjects which originally motivated me to write. Atheism vs. religion doesn't strike me as anywhere near as compelling a subject now. Lefty politics holds no special attraction for me. "Rationality" is a much more complicated and ambiguous phenomenon than my younger, somewhat-Voltairean self would have conceded. And the medium in which all of this discussion takes place, the social media web, while in many ways a godsend, also has a corrosive effect on writing and thinking which requires constant vigilance itself.

So, I feel like enough has changed over my blogging career to deserve being symbolized by a new persona — and honestly, why not take advantage of the ability to play around a little with the fluid nature of identity in this environment? If you're going to have an alter ego, have some fun with it. On a more serious note, changing my name is also in some ways a prompt, a little incentive to strive toward being a better writer. I'm not so interested in stating my opinions like they matter; I'd rather get better at the prose surrounding them. "Starting over", even in a merely symbolic sense, makes me want to raise my game a bit.

Why this name? Well, I share the Heraclitean interest in the flux and flow of existence, as well as the distrust of language's ability to fundamentally capture the mysterious "is-ness" of existence (even though language is, at the same time, a passionate fascination of mine). Like Buddha twirling a flower in response to a question, I like the image of Cratylus wagging his finger as a silent corrective to people's tendency to get lost in their own cerebral abstractions. Also, I like owls.

Tanedo's description of the painting is obviously coming from a Christian perspective, but there's nothing exclusively Christian about the message — the fear of hubris and the corresponding valuing of humility was a prominent theme in ancient Greece, and there was a strong element of it among the Romantics more recently. And, of course, the gentle, skeptical shrug and "What do I know?" attitude were some of Montaigne's most endearing qualities.