Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The Loyal Opposition of Paul Krugman
Evan Thomas in Newsweek:
Paul Krugman has all the credentials of a ranking member of the East Coast liberal establishment: a column in The New York Times, a professorship at Princeton, a Nobel Prize in economics. He is the type you might expect to find holding forth at a Georgetown cocktail party or chumming around in the White House Mess of a Democratic administration. But in his published opinions, and perhaps in his very being, he is anti-establishment. Though he was a scourge of the Bush administration, he has been critical, if not hostile, to the Obama White House.
In his twice-a-week column and his blog, Conscience of a Liberal, he criticizes the Obamaites for trying to prop up a financial system that he regards as essentially a dead man walking. In conversation, he portrays Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and other top officials as, in effect, tools of Wall Street (a ridiculous charge, say Geithner defenders). These men and women have "no venality," Krugman hastened to say in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But they are suffering from "osmosis," from simply spending too much time around investment bankers and the like. In his Times column the day Geithner announced the details of the administration's bank-rescue plan, Krugman described his "despair" that Obama "has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they're doing. It's as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street."
If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he's wrong, and you sense he's being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see.
Voodoo Correlations in Social Neuroscience
Abstract: Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging studies of emotion, personality, and social cognition have drawn much attention in recent years, with high-profile studies frequently reporting extremely high (e.g., >.8) correlations between behavioral and self-report measures of personality or emotion and measures of brain activation. We show that these correlations often exceed what is statistically possible assuming the (evidently rather limited) reliability of both fMRI and personality/emotion measures. The implausibly high correlations are all the more puzzling because method sections rarely contain sufficient detail to ascertain how these correlations were obtained. We surveyed authors of 54 articles that reported findings of this kind to determine a few details on how these correlations were computed. More than half acknowledged using a strategy that computes separate correlations for individual voxels, and reports means of just the subset of voxels exceeding chosen thresholds. We show how this non-independent analysis grossly inflates correlations, while yielding reassuring-looking scattergrams. This analysis technique was used to obtain the vast majority of the implausibly high correlations in our survey sample. In addition, we argue that other analysis problems likely created entirely spurious correlations in some cases. We outline how the data from these studies could be reanalyzed with unbiased methods to provide the field with accurate estimates of the correlations in question. We urge authors to perform such reanalyses and to correct the scientific record.
Why Minds Are Not Like Computers
Ari Sculman in New Atlantis:
Since the inception of the AI project, the use of computer analogies to try to describe, understand, and replicate mental processes has led to their widespread abuse. Typically, an exponent of AI will not just use a computer metaphor to describe the mind, but will also assert that such a description is a sufficient understanding of the mind—indeed, that mental processes can be understood entirely in computational terms. One of the most pervasive abuses has been the purely functional description of mental processes. In the black box view of programming, the internal processes that give rise to a behavior are irrelevant; only a full knowledge of the input-output behavior is necessary to completely understand a module. Because humans have “input” in the form of the senses, and “output” in the form of speech and actions, it has become an AI creed that a convincing mimicry of human input-output behavior amounts to actually achieving true human qualities in computers.
The embrace of input-output mimicry as a standard traces back to Alan Turing’s famous “imitation game,” in which a computer program engages in a text-based conversation with a human interrogator, attempting to fool the person into believing that it, too, is human. The game, now popularly known as the Turing Test, is above all a statement of epistemological limitation—an admission of the impossibility of knowing with certainty that any other being is thinking, and an acknowledgement that conversation is one of the most important ways to assess a person’s intelligence. Thus Turing said that a computer that passes the test would be regarded as thinking, not that it actually is thinking, or that passing the test constitutes thinking. In fact, Turing specified at the outset that he devised the test because the “question ‛Can machines think?’ I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion.” But it is precisely this claim—that passing the Turing Test constitutes thinking—that has become not just a primary standard of success for artificial intelligence research, but a philosophical precept of the project itself.
This precept is based on a crucial misunderstanding of why computers work the way they do.
The draft G20 communique, as published on the FT’s website, is not encouraging. To be sure, there are humorous moments, such as: each of us commits to candid, even-handed, and independent IMF surveillance of our economies and financial sectors, of the impact of our policies on others, and of risks facing the global economy; Major countries have never allowed this and never will, despite a long tradition of such statements (e.g., ask about whether Gordon Brown welcomed frank assessments of the UK economy during the time he was chair of a ministerial committee that oversees the IMF). Asserting something blandly in a communique does not make it true, but it does - amazingly - often convince much of the media to applaud politely. Watching the spinmeisters at work is always entertaining although, under these circumstances, also more than a little scary. On the real substance, the G20 punts on most of the big issues - as predicted, the language on monetary policy and fiscal policy is completely vacuous...more from Baseline Scenario here.
isabella's insect porn
WE DEVOUR STORIES about the sex lives of others for the inordinate pleasure of discovering their similarities to, and differences from, our own; the sex lives of insects are no exception. The acts portrayed in Isabella Rossellini’s short-film series Green Porno (2008–2009) are a multifarious sampling of nature’s diversity—yet they are entirely enacted and narrated by Rossellini herself, who, dressed as a male insect, screws inanimate paper representations of her mates. In “Fly,” for example, Rossellini penetrates her “costar” with the lusty abandon of a sex maniac who bangs at “any opportunity, any female!” After this line, the camera lingers on the face of the cardboard fly and then cuts back to Rossellini, as she continuously thrusts. It’s anything but natural—it’s porn. It is thus a charming surprise that Green Porno’s power lies in what porn all too often lacks. What is best about Green Porno is what is best about sex: It can be joyful, surprising, goofy, guileless, funny, and fun. Even the scenes wherein the male star expresses outright terror and loses his life are delicious. The denouement of “Bee” rivals those found in classical tragedy. “I would die . . . without my penis . . . I would bleed to death” are the bee’s final words, and, while undeniably hilarious, there is something oddly antibathetic about this swan song, as it takes us from the ridiculous to the sublime.more from artforum here.
Aldous Huxley interviewed by Mike Wallace
It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window
He’s buried in the Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego, in an undistinguished grave — just a simple, flat headstone set flush with the ground and surrounded by nearly identical markers arranged in long, boring rows. Nobody thought to plant him next to his wife, whose ashes were stored in a crypt not far away. By then nobody really cared what Chandler might have wanted. If you want to pay a visit to his grave, you have to hunt for it. And there it is: Raymond Thornton Chandler, Author, 1888-1959, In Loving Memory. The “author” part nails it in that sublimely minimal way. Still, it’s a pretty lousy little headstone for such a great writer. We remember Chandler for a lot of things. As the guy who put L.A. on the literary map, along with John Fante and Nathanael West, who published their first novels the same year The Big Sleep came out, in 1939 — a boffo year for L.A. letters. We remember him as the writer who gave the city a lasting identity. As the person who elevated the lowly mystery to the realm of literature. As a damn funny writer who mastered the art of repartee and the bon mot. The guy who took the language of the street, American slang, and made it sing. The King of the Simile. The Bard of Bad Blondes.more from the LA Weekly here.
The finance industry has effectively captured our government
The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.
Simon Johnson in The Atlantic:
Every crisis is different, of course. Ukraine faced hyperinflation in 1994; Russia desperately needed help when its short-term-debt rollover scheme exploded in the summer of 1998; the Indonesian rupiah plunged in 1997, nearly leveling the corporate economy; that same year, South Korea’s 30-year economic miracle ground to a halt when foreign banks suddenly refused to extend new credit.
But I must tell you, to IMF officials, all of these crises looked depressingly similar. Each country, of course, needed a loan, but more than that, each needed to make big changes so that the loan could really work. Almost always, countries in crisis need to learn to live within their means after a period of excess—exports must be increased, and imports cut—and the goal is to do this without the most horrible of recessions. Naturally, the fund’s economists spend time figuring out the policies—budget, money supply, and the like—that make sense in this context. Yet the economic solution is seldom very hard to work out.
No, the real concern of the fund’s senior staff, and the biggest obstacle to recovery, is almost invariably the politics of countries in crisis.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers and a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
thought it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Ants really are random wanderers
This is not a matter of ant versus human intelligence, because a seemingly blind search can still make sense in both practical and mathematical terms.
"The beauty of a mathematical random walk is that it eventually visits all points in space if you walk long enough — and it always returns to its starting point," said William Baxter, an experimental physicist at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College.
The Biggest of Puzzles Brought Down to Size
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
Grim though the economic spur may be, some scientists see a slim silver lining in the sudden newsiness of laughably large numbers. As long as the public is chatting openly about quantities normally expressed in scientific notation, they say, why not talk about what those numbers really mean? In fact, they shamelessly promote the benefits of quantitative and scientific reasoning generally. As they see it, anyone, no matter how post-scholastic or math allergic, can learn basic quantitative reasoning skills, and everyone would benefit from the effort — be less likely to fall for vitamin hucksters, for example, or panic when their plane hits a bumpy patch.
One excellent way to start honing such skills is with a few so-called Fermi problems, named for Enrico Fermi, the physicist who delighted in tossing out the little mental teasers to his colleagues whenever they needed a break from building the atomic bomb.
Here is how it works. You take a monster of a ponder like, What is the total volume of human blood in the world? or, If you put all the miles that Americans drive every year end to end, how far into space could you travel? and you try to estimate what the answer might be. You resist your impulse to run away or imprecate. Instead, you look for a wedge into the problem, and then you calmly, systematically, break it down into edible bits. Importantly, you are not looking for an exact figure but rather a ballpark approximation, something that would be within an order of magnitude, or a factor of 10, of the correct answer. If you got the answer 900, for example, and the real answer is 200, you’re good; if you got 9,000, or 20, you go back and try to find where you went astray.
Monday, March 30, 2009
Interpretations: The Metonymyville Horror (Put a Ring on it)
by Anjuli Raza Kolb
Patricia Highsmith, whose belated literary celebrity everyone is tearing their hair over, has these exquisite miniatures of horror that are so deadpan in their brevity that they often read like news items or reports, nearly unwritten. They lack even the tiniest indulgence in atmospheric detail or the fast and loose literary pop-psychology that sometimes comes with free indirect discourse. Some of them hardly bother with character. “The Hand,” published in her 1974 collection Little Tales of Misogyny is one such miniature. The story is about a grave misunderstanding; a two-part breakdown in the Herculean effort of language to haul around meaning. It begins, “a young man asked a father for his daughter’s hand, and received it in a box—her left hand,” and expires a page and a quarter later as the young man, “feeling now he was insane beyond repair, since he could make contact with nothing, refused to eat for many days, and at last lay on his bed with his face to the wall, and died.”
What can have happened to the young man’s love? What abyss can have opened up with such demonic speed between language and meaning? How could this ubiquitous, socially ratified expression—to ask for a hand when one means a woman’s life, her fidelity, her reproductive organs and genetic material—fail to do its shifty dance of signification? How does the literal reveal the horror of the figural? With stories of such lucid succinctness, what one can say runs the risk of putting a leaden helmet on a fledgling bat, intercepting its tightly calibrated sonar and chucking it earthwards. But since the horror of this story is first, that of misprision—a mistake or misunderstanding, a miss, or maybe a mrs.—and second, of “making contact with nothing,” I think it’s more like rehab than assault to bring Roman Jakobson’s amputated poetics of aphasia together with Highsmith’s “stump concealed in a muff” (not joking!) to let them make phantom contact.
In fact, Highsmith’s amputated story—in which the young man comes to realize the barbarity of his request—calls out for all manner of phantom prosthesis. For example, it is terrifying in kind of the same way (though for different reasons) as Beyoncé’s first single off Sasha Fierce: “Single Ladies” whose wildly regressive lyrics suggest to spurnèd gentlemen that they have no claim on the divas because, logically, “if you like it then you shoulda put a ring on it.”
Every tremulous feeling I have about this song with its shrugging “I’own know!” chorale of synthpigeons derives from the question: what is IT? WTF? IS BEYONCÉ CALLING HERSELF IT? Reducing her SELF first to her HOO (or her ASS, as the video would suggest), and then to the FINGER? Is the IT that you like the same as the IT that you should have put a ring on (I doubt it)? Doesn’t this chop up the female body in an incredibly violent way? And what sort of ring? Engagement ring? Purity ring? Manacles? A widow’s broken bangle? Does Beyoncé know about the high-cost, low-estrogen contraceptive Nuva-Ring? If you like it, then shouldn’t you also have put a ring UP IN it? Or is that only if you don’t like it, and thus don’t want to reproduce with it? All the single ladies: now put your hands up! (Uh-oh-oh).
Roman Jakobson (b. 1896), one of the founders of Russian Formalism in St. Petersburg, was a linguist and philologist who taught in France and at Columbia, Harvard and M.I.T. from the 1950s on. He lived for almost a century—as a young poet and scholar during the Russian Revolution, through both World Wars, Eisenhower’s campaign. He famously said of the campaign slogan, “I like Ike,” that its grammar maximized redundancy to yield “a loving subject enveloped by its beloved object.” Sound it out. Subject enveloped by Object. The desired enfolding the desirer like rhyming, rimy air. O come let us swoon at this reversal! O swaddle me in the sighs of my indifferent beloved!
He lived through New Criticism, Vietnam, ’68, the organic co-opification of Cambridge, Nixon and Ford, early Michael Jackson. He died four months before the release of Thriller, the year after I was born. What I wouldn’t give to have his functional linguist’s take on “Wanna be Startin Something’s” post-Camerounian mama-se mama-sa mama-coo-sa! Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure, he wouldn’t have believed these signs to be arbitrary; ‘motivated’ was the term he preferred.
Does this look like an IUD? It is a metonymic chain.
His linguistics generated a poetics that was curious about function over both pure formal structuralism and the tediously Romantic “literary merit” approach to reading. Appropriately for the Highsmith connection, Jakobson was one of a number of French intellectuals whose championing of American horrorist Edgar Allan Poe—native of that most Gothic of sea-board cities: Baltimore—earned Poe posthumous accolades at home. You’ll remember that Highsmith, whose Talented Mr. Ripley was made into a film by Anthony Minghella in 1999, and whose selected stories came out in a beautiful edition by Norton in 2001, has been “enjoying” posthumous success and status that far outweighs any recognition she garnered while alive.
Like Jakobson, Poe was meticulously invested in the mechanics of literary production, in the “sweet sound” of words, and eschewed the notion that even poetry and tales about the sublime could materialize in a startling flash. In Poe’s view, rather, his frightful works were the fruits of investing, to anachronistically graft Jakobson’s terms, in the poetry of grammar as much as the grammar of poetry.
But what happens to prose’s poetry for the sufferer of agrammatism? In 1956, the year after Highsmith published the first Ripley novel, Jakobson wrote an especially lovely essay called “Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbance.” Reading the last section of this essay, which explains poetic and prosaic tendencies by way of aphasia (exactly the kind of heartbreaking failure to comprehend or express language that the unmanned hero of “The Hand” submits to) was the first opportunity I had to wrestle with the idea of metonymy not as a subset of metaphor, but as a separate pole of symbolic communication.
Usually metonymy is taught as a poetic device in which a particular feature describes an object, person, or phenomenon. It is useless, except as a thing to spot in literature to sound smart. Look! A metonym! Look! Synecdoche! Schenectady! You weren’t the first to think of it Charlie Kaufman, director of Synecdoche, New York! I was raised upstate! Where you from at? MASSAPEQUA? For ordinary people like Charlie and you and me, metonymic (grammatical) and metaphoric (parallel) processes are equally present in communication. When one of the poles is “amputated,” however, like a nuptial hand, meaning bleeds out the wounds of speech.
According to Jakobson, the predilection toward metonymy in certain aphasic patients creates a purely narrative context that aligns closely with Realism. Metonymic overload, he says, often obscures the big picture so that “the reader is crushed by the multiplicity of detail unloaded on him in a limited verbal space, and is physically unable to grasp the whole, so that the portrait is often lost.” So there is a dissectional violence to metonymy. Interestingly, cinema also dwells in metonymy for Jakobson because of the technology of the close up, which pieces and unpieces the body—especially the female body, as many before me have written—in ways that call on viewers’ bodily grammar, on their capacity for contiguity, to put it back together.
Poetry, conversely, moves through similarity, which is the proper ken of metaphor. The pole of aphasia Jakobson called “similarity disorder” describes the breakdown of metaphor in language. People with similarity disorder are bound up in the metonymical bent, such that replacing “finger” with “digit” is impossible, but replacing “finger” with “one-shouldered leotard” is perfectly reasonable. (Beyoncé wears a one-shouldered leotard in the video for “Single Ladies,” whose insistence that you put a ring on it (the unnamed finger) is not easily forgotten. Incidentally, it is weirdly hard to find an image of a true one-shouldered leotard in the tripledoubleyous. I put something awesome below instead, it’s called “psalms!!!”). Reading Jakobson a few years ago, I also realized (can you say this?) that I liked metonymy more than metaphor, because it breaks apart so much more easily…that if I had to be an aphasic I’d rather lose parallelism than grammar and contiguity; I’d opt for similarity disorder, for Realism over poetry.
“PSALMS” dance outfit
So metonymy as a literary device, rather than a symptom of a cognitive failure, is the use of a contiguously related characteristic of a thing to describe or, according to me, nickname it (the Greek indicates meta: change, nym: name—a change in name). So I can call my mama any number of things she won’t understand (like ‘arrival time’ for the imaginary arrival time of the imaginary flight my brother and I imagine her to get on if we so much as breathe a thought of distress or pain or ‘Lu’s’ for the banh mi shop near the Chinatown bus depot in Boston that we always stop at when she isn’t home to have made us food, thus describing her through a habit of her absence) because the features or narratives they refer to probably signify very little to her, while they describe her rather efficiently in the discourse my brother and I share. You see how this crumbly thing is simultaneously more intimate and less communicative than metaphor, which more often reaches its target.
The dictionary’s examples of metonymy are less extreme: suits for businessmen, crown for Queen. Synecdoche, in which a part stands in for a whole, remains a subset of metonymy for Jakobson: asking for a hand, for example, instead of the entire bride. Lest you think I lured you in with dusky eye and blackest lash only to abandon you to some dusty philology, I am getting back to stumps. In Highsmith’s story, the amputee’s father explains his malicious synecdochal irony thusly to the suitor: “You asked for her hand and you have it. But it is my opinion that you wanted other things and took them.” The young man, grasping for the literal in the face of this communicative vertigo, retorts “Whatever do you mean?” to which the father replies “Whatever do you think I mean? You cannot deny that I am more honorable than you, because you took something from my family without asking, whereas when you asked for my daughter’s hand, I gave it.”
It is a kind of Aristotelian honor of which the father speaks—an honor in which the trickery of language is flicked aside—but it is also a pretense, a disingenuous insistence that language is stable, and can be sent and received by way of some perfect circuit board along an unfrayed golden wire. As we know, the young man doesn’t believe that he asked for his betrothèd’s hand to be signed for when it was delivered in a package. He doesn’t believe that his request would lead to him burying the hand in the garden after kissing it, the thing having become nearly two weeks old. He doesn’t believe that when he would see her later, visiting him in captivity “like a dutiful wife,” that he would become so disgusted by her that he would have to be moved to solitary, away from “books and company, and he would go really insane.”
“Actually,” Highsmith writes, “the young man had not done anything dishonorable. The father was just suspicious and had a dirty mind.” Better yet, I would suggest, the father had a metonymic mind: “It is my opinion that you wanted other things and took them.” This proclamation evinces a kind of undisciplined, narrative imagination. The sort of jumping-to-conclusions that you need in order to understand a metonym. Dirty mind, metonymic mind. Still, the young man hasn’t learned his lesson: just a few paragraphs later he takes out an ad in the newspapers that the young lady had “quit his bed and board,” bed and board being a metonym for living quarters…mere sentences later he is penniless! The police call him “Not merely disorganized in your way of life, but a psychopath…Did you by chance cut off your wife’s hand?” Then they send him to a State asylum, broke as he is. See? Metonymy is dangerous!
I said first that one of the horrors of “The Hand” is the misprision of the cleaver-happy father who sends along his daughter’s hand via USPS Media Mail. (Okay, this is patently not true. The package containing the hand had to be signed for…let’s leave aside the potential Derridian field day, howevs). Misprision means two things: 1) an erroneous judgment and 2) the “deliberate concealment of one’s knowledge of a treasonable act or a felony” (New Oxford American Dictionary, 2nd edition. Also: OMFG, did you know that? I didn’t!). The father, of course, intentionally conceals his crime of deliberate misunderstanding, his treason against meaning. He throws the young man’s language back at him: “Whatever do you think I mean!” in order to reveal this concealment. But what of the young man’s concealments? What of the way he hides his desire to possess and control and barter for his beloved through her father in an “honorable” attempt to put a ring on it? And what of her treachery? What of the treason her “smiling prettily” conceals?
For me, the crux of this story is the bride’s blithe refusal to be in any way affected by the liberation of her left (wedding ring) hand from her body. Flatly unconcerned with the young man’s efforts to see her, she carries on “signing checks with her right hand. Far from bleeding to death, she was going ahead at full speed.” She collects his pension. She comes to look at him once a month through a “wire barrier.” She is autistically, agrammatically aphasic; incapable of recontextualizing her boredom with being a wife. Whatevs. Wife. She is just a parallel—a similarity, a metaphor—of what she would have been. Her instrument of conjunction, the hand that reaches out to hold the hand of the other, the joiner of clauses, doesn’t matter one way or another.
If you have seen it, you will recall that in the “Single Ladies” video Beyoncé has this totally confusing titanium roboglove (designed by Lorraine Schwartz) to protect against the kind of womanchoppery that rendered the bride monodextrous and Titus Andronicus’s Lavinia with neither hands nor tongue. Beyoncé *wants* that hand, she *wanted* to give it away to Mr. Jay Ay Why Hyphen Zed. This is adorable, but it is not radical gender politics. And ultimately, as my friend Anne ingeniously points out, the mononymous Beyoncé insists on her wholeness with full body shots throughout the video, as well as her singularity with the final close-up prominently featuring robo-mano and its ring finger, which metonym-for-self she “coyly fondles” (thanks Anne!) with her human hand. IT, it turns out, is Beyoncé, making contact with everything.
Back in the asylum: because the young man refuses to look at his beloved with her muff-concealed stump, she will “make contact with nothing,” but it won’t frighten her. She’ll carry on signing her name on promissory notes. Though amputated, unhanded, nothing will have become any more finite in her aphasia, and her emotional carelessness will reveal her infinity.
I find this character an astonishingly heroic creation for a female writer whose hands might be understood as the instrument of her craft, and for whom amputated meaning must have been a nightly terror. Again, the horror in this story is double: what if my language fails to mean? What if it doesn’t matter? Hilariously, when Highsmith published Little Tales of Misogyny, she was accused of, yes, misogyny. Sigh. Is it fair to elide this if I just say I think it is clear that Highsmith, a bisexual devotedly life-long single woman, suffered some degree of misanthropy of the kind that made the gynecological as horrific to her as the phallic? That bodies and families and intimacies were, for her, the stuff of nightmares? That she lived an uncanny thirteen years in the mountains of Switzerland alone but for the Kantian sublime and echoing footfalls of Frankenstein’s inarticulate monster? That she was notoriously difficult and had what we might carelessly refer to in our silliest of moments as “intimacy issues?”
In a review of the Norton collection, James Sallis wrote that “one wonders if Highsmith may not in fact be the ultimate realist.” The deadpan, reportage quality of these miniatures that I began by describing certainly seems to bear this theory out, the bonus being the way the story makes short work of metonymy’s horror. Terrifying realism. The dread of contiguity. Disorienting opacity. “The Hand” helps me disavow what I ordinarily think of as Realism—more specifically socio-realism—and adulterously shack up with sociopathic realism (which is not very realistic, as it describes amputated meaning by way of narrative and material impoverishment). Why? Because sociopathic realism’s existence is symptomatic of the imperium of horror in all kinds of representation. In this story, it’s embodied in the cataclysmic failure of self-representation by the unfortunate young man who dies facing the wall, making contact with nothing.
Jakobson divided language into six distinct ‘functions’ that range from aesthetic to affective to directive in purpose. One of the truly frightening things about teaching literature is the unstayable fount of smart people, both young and tannic, who continue to resist this kind of prosaic “complicating” grammatical move as if it were ‘merely semantic.’ Why author function? Why not just Author? Why the phatic (can you hear me? Are you listening)? Why not just Poetry? For anyone interested in the ethics of poststructuralism and deconstruction, the answer to this question will seem elementary in part thanks to Jakobson (even though he was disavowed by certain of its practitioners). For him, to reverse engineer speech and text was to blueprint the binarisms in language—notably the marked/unmarked binary—that called ideology by some other name. Beyoncé’s unmarked, ideology-laden refrain makes use of nearly all his six functions, and thus partially succeeds in masking its underlying heterocongratulations! with truly insane dancing and the lyric “I need no permission! Did I mention, don’t pay him any attention!” But it doesn’t work in the end—SHE’S STILL SINGING TO HIM!—which is perhaps why experiencing that video is like watching The Amityville Horror when I was four; there is so much pleasure, and so much shame.
On a more banal level (don’t call me Miss Teacher) “The Hand” reveals why it’s important to understand grammar, to know the violence your synecdoche imprints, the horror of a metonymy-gone-wrong: so your bride-to-be doesn’t get hacked to bits and then you die of guilt and shame at the bottom of an ontological abyss with no functional language—referential, poetic, emotive, conative, phatic, metalingual, or otherwise—incapable of understanding why your dust-diamonded Alexander Wang manacle keeps slipping off that slim and handless wrist.
The Journey | Home
By Aditya Dev Sood
The body has its ways, and jetlag is one of them. I want to sleep and it wants to drum its fingers on the bed springs to – what is this rhythm? – a kind of bhangda-fandango. I want to go dancing but it has already clocked off, tuned out, leaving me to text out my regrets while I tuck it to sleep. In my years of managing jetlag, I’ve come to understand that I can only coax my system gently, never force it into an artificial pattern, for it will only revolt, and push back with stubborn insouciance: “You thought we could stay up late, but you know what, it’s time to wakey wakey again! Hmm-hm-hm-hm-hm-hanh-hanh, hail to the conquering heroes, hail hail to Michigan, the leaders and the best! Feeling drowsy now?” Like the flailing parent of a rebel teenager, I’ve completely given up the fight of late, allowing my body-clock to set his own times, picking up after him, hoarding midnight snacks for when he wakes up hungry and demanding, allowing him to break evening appointments without explanation. Jetlag is evidence that whether or not I feel at home in the world, my mindbody-system enjoys a home in time, where it is housed in the rhythms of sleep, the routines of rousing, the comforts of food and the movements of bowel.
I think I was six, and visiting America for the first time, with my mother, when I first experienced jetlag. I remember sitting in wait, before the snow of a silent television the early morning hours. 11 Alive, my favorite TV channel, was yet to begin its programming, which it announced with a close up of a fluttering American flag and the American national anthem, whereupon that doity wabbit would bounce in to command my rapt attention. Flights to and from America were then often punctuated with halts at random European airports, whose cool and swift attendants, gliding around their white and futuristic architecture, came forever to be mixed up in my jetlagging mind with the culture of the West.
Years later, when I first left to America for college, I was taken in that first night by a bunch of older Indian graduate students to their apartment on the edge of town, where they cooked butter chicken, watched Sholay on a VCR, and reconciled themselves to the long academic year ahead, to be lived in Michigan’s bitter cold and without the familial comforts or other habituations of home. In those years of transcontinental living, jetlag was a lingering tie to another space, time and culture, to be shrugged off quickly, the better to begin student life, where once again all the most important bonds would be spatiotemporally collocated, and the movements and overtures of institutional time would serve as the all important horizon under which personal progress would be marked, the world outside their imperative being scarcely even conceivable.
Nowadays, I travel to North America with some trepidation, for I can neither adapt to local temporalities, nor align myself to those back home in India. At three in the morning India time, I’m Hector out alone, scrolling through my phone, knowing there’s no one back home who’d like to hear from me just exactly right now. This is not loneliness, this is not culture shock nor the blues of travel, it is an infelicity of temporality, an untimelich, that disconnects the ends of my experience in the world. Hard to imagine I could have lived a decade in America, a whole decade, when now it grips me with such unzeitlichkeit.
The word jetlag, first cited in 1966, apparently began as an expression of folk-theory, invoking the technology responsible for making its experience possible, rather than physico-physiological and social-psychological dynamics that cause and comprise the condition. While the medical diagnosis of desynchronosis seems better capable of capturing the deep disalignments of consciousness, temporality, judgment and context that are involved with its experience, this term is no better at capturing the extreme existentential and psychotropic mental states that jetlag can bring about, and which merit further artistic and aesthetic elaboration.
Gus van Zandt’s 1991 film My Own Private Idaho is putatively about narcolepsy, a disorder of the mindbody’s sleeping patterns, although it now reads to me as a fine cinematic treatment of contemporary time-space dysfunction. River Phoenix’s Mike cannot control the time or duration of his sleep, as a result of which, as the film would have it, he ends up camping and vogueing it up with a bunch of Germans in a hotel room. For most jetlaggers, and sundry abusers of braincells, it is usually the other way round. Accompanying the itinerant motion of Mike and Keanu Reeves’ Scott, is a slacker-hustler consciousness, the perception of the world as flat and impervious to intervention and transformation, an absence of control and consequently resignation and fatalism. Mike’s mindbody cannot serve as a reliable filter for information from the world, as it constantly threatens to switch off, leaving behind his somnolent body to serve as Scott’s luggage. But it is only when Scott settles down in Seattle, and reconciles himself to his roots and inheritance, that he becomes capable of shaping his own context, using societal and political leverage that only permanent residents can enjoy. Mike and his narcoleptic body, meanwhile remain adrift in time along the highway.
This movie comes to mind as a proleptic parable for a period in my life that has only ended recently, when I felt I had lost my home, and was not at home in my own skin or life narrative. I found myself traveling to and through remote destinations at the slightest excuse. In those years of Brownian motion through the global landscape, I was continuously overstimulated, and my senses and sensibilities soon came to be dulled to beauty, serenity, happiness. Exacerbated by multiple gins and tonic and the diverting tempos of night, arrhythmia became a permanent part of my being. main nara-e-mastana / hai shokh-e-rindana // tashna kahan jaoon? pi kar bhi kahan jana? During this feint at playing an international man of mystery, I developed a taste for drink. Looking out for a place to go, each night, sated or merely exhausted, I was still nowhere.
In these years, I am not entirely sure that I actually felt jetlag, as distinct from the spectacular visual confusion of Shibuya, the asexual lull of crystal-ade, or the pent up and roving desire with which I landed in each new city. Like Pico Iyer, and Tyler Brule, I too felt flushed and intoxicated at the spatiotemporal flux I was living and moving through. I too imagined myself to have been in perfect equipoise on a moving train, or lost amidst the crowd in a new and unfamiliar city. But it is a mistake – and more than that a shame – to confuse one's attunement with the rhythm of the road with the sense of being truly at home in the world, at rest and at peace.
I talked about these experiences with Marko Ahtisaari and Juha Huuskonen the other day, both of whom have lived peripatetic lives scattered in different parts of the globe. Marko lived his teenage years between Tanzania and New York as the son of a diplomat, and perhaps for this reason, acquired a somewhat dynamic understanding of place. Dopplr.com, the global travel networking service that he runs, allows you to broadcast your impending arrival into a city to your social network, while also tagging resources and places from around the world. This weekend, however, he was preoccupied to show me around his neighborhood in Hakkaniemi, including the local grocery and produce stores where he and his girlfriend shop everyday, which give him context and a durable sense of identity. Juha, meanwhile, shared with me stories of the years he spent living on friends couches and traveling through Europe, North and South America, frequenting cafes and looking for leaflets about local technology and art jam-sessions. In this way, he slowly built a global network of hackers and techno-artists whom he now curates through his annual Pixelache festival. He spoke of living through the heady illusion that he could live in Bogota and Paris and Stockholm at the same time. That illusion, or self-delusion, in fact, was necessary for him to be open to so many different personalities and contexts, which now anchor his worldwide network. But now that he is an expecting father and again settled in Helsinki, he once again sees the world from the perspective of his single location, albeit richly informed by those dispersed communities, partners, and colleagues worldwide. For both highly globalized individuals, local context was more essential than ever for their everyday wellbeing.
Arriving at a major international airport last week, I closed my eyes briefly, and thought I could sense the cacophonous sleep-cycles of the fellow-travelers in line with me, all of us assembled from the very ends of the earth. By contrast, the personnel behind the service counter were not only well rested, but in sync with one another and with this context and region. It is fascinating to contemplate, while still within the grips of this state, that most people sleep and wake in rhythm with those around them, a basic coordination of their minds and bodies that facilitates the social and economic intercourse of everyday human life, giving it an underlying harmonization.
Our unthinking expectation that those around us should conform to our own rhythms of everyday life can be quite severe and unbending, perhaps because it really is in the larger interests of society and societal functioning that humans effect such mutual alignments. Just as most people are insensible to the space and autonomy that alcoholics might need, they are also unaware of how their tacit social expectations can exacerbate the temporal disequilibrium of travelers. Social stigma naturally attaches to those who must withdraw, who cannot align with group processes. And we have not been taught to make the socially appropriate excuses that can preempt adverse behavior from initiating: “No thanks, I’m allergic to partying.” or “I’m hypersomnulent, I must go for my afternoon nap.”
Through the experience of jetlag one recognizes the body to be constructed of so many visible and invisible waves, palpitations, and dynamics of fluid, which comprise the background to our awareness. It is only on account of their good functioning and good alignment that a stable ego and origo can be preserved. In nyaya, the Sanskrit discipline of logic and philosophy, direct perception is said to occur when the mind is in direct contact, through the senses, with an object, and perceives it ‘without wavering,’ avyabhicarena. This is precisely what jetlag precludes, for while we are suffering it, the vibrations and harmonics of the body are no longer homeostatic, but work ever so slightly at cross-purposes from one another. They now froth up a whipped and lashed consciousness that can at the extreme fail to believe in its own illusion, much less the collective madness of any given civilization.
The experience of jetlag can also provide us insight into the fact that the alignment of the vibrations of the body with larger social and diurnal rhythms, are necessary for the illusions of subjectivity, identity and self to emerge. This is because a stable observer must be confronted with a more or less stable world-picture, in order to understand its own being, as an interweaving of personal and macrosocietal narratives. The underlying drone of everyday life behaviors across one’s macrocontext, including sleep, exercise, work, rush-hour, groceries, and the nurturing of children, provides a rhythmic structure within which our own personal variations and individual life experimentations can be essayed, compared, and appreciated.
I believe now, that for too long my conception of home has been as a maqa’am or destination without dimensionality, not as a habitus recreated everyday out of striving and effort; a place from which journeys in the wider world can once again become possible. On the other hand, I am also beginning to understand that despite and because of the travails involved, travel is a passion that we seek out, an extremis that allows us to appreciate the quietude of our everyday with greater meaning and depth.
The truth is we are all descended of nomadic pastoralists and variously settled agriculturalists, who have only recently urbanized. There seems to be evidence, moreover, that the locus of humans can be statistically described as a relatively small everyday geography, coupled with occasional long forays. We humans have always traveled, and not only for commerce and conquest, but also for pilgrimage, learning, and the expansion of the self. In the various Indian ascetic traditions, faqir-s, sant-s and sadhu-s are enjoined to continue moving peripatetically, lest they become too attached to any one rhythm of life, livelihood, husbandry and domestication. Movement itself has served as a means and mechanism for detachment and from everyday life, whose bonds and bondage these pilgrims and seekers sought to rise above, in order to recognize reality more deeply. Still operating within its grip, I perceive jetlag as a recent human innovation that can intensify such rigors, and allow access to normally hidden states of being and consciousness. And as a psychotropic, perhaps it is best used sparingly, and with some judgment.
Last week in London, I woke up to a pitch black morning, many hours in the breaking. As I roamed the city in the cool light rain, I felt again that I could become anyone at all. The mindbody, intoxicated by clusters of mistimed and misfiring neurochemical notes, released the self, to some extent, to experience life anew. Such was the anomie of mind, body and self to one another that as commuters began filling into the city, I smiled at each of them in recognition and identity.
A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat - The Final Chapter
Part 1 of "A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat" can be found HERE.
Part 2 of "A Scientist Goes to an Ashram for a Personal Retreat" can be found HERE.
(Note: I do not use the real names of people, nor do I identify the specific Ashram. I changed a few details. The purpose is to protect the privacy of the individuals. Readers who are familiar with this Ashram will probably recognize it.)
The Idea of God
God is an idea. God is a thought. God is a concept. God is an abstraction. The idea of God originated in the human mind. Like any other idea, it has no reality apart from the human mind's ability to conceive it, develop it, use it, and communicate it to others.
As with other powerful ideas, the idea of God manifests itself in human experience. The idea of God is observed in the affairs of humanity in ways that are small and large, obvious and subtle, assuaging and painful, creative and destructive, capricious and profound, vengeful and compassionate, loving and tyrannical, indifferent and personal.
The idea of God can inspire the most exquisite of humankind's devotional expressions in art, poetry, literature, architecture, music, and ritual. The idea of God can be usurped and reshaped into an instrument of the powerful and the greedy. The idea of God can intoxicate the spirit of humankind in an embrace of all creation as one. The idea of God can corrode peoples and cultures when forged by the sadist and hater into a sword of punishment, suffering, and murder.
Because God is an idea, it is accessible, along with other related ideas, to science and the scientist. Science is an approach to understanding nature and ourselves. Science has method and it has content. The method of science is systematic observation of phenomena, and the recording of data. The content of science comes from organizing information into a body of knowledge.
The basic function of science is to describe the properties of things. Things include ideas. Darwinian evolution is an idea. The particle nature of subatomic phenomenon is an idea. Mating ritual is an idea. Borderline personality disorder is an idea. Darwin described the origin of species in words and illustrations. Physicists describe quantum mechanics with differential equations. Social scientists describe a culture's mating rituals in words, videos, and cross cultural comparisons. Psychiatrists and psychologists describe mental disorders in statistically consistent patterns of behaviors and objective assessments.
The Idea of Now
Hans Kraus is a widower and a member of the Ashram community. He is not a monastic; He is what you might call a devotee of the founder and his teachings. Like many other devotees, Hans lives in his own house, adjacent to the Ashram properties, about a mile or two from the main buildings and offices. He lived there with his family for over twenty years. His daughters were educated, partly, in the small school at the Ashram. They are grown, emancipated, and pursuing professional lives elsewhere. Like many other devotees, he earns a living outside the Ashram. While maintaining his professional life as an engineer and contractor, he participates in the spiritual life of the Ashram community, and volunteers on various committees. He contributes to the financial support of the Ashram, and contributes his labor and professional expertise as well.
I met Hans outside the dining hall. Thinking he was a transient, like myself, I struck up a conversation. He was well educated, literate, a man of the world, an avid fan of Barack Obama, and quick to tell you how well his daughters are doing and how he is so proud of them. He asked how I was doing, and was I having a good visit and personal retreat at the Ashram. I told him about the people I met, the wonderful conversations I had with them, and that I decided to follow my nose instead of a prescribed schedule of activities. During dinner and afterward we talked about everything: family, jobs, things spiritual, theological and ecumenical, philosophy, and about Eckhart Tolle. Several people mentioned his name and his work in the course of previous conversations. I had no idea who or what was Eckhart Tolle. Finally, I asked Hans to explain this whole thing about Meister Eckhart. Everyone in the world [at least at the Ashram] had, and assumed for me, a base of of knowledge about which I was totally clueless.
Hans invited my back to his house for tea, and said he had some books and DVDs on Meister Eckhart, and would lend me a couple. So over the kitchen table I got a cup of tea, and a minimal biography of Tolle. Tolle was a Ph.D. physicist and one-time colleague of Steven Hawking. In the midst of his heady days of theoretical physics, he had a very personal, transcendent, and life changing experience. To the naive observer, who was not participating in his experience, he probably manifested behaviors that would be described, in common parlance, as a mental breakdown. He withdrew from his 'normal' life and environs, lost friends, alienated family, lost his job, and eventually was homeless, penniless, and living on a park bench. In Tolle's words, he was experiencing a state of bliss and enlightenment that lasted for two years, uninterrupted. To those observing him from the outside, bliss and enlightenment would not have been the descriptive words of choice. The words 'disturbed', 'mentally ill', and 'on drugs' would have been the more likely associations. So what did Eckhart Tolle experience for two years without interruption? I thought it was worth a little investigation. Following his transforming experience, Tolle traveled to the East and sought spiritual guidance and study with several spiritual masters. I believe this took place over a period of nine years. This is sounding like the story line of "The Razor's Edge" by W. Somerset Maugham, or the mid-career diversion for the Fab Four. Am I stepping into a cliché?
Hans offered to loan me his copy of Eckhart Tolle's book, "The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment." He later gave it to me as a personal gift. A blurb on the cover read, "...Tolle uses words to guide readers beyond words. Pointing to the portals of the eternal present, [emphasis mine] this practical mystic's modern gospel offers transcendent truths that set us free." This idea of the eternal present, or the state of being in now, is the central concept in Tolle's work. If one can judge a book by its cover, it would read, "Scientist beware. This is a pile of shit." Yes, I am a scientist, but I am always interested in belief systems, and in religion as a natural phenomenon. The table of contents was not anymore illuminating or palatable for the scientist, other than providing another reason to chuck the book and not waste my time. I was intrigued, though, by the fact that Tolle was a Ph.D. Physicist. At least he understood the Einsteinian concept of energy and its equivalence to mass. I didn't expect him to talk about personal energy fields or auras of positivity or negativity. Wrong!
The book was quite easy to read, and moved along at a nice pace. It had fewer than 200 pages, so I thought I would knock it off in no time. That was not to be. I wasn't interested in breezing through the book, rather I wanted to understand and analyze his views. I found myself having to stop and think about what he was trying to say. I was looking for a core of truth or insight, if there was one, that would explain his departure from the worldly pursuit of theoretical physics, and his claim to having a practical approach to peace and enlightenment that was accessible to all. In the end, I regarded Toole's book as a philosophy and spiritual guide for Everyman.
I carried the book around with me and would read it, mostly, in the small lounge area outside the book store and dining hall. It was was a sunny area with a huge picture window, and visitors and residents coming and going. My reading was easily a topic of conversation for the newbies and mystical sages I met. The younger people who passed through the Ashram would recognize the book and the author immediately and, to a person, claimed it was terrific and one of their favorites. I discussed it briefly with an older Swami who said she tried to get into it but didn't find it especially helpful. She asked me, rhetorically, "You know that saying about old wine in new bottles?" A couple of days later, Hans invited me back to his house for lunch, and a chance to talk about "The Power of Now", and watch one of Tolle's DVDs. We ate, had tea, talked a great deal, and sat down to a two hour video of Meister Eckhart. He was addressing an audience of interested grown ups at his conference center in the U.K. As his book was easy to read and follow, so his lecture was easy on the eye and ear, and showed him to have a sense of humor. I enjoyed the whole thing, and it added to my understanding of Tolle and his practical guide to everyday life and spiritual enlightenment.
Mental Health and Modern Social Science
The psychotherapist, in her training, spends years trying to master the control and suppression of her own ego, so as not to bias the assessment and treatment of her clients. For you fans of "The Sopranos", Dr. Malfi wrestled with the control of her ego, and its intrusion into the therapeutic needs for Anthony. Not infrequently, she had to discuss these issues with her mentor and seek the benefit of his wisdom. Suppression of the ego is found in many religions as a precursor to enlightenment or redemption. Tolle has been greatly influenced by his Eastern spiritual masters in his embrace of this fundamental idea. The control of the ego, by the psychotherapist, is not practiced in the service seeking spiritual enlightenment. But it is closely related, as the psychotherapist tries to provide what is needed for the client, and not what is needed for her own ego.
The other fundamental idea in Tolle's writing, is the focusing of consciousness in the present, the now, the eternal experience of being in this very moment. I've heard others reduce this idea to the oversimplified catch phrase, "Fuck the future, fuck the past, there is only the present." Yeah, and now what do I do? But there is an important element in the idea of the eternal present that is an important element in the treatment of different types of mental illnesses and disorders. Cognitive therapy and other psychotherapeutic techniques seem to be able to restructure the client's thought process. This is done, in no small part, by anchoring the client in the here and now, and then having them examine their self-defeating behaviors and their consequences. To achieve this, the client must be in the present to assess the behaviors of the past, but not live in the past, or not have the past intrude upon the present choices to be made. Being grounded in the present helps the client's decision making, without being paralyzed by fear and anxiety of what might happen tomorrow. I don't see Tolle's approach to be greatly different.
Being in the present is a technique that aids relaxation, reduces stress, and controls anxiety. Worrying is leaving the door open to the past, and the window open to the future. The eternal now, as a prescribed mental practice, or meditative technique, is an effective process for dealing with symptoms of many disorders, and helping people improve their lives. Learning how to put oneself into the Now is really a method for repossessing one's own body. The untreated trauma victim, particularly those traumatized by sexual abuse, are not in possession of their own body. Examples of this are dissociation and physical/medical symptoms that evoke the specifics of their abuse. Techniques that can help trauma victims attain being in the now, may very well facilitate the repossession of one's own body. That which was in the past is no longer in possession of the body. Fear of future harm is no longer in possession of the body. The client in the being of now is in total control of her own body.
One thing a scientist learns, is that two contradictory and mutually exclusive theories can still lead to the same correct prediction. The earth-centric model of the solar system, and the heliocentric model are completely irreconcilable. However, they both do a very good job at predicting the time and place of the rising and setting of the sun, moon, stars, and planets. They both yield extremely accurate calendars that can inform changes in climate, time to plant and harvest, and when to throw a big mid-winter party. Acknowledging this is not surrendering to pure relativism, nor abandoning all hope at discovering the laws of nature. After all, if we are going to travel to the moon and beyond, only one of these theories has a chance of planning a successful voyage out and safe return home.
A Call for Tolerance
The scientist can be more tolerant of people of faith who seeking enlightenment, peace, and salvation in religious practice, and who identify with a faith community or religious tradition. Tolerance is not a compromise to one's profession or ethics. I've heard more than a few narcissists and egotists declare that they were compelled to speak out against all religion and matters of faith because to do otherwise would imply that they agreed with the opposition. Those who are deluded with self-importance and the grandeur of universal responsibility feel they must reply to all those who proffer erroneous views.
The scientist can be more tolerant of the language and vocabulary that believers adopt for themselves, and that do not impinge upon the work of science. It is not necessary for us to clarify their words with our definitions. It is characteristic of many faith traditions to be untroubled with vague, general, and diffuse meanings.
The scientist is a member of a world community. Would the scientist not rejoice when people of faith act on their responsibility for establishing peace and embracing universal brotherhood? would the scientist not give thanks and praise when a faith group unites to share shelter, food, and clothing with a devastated community? Would a scientist not be proud of working with a fundamentalist Christian church that believes they have a responsibility to take care of our planet and its species? Would the non-believing scientist not rejoice if Jew, Christian, and Muslim could find common ground, and a way to peace, on the fact that Abraham is father to them all.
I am amazed that many scientists, who are generally very analytical, do not distinguish between religion as a club of privileged, asset hording, dogma enacting, ruling oligarchs, on the one hand, and the community of faithful, on the other. Our criticisms of religion should, at the very least, allow for the distinction (although I am making it more black and white than it really is). When we find views that are unacceptable for our own systems of thought and philosophies, must we always find them abhorrent when embraced by others? Some beliefs are quite abhorrent, but do all non-rational, non-scientific beliefs deserve uninvited condemnation?
I still like the two basic creeds of the Ashram: Truth is One, paths are many. Love all, and serve all. I think they are ideas that can be embraced by believer and non-believer.
Thanks to everyone who read and followed my reflections on my retreat at the Ashram. My next article is going to cover very different ground, and I hope you will find it interesting. The title tells it all: "My Life as a Crime Fighter."
First I check to see if the sun's up –yes.
There it is in the sash of the second window from the right
a third of the way across because it's the 25th of March.
It blazes in blue beyond imagination
radiating like a lover's heart.
Then I look left for you –you're there.
You under the blankets, a ridge undulating so much like
the mountain that has just produced the sun,
but rising and falling almost imperceptibly
still sleeping though the day's begun.
Third, I check to see if I breathe because it's clear
heaven's just another way of saying, "Here."
Helmut Smits. Dead Pixel in Google Earth. 2009.
82 x 82 cm burned square, the size of one pixel from an altitude of 1 km.
Thanks to Abbas for tipping me off about this artist.
The Fundamentals of Gelastics
Justin E. H. Smith
Primatologist to chimpanzee: “Bongo, bring me some food.”
(Bongo brings a pile of stones instead of food, and shows a wide, teeth-bearing grin.)
Alright, perhaps not a joke, really. More a primate proto-joke. However we classify it, though, I believe this report (based on a true story), gives us everything we need to generate a theory of humour. To get there, we will have first to do some propaedeutic work, in order to determine exactly what such a theory ought to explain, as also some metatheoretical work to explain where exactly such a theory fits in relation to other, similar projects.
1. The Funny and the Beautiful
Arthur Danto has noted that every systematic philosopher, whether a refined aesthete or a complete philistine, has at some point taken on the topic of art. One might add that nearly every one of these has included an account of wit, humour, jokes, comedy, or laughter, or some combination of these, within his theory of art and beauty. Why is this? Is gelastics –to borrow a neologism coined by Mary Beard from the Greek ‘gelan’: ‘to laugh’-- a subdomain of aesthetics? Let us consider some of the reasons for holding such a view.
There seems to be a great similarity between the way people talk about the ‘aesthetic stance’ and the way they conceive the ‘sense of humour’. The perception of something as a joke or as a work of art requires a certain stance or perspective. Even if it is hard to say what this will be, it seems that the explanations for the one often serve just as well as accounts for the other. For example, Edward Bullough’s criterion of psychical distance, which would account for the reluctance theatre-goers feel at the thought of getting up to save Desdemona from Othello, seems to function in the same way to provide the moral distancing that enables one to laugh at a cruel joke (and most, perhaps all, jokes are cruel, a point to which we might return later).
The two domains are also alike in that ‘getting it’ seems to require similar mastery in each domain of a vast number of pragmatic factors, including the repertoire of the artist or comedian, the real-worldly circumstances to which the artwork or joke is responding, etc. 'Wit', as opposed to jokes, will generally depend entirely on context, as in the one-liner Danto reports from a dinner party at which Benjamin Disraeli was said to have uttered, upon having his glass of champagne filled, "finally, something warm." This exclamation is, of course, in itself neither funny nor unfunny, and there does not seem to be a precise correlate to it among objects or performances presented as art. These latter seem to be closer to jokes, or to what in Russian are called 'anekdoty', that is, jokes that take the form of very short stories and that are reproducible, like a performance of 'St. James Infirmary', and perhaps also like a presentation of Warhol's Campbells Soup cans, in a variety of social circumstances, though likely with differing degrees of success.
Relatedly, there seems to be a similar range of context dependency in both humour and art, with the unambiguous instances of art and humour depending on clear elaboration of well-known and relatively durable conventions (e.g., putting oil paint on a canvas; commencing a joke with ‘Knock knock...’), and the less clear instances depending on a complex set of contextual factors that will determine whether the thing in question is art or humour, or not. What makes the one funny and the other art is entirely indiscernible in the syntactic or semantic properties of the one, or the perceptual properties of the other.
Both the aesthetic and the gelastic, further, bear an important relationship to the ethical, though one that is difficult to account for adequately. Perhaps revealingly, the exclamations “That’s not funny!” and “That’s not art!” seem often to occur in parallel circumstances, and to conceal straightforward moral outrage under the guise of correcting a category mistake. That is, a blasphemous joke is funny (even if cheaply so) just as surely as a Virgin Mary made out of elephant dung is art (even if bad), and the insistence that it is not only serves to move the denouncer outside of the domain of gelastic or aesthetic judgment altogether.
Both are periodically invoked as playing a redemptive role in a world that would be, in their absence, pure nature, determination, disenchantment, etc. Thus in the twenty-first of his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man Schiller calls beauty our "second creator," since it is the aesthetic disposition that saves us from "the one-sided compulsion of nature in feeling," and provides "the ultimate gift of humanity, something infinite," namely, freedom. Mutatis mutandis, is this assessment so different from the redemptive power of the Marx Brothers film cited by Woody Allen in Manhattan as the only thing standing between him and death?
There are of course important differences. For one thing, gelastics is concerned with the ‘ridiculous’ (Aristotle) or the ‘Satanic’ (Hobbes), as opposed to the beautiful and the sublime. It may, however, be a short step ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’, and it is certainly a short step from the sublime to the tragic (Hume, for example, seems simply to substitute the latter for the former). Our ancient patrimony, moreover, compels us to think of tragedy and comedy as a pair of opposites, even if in recent times we have such hybrids as 'tragicomedies', and even if there is a general sense that even the darkest tragedies should straddle the once-clear boundary with the darkest farce (e.g., the Coen brothers' version of No Country for Old Men). There are probably deep-seated reasons why Aristotle devoted far more energy to accounting for the tragic than for the comic in his Poetics, yet these reasons probably do not flow from the greater philosophical significance of tragedy, but only from its more exalted social status.
Another difference is that there is direct, bodily evidence that one has ‘got’ a joke, while there is no corresponding bodily state signalling that one is perceiving aesthetically at the correct moment. That said, however, theories of humour that take it as a subdomain of moral theory, and as a question of manners, have generally preferred the sort of gentlemanly wit that reacts to instances of humour in an imperceptible, or barely perceptible, way. The Shaftesburian grin is to be preferred to the Rabelaisian guffaw, as Simon Critchley puts it, though Critchley's attempt to assimilate gelastics to morality obscures, I believe, what is philosophically most interesting about it, and indeed what distinguishes it most sharply from other branches of aesthetics. Whether or not one has a taste for the sort of grotesque and bawdy humour that elicits strong bodily reactions, whether or not one thinks the Cynics' practice of filling up on lentils in order to spoil with their flatulence the public lectures of philosophical windbags, it is hard to deny that crude, bodily humour is in fact humour par excellence, while a gentleman's appropriately modulated grin is a sort of compromise, a sort of ceasefire between the comic and the respectable, between the flatulent Cynics and the pompous philosophiser. For where gelastics parts ways with aesthetics, where Woody Allen's redemption is something quite different from Schiller's, has precisely to do with the differing roles of the body in the aesthetic and gelastic experiences. The beautiful provides a way out of the body, while the funny hurls us right back into it. Laughter is generally described in the natural-philosophical tradition as a sort of fermentative 'explosion' in the body, or as an inundation of animal spirits, or, for Descartes, in The Passions of the Soul, as a hydraulic event initiated by a rapid flux in air pressure. It would be difficult to imagine parallel, physiologising accounts of the experience of the beautiful.
2. The Sudden Transformation of a Strained Expectation into Nothing
No one understood these features of gelastics as clearly as Immanuel Kant. Significantly, Kant places humour with music, and both of these very far from the figurative arts with respect to the effects they bring about. For him, music no less than humour belongs to the ‘pleasant’ as opposed to the ‘fine’ arts. In music, there is a sort of ‘play’ of aesthetic ideas, in which a hearer moves "from the sensation of the body to the objects of affects, and then back again, but with redoubled force, to the body." In Section 54 of the Critique of Judgment, a long comment following the 'Comparison of the Fine Arts with One Another', Kant provides an extended comparison of the way in which music and humour bring about their effects:
Music and what provokes laughter [Stoff zum Lachen] are two kinds of play with aesthetic ideas, or even with representations of the understanding, by which, all said and done, nothing is thought. By mere force of change they yet are able to afford lively gratification. This furnishes pretty clear evidence that the quickening effect of both is physical, despite its being excited by ideas of the mind, and that the feeling of health, arising from a movement of the intestines answering to that play, makes up that entire gratification of an animated gathering upon the spirit and refinement of which we set such store. Not any estimate of harmony in tones or flashes of wit, which, with its beauty, serves only as a necessary vehicle, but rather the stimulated vital functions of the body, the affection stirring the intestines and the diaphragm, and, in a word, the feeling of health (of which we are only sensible upon some such provocation) are what constitute the gratification we experience at being able to reach the body through the soul and use the latter as the physician of the former.
Kant is generally held to have offered the most disappointing account of music in the history of philosophy, one that cordons it off to the margins of human society and human experience, while failing to charge it with that mysterian force that Plato gave it in arguing that it is something too powerful to be allowed to be permitted, unregulated, into the Republic. Certainly, the feature of Kant’s philosophy of music that disappoints the most is that, while for us music is supposed to be serious, for him it is of a pair with jokes. But those who are gravely serious about music should bear in mind that, even if he ranked the figurative arts higher than the aural, he does not seem to have known much, or cared much, about either. Kant was likely the greatest thinker ever to tackle the philosophy of art in the absence of any critical sensibility whatsoever for the object of his theorising.
His sense of humour was equally underdeveloped, as we’ll see. Yet, I want to argue, it is Kant who has given the strongest theoretical account ever offered of the structure and nature of jokes. Kant is the most prominent representative of what has come to be known as the "incongruity theory of humour," according to which instances of humour are generated out of the temporal experience of a mixing of incongruous conceptual categories, a mixing that, as he elegantly puts it, gives rise to "the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing [die plötzliche Verwandlung einer gespannten Erwartung in nichts]." Kant explains: “[W]e laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure: not because we find ourselves cleverer than this ignorant person, or because of any other pleasing thing that the understanding allows us to note here, but because our expectation was heightened and suddenly disappeared into nothing."
Does Kant provide an example of what he has in mind? Unfortunately, he does. "An Indian," he relates, "at the table of an Englishman in Surat, seeing a bottle of ale being opened and all the beer, transformed into foam, spill out, displayed his great amazement with many exclamations, and in reply to the Englishman’s question 'What is so amazing here?', answered, 'I’m not amazed that it’s coming out, but by how you got it all in'." (Transcendental Rimshot.) One is tempted to say that the incongruity between the sophistication of Kant’s gelastic theory on the one hand, and his idea of a good joke, on the other, is itself funny. The incongruity inherent in his incongruity theory of humour amounts to an instance and illustration of the theory. The fact that one of the most sophisticated theories of humour in history would be supported by such a weak joke is itself the incongruity.
The incongruity theory is generally contrasted with a number of other theories, of varying degrees of influence. One is Mary Douglas’s anthropological account of humour as the ‘irruption of the body’ into social situations in which it is supposed to remain hidden. Another prominent theory, associated with Freud, has it that humour amounts to a sort of discharge of tension, not so different from the other tics and symptoms of the neurotic patient. The incongruity theory's most important philosophical alternative (at least to the extent that it tends to be proferred by philosophers rather than by anthropologists or psychoanalysts) is the "superiority theory," according to which, as Hobbes explains, “the passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” The "ludicrous," according to Aristotle, similarly, is "that [which] is a failing or a piece of ugliness which causes no pain of destruction" (Poetics, sections 3 and 7). Going beyond the subject of comedy, in the Rhetoric (II, 12) Aristotle defines wit as "educated insolence." Now it seems that, if there is anything funny about Kant's joke, it is not the Englishman's superiority to the Indian, but rather the experience of superiority it permits us to feel in relation to Kant.
Previous philosophical discussion of gelastics has been muddled by the failure of the commentators to notice that these sundry theories pertain to different aspects of the gelastic event, and thus that it is a futile exercise to attempt to choose between them. The incongruity theory has to do with the semantics of the joke, while the superiority theory has to do with the pragmatics of the joke, and also, likely, with metagelastic considerations. The Freudian relief theory has to do with the individual psychology of the joke’s enjoyer (most likely teller, but perhaps also hearer), while the irruption theory has to do with the social psychology of the group in which the joke is told.
One important thing to note in connection with Kant's account is that he seems to be concerned principally with anekdoty (in German, Scherze), that is to say with Stoff zum Lachen that has an analysable formal structure that unfolds over the course of the joke. Kant is thinking principally of humourous stories with which dinner guests are regaled of a leisurely and pleasant evening. He does not have in mind one-liners such as Disraeli's that would derive their gelastic element entirely from context rather than from their own formal structure. In this respect, Kant is in fact dealing with a variety of literature, however diminished. As Jim Holt recounts, the modern joke shares a common parent with the novel:
During the centuries of Arab conquest, folktales from the Levant, many of them satirical or erotic, made their way through Spain and Italy. An Arab tale about a wife who is pleasured by her lover while her duped husband watches uncomprehendingly from a tree, for instance, is one of several that later show up in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Once in Europe, the folktale began to cleave in two. On the one hand, with the invention of printing and the rise of literacy, it grew longer, filling out into the chivalric romance and, ultimately, the novel. On the other hand, as the pace of urban life quickened, it got shorter in its oral form, shedding details and growing more formulaic as it condensed into the humorous anecdote.
If Holt's account is correct, then we should approach the joke in roughly the same way we do the haiku, as a particular, extremely distilled and succinct variety of literature, with its own history and evolving rules, rather than as interchangeable with wit. The joke is a literary genre that has as its principle aim the expression of humour, in the same way that landscape painting is an artistic genre that has as its principle aim the portrayal of natural beauty. The incongruity theory has to do with how well jokes fulfill this aim, while the superiority theory has to do with the more straightforwardly moral dimensions of any instance of humour, including wit and jokes.
One might suppose that, if we take seriously the ‘into nothing’ clause of Kant’s definition, while nonetheless loosening our conception of ‘nothing’ to include whatever is lower down on the hierarchy of being than the concept deployed at the beginning of the joke, then we will see that much humour does indeed deploy this structure, and that incongruity in Kant’s sense may not be saying anything so different from Mary Douglas's account. Yet any careful, cross-cultural and trans-historical study of a wide range of jokes will reveal that the incongruous structure by no means always sends us plummeting down from the lofty and divine to the corporeal and profane.
3. Formal Gelastics
We cannot engage in such a study here, but a brief survey of a few jokes, from vastly different times and places, may help us to illustrate the distinctions made so far. To this end, it will help to introduce a bit of formal-gelastical notation:
1. Let '!' signify the point in a joke at which the strained expectation finally snaps.
2. Let '⇓', '=>', and '⇑' signify the direction in the hierarchy of value in which one is hurled as a result of this snapping.
3. Finally, let '∫/' signify the superiority relation.
Let us consider the primate proto-joke with which we began. It seems it may be analysed as follows:
Edible !⇓ inedible
Thus, with respect to its formal structure, the chimpanzee's gesture counts as a joke because it contrasts two incongruous categories, sending us plummeting downward from the relatively lofty category of 'food' into the lowly category of useless, inedible stones. The superiority at work in the joke occurs at a different level, as a relation between the primatologist and the primate.
The headlines of the satirical newspaper The Onion are noteworthy for their condensation of the structure of the joke into the most succinct syntactic form possible. Consider:
Clinton Feels Nation’s Pain, Breasts.
It seems that here with respect to incongruity, we have something like:
Lofty sentiment !⇓ lecherous action,
while with respect to superiority, we have:
Satirical newspaper-∫ / conventional newspapers.
Often, the plunge downward is less clear, as in this classic Soviet 'Vovochka' joke:
Schoolteacher: Vovochka, why are you throwing spit-wads in class?
Vovochka: I’m a class enemy!
What we seem to have, with respect to incongruity, is something like this:
School prank (harmless) !⇓ political treason (serious),
while with respect to superiority, the exaltation of the adolescent antihero over establishment norms is clear:
Vovochka-∫ /class/teacher/political order.
Let us consider another Soviet joke, this time of the Jewish subvariety:
Census-taker: ‘Does Rabinovich live here?’
Rabinovich: ‘I dunno. You call this living?’
It seems that here what we have is motion from a less exalted notion of life to a more exalted one, as also an expression of the superiority of those who have remembered the more exalted notion over the soul-less bureaucrats who believe living just is habitation. Thus:
Living as habitation !⇑ Living as thriving
The irrascible soul-∫ /the soulless bureaucrat.
Or how about this joke from the ancient Greek joke book that has come to be called the Philogelos [Laughter Lover]:
Barber: How would you like your hair cut?
Customer: In silence!
Here what we have is a distinctly philosophical joke, one that trades on the plurivocity of that innocuous word 'how':
One meaning of ‘how’ !=> another meaning of ‘how’,
and also, of course, an amusing instance of a haughty fellow abusing someone of a lower social station:
What, now, of Kant's joke? How is it to be analysed? With respect to superiority, it is clear enough: we have both the superiority of the worldly Englishman over the naive Indian, as well, it seems, as the superiority of the reader over Kant himself, in view of Kant's miserable choice of jokes. But what about the incongruity? Is it simply this:
Foam expanding !⇓ Foam contracting ?
Is it, to speak in contemporary terms, that the Indian has grasped the thermodynamic character of the universe, and is picking out an apparent instance of its violation? If so, then might it not be the Indian who deserves to gloat in his superiority, and not the Englishman? I have no idea. I don't understand the joke, and surely would have been left sitting stone-faced and awkward in the Königsberg parlor where it once had the local sage in stitches.
For a thorough archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.
Anthing to Declare?
Anything to Declare?
My baby came to me this morning
She said "I'm kinda confused
If me and B. B. King were both drowning -
Which one would you choose?"
In a prior blogging incarnation on a blog called Left2Right I wrote about whether moral philosophers, i.e. those who study morality not those philosophers who are moral, were in some way more qualified, competent, likely to be more correct than other people to give answers or opinions about ethical issues. This question was stimulated by a quote from Steven Levitt, the freakonomics guy: "As an economist, I am better than the typical person at figuring out whether abortion reduces crime but I am not better than anyone else at figuring out whether abortion is murder or whether a woman has an intrinsic right to control over her body."
One's first reaction might have been to suppose that the reason why an economist would not be be better than other people at figuring out ethical issues is that their professional training was not the right kind. But moral philosophers, after all, have devoted their lives to reading, thinking, and writing about ethical issues. Surely , if anyone has moral expertise, they would.
When the philosopher I most admire, John Stuart Mill, claimed that people " must place the degree of reliance warranted by reason, in the authority of those who have made moral and social philosophy their peculiar study." I don't think he had in mind by " the degree of reliance warranted by reason" --none!
In that blog I argued that there is no reason to suppose that moral philosophers have more moral expertise than others, and that there is some reason to suppose they might have less. For example, the emphasis on argument, logic, precision (all good things in their place) might lead to downplaying factors such as sympathetic feelings, emotional stances, intuitive insights, and so forth.
A certain amount of controversy was occasioned by this but looking back I see now that both those who agreed with me and those who disagreed were making a common, but implicit, assumption. Namely that there is something that can be called moral expertise and that the issue is whether some of us , the philosophers, have more of it than others, the economists or ordinary folk. But is there, could there be, a kind of expertise or authority about moral matters?
What is it to have expertise? It is to know lots of things about some area of inquiry. I go to my doctor when I have symptoms because he has studied medicine, has practiced medicine, reads the medical journals, taught students how to diagnose illnesses, and so forth. He knows lots of things that I do not about the anatomy and physiology of the body. He has experience with the effects of various treatments and their side-effects. He has both theoretical knowledge (knowledge about how the world is) and practical knowledge ( what to do in various circumstances). Not only does he know more but he sees more than I do. What looks to me like a freckle looks to him like a melanoma.
Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, he can tell me the source of his claims. There is this test, or that article in the NEJM, or he has completed a controlled trial on this treatment. But sometimes he cannot. All he can say is that he has a hunch, or that on the basis of his past experience this seems the reasonable thing to try. He can even say that nobody has any idea of why this works, but it seems to. There is the joke about the famous physicist who threw some salt over his shoulder to avoid bad luck. When asked if he believed in that junk, he replied "Of course not. But it seems to work whether I believe it or not."
On the basis of all of this I defer to his authority--which is not to say that I will not sometimes make independent judgments about whether he is correct.
What then of the moral expert? Is she someone like the doctor who has studied moral philosophy, read the ethics journals, taught students which arguments are valid, knows the difference between act and rule utilitarians? This seems absurd. What we are looking for is someone with practical, not theoretical, knowledge. We need someone who is (much) better at knowing what to do in various tricky situations. Whether to speak up or remain silent, whether to quit or stay on the job, whether to blame or to sympathize, whether to run off to the South Seas and paint or to remain married in Paris. We need someone that the ancients called a person of practical wisdom.
And surely (watch out ahead) there are some people who have this kind of expertise. Christians ask "What would Jesus do" because they believe it is more likely that he would do the right thing than someone picked at random from the Boston phone directory. Jews consult the rebbe because he knows what the Talmud says. If you are not religious don't you know people who are more sensitive than you, have more experience with the kind of situation you find yourself in, are more virtuous than you are? Don't you trust the good judgment of some people more than you do of others?
Well, perhaps, say some--but there is a difference between moral expertise and other kinds. According to Robert Paul Wolff "[a moral agent] may learn from others bout his moral obligations, but only in the sense that a mathematician learns from other mathematicians--namely by hearing from them arguments whose validity he recognizes even though he did not think of them himself. He does not learn in the sense that one learns from an explorer, by accepting as true things which one cannot see for himself."
There are only two things wrong with this claim. It is not true about mathematicians and it is not true about moral agents. My guess is that there are very few mathematicians in the world who recognize the validity of Wiles proof of Fermat Last Theorem since it is a necessary condition of such recognition that one have gone through the proof . Keep in mind that when Wiles first released the 200 page proof it was checked by seven pairs of mathematicians who worked on different chapters and discovered a fundamental flaw in the proof which took Wiles and a student another 15 months to correct. Very few mathematicians have the necessary understanding of the techniques of algebraic geometry to understand the proof even if they read it.
As to the moral agent the rejection of authority relies on a conception of the moral agent being autonomous in the following strong sense. In Thomas Scanlons's words, although in a different context and for a different purpose, an autonomous moral agent " cannot accept without independent consideration the judgment of others as to what he should do. If he relies on the judgment of others he must be prepared to advance independent reasons for thinking their judgment likely to be correct."
But the idea of there being independent reasons for thinking an authority correct is ambiguous. One could have independent reasons for believing his judgment correct, that is, for believing the contents of his judgment are correct.
Or there could be independent reasons for thinking his judgment to be correct, that is , for thinking him likely to be right.
It is the latter which we rely on when we consult experts. If I am uncertain what the pain in my leg is, or why the thermostat is not working, or why my souffle keeps falling, or whether the Eskimos do have 50 words for "snow", I consult those I have reason to believe are likely to be right about this. But, generally, once I get my answer , say, to the "snow" question I do not fly to Canada and do linguistic research to check it. Is ethics different?
To think about this one would have to think about matters such as the following. If I know that something is the right thing to do ( because an expert told me it was) then I do not know why it is the right thing, what the reasons that make it right are. Does that matter? Is it different from knowing that this drug will cure my symptoms ( because the doctor told me it would) but having no idea of why it will, what the causal mechanism of the cure is?
In the case of most experts we are able to compare their advice with how things actually are. If mapquest tells me there is a shorter route to x than the one I usually take, I can drive it and see that it is. But when my ethical advisor tells me that in this case it is permissible to lie, and I do lie, how do I determine that it was indeed permissible? Is there an independent way of checking that the advice was good advice?
There is no fault in going through life relying on my doctor, or my accountant, or my architect to tell me what to do about various practical issues. But there seems to be something less than ideal in going through life relying on the advice of others as to what to do when I have moral dilemmas. Part of what it is to be an agent at all seems to involve some reflection about what is the right thing to do, or what is a good life. A good life has to be led from within. One must make choices about the kind of person one wishes to be.
Finally, here is an argument that moral authority differs from other kinds. "[a moral authority] can make no moral claims upon anyone who does not adopt it as his authority." There is something right about this. We can be held accountable for the authorities we choose. Sartre says, "If you seek counsel – from a priest, for example you have selected that priest; and at bottom you already knew, more or less, what he would advise. In other words, to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice." It seems to me, however, that recognizing this is compatible with the view that some of us are more sensitive and have more experience than others in thinking about difficult moral issues, with recognition of a (limited) moral authority, and with the relevance (if not the conclusiveness) or a moral community and tradition for guiding our moral life.
America, the Cold War, and the Taliban
By Namit Arora
The US pulled out of Vietnam (video) in 1975 after more than a decade and a humiliating defeat. The war had been expensive, the draft unpopular, and too many white boys had come home in body bags. A strong antiwar mood had set in amidst the public and the Congress. Most Americans now believed it was never their war to fight. The Nixon Doctrine held that “Asian boys must fight Asian wars.” At least in the short term, direct military engagement in the third world seemed politically unviable for any US administration.
Besides Vietnam, the US had fought and lost another war in Indochina – in Laos – but rather differently. This was a proxy war, sponsored by the US but led by Hmong mercenaries on the ground. It was waged in relative secrecy, far from “congressional oversight, public scrutiny, and conventional diplomacy.” The advantages of such a war were soon evident: “Even at the end of the war, few Americans knew that in Laos, the USAF had fought ‘the largest air war in military history ... dropping 2.1 million tons of bombs over this small, impoverished nation — the same tonnage that Allied powers dropped on Germany and Japan during WWII.’”
In the 60s and 70s, anti-colonial and nationalistic struggles were cropping up in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Blinded by its anti-commie paranoia, the US saw even popular movements for social and economic justice as precursors to communism, their leaders as Soviet proxies, and was determined to combat and crush them. But, given the unviability of direct military engagement on so many fronts, proxy war was the only military option left to the US. There was one minor obstacle though: how to finance all these proxy wars? Many Congressmen asked awkward questions, especially after the disaster in Indochina. When they agreed to fund, they wanted debates and oversight. The idea of a new, recurring source of money — bypassing the Congress — gripped the minds of many.
A source was soon identified: illicit drug trade. In the 19th century, Britain had used opium trade to fund its colonial operations in the East. Now it was the turn of the US. Just when the global opium trade was at its lowest ebb in nearly two centuries (opium is the raw material for heroin), the CIA struck alliances with drug lords to greatly expand drug-production in Burma, Laos, Colombia, and Afghanistan, as well as with the mafia to streamline distribution (some of which ended up in the US, extracting ‘funds’ from the American public in other ways). For protecting their assets or looking the other way, the CIA got a slice of the proceeds that it promptly funneled into covert military operations.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, the Cold War was raging hot in many parts of the world. The US funded proxy wars all over the globe, including (but not limited to) Laos, Cambodia, Congo, Angola, Mozambique, Ethiopia, Iran, Nicaragua, Granada, Libya, Cuba, and perhaps the most significant of all: Afghanistan. The CIA euphemistically called these “low-intensity conflicts” but they were, in effect and tactic, no different from state-sponsored terrorism. The meteoric rise of Colombian drug cartels coincided with US Cold War operations in Central America, especially Nicaragua. Cocaine trafficking (most destined for the US) soon brought dividends to the Contras and made Pablo Escobar one of the richest men in the world.
Almost always, the US supported right wing militant factions that opposed popular movements and employed assassinations, kidnappings, torture, and violent terrorism, causing widespread suffering and civilian casualties. In Guatemala, for instance, the US funded and trained “death squads” that killed tens of thousands of Mayan peasants. In Nicaragua, the CIA funded and trained the right wing Contra rebels in advanced terror tactics, including psychological warfare targeting special groups — judges, police officials, tax collectors, etc. The rebels attacked bridges, power plants, rural health clinics, agricultural co-ops, and civilians. CIA commandos even launched a series of sabotage raids on Nicaraguan port facilities. They mined the country’s major ports and set fire to its largest oil storage facilities. In Angola, the US proxy (Unita rebels) starved “civilians in government-held areas, through a combination of direct attacks, kidnappings, and planting land mines on paths used by peasants” (estimates for the number of amputees begin at 15,000). About 331,000 Angolan civilians died due to the war in the 80s and the war cost the country six times its 1988 GDP.
The list of such “low-intensity conflicts” waged by US proxies is pretty long. This worked best when combined with a deliberate campaign at home that encouraged mass hysteria about the Soviet machine. In the 80s, Reagan called it the evil empire, a phrase with strong religious overtones. One couldn’t possibly make a deal with evil. No coexistence was possible with evil—it had to be resolutely opposed, whatever the cost. But the real cost started becoming apparent only a decade later.
Besides drug lords, the US cultivated another ally during the Cold War: political Islam, which dreamed of setting up theocratic states based on Shariah law. The US saw it as a natural enemy of commie Russia and a buffer against popular secular nationalism in the third world that could turn into, heaven forbid, socialism. So the US built alliances with Islamists in Sukarno’s Indonesia, Nasser’s Egypt, and Bhutto’s Pakistan. The rise of Hamas was quietly welcomed as a distraction for the secular PLO, and was allegedly even aided by Israel.
But then came the Iranian revolution, where the mullahs opposed both the Russians and the Americans. This taught the US to “distinguish between two faces of political Islam: the revolutionary and the elitist. The revolutionary side saw the organization of Islamic social movements and mass participation as crucial to ushering in an independent Islamist state. In contrast, the elitist side distrusted popular participation; its notion of an Islamist state was one that would contain popular participation, not encourage it.” Unlike Iran, Islamists in S. Arabia and Afghanistan were elitist (but had no political successes yet to speak of) and were better aligned with US Cold War objectives. To punish Iran, the US allied with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and openly supported its attack on Iran. The eight-year long Iran-Iraq war “saw the first post-Vietnam use of chemical weapons [by Saddam Hussein] ... and America was the source of both the weapons and the training needed to use them.”
In '78, when a pro-Soviet regime took hold in Afghanistan, the US began investing in an alliance with neighboring Pakistan, where the army led by General Zia, an orthodox Muslim, had recently deposed and murdered Bhutto, the elected prime-minister. After '79, when Russian troops invaded Afghanistan to shore up the Marxist regime, the proxy warriors of the US were the mujahideen. Aid to the mujahideen — rag-tag groups of Muslim conservatives without money or power — had begun even before the Soviet invasion, and authorized by Carter himself. Reagan, rejecting containment or negotiation, raised the aid twenty fold and went full-steam for a Soviet “roll back,” determined to bleed them white and to hand them their own Vietnam. With Operation Cyclone, the CIA and Reagan’s assistant secretary of defense, Richard Perle, now began facilitating the real task at hand in Afghanistan: killing Russians. On the White House lawn in 1985, Reagan introduced the bearded leaders of the mujahideen to the US media: “These gentlemen are the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.” One such mujahideen leader was Osama bin Laden.
Under Reagan, Pakistan became the third largest recipient of US aid, effectively buying Pakistani cooperation. The CIA allied with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to identify, recruit, and train the most radical anti-communist Islamists to fight the Soviets, flooding the region with weapons and training camps. The CIA looked for Muslim volunteers from all over the globe. A network of recruitment centers was established, linking key points in the Arab world. To increase their military effectiveness, the recruits were “ideologically charged with the spark of holy war and trained in guerrilla tactics, sabotage, and bombings.” The recruits came from far and wide, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Indonesia. The US supplied these camps with military advisers, tacticians, and equipment such as the heat-seeking, anti-aircraft Stinger missiles. The recruitment drive was stepped up many times. Tens of thousands of Islamists graduated from these camps.
This mobilization of holy warriors in Afghanistan was largely funded by the US and carried out using “Islamic institutions, ranging from banks and charities to mosques and evangelical organizations.” It gave the Islamists “not only the organization, the numbers, the skills, the reach, and the confidence but also a coherent objective.” Here they learned the fine art of using things they could not afford, such as “sophisticated fuses, timers, and explosives; automatic weapons with armor-piercing ammunition, remote-control devices for triggering mines and bombs” alongside “local Afghan skills—such as throat cutting and disemboweling — that the CIA incorporated in its training.” Many of them received from the CIA a salary of $1,500 per month, a sum that even the best doctors and engineers in Kabul didn’t make. The cream of the Islamist crop were flown to camps all over the US for further training (to Fort Bragg, Camp Pickett, High Rock Gun Club, Camp Perry, Harvey Point, etc.) and then shipped back to Afghanistan. An infrastructure of terrorism, integrated with the most sophisticated know-how, was soon in place. Sabotaging the Soviet-backed regime meant blowing up power installations, pipelines, radio stations, government offices, police stations, airport terminals, hotels, cinemas, and more.
In '87 alone, the US military aid to the mujahideen amounted to $660 million. The US also muscled the Saudis into matching its Afghanistan aid dollar-for-dollar. Another chunk came from opium trading which the CIA encouraged de rigueur. Opium fetched five times the price of wheat and the mujahideen ordered the peasants to plant it, handing out opium quotas to all landowners and greatly expanding production. It was taken to literally hundreds of heroin processing centers at the border in Pakistan, where they were run under the aegis of the ISI. Before the US involvement in Afghanistan, there was no heroin production in this region at all, but soon it became the largest producer of heroin in the world, amounting to a multi-billion dollar industry (today it supplies 95% of the world's heroin).
To create additional, frontline recruits, the ISI helped turn local madrassas into ideological training grounds that integrated the authority of Islamic teaching with guerrilla warfare. This fused religious fundamentalism with militant terrorism like never before. Because this innovation only helped the immediate US goal of killing Russians, the CIA turned a blind eye to the central teaching in these schools: Afghanistan was only the staging ground for a holy war that would grow into an international Islamist movement.
Well, not exactly a blind eye. In the 80s, the mujahideen ran an Educational Center for Afghanistan that had “children's books designed for it by University of Nebraska under a $50 million USAID grant ... A third-grade mathematics textbook asks: ‘One group of mujahideen attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians are killed. How many Russians fled?’ A fourth-grade textbook ups the ante: ‘The speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 meters per second. If a Russian is at a distance of 3200 meters from a mujahid, and that mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead.’ The program ended in 1994 but the books continued to circulate: ‘US-sponsored textbooks, which exhort Afghan children to pluck out the eyes of their enemies and cut off their legs, are still widely available in Afghanistan and Pakistan, some in their original form.’”
The Americans and the Soviets, having thoroughly used and abused Afghanistan for their Cold War ends, abandoned it completely in the late 80s. Their withdrawal was followed by a civil war that was won by the victorious Islamists, who alone could provide a measure of cohesion and stability amid the chaos. A million Afghans had died, millions more were disabled, maimed, or orphaned. The chief economic product was still opium and heroin; the only schools operating were the madrassas once funded by the US to mould recruits for the holy war against the Russians. The global recruiting and training infrastructure remained, as did the financial networks and Saudi aid. After the war, the ideologically charged mujahideen didn’t just go home and become baby boomers. They had driven the Soviets out and their victory emboldened them to expand their militant jihad. From this cesspool arose the Taliban and “the forces that carried out the operation we know as 9/11.” In a recent article, Pervez Hoodbhoy wrote the following:
One can squarely place the genesis of religious militancy in Pakistan to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent efforts of the U.S.-Pakistan-Saudi grand alliance to create and support the Great Global Jehad of the 20th century. A toxic mix of imperial might, religious fundamentalism, and local interests ultimately defeated the Soviets. But the network of Islamic militant organisations did not disappear after it achieved success. By now the Pakistani Army establishment had realised the power of jehad as an instrument of foreign policy, and so the network grew from strength to strength.
Clearly, the “unintended consequences of misinformed, cynical, and opportunistic actions can boomerang on their perpetrators.” The same camps that provided money and terrorism training to the Islamists against the Soviets grew tentacles and came back to haunt the US (not to mention Pakistan). An LA Times investigation in the 90s found that in the aftermath of the Afghan War, “the key leaders of every major terrorist attack, from NY to France to Saudi Arabia, inevitably turned out to have been veterans of the Afghan War.” The roots of transnational Islamic terrorism lie not so much in culture and the Qur’an as in politics and the conduct of the Cold War in Afghanistan. For America's opportunistic politics, the society they helped wreck, and the monster they helped create in Afghanistan, 9/11 can justifiably be seen as chickens coming home to roost. Or, if you believe in it, a textbook example of bad karma.
(This essay was inspired by Good Muslim, Bad Muslim by Mahmood Mamdani, Herbert Lehman Professor of Government and Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. Most facts and figures are from his meticulously researched book which carries detailed notes and citations).
 Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, p.64.
 ibid., p.66. (Inside quote by Alfred W McCoy, 'Fallout: The Interplay of CIA Cover Warfare and Global Narcotics Traffic,' 2002.)
 ibid., p.103. (Source: Kornbluh, "Nicaragua", in Low-Intensity Warfare, pp.142-46.)
 ibid., p.91. (Source: Minter, 'Apartheid's Contras,' pp.4-5.)
 ibid., p.122.
 ibid., p.122.
 ibid., p.119.
 ibid., p.126. (Inside quote by Hamid Hussein, 'Forgotten Ties: CIA, ISI & the Taliban,' CovertAction Quarterly 72, Spring 2002, p.72.)
 ibid., p.129.
 ibid., p.138. (Source: Cooley, 'Unholy Wars,' 2000, pp.90.)
 ibid., p.138. (Source: Cooley, 'Unholy Wars,' 2000, pp.90.)
 ibid., p.136. (Source: Cooley, 'Unholy Wars,' 2000, pp.188-89.)
 ibid., p.137. (Inside quote by Pervez Hoodbhoy, 'The Genesis of Global Jihad in Afghanistan,' 2002.)
 ibid., p.131.
 Pervez Hoodbhoy, Towards Theocracy?, Frontline, Volume 26 - Issue 06 :: Mar. 14-27, 2009.
 Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, p.121.
 ibid., p.139.
More writing by Namit Arora?
Giambattista Della Porta of Naples: How to Turn a Woman Green
Not long ago, I was leafing through an old notebook, of the kind kept by artists on the prowl for imagery. I found some 16th century recipes I’d copied out, lines rich with imagery that never made it into a painting. “If you yearn to turn a woman green,” one recipe urged, “decoct a chameleon into her bath.”
Whose thinking was this? I had his name, Giambattista Della Porta of Naples, and the work referenced was his 20-volume Magia naturalis ( The Book of Natural Magic), a compendium of popular science of the 1550’s that gave its author, then a very young man, renown almost beyond telling. Prof. Louise George Clubb, a scholar of Italian studies, writes of his reputation as a “wonder-worker who had penetrated the secrets of nature, and was expected at any moment to discover the philosopher’s stone.” The Duke of Mantua came to Naples for his sake, the Duke of Florence and the Emperor Rudolph sent emissaries. He was a seer, a cryptographer, a dramatist, a mathematician, a horticulturist, a physician – and so much more. A polymath, it used to be called.
And he could spare a thought for how to turn a woman green.
The painting under the title, Caspar van Wittel's View of the Largo di Palazzo, was painted after Della Porta's death, but shows a Naples that would have been familiar to him. That's the Royal Palace on the right, the old seat of the Viceroy, built in 1533. In the 1830's, it made room for the Teatro San Carlo. The church buildings on the left were demolished in the Neoclassical period for something grander -- the ecclesiastical complex of San Francesco di Paola, with its vast colonnades. And it's no longer the Largo di Palazzo, but the Piazza del Plebiscito, renamed for the plebiscite in 1860 that brought Naples into the unified kingdom of Italy. So this is neither a view nor even a viewpoint -- you can't stand just there -- that can any more be had. Della Porta of Naples might recognize it today only as the largest public space in the city, with the red-walled Royal Palace, currently the National Library, a persistent gracious feature.
Knowledge itself is, always, the largest public space in the city; the eye of Della Porta, who died old in 1615, might search that space frantically for moorings now, though he was once thought -- by himself, among others -- to know all that there was to know. Prof. Clubb observes that, with regard to his intellectual prowess, he was "more content than any man is entitled to be." And if his most ardent pursuit was the confirmation of his own thinking, he was not alone in that. Nor would he be today, among the serious.
Della Porta rose to his position without a university education -- this in a land where the oldest continuously operating university in the West, the University of Bologna, dates to the last years of the 11th century. Little is known about his early education except that it was private. He was born, in 1535 (probably -- he lied about his age) to leisure, if not to wealth, and he and his two brothers were able to acquire books and tuition in the timeless way of well-funded students. Learned men gathered in the family house, an early endowment of intellectual capital. The three brothers studied music in a particularly concerted fashion, and all were declared free of that talent. But there is an aristocratic tradition of high involvement in an art for which one is little-suited that amounts almost to a principle, here attested to. No record shows his ever having been paid for a day's work in the ordinary sense, though patronage and princely gifts were a lifelong benison, seeing him through the ebb and flow of family fortunes, allowing him to travel more than most illustrious men and to dazzle every kind of visitor to his fine house in the old quarter of Naples.
A Science of Secrets
Della Porta did love to show off. As Italy's foremost magus, he would not have understood that as a bad but as a fitting thing. It is well to remember the terrible sincerity he brought to his work. Noting that the kings of Persia studied magic, he was exasperatingly genuine in his belief that natural magic could be an aid to government. It was no prank, but a teasing out of the hidden in nature, mistress of so many secrets. And, arising from close study of nature rather than metaphysics, natural magic had no truck with demons.
In Science and the Secrets of Nature, William Eamon observes that for Della Porta, "...nature cloaks herself in masks, which it is the task of the naturalist to remove, thereby exposing nature's secrets. The illusions and sleights of hand that Della Porta included in his books were imitations of nature hiding herself [...], part of the unmasking of nature that natural magic aimed to accomplish [...] But if nature 'plays' for those who understand her secrets, she also deceives those ignorant of causes, as a juggler, magician or craftsman seems to create marvels in the eyes of amazed onlookers. Illustrating the mechanism underlying cunning, whether human or natural, was an essential part of Della Porta's 'science of secrets.' "
How much of this thinking has come down to us as a legacy? Like the kings of Persia, government leaders currently resort to magic for guidance, both in countries deemed backwards and in countries we hope are more progressive than their leaders. As in Della Porta's day, telling magic from science is not easy for everyone, and when there is a conflict, many of us still like magic to win.
Less disturbingly, much of this thinking remains present in traditions of natural medicine that trace their roots back to the Middle Ages and earlier. The notion that a plant suggests by its appearance its medicinal use -- the doctrine of signatures -- is seen as a fundamental truth in traditional medicine. Beets cannot but be good for all complaints to do with the blood, for example. Last year, there was much mainstream science news about beet juice as an effective treatment for hypertension. Not exactly a matter of the composition of the blood, but it's quaint to ponder whether there's a vindication of natural magic here, and to remember that what "naturalists" did in the 16th century was the special kind of foolishness that led to experimental science.
Certainly the elevated place then accorded the scientist-showman himself is secure in our own time -- we track with furious industry the careers of our science superstars.
Magic with Demons
Anyone with an eye for old prints might well recognize Della Porta from the illustrations in his works, especially the paired images of beastly and human countenances. Physiognomy was not his invention, but he kick-started it -- a role he would play in optics and magnetics as well, for he was a polymath who was by no means all nonsense. Physiognomy expressed the secret meaning of deep similarities where one might not ordinarily look for them, but which are also hidden in plain sight. Similarities between the faces of men and beasts, for example. The nobility of a horse can be seen in the bearing of a man who walks with his head held high, whereas men who resemble donkeys are timorous and stupid. Malice is evident in the ram-faced, be they man or beast. First published in 1586, De humana physiognomia was translated into Italian in 1598, and saw 19 editions by 1701.
There is celestial physiognomy too, and it is a striking repudiation of astrology. Della Porta gives an account of the current state of astrology, the better to correct those who let their movements be guided by it. He concludes, "[B]ut things work differently, they do not derive from planets: we declare that they are caused by humours..." While that lacks for accuracy, it discards the preposterous in favor of the less preposterous, so it may count as progress, and was in any case written at a time that astrology was not only a means of predicting the course of a life but a branch of applied mathematics.
To read the Magia naturalis, as well as Della Porta's subsequent works -- and he wrote, and wrote and wrote -- is hardly to take a ringside seat as the last Neoplatonist struggles to join the Scientific Revolution in one clean upward arc. Through his final years, he was entirely capable of straining away from the Zeitgeist. One of his last works, a Taumatologia, is lost. That would be magic that was assisted by demons. Pushing 80, he may have felt brave enough to engage openly with the subject. And so much of the public side of his earlier career had been driven by one gigantic idea -- keeping clear of the papal Inquisition. They had him once. And it could never, ever happen again.
The Academy of Secrets
Around 1560, Della Porta got himself in an interesting position by founding the Academy of Secrets, a scientific society. Whoever wanted entrance into the academy had to discover a secret of nature unknown to anyone else. Prof. Clubb writes, "To judge by some of the harebrained fictions Della Porta published as scientific revelations, the emphasis was on meraviglie [marvels] rather than on empirical proof. Nevertheless, the founder's pride is his academy was justified, for the joint experiments of its members produced many of the valid observations of phenomena in physics, optics, and botany which appear in the greatly augmented second edition of Magia."
Della Porta produced dramatic literature alongside works on horticulture, cryptography and magic, though by the 1570's none of his plays had been performed. He was nonetheless praised for them by the scholar Giovanni Matteo Toscano. And it was as well to have an unobjectionable literary sideline, for by 1578, there was a distinct whiff of sulfur about the doings of the Academy of Secrets. Their founder was called to Rome to answer for it.
No one knows quite how it happened, for much documentary evidence, mainly in the form of letters, has been suppressed -- presumably by Della Porta, his family and associates. Having a brush with the Inquisition was very much a thing to hush up. Endearing though it may be to ourselves, it can have caused Della Porta and his family nothing but fear and revulsion.
While "a brush with the Inquisition" cannot approach the horror of what Giordano Bruno later endured, it is worth noting that failure to back down from a position the Inquisition found untenable could have resulted in ostracism, revocation of license to publish, house arrest, prison and/or execution -- for anyone. Bruno, a monk, was not strictly speaking burned to death as a martyr for science but for heterodoxy in his firm faith. Tommaso Campanella, a Calabrian monk-philosopher, spent 27 years in prison, convicted as a heretic. A brave man, though hardly a free-thinker, he intervened on Galileo's behalf at the time of his first trial -- a gesture that can have done Galileo no good. The danger posed by the Inquisition to Galileo in the 1630's -- almost half a century after Della Porta's troubles -- was so great one can only wonder that highly placed admirers could act to mitigate it. And that, in the presence of certain risk to themselves, they did.
The problem Rome had with Della Porta may have begun as early as 1558, with a denunciation. Over the next 20 years, two titles were bestowed on him by the populace of Naples -- Indovino and Mago, seer and magician. His prophesies had a way of coming true, never a matter for churchly indifference. By a papal order that has not come to light, the Academy of Secrets was disbanded. And Della Porta was let off with a warning, its clangorous echo ringing down the four decades left to him. He never forgot. And he promptly joined a Jesuit lay order, going in for good works one whole day a week thenceforth.
On those occasions the Inquisition had no sterner thing to hand you, it would make unrefusable recommendations as to your next steps. Della Porta was commanded to write a comedy. It was not unheard of to be ordered to make reparations this way. Perfectly understandably, he ramped up his career as a dramatist.
The scholars who have inquired most deeply into Della Porta's life and times do not find that his kind of mind -- mercurial, curious, oriented to practical results even in his penchant for the unperformable experiment -- would truly have shifted into low gear from fright. He was not so fond of speculative thought as of finding out secrets -- how to make a guest mad-drunk by introducing camel froth into his wine, or how to perfect the camera obscura with a convex lens -- and it was speculative thought that the Inquisition wished most to destroy.
The Academy of the Lynx-Eyed
Always clubby and delighted to be flattered by nobles, Della Porta enjoyed in his last years a remarkable association with a handful of very young men who saw themselves as the advance guard of science. The Academy of the Lynx-Eyed (Accademia dei Lincei) was founded in 1603 by 18-year old Federico Cesi, left, the duke of Acquasparta. Its stated purpose, in Cesi's own words, was "reading this great, true, and universal book of the world." It would become the first modern scientific society in Europe, but it made its beginnings on shaky ground. The atmosphere of suspicion that was a feature of Counter-Reformation Rome was hardly favorable to the formation of such a society, and Cesi's own father found it not a good idea.
The Lynxes took their name from the forest animal celebrated by Pliny as "the most clear-sighted of all quadrupeds." Writing about the Lynxes in a May, 1998 article for Natural History magazine, Stephen Jay Gould maintains that they "flourished largely because Cesi managed to keep the suspicions of popes and cardinals at bay while science prepared to fracture old views of the cosmos and develop radically new theories about the nature of matter and causation."
To read about the early years of the Lynxes is to appreciate Cesi for a master diplomat at a time that science desperately needed a diplomatic corps. Adroitly acting to link the gravitas of the rear guard with his own more forward looking aims, he traveled in 1610 from Rome to Naples to recruit the 75-year old Della Porta, with whom he had been corresponding for two years, as the fifth Lynx. For all he belonged to a fading era then, Della Porta was a name to conjure with. There could be no better in all Italy, until one year later, when Galileo became the sixth Lynx.
The Eternally Contentious Issue of Priority
Della Porta's gifts to science may still not be entirely weighed up, but fair treatment was meted out to him by Prof. Luisa Muraro, the Italian philosopher and feminist, in her 1978 monograph, Giambattista Della Porta mago e scienziato. Both Kepler and Descartes studied his writings on optics, with Kepler praising him as the inventor of the telescope. Before William Gilbert wrote De magnete, in 1600, he read the beefed up second edition of the Magia naturalis. So, while it is possible to make the case that Gilbert could have written De magnete without Della Porta, Prof. Muraro shows that he did not.
Stephen Jay Gould writes about the "eternally contentious issue of priority" in assigning credit for the invention of the telescope. "Galileo never claimed that he had invented the telescope from scratch. He stated that he had heard reports about a crude version during a trip to Venice in 1609. He recognized the optical principles behind the device and then built a more powerful machine that could survey the heavens. But Della Porta, who had used lenses and mirrors for many demonstrations and illusions in his Magia naturalis and who understood the theory of optics quite well, then claimed that he had formulated all the principles for building a telescope (although he had not constructed the device) and therefore deserved primary credit for the invention. Although tensions remained high, the festering issue never became an overt battle royal because Galileo and Della Porta held each other in mutual respect, and Della Porta died in 1615 before any growing bitterness could get out of hand."
Alongside work on the lost Taumatologia, it was a campaign to reclaim credit for the telescope that occupied much of Della Porta's final years. One mind divided between the magic of demons and the starry message speaks to the impossibility, in any era, of being fully aligned with even the most compelling future direction. But we should expect contradictions from an aged seer who spent his youth unmasking nature, who, when still a boy, fathomed how to turn a woman green.
Below, written by Della Porta when he was close to death, is a letter now in the archives of the Museo di Storia della Scienza, in Florence. He has sketched for his correspondent, Federico Cesi, the simple tube equipped with mirror and lenses as he had imagined but never built it, 30 years earlier. Or, as he imagined that he had imagined it.
Web Resources for this Article
A compendious amateur site of Della Porteana, with well chosen excerpts from pertinent material
A site with timelines about technologies, including the camera obscura, leading to the cinema
Historical Anatomies on the Web, with Della Porta's Physiognomies
Official site of the Accademia dei Lincei, some English translation available
Wikipedia page for Giambattista Della Porta
Wikipedia page for Federico Cesi
Article on the Lynxes by Stephen Jay Gould, from Natural History magazine, May, 1998
Giambattista Della Porta mago e scienziato, by Luisa Muraro, Feltrinelli, 1978
Thinking with Demons, by Stuart Clark, Oxford University Press, 1997
Science and the Secrets of Nature, by William Eamon, Princeton University Press, 1996
The Eye of the Lynx: Galileo, His Friends, and the Beginnings of Modern Natural History, by David Freedberg, University of Chicago Press, 2002
Giambattista Della Porta, Dramatist, by Louise George Clubb, Princeton University Press, 1965
Sunday, March 29, 2009
Implications of Neuroscience for Free Will
Over at The Science Network, Patricia Churchland offers some thoughts.
How Rawls's political philosophy was influenced by his religion
Via Andrew Sullivan, Joshua Cohen and Thomas Nagel in the TLS:
Exile, Writing and Cultural Freedom
From the Lannan archives, a reading and conversation with Bei Dao:
Bei Dao, who was forced into exile following the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, is widely treasured by those who participated in China's democracy movement. Dao is a member of China's "misty school," a movement of fresh poetics that emerged in the 1970s using "free verse" in a hermetic, semi-private language characterized by oblique imagery and elliptical syntax. Dao's poetry depicts the intimacy of passion, love, and friendship in a society where trust can literally be a matter of life and death.
Marijuana No Laughing Matter, Mr. President
Norm Stamper in The Huffington Post:
The problem for Mr. Obama is that marijuana reform was at or near the top of the list of all questions in three major categories: budget, health care reform, green jobs and energy. Our leader doesn't seem to understand that millions of his interlocutor-constituents are actually quite serious about the issue.
Which is not to say that drugs, particularly pot, doesn't offer up a rich if predictable vein of humor. Cheech and Chong's vintage "Dave's not here!" routine is still a side-splitter. As Larry the Cable Guy would say, "I don't care who you are, that's funny right there."
But there's nothing comical about tens of millions of Americans being busted, frightened out of their wits, losing their jobs, their student loans, their public housing, their families, their freedom...
And show me the humor in a dying cancer patient who's denied legal access to a drug known to relieve pain and suffering.
More here. And here are Bill Maher, Mos Def, Salman Rushdie, and Christopher Hitchens talking about the same thing:
A robot with a biological brain
Joe Kloc in Seed Magazine:
Kevin Warwick’s new robot behaves like a child. “Sometimes it does what you want it to, and sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. And while it may seem strange for a professor of cybernetics to be concerning himself with such an unreliable machine, Warwick’s creation has something that even today’s most sophisticated robots lack: a living brain.
Life for Warwick’s robot began when his team at the University of Reading spread rat neurons onto an array of electrodes. After about 20 minutes, the neurons began to form connections with one another. “It’s an innate response of the neurons,” says Warwick, “they try to link up and start communicating.”
For the next week the team fed the developing brain a liquid containing nutrients and minerals. And once the neurons established a network sufficiently capable of responding to electrical inputs from the electrode array, they connected the newly formed brain to a simple robot body consisting of two wheels and a sonar sensor.