March 26, 2009
Justin Smith reviews Charlotte Roche's Feuchtgebiete in n+1:
Ficken and Pissen are part of our ancient Germanic patrimony, while Schleimhaut is a product of German's Latin-resistant modernity. There are still other words for describing the body and its functions that have been invented by German youth, who care nothing about patrimony, and know nothing about modernity. Muschi is a term of endearment for a cat, but it is also, as various electronic sources will tell you, a German slang term for "vagina," as well as a main-belt asteroid. In spite of its proximity to that adjective that English-speaking children use to describe the principle property of peas and mashed potatoes, this is a word that does not speak to me, that it does not feel natural to say, that leaves me with that same sense of having spoken against my very personality as when I utter a profanity in French. Charlotte Roche's debut novel, Feuchtgebiete—which would best be rendered as "moist regions," but was recently published in English translation under the approximating title Wetlands—is filled with words I could never utter, and Muschi is the queen of them. This, I insist, is not at all because I am a prude.
Feuchtgebiete is a novel that one fears to criticize, lest one appear as just that. It is a "straight talking" novel, and it preempts criticism by framing the discussion of it in such a way that anyone who does not like it therefore does not like straight talking. It is a novel that faces up to things. "If you love someone and sleep with them," Roche says in an interview with Granta, "you'll have to face those dirty bits—otherwise you might as well not get started with the business of sex in the first place." Yet the serial monogamists among you—and all serial monogamists are also empiricists malgré eux—will no doubt have noticed a wide range, not of dirtiness, but of degrees to which a universally and perfectly equally distributed dirtiness is permitted by different people, with different personalities, to enter into interpersonal affairs. We might also notice differences in the degree to which this dirtiness is permitted to come to center stage in the fictional world of a novel. Roche gives it a starring role, and this seems to me neither right nor wrong. It's there. It's always there, even as other things, deemed more interesting by other novelists, are unfolding in the lives of their protagonists.
John Hope Franklin, 1915-2009
The great historian of the African-American experience has passed away. In Duke News:
The grandson of a slave, Franklin’s work was informed by his first-hand experience with injustices of racism -- not just in Rentiesville, Okla., the small black community where he was born on Jan. 2, 1915, but throughout his life.
Named after John Hope, the former president of Atlanta University, Franklin was the son of Buck Colbert Franklin, one of the first black lawyers in the Oklahoma Indian territory, and Mollie Parker Franklin, a schoolteacher and community leader.
The realities of racism hit Franklin at an early age. He has said he vividly remembers the humiliating experience of being put off the train with his mother because she refused to move to a segregated compartment for a six-mile trip to the next town. He was 6. Later, although an academic star at Booker T. Washington High School and valedictorian of his class, the state would not allow him to study at the state university because he was black.
So instead of the University of Oklahoma, in 1931 Franklin enrolled at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tenn., intending to study law.
However, a white history professor, Theodore Currier, caused him to change his mind and he received his bachelor’s degree in history in 1935. Currier became a close friend and mentor and when Franklin’s money ran out, Currier loaned the young student $500 to attend graduate school at Harvard University, where he received his master’s in 1936 and doctorate five years later.
[H/t: Linta Varghese]
Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note
Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus...
Things have come to that.
And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.
Nobody sings anymore.
And then last night I tiptoed up
To my daughter's room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there...
Only she on her knees, peeking into
Her own clasped hands
art and the Pleistocene era
Contrary to what you might have heard from creationists or advocates of so-called intelligent design, evolution isn’t just a theory. It’s something special—something that explains and is corroborated by the world’s fossil evidence, by zoological and botanical research, and by our ever more detailed understanding of natural selection and genetics. Like any scientific account, the theory of evolution could in principle be overturned. But there is no serious competition in the field—no plausible alternative explanation that fits the facts to a fraction of this degree. So it’s true, too, that art must have a basis in our genes. Everything does. In The Art Instinct, however, Denis Dutton—the philosopher and creator of one of the most popular sites on the internet, Arts and Letters Daily—goes several steps farther. “In this book,” he explains, “I intend to show why thinking that the arts are beyond the reach of evolution is a mistake overdue for correction.”more from Prospect Magazine here.
It's quite easy, wandering round the small town of Billund, to start believing in the existence of a Lego god. You can't help but feel a master intelligence is at work here - the place is so manifestly wholesome, the street plan so well ordered, the pavements so tidy. Unostentatious automobiles proceed slowly along all-but-empty roads, stopping politely for pedestrians nowhere near a zebra crossing. A jovial red-and-yellow Lego giant points towards the town centre; huge coloured bricks lie scattered as if awaiting deployment in some exemplary new civic amenity (except that, being Denmark, it's not immediately apparent what else the town might need). I half-expect to be plucked from the pavement, brushed up a bit and plumped down in front of the smart rectangular building labelled Head Office: Lego A/S. My goal here is to find out how, in the teeth of global recession and barely five years since it was being read the last rites, one of the world's best-loved brands has come back from the dead.more from The Guardian here.
why onegin killed lensky
In a review for the New York Review of Books (July 15, 1965) which he knew would read as an attack on a personal friend, Edmund Wilson accused Vladimir Nabokov of failing to understand why Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin killed his friend Lensky. For Wilson, this “failure of interpretation” was the most serious of the failures in Nabokov’s “uneven and sometimes banal” version of Pushkin’s great novel in verse, and in his erudite commentary, which vastly outweighed the translation. “There are no out-of-character actions in Evgeni Onegin. Nabokov has simply not seen the point”, Wilson complained. “He does not seem to be aware that Onegin, among his other qualities, is . . . decidedly nasty, méchant.” Wilson followed his criticism with deference to the learning and experience which made Nabokov a “cultural live wire which vibrates between us and [the] Russian past”. “I imagine that nobody else has explored Pushkin’s sources so thoroughly”, Wilson wrote. “Mr Nabokov seems really to have done his best to read everything that Pushkin could possibly have read.”more from the TLS here.
Islamic liberalism under fire in India
Martha C. Nussbaum in the Boston Review:
As it became clear that Pakistani Muslims perpetrated the horrendous terrorist attacks in Mumbai last November, many feared a wave of violence against India’s own Muslim community. The community, which represents 13.4 percent of Hindu–majority India, suffers from poverty and systemic discrimination, as the government’s recent Sachar Commission report documents. It has also been targeted by the Hindu right, which, in 2002, murdered as many as 2,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the state of Gujarat.
That violence, like the violence of Hindu–right mobs against Christians in the eastern state of Orissa in 2008, surely deserves the name of “terrorism.” Yet, in India as elsewhere, the word “terrorism” is now frequently confined to the actions of Muslims, and Muslims are suspects almost by virtue of their religion alone. There was reason, then, to fear that mobs would take the Mumbai blasts as the occasion for a renewed assault on an already beleaguered minority.
This assault did not materialize—largely because India’s Muslim community strongly condemned the terrorist acts and immediately took steps to demonstrate its loyalty to the nation. Muslim cemeteries refused burial to the perpetrators. Muslims wore black armbands on Eid, showing solidarity with mourners of all religions and nationalities. The world saw a deeply nationalist community, one loyal to the liberal values of a nation that has yet to treat it justly.
Extreme Sheep LED Art
No private enterprise should be allowed to think of itself as ''too big to fail.''
William Safire, nine years ago, in the New York Times:
''Mere size is no sin,'' William Howard Taft is supposed to have said, refuting the trustbusting philosophy of his predecessor, Theodore Roosevelt. (At the time of the apocryphal remark, Taft weighed 300 pounds.)
When a big bank on the West Coast decides to merge with a big East Coast bank, that doesn't bother me. All the stuff about synergies and cost-saving layoffs and global reach will be meaningless soon enough; future banking will be done on the Internet, every home a branch, and today's giants will be undercut by speedy cyberbankers unencumbered by overhead.
Far more troubling is the kind of marriage proposed by Citibank and the Travelers Group of insurance companies and stock brokerage. That would require changing the law that keeps banks -- where individual deposits are insured up to $100,000 by the Federal Government -- separate from other enterprises.
With remarkable chutzpah, these companies have embarked on a course that blithely assumes that change in law.
They think they can count on Republicans in Congress who say that the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act is a Depression-era relic. Fears that a market collapse could affect banks are old hat, these descendants of Dr. Pangloss insist. Break down the fire wall and let the Federal Reserve keep a benign eye on everything financial; we don't even have to fear fear itself.
States of Mind
Negar Azimi in The Nation:
In the world of celebrity dissidents, Akbar Ganji may be Iran's most famous. A slight man with a tuft of hair atop a mostly bald head, he is perhaps best known for the seventy-three-day hunger strike he endured in 2005, near the end of his six-year detention in Tehran's hilltop Evin Prison. Ganji was born in 1960, and like many men and women of his generation, he agitated against Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi from a tender age. After serving in the young Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guard during the grueling Iran-Iraq war, he served as an attache at the Iranian Embassy in Turkey, where, among other things, he was encouraged to spy on restive Iranian students in Ankara. But as he journeyed deeper into Iran's political interior, Ganji grew increasingly disenchanted with what this new Islamic Republic had become. The values for which the revolutionaries had ostensibly fought, from freedom of thought and expression to the freedom to participate in fair and transparent elections, had been smothered. More and more, this regime made it clear that it would not tolerate critics.
Ganji eventually left government and became a journalist. By the mid-1990s he was publishing courageous investigative essays in reformist newspapers, Kiyan and Sobh-e Emrooz the most prominent among them, about the excesses, financial and otherwise, of President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's regime. Most notable were Ganji's dispatches about a series of ghastly murders of dissident intellectuals during the presidency of Rafsanjani's successor, the incongruously smile-prone and mild-mannered Mohammad Khatami; Ganji's reporting eventually implicated high-ranking officials within the Ministry of Intelligence and other security agencies.
Beautiful Island, Impossible Family
From The Washington Post:
To catch the spirit of Elizabeth Kelly's first novel, you've got to scream the title in hysterical fury: "Apologize, Apologize!" The subject of all that chiding is long-suffering Collie Flanagan, the only sane member of a wealthy family of alcoholics, Marxists, playboys, media barons and pigeon racers. As described in Kelly's deliciously witty prose, these are people you can't imagine living with, but can't resist reading about.
The author is a Canadian journalist with an acute sense of absurdity and the arch style of a modern-day Kinsley Amis. If her novel as a whole is somewhat lumpy and poorly paced, its parts are splendid. The first half of the story takes us through a series of eyebrow-raising incidents in the zany Flanagan home -- "a paean to the cult of narcissism." The family lives on Martha's Vineyard with a raucous collection of dogs "in a house as big and loud as a parade," Collie says. "The clamor resonated along the entire New England coastline." Ploddingly normal and responsible, the teenaged Collie toils away like Marilyn Munster among creatures of monstrous self-absorption. "The most outrageous thing I ever did as a kid," he says, "was drink Pepsi before ten o'clock in the morning."
March 25, 2009
The History of the American Mixologist
My friend Derek Brown in The Atlantic:
Chefs have it easy. Their title conveys a sense of rank and is easily bandied about without someone getting all up in arms about the origin, meaning, and intention. When you call someone a bartender, sure, it conveys the stuff we want, but there's also a missing dimension. Not all bartenders make their own bitters, research antiquated recipes, or use mushroom stock in drinks (not that I recommend it). So some bartenders want to spiff up their title.
The term "mixologist" made its debut in 1856 in Knickerbocker Magazine:
Who ever heard of a man's coming to bed in the dark and calling the barkeeper a mixologist of tipicular fixing unless he had gray eyes, razor handled nose, short hair and a coon-colored vest.
In 1870, it appears with a more serious tone in "Westward by Rail," according to Richard Hopwood Thorton in his 1912 American Glossary:
The keeper of the White Pine Saloon at Elko Nov informs his patrons that, "The most delicate fancy drinks are compounded by skilful mixologists in a style that captivates the public and makes them happy."
I like the latter usage -- and perhaps the term would be more useful if it didn't draw a red squiggly line under the word in our mental processor. Some think it's a nonsense word, others think it sounds pretentious. There's a sense that it's like saying "hair stylist" instead of "barber," or "custodial engineer" instead of "janitor."
The Civil Heretic
The NYT Magazine profiles Freeman Dyson:
FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson has quietly resided in Prince ton, N.J., on the wooded former farmland that is home to his employer, the Institute for Advanced Study, this country’s most rarefied community of scholars. Lately, however, since coming “out of the closet as far as global warming is concerned,” as Dyson sometimes puts it, there has been noise all around him. Chat rooms, Web threads, editors’ letter boxes and Dyson’s own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as “a pompous twit,” “a blowhard,” “a cesspool of misinformation,” “an old coot riding into the sunset” and, perhaps inevitably, “a mad scientist.” Dyson had proposed that whatever inflammations the climate was experiencing might be a good thing because carbon dioxide helps plants of all kinds grow. Then he added the caveat that if CO2 levels soared too high, they could be soothed by the mass cultivation of specially bred “carbon-eating trees,” whereupon the University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner looked through the thick grove of honorary degrees Dyson has been awarded — there are 21 from universities like Georgetown, Princeton and Oxford — and suggested that “perhaps trees can also be designed so that they can give directions to lost hikers.” Dyson’s son, George, a technology historian, says his father’s views have cooled friendships, while many others have concluded that time has cost Dyson something else. There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone — out of his beautiful mind.
But in the considered opinion of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, Dyson’s friend and fellow English expatriate, this is far from the case.
An Army of Extremists
Christopher Hitchens in Slate:
Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it's fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order. Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs. The dress rehearsals for this have already taken place, with the religious excuses given for Baruch Goldstein's rampage and the Talmudic evasions concerning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Once considered highly extreme, such biblical exegeses are moving ever closer to the mainstream. It's high time the United States cut off any financial support for Israel that can be used even indirectly for settler activity, not just because such colonization constitutes a theft of another people's land but also because our Constitution absolutely forbids us to spend public money on the establishment of any religion.
Is this for real?!?!
For My Palms
When out of a nightmare
You come to me
Your bed . . .
For my palms
I let my locks hang down
Like navy-blue curtains
Spread out the gloom of waiting
Like a Sufi carpet
Then like a gypsy wet-nurse
Sit in solemn submission . . .
Shaking fatigue off your feet
And clouds off your forehead
Telling the story
Of Sleeping Beauty
Hoping you lie
Forever in my palms.
ruins of detroit
Detroit is not disappearing anytime soon. At 1.03 million residents, it is the 11th-largest city in the country, larger than San Francisco, Boston, or Seattle. The current downturn in the fortunes of the automobile industry is a hard blow, of course, and it's difficult to be sanguine about a comeback for the city, unless you are the sort of urban booster who sees the construction of casinos as a harbinger of urban renaissance—I'm not. On the other hand, some of the large empty downtown buildings are being refurbished, like the old Fort Shelby Hotel (right), a 1916 building, with a high-rise extension by Kahn, which was reopened last year after standing empty for 30 years. Also, here and there, one sees smaller examples of urban enterprise: a renovated storefront, a club, a restaurant. Not exactly a hotbed of the creative class (which prefers warm climates, anyway) but something. If cities were movie characters, Detroit would be Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson. Down, but not out.more from Slate here.
sunset still smoldering behind the molars of the Appalachian range
Anyone who’s taken even a lazy stroll through the well-worn territory of destructive fictional masculinity—Hemingway, Carver, Faulkner, Roth, Cheever, Yates, Bolaño, et al.—will recognize the basic flora and fauna of Wells Tower’s stories: the hunting trips, the fistfights, the hard drinking, the adultery. He is, like his great forebears, a connoisseur of violence. His debut collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, is (as its apocalyptic title suggests) an astonishingly well-stocked smorgasbord of cruelty, coercion, insult, and predation. It opens with a man waking to a feeling of dread, a cracker shard “lodged deep into his buttock crack, like a flint arrowhead,” and things only get more sinister from there. A cat eats a baby pigeon, slowly. A loathsome little sea cucumber (“it looked like the turd of someone who’d been eating rubies”) poisons, overnight, an entire tank of exotic fish. Brothers nurture mutual addictions to lifelong sadomasochistic rivalries (as one puts it: “I carry a little imp inside me whose ambrosia is my brother’s wrath”). A wife wakes up, screaming, to recurrent visions of a man standing over her. An old father’s brain is pillaged by dementia. The violences compound, quickly and complexly: Peacekeepers escalate the fights they’re trying to stop; a son, slapped by his father, runs to the bathroom and punches himself “several times to ensure a lasting bruise.” Various creatures are elaborately gutted: a moose (“Blood ran from the meat and down my shirt with hideous, vital warmth”), several catfish, and a medieval priest named Naddod.more from New York Magazine here.
humane comprehension of radical otherness
Fiction is at once real and imaginary. Not real at one moment and flickeringly illusory the next, like the fading pulse of a dying man, but both at once, as if a ghost had a pulse. Fiction is one giant pseudo-statement, a fact-checker’s nightmare. Like one of our own lies, it can be completely “wrong” about the world and yet completely revelatory—completely “right”—about the psychology of the person issuing the error. Thus, one of fiction’s most natural areas of inquiry, from Cervantes to Murakami, concerns states of confusion, error, or madness, in which a character’s crazy fictions become intertwined with the novel’s calmer fictions, and the reader’s purchase on the reliable world becomes intermittently tenuous. Think of Kafka’s story “The Judgment,” which opens with a young man writing a letter to his old friend, who has gone to live in St. Petersburg, only to end a few pages later by putting in doubt whether such a friend exists at all.more from The New Yorker here.
Josh Freese: Since 1972
Josh Freese is a permanent member of A Perfect Circle, The Vandals, and Devo, and was the drummer for Nine Inch Nails from late 2005 until late 2008. He has released an album on the internet which is interestingly priced: you can pay from $7.00 to $75,000.00 for it, and it comes with different things depending on the price. Here's what Josh says:
So, I'm happy to report that my 2nd record (SINCE 1972) is finally about to come out. I've been waiting for this day for a while now. It's a great feeling to have stopped procrastinating, made the time to finish it, realized I was just going to put it out myself and (with the help of some great friends) got it done and now finally releasing it!
It's liberating and scary doing something like this on your own, especially when you're not sure how big your audience is and who is going to care. It's also liberating and scary realizing that possibly very few may care or buy the damn thing! I'm just relieved that I completed it, took the measures to get it out and now it can be available for anyone that may want to hear it. All I can hope for is someone to buy the $7 digital download or $15 CD/DVD and I make back some of the $$ I spent making it over the past few years.
I'm not expecting to sell any of those ridiculously priced packages but I sure did get a lot of good press and attention to the fact that I'm putting out a record because of it! Mission accomplished. We'll see what happens.
AND if someone does pay to take my station wagon or have me join their band or go to PF Changs with 'em...... we'll then, we'll do it! It's a prank that isn't a prank. Make sense? Like... it's for real but I'll be surprised if anyone buys any of the real expensive ones, ya know? I'll keep ya posted on which ones sell and you better believe that I'll film all that stuff and end up editing together something to release on the internet.
Any-hoo, to those who purchase a copy of SINCE 1972 "thank you and I hope you like it."
Check out the different packages (and buy one!) here. A free song is also available for download.
Vitamin D deficiency soars in the U.S., study says
From Scientific American:
Three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D, the so-called "sunshine vitamin" whose deficits are increasingly blamed for everything from cancer and heart disease to diabetes, according to new research. The trend marks a dramatic increase in the amount of vitamin D deficiency in the U.S., according to findings set to be published tomorrow in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Between 1988 and 1994, 45 percent of 18,883 people (who were examined as part of the federal government's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) had 30 nanograms per milliliter or more of vitamin D, the blood level a growing number of doctors consider sufficient for overall health; a decade later, just 23 percent of 13,369 of those surveyed had at least that amount. The slide was particularly striking among African Americans: just 3 percent of 3,149 blacks sampled in 2004 were found to have the recommended levels compared with 12 percent of 5,362 sampled two decades ago.
"We were anticipating that there would be some decline in overall vitamin D levels, but the magnitude of the decline in a relatively short time period was surprising," says study co-author Adit Ginde, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine. Lack of vitamin D is linked to rickets (soft, weak bones) in children and thinning bones in the elderly, but scientists also believe it may play a role in heart disease, diabetes and cancer. "We're just starting to scratch the surface of what the health effects of vitamin D are," Ginde tells ScientificAmerican.com. "There's reason to pay attention for sure."
Ebola, a Severed Head, and Stephen Colbert
Here's a roundup of some of the science policy stories we covered this past week on Science's policy blog, ScienceInsider. Scientists around the world have been struggling to help a virologist who might have been exposed to the Ebola virus. An unnamed scientist at the Bernard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine in Hamburg, Germany, pricked her finger with a syringe during an experiment earlier this month. A team of world experts on the deadly disease eventually chose a new type of experimental vaccine developed in a Canadian lab and previously tested on monkeys. In 2003, researchers showed that a single shot of the virus offers protection in monkeys even if administered after exposure to Ebola. As of press time, it was still unknown whether the researcher had been infected or not.
The mad scramble for millions of dollars in stimulus funds has strained the Web site that handles federal grants, Grants.gov. According to data released in March, the site is designed to accommodate 2000 users at a time but was getting requests for 50% more than that. As a result, on 16 March, the system was down for 8 hours, prompting the U.S. National Institutes of Health to extend a grant deadline by a day. NIH might even begin accepting paper submissions for some proposals. Dutch science minister Ronald Plasterk announced this week that the 170-year-old severed head of King Badu Bonsu II of Ghana will be returned to the king's homeland after a writer found it preserved in formaldehyde in a medical research collection at Leiden University Medical Center last year.
Finally, a public contest to name a new observatory module to be connected this year to the international space station has gone awry after Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert asked followers to add his name to the write-in ballots. His came out on top, ahead of four suggested names.
March 24, 2009
China Calls for a New Reserve Currency
Joe McDonald in the Associated Press:
China is calling for a new global currency controlled by the International Monetary Fund, stepping up pressure ahead of a London summit of global leaders for changes to a financial system dominated by the U.S. dollar and Western governments.
The comments, in an essay by the Chinese central bank governor released late Monday, reflect Beijing's growing assertiveness in economic affairs. China is expected to press for developing countries to have a bigger say in finance when leaders of the Group of 20 major economies meet April 2 in London to discuss the global crisis.
Gov. Zhou Xiaochuan's essay did not mention the dollar by name but said the crisis showed the dangers of relying on one nation's currency for international payments. In an unusual step, the essay was published in both Chinese and English, making clear it was meant for an international audience.
"The crisis called again for creative reform of the existing international monetary system towards an international reserve currency," Zhou wrote.
A reserve currency is the unit in which a government holds its reserves. But Zhou said the proposed new currency also should be used for trade, investment, pricing commodities and corporate bookkeeping.
Debating the Geithner Plan
Paul Krugman, Simon Johnson, Brad DeLong and Mark Thoma in the NYT. Simon Johnson:
There are already several trillions of troubled assets to deal with and this total may rise as we head deeper into recession. The Geithner plan needs to scale up in order to have real impact, but as it gets bigger the political backlash will grow.
This kind of complex market-based scheme makes scams easy. After less than 24 hours, the Internet already abounds with detailed and plausible proposals regarding how to take unreasonable advantage of the plan, either if you are an independent hedge fund buying toxic assets or the employee of a bank selling the same or – ideally – someone with connections to both.
Banks, hedge funds, insurance companies and the like are willing to stay involved only if this does not bring onerous additional government scrutiny. As scams become more apparent – and it only ever takes one or two prominent examples – controls will be tightened and private sector participation will fall off.
Considering the The Art Instinct
Chris Shoen's review of Denis Dutton's book:
At the end of the introduction to The Art Instinct, Dutton sets himself a curious task. Having established that art is a phenomenon arising from a "universal aesthetic" that has been endowed in us by our genes, he then announces that the purpose of his book is to argue that art is actually the force that liberates us from biological imperatives: "The arts set us above the very instincts that make them possible." He illustrates his stance with the scene from The African Queen where Charlie attempts to justify his drunken fatalism with an invocation to "human nature." Replies Rose: "Human Nature is what we were put on this earth to rise above, Mr. Allnut." Comments Dutton: "This book is on the side of Rose's famous retort."
This may be the most essential statement Dutton makes in the book, as it acknowledges an intrinsic tension between nature and culture that has occupied moral theorists throughout human history. It is also a signal to the skeptical reader that Dutton does not intend to sidestep some of the thornier problems, both ethical and logical, that might arise from a thesis that Art--the apotheosis of culture--is in fact thoroughly biological.
drawing the inner kingdoms
The invention of the microscope in the seventeenth century revealed a miniature world no less vast and complicated than the depths of the starry heavens, themselves gloriously unveiled not long before by the telescope. Creatures previously invisible to human eyes proved to be crafted in detail as marvelous as that of any visible plant or beast, a fact that threw religion and science (in those days still known as natural philosophy) into an existential confusion, from which neither discipline has yet emerged entirely. It was one thing to discover new continents or new constellations, and quite another to discover, as Antonie van Leeuwenhoek—the Dutch inventor of the microscope—did with some horror, that whole kingdoms of "animalcules" were carrying on their lives within his own mouth. One of the chief confusions presented by these tiny creatures was their place in the ranks of animal and vegetable. In 1705, when the erudite Swede Olof Rudbeck Junior published his biblical study The Selah Bird: Neither Bird nor Locust, his readers were still as likely as the ancient Hebrews to see bugs and birds as essentially similar creatures.more from the NYRB here.
IN THE SOUL-SEARCHING sparked by the financial meltdown, Americans have started to look askance at some of the habits and policies that had come to define our country. Excessive consumption and living on credit are no longer seen as acceptable, let alone possible. "Deregulation" is suddenly a dirty word. Yet despite the housing crisis, one value, more deeply entrenched, remains sacrosanct: homeownership. Irresponsible mortgages have been universally condemned, but it is still widely assumed that we all aspire to own homes - and that we all should aspire to own homes. Homeowners are thought to be more engaged in their communities and to take better care of their houses and neighborhoods. On a nearly subconscious level, buying a home is a central part of the American dream. A picket fence may now be dispensable, but a house of one's own is seen as the proper place to raise an American family - a prerequisite for stability, security, and adult life. And for decades - but increasingly under the Clinton and Bush administrations - federal policies have encouraged citizens to achieve this goal.more from Boston Globe Ideas here.
rockin the twelve tone variations
My Son and I Go See Horses
Always shade in the cool dry barns
and flies in little hanging patches like glistening fruitcake.
One sad huge horse
follows us with her eye. She shakes
her great head, picks up one leg and puts it down
as if she suddenly dismissed the journey.
My son is in heaven, and these
the gods he wants to father
so they will save him. He demands I
lift him up. He strokes the old filly’s long face
and sings something that goes like butter
rounding the hard skillet, like some doctor
who loves his patients more
than science. He believes the horse
will love him, not eventually,
right now. He peers into the enormous eye
and says solemnly, I know you. And the horse
will not startle nor look away,
this horse the color of thick velvet drapes,
years and years of them behind the opera,
backdrop to ruin and treachery, all
innocence and its slow
doomed unwinding of rapture..
Son of poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes kills himself
From The Guardian:
Nicholas Hughes, the son of the poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, has hanged himself at the age of 47. The former fisheries scientist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks had carved out a successful scientific career in one of the remotest parts of the western world, but ultimately he could not escape the legacy of being the offspring of one of the most famous and tragic literary relationships of the 20th century.
Those who know little else about his mother know that she was the American-born poet who gassed herself in the kitchen of her north London home in February 1963 while her one-year-old son and his two-year-old sister, Frieda, slept in their cots in a nearby room. Plath had placed towels around the kitchen door to make sure the fumes did not reach her children. She had been distraught at the break-up of her relationship with Hughes, following her discovery of his infidelity. Six years after their mother's death, in 1969, their father's then partner, Assia Wevill, also killed herself, killing her four-year-old daughter Shura in the process.
Extravagant Results of Nature’s Arms Race
Nicholas Wade in The New York Times:
Nature is reputed to be red in tooth and claw, but many arms races across the animal kingdom are characterized by restraint rather than carnage. Competition among males is often expressed in the form of elaborate weapons made of bone, horn or chitin. The weapons often start off small and then, under the pressure of competition, may evolve to attain gigantic proportions. The Irish elk, now extinct, had antlers with a span of 12 feet. The drawback of this magnificent adornment, though, was that the poor beast had to carry more than 80 pounds of bone on its head.
In a new review of sexual selection, a special form of natural selection that leads to outlandish armament and decoration, Douglas J. Emlen, a biologist at the University of Montana, has assembled ideas on the evolutionary forces that have made animal weapons so diverse. Sexual selection was Darwin’s solution to a problem posed by the cumbersome weapons sported by many species, and the baroque ornaments developed by others. They seemed positive handicaps in the struggle for survival, and therefore contrary to his theory of natural selection. To account for these extravagances, Darwin proposed that both armaments and ornaments must have been shaped by competition for mates.
March 23, 2009
Interpretations: Steve McQueen, Hunger (2008)
by Meghan Falvey and Asad Raza
In 1981, Irish republican prisoners, led by Bobby Sands, conducted a hunger strike at HM Maze prison near Belfast. Steve McQueen's Hunger is an account of that strike. It opened in New York City on Friday, and we recommend you see the film before reading this.
Meghan: The restraint of your summary suits the movie, I think. I come to any movie or story about sectarian violence in Northern Ireland expecting that I'm going to be attacked with sentiment, with a light scrim of history thrown over a pretty standard David vs Goliath root-for-the-underdog set up. It bothers me that that stuff can get into my Irish-American lizard brain-- I cried watching Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes the Barley, and it was only partly out of frustration that I was susceptible to romantic nationalism. Also I expected another exercise in telling stories about recent history that are meant as metaphors for the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the War On Terror's illegal captures and torture. At the beginning of Hunger I felt like I braced for a similar assualt, and then it never came-- I almost relaxed as it went on! The two Thatcher voiceovers were the closest thing to melodrama-- what a ham she was! But that's enough, maybe, about what Hunger isn't. I watched it as a-- well, what did you make of it?
Asad: The first thing that occurs to me to say to readers is: please see this beautiful, terrible film. I watch a lot of movies, and this one, from the first pounding sequence, felt fresh. More than fresh: new. There's lot to be said for letting a talented visual artist try to make a movie with total control--McQueen's technical confidence and maturity are so... there. There's a moment in the film where the Bobby Sands character breathes and as he does, there are three very brief dissolves to birds flying, and then back to Sands. He's near death. That brilliant use of an age-old technique--the dissolve--was so evocative and so sad that I cried. Even as a structure, the movie is very bold--it's a triptych in which the parts are almost totally distinct. (We have to talk about that middle "panel" in more detail below.) As for the politics of the film, which you bring up, I think they are my favorite kind: the politics of the body and not the body politic. Know what I mean?
Meghan: I'm no movie critic, but for what it's worth, I second your recommendation! And yet, I wonder why we were both so struck by 'the politics of the body,' meaning I worry about it a little. It's such an easy metaphor. And it seems like a dimunition of the terrain of politics. I wouldn't say it's my favorite kind of politics, exactly, but you know I tend to zero in on questions of who does what and who gets what; basic distributive politics.
So did Bobby Sands, actually; in what you called 'the middle panel of the triptych' there are some references to his community organizing. The priest asks 'that's because your needs are specific needs?,' and he replies "Of course they are! some woman bringing up three children in West Belfast shouldn't care about civilian type clothing or whatever they're calling these clown outfits." This is the reply of a person with a conception of interests. but also a person known mostly for his death by self-starvation. I know I project wildly, but I thought, god! no, one doesn't get to choose the terms by which you pursue your emancipation. For Sands, in this movie at least, those terms were set in London and by the IRA.
Was his own body the only field of engagement left to him? I cried at the scene of the "Bearded Man"-- the IRA liason who shot a note out of his nostril telling Sands "Negotiate!"--visiting Sands in his hospital room; all we see is Sands' view of his face, talking intently, but the sound is mixed so you can't make out a single word, and his voice sounds like a memory of an echo.
Asad: I know you tend to zero in on distributive politics, Meghan; you're a sociologist! Bless you. But when I say the politics of the body are more interesting to me than the body politic, I'm talking more about these things as subjects for movies and visual art. When Jenny Holzer makes a digital display that says "PLEASE CHANGE BELIEFS," this act has a political dimension, but it is not simply political or even easily understandable. Similarly, there is a veiled socio-political dimension, a critique of racialism, in Bruce Nauman's black balls--expressed comically. That is somehow electrifying to me. But when, as in Holzer's current show at the Whitney, her displays refer to the CIA, to the murder of innocents in Iraq, etc., I find it less interesting. The venue seems wrong and I feel they are preaching rather than exploring. In such works, we already know what's good and what's bad. Art shouldn't be that clearly valenced.
What Hunger does, in my opinion, is to focus on the tactile effects of a political situation on the bodies of its protagonists: bloody knuckles and bedsores, notes hidden in vaginas and anuses, the tears of an overwhelmed British riot cop. What is the visceral experience of starving yourself to death? This seems so much more revelatory, so much less valenced. I guess I'm less interested in adjudicating the basic question of distribution than you are--who's getting screwed and who's not. That's a different kind of question.
But I still share your suspicion--maybe that's too strong a word--of the film's power. It is the most harrowing and emotionally devastating movie I've ever seen, actually. To watch it is overwhelming, almost traumatizing. When the priest, trying to convince Bobby not to start the hunger strike, asks "What do you think your wee son's going to say?", Bobby's succinct response is "Fuck off. You're going to attack me with sentiment?" But you could say the movie's procession of beautiful male bodies being subjected to violence--some shots look like Jesus versus the Nazis--attacks us with extreme sentiment. I don't know exactly how I feel about that.
Meghan: Do you bless me in your capacity as a man of letters? (Read that in Thatcher's voice and quake!) The funny thing is that we are in agreement: expressly didactic art (especially visual art) seems to me to wander beyond its brief as art and wind ups doing neither what it could do as art nor anything useful as politics. I didn't ask Hunger to adjudicate regional labor politics, nor do I think McQueen intended it to. Like I said, I project wildly from my own preoccupations. And I think it's due to Hunger's success at allowing multiple or unfixed valences that my response isn't, technically, absurd. But I'll take another of Holzer's Truisms: "ABSTRACTION IS A TYPE OF DECADENCE,"at face value for the moment at least and return to your reservations about "Jesus versus the Nazis." This is one of those films in which every object and every face is shot or lit or both to look arresting. That scene in which Michael Fassbender, playing Sands, turns over on the bloody floor of his cell after the mass beating and "mirror search" to stare almost vacantly up at the camera, with his bloody mouth fallen open-- that scene is distressingly gorgeous. The Sands who looks with warmth and defiance at his parents across the visiting room table-- the humane, social person-- is gone by that cell-floor scene. You're looking at an actor playing someone who has had their character beaten out of them, while you notice the composition of the shot and the contrast of the almost-green floor with red blood and white skin. There were a lot of scenes like that (practically the whole movie) where the combination of aesthetic pleasure and horrific content produce unease. And I did wonder, during Sands' dialogue with the priest, if his defiance would have seemed crazier, more like zealotry, if the actor weren't so typically handsome. That's not quite the same thing as what you're getting at, though; will you say a little more about it?
Asad: Nice return via Holzer quote! I'll go down the line using Bertolt Brecht: "First we eat, then morals." Hunger strikers perversely reverse this dictum. That's what the movie's crucial middle panel, the debate between the priest and Sands, is all about: one character is on the side of "morals" and debate and the other on eating/not eating--i.e. pragmatic expediency. Or as Steve McQueen said in a Q&A, "I thought of the scene as John McEnroe versus Jimmy Connors, Wimbledon final. Both players want to win, but they want it in different ways. One player wants to act, to serve and volley, to make something happen, and the other wants to react, to hit winners off the return of serve."
Where I think the film succeeds hugely is by not taking a position on this question--though you could say it implicitly favors Sands, since he's the hero and the priest isn't. The shot you mention, where Sands has beaten senseless and looks giddily into camera, is distressingly gorgeous. We find it gorgeous--in other words, the spectacle of violence moves us, compels us, gets something going. The movie doesn't resist this dynamic in the slightest--it exploits it. Thinking about it, I have no problem with the movie's "attack" anymore--it's a heavy serve, giving us a return to hit. And the fact that the middle panel scene, shot in two gloriously intense long shots (a wide shot for seventeen minutes, then a closeup), is so funny, so alive with banter, and so unself-pitying, means very much to me. Humor found in tragedy can be a consoling, beautiful thing. (By the way, speaking of those Thatcher voiceovers, their use feels very British to me--they somehow make me feel this is a British film in a line from Kes to My Beautiful Laundrette.)
Meghan: You served, I returned! Yeah, that "middle panel" conversation is entertaining. All the banter about Dominic's ambitious, successful little brother: "He worked the bishop. He's a golfer. He's pushy little twerp is what he is." And, as they light Dominic's cigarettes he asks: "Bit of a break from smoking the Bible. Ever worked out which book is the best smoke?" "We only smoke the Lamentations." They're well-matched in deadpan fervor and manipulative skill and it's hugely pleasurable to watch them parry. Why would Dominic bring up his frustration with his superiors in the Church if not to coax Sands into revealing his own discontent with the IRA? You would not want to find that guy on the other side of the confessional grille.
I wouldn't characterize their relative positions quite as you did, though. Dominic starts off on the side of pragmatic expediency (the function of a hunger strike is to bring your adversaries to the negotiating table); and he brings up morality only after that fails to sway Sands. How do you argue with someone who says "My life means everything to me. Freedom means everything," in effect taking both sides of the argument you're trying to have with them? Communicating via balled-up notes smuggled in the cavities of your body could be easier.
About black humor: I can't help but think of J. G. Farrell's Troubles, when unseen "Sinn Feiners" bury the protagonist, the Major, up to his neck on the beach and leave him to drown. He regains consciousness and starts wondering why the British soldier opposite him looks so inert, he worries about whether his foolish love is requited-- he has no sense of the momentousness of his condition. And then he doesn't drown and in the morning the Sinn Feiners dig him up and rebury him, closer to the surf. That is some unpitying distance to keep from your characters. But what McQueen does is spread his sympathies more widely: not only to the orderlies and prison guards (especially the baby-faced kid who cries during the mass beatings, the audience surrogate); and to both Dominic and Sands.
Asad: Yes, McQueen has made a film that doesn't feel as though it emanates from a national perspective--and on a topic where any account seems inevitably partisan. Another thing to admire. In general, I'm amazed this is McQueen's first feature film. The early sequence showing a prison guard leaving home for the Maze, establishes so many things so quickly. His exhalation as he dips his raw knuckles into a sinkful of cool water. A shot from underneath his car as he bends to check it for bombs establishes the mood of tense, justified paranoia shrouding Belfast. Before that, we're shown a strange shot of his lap under the breakfast table, sweeping crumbs off a napkin he has placed there to catch them as he eats. Those crumbs, it seems to me, do a lot: they imply a (fascistic?) impulse to cleanliness. They bring our attention to the body, specifically the mouth and hands, and, of course, to eating and the byproducts of eating. And when the officer sweeps the crumbs, they go right onto his own dining room floor; his impulse makes them into a problem for his wife. A small metaphor for the intractable problem of security, of the impossibility of eliminating undesirable corporeal substance, that is this movie's subject.
Meghan: I agree that the movie is extraordinarily efficient at setting up the scenario. And as in your description of the opening scene, it does this without recourse to most of the traditional techniques of exposition. But McQueen definitely takes sides, though, don't you think? Even if those sides aren't couched in terms of the nation. So many unmistakable parallels are drawn between the relative freedoms of the guards and the prisoners' deprivation. For example, very soon after the guard's morning routine, we see Davey arrive in the prison and he's forced to strip in front of three uniformed guards. The guard buttons his shirt up from bottom to top, in his middle-class bedroom; Davey unbuttons his shirt from top to bottom in a room off a barred hallway. And the guard's clothes are laid out on his bed just as the lurid "clown clothes" will be laid out on Sands' bunk later. The guard listens to the radio on his drive to work; later, we see a prisoner take a rudimentary radio from his visiting girlfriend and hide it in a pile of maggoty food scraps in the corner of his cell. I could go on! But my point is that the movie sides with the prisoners, even or maybe especially as they do disgusting things-- like smearing their own shit on the cell walls with their hands.
There's so much more to discuss--how did we get this far without talking about all that piss and shit! And blood and bedsores and the way Sands, like, eats those cigarettes.
Asad: I love your description of the Kubrickian symmetries of the opening "panel": to me those symmetries observe the structural differences between being a prisoner and a guard. But even if that constitutes side-taking, as the hagiographically beautiful shots of Fassbender also do, to take sides is not the same thing as to make a film that feels nationalist, which this doesn't. Anyway, all those beautiful symmetries are connected to all the things that we haven't had a chance to talk about (the janitor shot! the allusions! the score!): they are examples of how packed this movie is, how motivated each of its shots are. The movie almost feels old-fashioned in its film fluency--it's like discovering someone who speaks an older, richer version of the language. McQueen spent five years making it, with full control, and it shows. And his base in the art world, perhaps, has admirably freed him from the kinds of considerations that someone who wants a career in "the movies," that debased zone, must have.
One last thing about that middle panel, that says a lot I think about McQueen: in his Q&A at a screening, he said he knew he wanted to shoot it as an extremely long take, in a backlit wide shot (which actually looks something like a tennis court!). They shot it and McQueen was happy with it. His producers, naturally, wanted him to cover it from other angles, just in case his pre-visualized idea didn't work as well as he thought. So he started to set up a tracking shot to satisfy them, then stopped and refused to do it. He said he was thinking, "Why should I waste my cast and crew's talent and time? We've got it. I've spent five years on this. I'm not here to muck about."
Meghan Falvey is a graduate student in sociology and Irish-American. Asad Raza lives in New York and writes regularly for 3quarksdaily.
On Penguins and Dystopia
by Jennifer Cody Epstein
Online social networking is in the news of late--particularly as it applies to active, “older” users. Technically, that is me, though I’m inclined to dispute “older” as a demographic label (I’m 39! At least, according to Facebook’s Realage application). But I can’t argue that I’m active. Over the past year, in fact, I’ve gone on something of a cybernetworking binge, re-connecting with former classmates, “meeting” other writers, and composing lists of random facts, desert island playlists and theoretical “bail” estimates (645, if you’re interested. O.K., 645.50).
Like many earnest writers, I rationalize these lost hours as a sunk cost of doing e-commerce in the new millenium. After all, I have an upcoming paperback to promote. And with many publishers just discovering the brave new world of online publicity and the industry itself in screaming freefall, an internet presence seems as crucial to authors these days as family money, or jobs that actually pay. Which might explain why on some “work” days, I spend more time on my status update then I do on my second novel.
What I’ve had more trouble rationalizing, however, is the increasing chunk of time cybernetworking takes up in the lives of my daughters, eight and five respectively. Neither is on Facebook yet (a good thing, as I’d hate to defend my bail score to them. Particularly that last 50 cents). But they are both staunch fans of Club Penguin, a site that some see as a Facebook training ground of sorts.
I first learned about this parallel penguin world last year, when my eldest interrupted an important Facebook dispatch (a self-assessment of my general high school nerdiness) with a somewhat alarming question: “Hey Mom! What’s your Paypal password?”
“Uh--why do you need it?” I asked.
“I’m buying a penguin.”
Granted, a better answer than some of the alternatives (I’m getting a Snuggie! A Nigerian’s sending us money! Or worst of all: We’re eligible for a Disney cruise!) Still, the idea of a wet bird joining our psycho cat, attention-starved dog and two surly salamanders (soon to become one, thanks to either the dog or the cat) halted me in my cybertracks. And not only because the dog also happens to be a birder.
Putting aside, for the moment, the pressing question of whether or not my teen self was “considered a flirt” (it was not) I joined my eldest daughter—who was still trying to crack my bank account--on the couch. Repossessing my backup laptop, I backtracked a few pages. I found myself on a snow-covered island with several cheerful, oddly-dressed penguins. “Welcome to Club Penguin!” the site greeted me. “Waddle around and make new friends!”
“What is this?” I asked.
“Club Penguin,” Katie said, in a tone that suggested I’d just asked her to remind me of her name.
“What’s it for?”
“You walk around as a penguin.”
“ No, you do stuff. Look; here’s the disco.” Grabbing back the mouse, Katie brought her then-penguin “Greta12” (penguin names have been changed to protect the waddlers) across the screen to the Penguintown nightclub. Inside, music throbbed and the neon dance floor blinked. A penguin DJ spun vinyl for assorted, bopping penguins. A few waddled over and produced “emoticon” symbols: lightbulbs, smiley-faces. Another—by the screen name of “Nads123”—offered up a bubbled caption: Wassup.
Hi, Katie typed back; then clicked on something that caused Gretel to flap her arms and genuflect. (Or least, that’s what it looked like to me.)
“Who is Nads?” I asked.
“A new friend,” she said, in her duh voice. Doubleclicking, she deftly pulled up Nads in more detail: a leather jacket. Aviator shades. An Elvis-style pompadour. Another click, and he was on her buddylist. Nads responded with a heart icon and an electronic emission that sounded suspiciously like a fart.
“Was that a fart?” I asked.
She giggled. “Yeah.”
“Aren’t you already doing it?” I asked dubiously. “Playing, I mean? Why do you have to pay?”
“If you’re not a member you can’t buy clothes, or decorate your igloo. And you can only get two puffles, and only the red and blue ones.”
Another eye-roll. “The penguins’ pets. All the cool penguins have yellow, orange and black ones.”
My daughter is actually quite an ardent environmentalist. But pointing out that real penguins don’t have pets (or igloos, or DJ’s) seemed, well, pointless: an exercise in ornithology this was not. Instead, I scanned the Parents page to see how it all worked. Apart from Nads and his digestive issues, it all seemed well thought-out, above-board. There are no bail tallies on Club Penguin, and no commercial links that might land kids on gambling sites or tantric massage centers. Real names, addresses, phone numbers, and obscenities (if not flatulence) are assiduously screened out, and adult monitors keep tabs on the general waddlings-about. Players are encouraged to report rule infractions; they can also apply for the elite “Secret Agent” status that that grants them a kind of mini-moderator status themselves. Convictions—on cursing, soliciting phone numbers, or financial fraud charges—can lead to bans from one day in duration, to an entire human lifetime. This holds true even if the “crime” was unintentional, as it was in the case of my friend Sonia’s daughter, who once asked a fellow waddler where he “got his shit.” She meant shirt, of course; but she still got the boot.
In some ways, though, such stringency was reassuring; as was the site’s assertion that Club Penguin is a great place to learn and grow. Children practice reading, develop keyboarding skills and participate in creative role playing… [They also] develop important social skills while gaining a deeper understanding of their role as members of a community. In other words, just like Facebook, this networking site has some serious and practical utility; even if Nad’s social skills did strike me as somewhat underdeveloped. And even if the starchy New Englander in me (the one that as a child walked miles to school, daily in the rain, uphill both ways) couldn’t help but wonder whether Katie shouldn’t spend her time more, well, actively. Doing homework, for example. Or reading about Narnia. Or weaving potholders that would never touch a pot. Things I did at her age. Ideally, things that didn’t involve me, as I still had that nerd survey to finish.
Sensing my hesitation, Katie shifted to wheedle mode. “Pleeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaase,” she pleaded. “Just look at me. I’m naked. I’m lonely. I need a pet.” I considered my current status: Jennifer’s daughter is naked and lonely. Jennifer needs to finish her high school nerd note. On cue, our needy Spaniel rubbed her nose against Katie’s hand; she was decisively ignored. Onscreen Greta12--now mysteriously on a ski-slope—emoted a sad and lonely face. No Nads in sight now, though I did see a brown penguin named “Poopoo623.”
“You won’t even have to do anything, once I’m a member,” Katie coaxed. “I’ll do everything myself.”
Jennifer just got some free work time on Facebook. “OK,” I said. “But you pay half. And I do the Paypal payment.”
“Oh thankyouthankyouthankyou! You’re the best mom in the world.” (Jennifer is the best mom in the world!)
So Katie went puffle shopping, and I returned to past nerddom. Molly slunk dejectedly into her house. “Don’t worry,” I assured her. “It’ll only last a week or two.”
But the weeks waddled by, with no sign of cybernetworking dwindling. In either of our lives. If anything, it grew: by week three I was contemplating my Best Books in All of History, while Katie played penguin games like “bean counting.” (Which might explain the farting.) Her sister caught the bug and frequently hovered at Katie’s shoulder, cheering Greta12 on in her adventures. A typical exchange:
“Ooooh! He farted!”
“Now he’s saying he loves me.”
“I know—yuck! Get away from him!”
“Oooooh! He farted AGAIN! What do I do?”
“I don’t know howwwww!”
I still worried that social networking was keeping Katie (and now Hannah) from more wholesome, traditional childhood pastimes. But I also appreciated the time her hobby gave me: whole hours opened up while she waddled around, making friends. Her new obsession also offered an unprecedented bargaining tool: No logging on until you’ve cleaned your room! Use that tone with me once more, young lady, and you’ll lose all your new friends! In truth, all you had to say was penguin—in a faintly ominous tone--and the bed was made in a matter of minutes.
Katie’s buddy list—and mine--continued to grow steadily, though she trimmed it with a ruthlessness worthy of Project Runway. Her make-or-break friendship system made Facebook’s Whopper Sacrifice program (http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2009/01/15/burger-king-cancels-facebook-ad-campaign/) look like easy love. Even Nads was banished, a mere two days after flatulating his way onto her list. “What happened?” I asked.
“He was weird,” she said. “And I hated his hair.”
So in Penguinland, fashion more or less equals social worth. I’ll admit, my inner nerd (the one not seen as a flirt, who wore her Lee cords above her ankles, in the rain) took exception to this equation. The Facebooker in me, however, sort of got it. As Lee Siegal (disgraced blogger and New Republic editor) posits in Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, venturing online requires a certain reductionism of the self. We are known and judged not by the content of our character, but by the content of our ipods. Or in Katie’s case, by the color of her puffles. In the end we are (at least, in Seigel’s terminology) little more than cyberghosts: Ads pop up, spam comes in….Search engines pick up on what you post….Gradually, on e-mail, on your blog, on eBay, on Jdate.com, by hook or by crook, the ghosts in your machine -- other people -- throng closer to you. Thus, in “real life” Nads might be a nuanced and lovely boy; a Sudoku wiz. A Shakespeare reader. An accomplished drummer or trombonist. In Penguinworld, however, he is nothing more then a farting penguin with bad hair. I couldn’t blame Katie for dumping him.
A few weeks later, however, I was forced to reconsider this boil-yourself-down-to-the-cyberdregs system. My younger daughter, having completed the prerequisite wheedling, was now a Club member too. She could often be found waddling around in a blonde wig and a purple tutu, typing primal captions like “noooooooeeeeeeeennnnnnssssss!” and “ssssssspll99999999999!” Curious to see how an illiterate five-year-old social networked, I joined her at the club one day. We started out at the lighthouse, scanning the seas for a penguin pirate by the name of Rockhopper (seeing him was extremely important, though I never quite figured out why). Failing this, we waddled over to the Penguintown skating rink and met Marcus, a blue penguin in a brown Steelers sweatshirt. Hannah offered up a happy face. He offered one back. Then he added: “You know, I’m not really from Pittsburgh.”
“Uh-oh,” I said.
“What’s he saying?”
“I’m not sure,” I said, truthfully. “But maybe we should go meet someone else.”
“No!” she squealed. “Let’s report him!”
“He’s ugly,” Hannah retorted, and clicked the Moderator button in a way that suggested she’d done this many times before. “Quick, Mommy! How do you spell ‘ugly?’”
I eventually dissuaded her from sending poor Marcus to the slammer. Instead, we farted in his general direction, this being a keyboarding skill that we had by now “developed.” Still, as I adjusted my LivingSocial Album to more accurately reflect my obsession with the Kills I felt a chill that had nothing to do with virtual snow. Sure, social networking was keeping my kids happy and safe, giving Hannah motivation to learn her letters, and giving me productive work time (like right now). But at what point does “safe” become downright dystopian? Was my toddler becoming the pink penguin equivalent of one of Mao Tse Tung’s Red Guards?
I took this and other questions to the King Penguin himself; or at least, to one of them. In 2004, Lane Merrifield founded the site with two other Internet specialists and parents. Their goal: to create a virtual world where kids of all ages could “play games, have fun and interact.”
There’s little doubt they succeeded; by 2007 Club Penguin reportedly had 12 million account holders. That same year Disney bought it, perhaps guessing that farting Arctic fowl might make an ideal family cruise theme. To my knowledge (and relief) the cruise thing has yet to materialize. But the site has garnered numerous awards and distinctions, including the 2008 Parents’ Choice Award, the 2008 Kidspot Best Website (8-11 years) Award, the 2008 National Parenting Publications Award and the 2008 Web Award.
Mr. Merrifield—who is now an executive VP for Disney Online Studios--wouldn’t confirm Club Penguin’s current membership figures. But he did reveal that the site’s largest player bases are in North America, the United Kingdom, Australia and Brazil. In fact, in November Disney launched Penguinland in Portuguese, its first non-English version (Waddle em volta e fazer amigos!). It is about to announce a French version (Waddle et se faire des nouveaux amis!), with Spanish (Waddle alrededor y haz amigos nuevos!) soon to follow. Nothing yet in Chinese; but as regards my Red Guard question Merrifield wrote back: “[the reporting system] is really just our version of a Neighborhood Watch program. It allows members of the community to take responsibility and play a role in keeping Club Penguin the kind of place they want to spend time.” Again, not so different from Facebook: who doesn’t want to spend time in a place that lays your sexual and hygienic past open to all six-hundred-plus of your friends?
Merrifield contested the idea of Club Penguin as a kind of Facebook Jr. He did posit, however, that it could be helpful training for the future: “Children who go online need to understand basic online safety and how to conduct themselves,” he wrote. “If parents can work with us and with their children to instill these values early on, children will be better prepared to deal with moving onto sites that might not be as closely monitored as Club Penguin when they’re older.”
But was he aware (I wrote) that those “values” include fart sounds?
“I have to admit, I did know about that one,” Merrifield wrote back, emoting (I imagined) a virtual sheepish face. “It was a request that came from the kids that we obliged. It makes them laugh. And while pressing a combination of keys may make that happen, it’s not something we proscribe or tell the kids about.” [Pssst: the secret keys are E and T!] “If they actually go to the effort and exploration required to discover it, and it’s not something we feel is hurting anyone or really breaking the rules, it’s okay.”
Of course, the line between rule-breaking and rule-abiding can be subtle, as I discovered just this weekend. The “Club Penguin Awards” is an Oscar-like event where members waddle around in formalwear, parroting lines like “You seem like an attentive, lovely audience!” and “I’d like to thank the Academy…” It actually looked kind of fun, so when Katie left to take a brief bathroom break I took the opportunity to fill in. Someone waddled up and bubbled “Look at these amazing outfits!” Somewhat influenced by my second glass of wine (it was Friday night, after all) I typed back: “Gee, I hope no one’s wardrobe malfunctions!” I thought that was pretty funny—until Sunday morning, when Katie tried to log in.
“I’ve been banned!” she exclaimed, in astonishment.
“Oh, geez,” I said (emoting a sheepish face). “I’m so sorry.” And I was—it was her first time in ban-dom, and I could tell it really hurt her to be banned from her puffles and her igloo. And in the end, of course, it hurt me too; for what on earth is she going to do for the next twenty-four hours while I try (for purely professional purposes) to figure out Facebook’s new homepage setup?
Can You Hear Me, Major Tom?
by Jeff Strabone
Two famous men known for reinventing themselves have spent most of this decade in hiding: Osama bin Ladin and David Bowie. Away from the public eye, Bin Ladin has been busy releasing mixtapes of varying quality over the past few years, but Bowie not so much. Bin Ladin's listeners, at the CIA and around the world, are very devoted to his work: no matter the content or the production values, they really get into each of his new releases and perform close readings in order to make sense of the man and his œuvre. Bowie has his share of fans, too, myself included, who stand ready to parse his latest offerings, but he has not released a new album in almost six years. I think it's time he came out of his cave and faced the music. Aside from a handful of guest appearances with everyone from TV on the Radio to Scarlett Johanson, Bowie has been missing in action as a recording artist since September 2003 when he released his latest album Reality.
My friend Daniel F has suggested that it's far better for Bowie to wait out a potential creative dry spell than to make bad music. I intend to argue the exact opposite: that it is far better for a great artist to make bad work than to make no work. Yes, you read that right: I am demanding more bad art. And in Bowie's particular case, I hope to convince you to join me in asking him to get off the couch and release some new music, no matter how good or bad it may turn out to be.
The premise of my argument is that some artists make more than their work: they make themselves. Part of their art is to generate mythology about their personas. They invent and reinvent themselves as characters that are just as meaningful as anything they write or sing or paint or perform. Like the living sculptures Gilbert and George, some artists are living art.
The idea of the personality as an æsthetic object goes back at least to Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). In the preface, Pater wrote:
'The objects with which aesthetic criticism deals—music, poetry, artistic and accomplished forms of human life—are indeed receptacles of so many powers or forces: they possess, like the products of nature, so many virtues or qualities. What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under its influence?'
Pater's student Oscar Wilde put the idea into practice.
Pop music of the past several decades has been a gallery of artful personalities whose legends the public devotes its analytical skills to interpreting. Elvis Presley, Yoko Ono, Bruce Springsteen, and Madonna may or may not be great musical artists, but they have all made their lives the foundations of modern mythologies. Bob Dylan has reinvented himself so many times that it took a company of actors to portray him in Todd Haynes's brilliant film I'm Not There (2007). But before casting Cate Blanchett, Heath Ledger et al. to play Dylan, Haynes made a tribute film called Velvet Goldmine (1999), dedicated to the most restless self-mythologizer of all, David Bowie.
Bowie's reinventions over the years have reflected their times, which makes one want to know all the more how this chameleon man would respond to the wars, terrors, and fears of the age of Bush, and now Obama. We do have the record of his creative response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. At Madison Square Garden on October 20, 2001, he performed two songs at the live benefit known as the Concert for New York City. The second song was 'Heroes', which makes a certain kind of sense if one neglects the original Berlin setting of the song. The first song was the standout: a simple, minimalist, moving interpretation of Simon and Garfunkel's 'America' on a Suzuki Omnichord. Here is the video, which I encourage you to watch. One can only wish that the performance's tone of simple modesty had been more widespread in those trying times. What has Bowie made of events before and since then?
To answer that question, I am going to propose my own periodization of Bowie's career with the intention of focusing on the 1980's: the Reagan and Thatcher years, which I deem a bad decade for Bowie. If you share my dissatisfaction with Bowie's 80's output, then we can use the decade as a test case to answer the original question: is it better for a great artist to make bad art or no art?
First period, the 1960's (1964 to 1968): The young Bowie worked his way through other people's styles on his early singles and self-titled first album.
Second period, the 1970's (1969 to 1980): The golden years of relentless reinvention, restless exploration, and prolific output, framed by Space Oddity and Scary Monsters.
Third period, the 1980's (1983 to 1988): Bowie made middling to bad albums that at first approached the era of excess with a touch of danceable irony and later succumbed to its worst features.
Fourth period, the 1990's (1989 to 2000): Collaborating with Reeves Gabrels, Bowie first stripped away the accretions of the 1980's and then built up new and better ones by experimenting with popular genres and ideas of the 90's.
Now, the 2000's: Just two albums followed by almost six years of radio silence.
There is not much that we can say about Bowie's music in this nearly-over decade. Heathen (2002) is as good an album as he had made since 1980, but it is stifling to try to make critical statements about non-output. So let's go back to those albums, some dreadful, of the 80's and see what they allow us to do: Let's Dance (1983), Tonight (1984), the Labyrinth soundtrack (1986), and the accidentally ironically titled Never Let Me Down (1987). As bad as some of these albums are, they provide essential meaning to the rest of Bowie's work and his mythology, and they challenge us to try to imagine how he could have made these records in the first place. They are as worth thinking about, although not listening to on a regular basis (or at all in the case of Never Let Me Down), as the rest of his œuvre. (Similarly, Dylan's born-again Christian albums, Saved (1980) especially, are disdained by many of his fans, who nevertheless do love to talk about them, and the period is an essential part of the myth of Dylan.)
So, two claims then about Bowie's bad music of the 80's: it gives essential shape to the rest of his work, and it provides exegetical challenges that help us read the mythology. In my periodization above, I placed Scary Monsters at the end of the second period because it provides an explicit closure to the themes and personal demons that haunted Bowie in the 70's. The song 'Ashes to Ashes' revisits the character Major Tom from 'Space Oddity' as an alter ego for Bowie. When we first met him in 1969, he had taken off for outer space where he found himself 'floating in a most peculiar way'. Bowie subsequently took up residence on Mars as Ziggy Stardust, fell to Earth in a Nicolas Roeg film, wound up in Berlin feeling Low, and ended the decade in self-elegy:
Ashes to ashes,
Funk to funky,
We know Major Tom's a junkie,
Strung out in heaven's high,
Hitting an all-time low.
Aside from the five-song soundtrack EP from his BBC production of Brecht's Baal (the only Bowie album I do not have—help me somebody!), his three-year absence from the recording studio makes sense. Scary Monsters was the end of an era, an addiction, and an abyss. He hit the all-time low and was going to start over.
We can see that quite brightly in his next album, Let's Dance, which is unlike anything that preceded it. There is nothing scary or monstrous about an imperative to dance. Bowie, lyrically and visually, is the star of a new set of stories, none of them directly about him. We see him in the music videos from the album dressed in an immaculate yellow suit ('Modern Love'), ironically (one hopes) playing with vaguely colonial Orientalist tropes ('China Girl'), and impassively observing the contradictions of Western consumerism that indigenous Australians face ('Let's Dance').
There appears to be some very stylized critique running through some of this material, but Bowie himself is the one wearing the suit, and we know how his identities tend to take on a life of their own. Here is another image of Bowie in the crisp yellow suit and bowtie. It is from the widely aired 'Coffee Achiever' television ad campaign of 1984, sponsored by the National Coffee Association. The cocaine achiever of the 70's had become the coffee achiever of the 80's. (I can't help but think that Cicely Tyson appears in the ad as a stand-in for that other great cocaine-achieving musician of the 70's, her husband Miles Davis.) Being clean from cocaine is surely a good thing, but I wonder about men in suits and suspenders who are obsessed with achievement in the 1980's. Was Bowie adopting the æsthetics and values of Reaganism?
The albums got worse and worse—to say nothing of the fact that the other half of Let's Dance is utterly forgettable—until the aforementioned Never Let Me Down, which even Bowie acknowledges as his absolute worst. The Wikipedia entry for the album quotes him as saying:
'I know that everything I do is really heartfelt. Even if it's a failure artistically, it doesn't bother me in the same way that Never Let Me Down bothers me. I really shouldn't have even bothered going into the studio to record it.'
That is where we differ. The material excess of the 80's that Bowie fell for once he fell into the yellow suit is part of the legend, as is the dramatic musical break that followed it. This is how Jon Pareles in the New York Times for August 2, 1987 described Bowie's Glass Spider tour:
'Under the dangling legs of a huge (60 feet high by 64 feet wide), translucent spider, Mr. Bowie, a five-piece band and five dancers will present stadium-scale, rock-driven, imagistic music theater, the most ambitious effort yet from rock's most self-conscious actor. […] To tour the United States, two identical setups, each costing more than $10 million and weighing 360 tons, are leapfrogging one another so that the show can go on two or three times a week. A third setup is currently being built. The payroll for the tour involves 150 people (including performers, construction crew, electronics specialists and 40 truck drivers) and adds up to about $1 million a week.'
That ridiculous spectacle brought about its own demise, and Bowie's subsequent revolt against it directly led to the third period, which began in 1989 with the pared-down, spartan-rocking sound of Tin Machine, where Bowie was just a member of the band.
The band wore business suits on the album cover, but the simple image strikes me as less about the dress code of the Reagan years than about getting back to the business of making rock music. Bowie had gone so far beyond the yellow suit and sound of Let's Dance that a course correction—another reinvention—had become necessary. By 1987, it was clear that Major Tom had joined the Reagan Revolution. I think we preferred him as a junkie.
Say what you will about the merits of Tin Machine, but their unfancy sound and arrangements were as explicit an artistic statement against the 80's and Never Let Me Down in particular as the yellow suit was a turn away from the 70's. The Tin Machine direction makes sense to us because we know what choices led to it. All the bad Bowie music of the 80's thus helps us understand the rest of his work.
In a way, Tin Machine was a pre-grunge reaction to aspects of the 80's not unlike Nirvana's cleansing effect on the bad-hair rock of the 80's. 1987 was such an artistically awful time for Bowie, I would argue, because he had adopted an 80's-specific theatricality of excess that was based on intellectual and ethical premises that he did not share. That is why Never Let Me Go lacks conviction. But that question—why is it so bad?—is a question that we can ask only because the album exists. We cannot ask these questions of work that does not exist. That sounds obvious, but the ramifications are important. Even bad art gives us interpretive work to do: how do we explain its place in the artist's œuvre and in his mythology?
What can Burt Bacharach's fans say about the twenty-one album-less years between Future (1977) and Painted from Memory (1998)? Silence. And that's saying nothing of the fact that even a bad Bacharach song (are there any?) is better than most people's best. And now the story continues. Whatever one thinks of Bacharach's collaborations with Dr. Dre on At This Time (2005), it's certainly something to talk about.
What if Bowie were to make an album as bad as Never Let Me Go in 2009? I would say, bring it on. It's time to smoke him out of his cave. Just make the music, David, and let us make sense of it. Give us the material that will generate the exegetical work on our part. And add another twist to your narrative of the restless reinventor. If it's bad, perhaps the album after that will help us understand why.
Sometimes people have less to say than at other times, but what good is six years of artistic silence? I would rather see a great artist make bad art, if that's all that he or she can do at the time, because even bad art by a great artist is preferable to none. So let bad art proliferate. I will welcome it and interpret it just as keenly as good art, perhaps even more so.
FEELING OUR WAY TO RIGHT AND WRONG
By Olivia Scheck
Whatever role one believes emotions should play in moral judgment, new research demonstrates that the influence of these low-level passions is profound. In fact, a study published in Science earlier this month suggests that many moral judgments are mediated by the same emotional mechanism that is activated by rotten leftovers and dirty socks.
“We started from this funny phenomenon where people will describe…moral offenses as ‘disgusting’…and we were wondering whether that actually means that people are feeling disgust,” explains Hanah Chapman, a graduate student in Psychology at the University of Toronto and the study’s lead author. “In its basic form [disgust] has to do with food and eating and really concrete things. So it was surprising to us that it might be involved in something as abstract as moral codes.”
To test this question, the authors used electromyography to compare the activation of facial muscles in response to bitter tastes, pictures of physically disgusting stimuli and, finally, moral transgressions. Not only was the disgust expression elicited in all three conditions, it was also shown to predict future moral decisions – suggesting not only that moral disgust exists, but that it is – to a surprising degree – driving our behavior.
Is disgust just a metaphor?
As Chapman notes, we often employ notions of disgust when describing social violations, claiming that such behaviors make us “sick” or leave “a bad taste” in our mouths. And in certain cases this makes some sense. Popular “moral” issues like abortion and sodomy may include elements of physical contamination, so it’s possible that this is what people are responding to when they describe these practices as disgusting.
But we also use these terms to describe moral violations that don’t involve physical contaminants – transgressions like dishonesty and theft. (As Adam Anderson, another of the study’s authors, points out, a Google search for “Blagojevich and disgust” yields around 49,000 hits. “Madoff and disgust” yields around 658,000.) Are we actually expressing disgust – the kind that is inspired by cockroaches and flatulence –in these instances? Or are these invocations simply metaphorical?
This is the question that Chapman et al. set out to address. In the study’s final experiment, subjects’ reactions were measured as they participated in the ultimatum game – a common economic psychology paradigm in which two subjects are asked to share ten dollars. One subject (the proposer) can offer his partner (the receiver) as much or as little of the money as he likes, keeping the rest for himself. But, if he proposes too little, the receiver may choose to reject the offer, in which case neither subject gets any money.
There is no elicitor of physical disgust in the ultimatum game. Yet, according to Chapman and her colleagues, receivers exhibit the same revolted facial expression in response to unfair offers as they do to bitter liquids and images of feces. What’s more, Anderson explains, “the degree to which you do that actually…predicts your behavior – whether you’re going to reject or accept an offer.” So, if the disgust expression does indicate the accompanying emotional state, then it appears that subjects’ decisions to reject offers are at least partially determined by feelings of disgust, rather than conscious reasoning.
How influential is disgust?
It seems obvious enough that emotions play a role in moral judgment. It is more surprising that an emotion as primitive as disgust has such an influence. (According to Anderson, even sea anemones exhibit distaste, which is the most basic form of disgust.)What is downright shocking, however, is the extent to which these responses seem to override reasoned analysis.
At least two sets of experiments, both involving the University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, have demonstrated that inducing physical disgust makes subjects’ moral judgments about unrelated actions more severe. One of these studies, Schnall et al. (2008), asked subjects to rate the moral acceptability of characters’ behavior in four vignettes. What differed across conditions was whether subjects were making these judgments in a normal room or in a room that had been odorized with a commercially-purchased “fart-spay.” Subjects who had been surreptitiously exposed to the faux-flatulence judged the characters’ actions to be more immoral than those in the control condition – even when the vignette itself included no elicitor of physical disgust.
A second study, Wheatley and Haidt (2005), found that extraneous feelings of disgust can cause subjects to make negative moral judgments even when morally-relevant reasons are completely absent. Subjects were again asked to judge characters’ behavior in a series of vignettes. This time, though, instead of being exposed to a foul-smelling odor, subjects in the experimental condition were hypnotized to feel a pang of disgust in response to the word “often.” When the vignettes were phrased to include the disgust-eliciting word, subjects’ judgments again became more severe.
There was, however, an additional twist: one of vignettes involved no moral violation. Instead, it read as follows:
“Dan is a student council representative at his school. This semester he is in charge of scheduling discussions about academic issues. He [tries to take] <often picks> topics that appeal to both professors and students in order to stimulate discussion.”
Subjects in the control condition judged – as one would expect – that Dan’s behavior was in no way immoral. However one third of subjects in the hypnotically-induced disgust condition reported that it was. Even upon reflection, these individuals fabricated justifications for their assessments. “It just seems like he’s up to something,” one subject remarked, while another declared that “[Dan is] a popularity-seeking snob.” These results demonstrate the flabbergasting degree of influence that emotions can have on moral judgment, while the Chapman findings support the notion that it is disgust, rather than general affect, determining subjects’ responses.
Washing away our sins
But a final set of experiments, conducted by Chen Bo Zhong and Katie Liljenquist, reveals the most fascinating overlap between moral behavior and sensory experience. Like the authors of Chapman et al., Zhong and Liljenquist noticed that a particular metaphor is commonly invoked to describe moral transgressions. This is the metaphor of physical dirtiness – exemplified by Lady Macbeth’s infamous cry, as she repents for the murder of King Duncan, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!”
Noting this linguistic tendency, Zhong and Liljenquist hypothesized the “Macbeth Effect,” which predicts that “physical cleansing may actually be able to wash away moral sins.” To test their hypothesis, the authors began by asking subjects to recall in writing an unethical deed that they’d committed in the past. Then the experimenters told half of the subjects to wash their hands with antiseptic wipes. After the subjects had either cleansed or not cleansed, the experimenters presented them with a request from a fictional Ph.D. student “who had bad luck in getting funding but desperately wants to complete his study.” It is requested that the subjects participate in this second experiment for no money, in order to help out the graduate student.
“What we found,” Zhong reports, “is that participants in the no [antiseptic-wipe] condition were much more likely to volunteer to help out…presumably because their morality [was] threatened by the unethical deed that they were asked to recall, so they wanted to compensate for that….The interesting finding is that the simple act of cleansing hands removed that motivation to compensate for the past sins.” In other words, the Macbeth Effect seems to have occurred; subjects in the antiseptic wipe condition appear to have literally washed away their sins, negating the necessity for compensatory moral behavior.
Like the disgust experiments, this one demonstrates the involvement of low-level affective mechanisms in moral judgment. And, again, it reveals the shocking malleability of moral behavior by extraneous, unconscious influences. “The idea here,” Zhong explains, “is that morality is not what…philosophers…would like it to be – i.e. based on moral reasoning…Unfortunately, what my research as well as the research on disgust and morality suggest [is] that moral perceptions, moral reasoning or moral judgment…[are] very easily influenced by factors that we’re not even consciously aware of…What I hope to have as a consequence of this [work] is that people can take control of their moral regulation.”
The proper role of emotion
Indeed, one lesson to take away from this literature is that we should attempt to limit the influence of low-level emotional mechanisms on moral judgment and behavior. But these findings also demonstrate the importance (if not the essentiality) of emotions for human morality.
Consider what it would be like if we lacked emotional responses to moral situations. This is to some degree the case for people with anti-social personality disorder – or, as they are colloquially known, psychopaths. These individuals are not famous for their insusceptibility to disgust and cleanliness primes, but rather for their propensity to perform immoral acts – donning hockey masks and hacking up suburban teenagers.
So, although we may always be in some sense feeling our way to right and wrong, we can at least regulate which factors influence these decisions – ignoring the influence of superfluous disgust primes, but remaining open to the draw of others’ suffering. Passions may be an essential part of moral judgment, but reason need not be their slave.
Truth’s and Beauty’s Doom and Date
On “the sequencing of the mathematical genome”
Mathematics is funnier than it gets credit for, and the best laugh I ever had about math involved a friend in college and a course so intimidating he almost quit his mathematics major after hearing the name. “Advanced Calculus—A rigorous approach,” it was called, a title that betrayed a martinet attitude. Whereas your average multivariable calc class was flabby and slack-ass, here you’d finally get some goddamn discipline, boy. You will throw up.
Word around the chalkboard was that every homework problem in “Advanced Calculus—A rigorous approach” required six sheets of paper, because you wrote out every nitpicky step and made every assumption explicit, no matter how obvious—not even arithmetic was taken for granted. For some reason I got endless delight terrorizing Mark by pointing out all the horrid, spindly-legged theorems in other books he would have to dissect in “Advanced Calculus—A rigorous approach,” predicting the logic would drive him actually mad. Every time I mentioned the class, I used its full draconian title, “Advanced Calculus—A rigorous approach,” and fear of it drove him to the brink both of hyperventilation and of dropping his major, which probably would have meant him dropping out of college.
Mark was spared by an administrative overhaul of the department, so he never took the class. For my part, I’d almost forgotten the whole incident until I came across a curious bundle of papers in a recent issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society—four treaties on the future of mathematical proofs, and specifically on how computers were going to take over a large burden of the work in mathematical proofs. However unpromising that topic sounds, it soon had my thoughts dilating like a marijuana smoker’s thoughts into all sorts of wild conjectures, because it turns out (1) “Advanced Calculus—A rigorous approach” was flabby and slack-ass compared to what’s coming in formal mathematics, and (2) the idea of mathematical beauty might soon be extinct.
First, a few lines of history (cribbed from the papers, natch): The first great revolution in math came from Pythagoras, Euclid, and the rest of the Greeks, who introduced the concept of proofs. You saw examples of this in your high-school geometry class. Next, in the 1800s, came the next big thing, rigor. Oddly, rigor in math is most easily recognized as a feeling—the scrotum-shrinking embarrassment that even people really, really good at college math feel upon realizing that some people are way the hell smarter. Namely, people who do original work in rigorous mathematics.
The next and latest revolution in math was the subject of the NAMS papers—formalization. Formalization means tracing math back to fundamental axioms, the kind of migrainous set theory that takes pages to explicate just why two is the successor of one. It turns out there’s currently a movement in mathematics—and the authors of the quartet of papers claim that not even most mathematicians realize at, or at least don’t admit it—but there’s a movement to make all mathematical proofs fully formal. To basically take a six-page homework problem from “Advanced Calculus—A rigorous approach” and apply even more destructive methods to every single line of that problem, expanding the amount of rigor geometrically if not exponentially.
Why? Because when you tease apart every atom of every line, you can actually convert very hard mathematical concepts into a series of very simple steps. The steps might seem stunted and overly obvious and useless, but they lo and behold add up to something in the end. It’s like someone explaining how a car engine works by starting with the theory of bolts screwing onto threads and going into incredibly arcane detail about it, and then repeating that nut-and-bolt explanation every time you came across another screw. You’d get pissed off, but you’d also probably understand how a car engine worked if he continued to break everything down to concepts that simple. That’s formal mathematics. And once you’ve checked all the ticky-tack steps between lines of a proof, you can be pretty darn sure it’s correct. One paper’s author called this “the sequencing of the mathematical genome.”
Computers enter the scene because there are so unbelievably many lines to check—in one admittedly extreme formalization scheme, it’s estimated it would take a trillion symbols to define the concept “1”—that only computers can even think about where to start. That means that computers would really, for the first time in math history, be running the show. There are all sorts of consequences for mathematicians here, including the mundane consequence of possibly turning over peer review to proof-checking software. (This would at least avoid embarrassments like the publication of the paper in 1993 that announced Andrew Wiles had cracked Fermat’s Legendary Last Theorem. Except he hadn’t. He’d left a gap—a gap that would have been obvious to a computer at least in a fully formalized proof. It took another year of work to nail the sucker down.)
But of all the issues surrounding computerized proofs, I’d like to focus on beauty.
There’s general consensus that really genius-level mathematics is beautiful—purely and uncorruptedly beautiful, the way colored light is, or angels. More particularly, it’s regarded as beautiful in a way that science is not. With a few exceptions—Einstein’s theories of relativity, string theory, maybe Newton and Darwin—no matter how much science impresses people, it rarely moves them aesthetically. Science and mathematics stand in roughly the same relation as journalism and fiction—the latter in each set being more admired because it gives us the sense of having moved in a wholly different realm of being.
Computers, to be blunt, threaten that beauty. One of the four authors in the bundle of papers, Freek Wiedijk, assures mathematicians that existing computers are good for checking proofs only, simply tidying up the real work and never, never ever conjuring up original theorems. The current generation of mathematicians will continue to live by their wits alone. But beyond that ...? In a contradiction to Wiedijk, one of the other authors, Thomas C. Hales, admits in an aside that someday, who knows how soon, computers will be doing original work. Doing the work of human mathematicians.
To understand what work computers will horn in on, think again of the relationship between math and science. The former is uncannily, eerily prescient about the latter, and many seemingly esoteric mathematical ideas, ideas pursued for the pure fun and beauty of them, turned out to have applications in the real world. That’s partly because mathematics sets out to describe all the “rules” of all the logically consistent universes that could exist. Given a few select starting rules (axioms), and mathematicians show how to manipulate them. Change the rules, and they’ll show you how things are different. In this sense, mathematicians are working in the multiverse, and so of course sometimes they’ll have done work that applies to our lonely, local universe, even if it’s not obvious at first.
Computers doing formalized proofs will go even farther. The key thing to understand is that when you’re writing up a formalized proof, you are only allowed a certain repertoire of moves from any given configuration, no different than calculating end-games for chess. Some steps are valid, some aren’t. And once computers have learned how to take all the possible ticky-tack steps in a formal proof, they should be able—simply because of brute processing muscle—to map out all of the even illogical and inconsistent universes that exist. A much larger set. They’ll be able to run in every direction without stopping to think at the beginning—as any human would—that this angle looks idiotic. Computers don’t get embarrassed. Naturally, the computers will run into errors and contradictions in their attempts at proofs, at which point they’ll stamp them invalid. And some of what they prove will be truly banal. But sometimes during their exploring, the computers will bust through some unexpectedly subtle opening in some arcane string of symbols, and something incredible will open up, an underground cave. And when they’ve run this new idea all the way to the end—poof, a new mathematical proof, ex nihilo.
This isn’t going to make mathematicians happy. Not so much because they’ll be suddenly useless (who’s more useless now?, as they’d be the first to admit!) or because the computers will be somehow “smarter” than them, but because they’ll have to cede control of beauty. You can imagine a comparably teary-eyed-in-frustration scene with a novelist reading a book that was wholly fabricated from a few hundred lines of code, and having to admit it’s deeper and richer than anything she could have come up with.
The only solace for the world of mathematics is that computerized proofs may open up the game again for the rest of us schlubs, the people who never even attempted classes like “Advanced Calculus—A rigorous approach.” For, once proofs are fully formalized—once every last step is s-p-e-l-l-e-d o-u-t on a level that insults the intelligence—then we too can follow along. Just like with the car engine and the didactic mechanic, we could if we wanted to walk through every step and see how it all works and fits together. And if we’ve forgotten how the engine works overall by the end of the demonstration ... well, at least we got to see a little, to understand for a moment.
Of course, we may not want to. Though fully formalized proofs really only got going in the very late 1900s, the idea of excessively detailed mathematics traces back to Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell and their seminal tome Principia Mathematica, published circa 1910. Russell later admitted that his intellect never recovered from the strain that writing out the Principia put on him. Going through mathematics on that level of rigor stripped out his gears. All he was good for afterward was winning the Nobel Prize in literature.
By Maniza Naqvi
I focus hard on being polite to him. I don’t want to give myself away.
I ingratiate myself with every sentence and every gesture. I reach out and touch his arm, replenish the wine in his glass. He is visiting from Belgrade.
I gush about how wonderful this town is. How friendly and warm everyone is in Sarajevo, how kind and welcoming they are to strangers.
He smiles and asks me, 'Could you please tell me where is that place in the world where you have been and people are not friendly? Is there such a place where people are not nice to foreigners?
I keep my voice friendly. I could tell him of a few places he knows well. But I don’t say that. I keep smiling and talking.
I make sure that I'm smiling and so I send a mental message to my eyes to make sure they are complying and smiling too. I must appear easy, someone he can trust.
I look for points of commonality
I want to show him how a Pakistani and a Muslim is completely sympathetic, friendly, likable.
And I notice that as I listen to him—I believe him—I see his narrative as worthy of sympathy and plausibility.
He is showing me how a Serb, a Christian, is completely friendly, likable.
He is trying so hard—I can see through his smoothness.
I seize on the opportunity when he speaks nostalgically about the wonderfulness of Yugoslavia and how the Serbians miss the good times.
I tell him that the Bosnians feel the same way about Tito and Yugoslavia.
His eyes flash, 'I don't need to be told that,' he says. 'We know that—us—we Yugoslavians know how each other feels.'
It's as though he is saying to me, the foreigner, that he is so done with this, our outsiders interpretations, our interlocutions on his peoples’ behalf—and our narratives of them and on their behalf. He is done with the foreigners’ narratives of the people of Yugoslavia as though these were the truth itself.
His anger touches me. I feel the same way when 'foreigners' speak and write about Pakistan, India and Islam.
I am determined to ignore his constant need to counter each praise or nice word said about Sarajevo or Bosnians. And the constant undermining of what happened in the war. What happened in the war? I suddenly realize that my understanding is based on what has been told to me by Bosnians in the Federation and in the RS who are Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholic. I don't have any understanding of how things are understood in Serbia. How they view the world. It seems as though he sees Serbia as a place that is pristine and its people innocent of any crime at all. If there are any crimes, in his view, then they have been committed as crimes that any oppressed group is likely to commit. And have been committed by a lesser quality of Serb—the ones that reside in Bosnia.
His narrative distances Serbians from Bosnian Serbs. Gavrilo Princip, he reminds me, was a Bosnian Serb—and he was not the only one—it was an organization based in Bosnia called Young Bosnians, Mlad Bosnia, and was made up of Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims. I want to say 'Ah! So it was Bosnians who started World War I' but I don't say anything afraid of the sarcasm that will come through my voice. I want to win him back from the comment about Yugoslavians. So I sympathize with the cruelty and pathos of the Janissaries.
I don't point out or ask whether the Serbs blame the Janisarries for anything.
I wonder, I ask him if the Janisarries who came to India were Serbs orignially! Consider that I say. Perhaps many of us claiming decent from Turks on the subcontinent are actually Serbs. How do you like them apples! We should DNA test that too.
I don't ask whether the poor downtrodden serfs ever had a cruel Serbian overlord or a cruel Serbian king.
I notice the lilt in his tone much like mine particularly when I'm making a point which is on thin ice—and totally untrue.
When I lie I'm down right poetic. So is he.
I notice the catch in his voice, the almost imperceptible catch in his voice as though overcome with emotion during the moment of narrating how first born sons were taken from their families to become Janissaries.
I notice the catch because I do that myself when narrating some grief which has been narrated to me of a thousand years ago. As though, it belonged to me. As though it were intimately mine and had happened only recently.
I notice that I feel unwell from all this posturing and later that evening as I decline his offer to walk me home because he thinks it may be unsafe for me to walk at this time of the night, in this city, and as I defensively say that the streets of Sarajevo are safe for me at anytime, I notice that I feel sick. As though with all my lying and his this evening a virus has been activated in me. Or as though I have caught whatever it is that he has. Yes, I think that is it. I have been under such strain all evening to seem agreeable and sympathetic in the face of blatant denial, a sickness. Or is it that I can feel a certain persuasiveness in his argument that asserts it’s okay when the severely abused use abuse as an alibi to get away when, in their turn, they violate others. I don’t know what it is but I feel that something dormant in me has been activated. I start to feel as though I must take his side. I know as I walk back on my own that there is that virus in me and that it always needs to be checked—this identification with the narrative of wrong done, of no responsibility, of pure victimhood. The grief and the rage that comes of it and the easy justifications which come of it.
And I wonder what it would look like if I were to have recorded him, filmed him as he told me the history of the Balkans and that of his people over the last 800 years. And if I had recorded the narrative of some others accused today of so much—recorded the narrative of history by those who are the ones embroiled on either side of a violence how at one point their sentences would merge, become the same, how their tones would rise and fall in the same places and how at the end of it-- their narratives, they would all resemble each other, weave in and out of each other’s facial expressions and tones, combine and become as though symphonic in harmony, and in crescendos segueing from one into the other.
He does concede, though I have neither pointed to the hills nor to the bullet marked walls around us, he does concede the fact that he did not realize, did not realize how close the hills are here in Sarajevo. He can see clearly where the frontline was—it is a stones throw away. This shocks him. Four years? How can that have been. This gives him pause but then he repeats his offer whether he should walk me to my hotel for the streets of Sarajevo are, he is sure, unsafe at this time of the night.
'Look at these streets,' I say 'Every building tells you a story.'
'Yes'. He agrees.
'Like, we are inside a beautiful painted bowl. I mean being in a valley and all,' I say.
He looks around, 'Yes.' Then he asks why are these places which have triggered off bloodletting in the entire world so tiny? Like shards of glass from a broken bowl that we keep stumbling across in our bare feet: Bosnia, Kashmir, Chechnya, Tibet, Israel and Palestine. Lebanon. No more then three to five million people are holding the whole world hostage.' He says.
I reply, 'We all hold ourselves individually hostage to the sorrows we don't give up. We are forever fossilized in it trapped and imprisoned in it.'
'Yeah', he says. 'So that one event, so overly photographed and magnified in exposure, so documented, becomes that one point from which humankind is not able to move forward because it dwarfs everything past, present and possible. No one really documents the happy days.'
'What is that stone called? The one that has fossilized trapped insects inside of it? The one we wear as a jewel hanging from our necks? I forget its name. What is it called?' I ask him. He shrugs his shoulders. He can't remember the name either.
Later after I have walked away from him and am on my way home through the old town, I remember and say out loud. 'Amber!'
Also by Maniza Naqvi:
The Next Great Discontinuity
Part One: Grapholectic Thought and the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness
“There are things,” Christoph Martin Wieland... contended, “which by their very nature are so dependent upon human caprice that they either exist or do not exist as soon as we desire that they should or should not exist.”
...We are, at the very least, reminded that seeing is a talent that needs to be cultivated, as John Berger saliently argued in his popular Ways of Seeing (1972) “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.”
John A. Mccarthy, Remapping Reality
From the Greco-Roman period onwards humans have perceived themselves at the centre of a grand circle:
The circle is physical: a heliocentric vision of the cosmos, where the Earth travels around the sun.
The circle is biological: an order of nature, perhaps orchestrated by a benign creator, where the animals and plants exist to satisfy the needs of mankind.
And according to Sigmund Freud, in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, the circle is psychological: where a central engine of reason rules over the chaos of passion and emotion.
The history of science maintains that progress – should one be comfortable in using such a term – contracted these perceptual loops. Indeed it was Freud himself, (the modest pivot of his own solar-system) who suggested that through the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian “revolutions” mankind had transcended these “three great discontinuities” of thought and, “[uttered a] call to introspection”.
If one were to speculate on the “great discontinuities” that followed, one might consider Albert Einstein’s relativistic model of space-time, or perhaps the work carried out by many “introspective” minds on quantum theory. Our position at the centre of the cosmos was offset by Copernicus; our position as a special kind of creature was demolished by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. From Freud we inherited the capacity to see beneath the freedom of the individual; from Einstein and quantum theory we learnt to mistrust the mechanistic clock of space and time. From all we learnt, as John Berger so succinctly put it, that “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.”
Of course my mini-history of scientific revolution should not be taken itself as a “truth”. I draw it as a parable of progress, as one silken thread leading back through time’s circular labyrinth to my very own Ariadne. What I do maintain though, is that all great moves in human thought have come at the expense of a perceptual circle. That, if science, sociology, economics - or any modern system of knowledge - is to move beyond the constraints of its circle it must first decentre the “single eye”.
Scientific rational inquiry has revelled in the overturning of these “great discontinuities”, positioning each of them as a plotted point on the graph we understand as “progress”. We maintain, without any hint of irony, that we exist at the pinnacle of this irreversible line of diachronic time, that the further up the line we climb, the closer to “truth” we ascend.
“...Reason is statistically distributed everywhere; no one can claim exclusive rights to it. [A] division... is [thus] echoed in the image, in the imaginary picture that one makes of time. Instead of condemning or excluding, one consigns a certain thing to antiquity, to archaism. One no longer says "false" but, rather, "out of date," or "obsolete." In earlier times people dreamed; now we think. Once people sang poetry; today we experiment efficiently. History is thus the projection of this very real exclusion into an imaginary, even imperialistic time. The temporal rupture is the equivalent of a dogmatic expulsion.”
Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time
According to Michel Serres “time” is the common misconception that pollutes all our models. In the scientific tradition knowledge is located at the present: a summation of all inquiry that has lead up to this point. This notion is extraordinarily powerful in its reasoning power, bringing all previous data together in one great cataclysm of meaning. It has spawned its own species of cliché, the type where science ‘landed us on the moon’ or ‘was responsible for the extinction of smallpox’ or ‘increased the life expectancy of the third world’. These types of truths are necessary – you will not find me arguing against that – but they are also only one notion of what “truth” amounts to. And it is here perhaps where the circumference of yet another perceptual circle materialises from out of the mist.
Progress and diachronic time are symbiotically united: the one being incapable of meaningful existence without the other. Our modern notion of “truth” denies all wisdom that cannot be plotted on a graph; that cannot be traced backwards through the recorded evidence or textual archive. Our modern conceptions are, what Walter J. Ong calls, the consequence of a 'grapholectic' culture – that is, one reliant on the technologies of writing and/or print. Science, as we understand it, could not have arisen without a system of memorisation and retrieval that extended beyond the limits of an oral culture. In turn, modern religious practices are as much a consequence of 'the written word' as they are 'the word of God'. The “truth” of science is similar in kind to the "truth" of modern religion. It is the "truth" of the page; of a diachronic, grapholectic culture – a difficult "truth" to swallow for those who maintain that 'dogma' is only a religous vice.
Dialectic cultures – ones which are based in oral traditions – do not consider history and time in the same way as grapholectic cultures. To the dialectic, meaning is reliant on what one can personally or culturally remember, rather than on what the extended memory of the page can hold in storage. Thus the attribution of meaning emerges from the present, synchronic situation, rather than being reliant on the consequences of past observation:
“Some decades ago among the Tiv people of Nigeria the genealogies actually used orally in settling court disputes have been found to diverge considerably from the genealogies carefully recorded in writing by the British forty years earlier (because of the importance then, too, in court disputes). The later Tiv have maintained that they were using the same genealogies as forty years earlier and that the earlier written record was wrong. What had happened was that the later genealogies had been adjusted to the changed social relations among the Tiv: they were the same in that they functioned in the same way to regulate the real world. The integrity of the past was subordinate to the integrity of the present.”
Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy
In the oral culture “truth” must be rooted in systems that are not time-reliant. As Karen Armstrong has oft noted, “a myth was an event which in some sense had happened once, but which also happened all the time.” Before the written tradition was used to brand Religious inclinations onto the page the flavour of myth was understood as its most valuable “truth”, rather than its ingredients. The transcendence of Buddha, of Brahmā or Jesus is a parable of existence, and not a true fact garnered from evidence and passed down in the pages of a book. Meaning is not to be found in final “truths”, but in the questioning of contexts; in the deliberation of what constitutes the circle. If we forget this then we commit, what A. N. Whitehead called, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness:
“This... consists in mistaking the abstract for the concrete. More specifically it involves setting up distinctions which disregard the genuine interconnections of things.... [The] fallacy occurs when one assumes that in expressing the space and time relations of a bit of matter it is unnecessary to say more than that it is present in a specific position in space at a specific time. It is Whitehead's contention that it is absolutely essential to refer to other regions of space and other durations of time... [Another] general illustration of the fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness is... the notion that each real entity is absolutely separate and distinct from every other real entity, and that the qualities of each have no essential relation to the qualities of others.”
A. H. Johnson, Whitehead's Theory of Reality
Our error is to mistake grapholectic thought - thought maintained by writing and print - as the only kind of thought we are capable of.
I predict that the next “great discontinuity” to be uncovered, the one that historians will look back upon as “the biggest shift in our understanding since Einstein”, will emerge not from the traditional laboratory, or from notions computed through the hazy-filters of written memory, but from our very notion of what it is for “events” to become “data” and for that data to become “knowledge”. The circle we now sit at the centre of, is one enclosed by the grapholectic perceptions we rely on to consider the circle in the first place. In order to shift it we will need a new method of transposing events that occur ‘outside’ the circle, into types of knowledge that have value ‘within’ the circle.
This may sound crazy, even impossible in scope, but we may have already begun devising new ways for this kind of knowledge to reach us.
Continued in... Part Two: The Data Deluge
March 22, 2009
KATHRYN HARRISON in The New York Times:
Fiction gives readers access to the private lives of characters who don’t know they’re being watched, people who seem real — as real as the reader, if their creator is sufficiently skilled — and whose unspoken thoughts and feelings are plundered for whatever enlightenment or diversion they might offer. No writer understands and gratifies the voyeurism inherent in reading fiction better than Mary Gaitskill. “Don’t Cry,” her third collection of stories, confirms what made “Bad Behavior” and “Because They Wanted To” such idiosyncratic and memorable books. She has a perturbing ability to generate what seems as much a vivisection as a narrative, slicing through her characters to expose interior lives that are more often “broken or incomplete” than in any way admirable. The people in Gaitskill’s stories often behave unconventionally and impulsively; they may seem to have an agency outside their author’s control, doing what not even she could expect, but they never escape her pitiless eye and meticulous hand.
Fiction gives readers access to the private lives of characters who don’t know they’re being watched, people who seem real — as real as the reader, if their creator is sufficiently skilled — and whose unspoken thoughts and feelings are plundered for whatever enlightenment or diversion they might offer. No writer understands and gratifies the voyeurism inherent in reading fiction better than Mary Gaitskill. “Don’t Cry,” her third collection of stories, confirms what made “Bad Behavior” and “Because They Wanted To” such idiosyncratic and memorable books. She has a perturbing ability to generate what seems as much a vivisection as a narrative, slicing through her characters to expose interior lives that are more often “broken or incomplete” than in any way admirable. The people in Gaitskill’s stories often behave unconventionally and impulsively; they may seem to have an agency outside their author’s control, doing what not even she could expect, but they never escape her pitiless eye and meticulous hand.
More here. (Note: Thanks to Alia Raza).
Gaza war crime claims gather pace as more troops speak out
Peter Beaumont in The Guardian:
Worrying new questions have also been raised about the culture of the Israeli military, indicating a high level of dehumanisation and disregard for Palestinians among the chain of command and even among the military rabbinate.
An investigation by reporter Uri Blau, published on Friday in Haaretz, disclosed how Israeli soldiers were ordering T-shirts to mark the end of operations, featuring grotesque images including dead babies, mothers weeping by their children's graves, a gun aimed at a child and bombed-out mosques.
Another T-shirt designed for infantry snipers bears the inscription "Better use Durex" next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A shirt designed for the Givati Brigade's Shaked battalion depicts a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull's-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, "1 shot, 2 kills".
A Bank Bailout That Works
Joseph Stiglitz in The Nation:
The politicians responsible for the bailout keep saying, "We had no choice. We had a gun pointed at our heads. Without the bailout, things would have been even worse." This may or may not be true, but in any case the argument misses a critical distinction between saving the banks and saving the bankers and shareholders. We could have saved the banks but let the bankers and shareholders go. The more we leave in the pockets of the shareholders and the bankers, the more that has to come out of the taxpayers' pockets.
There are a few basic principles that should guide our bank bailout. The plan needs to be transparent, cost the taxpayer as little as possible and focus on getting the banks to start lending again to sectors that create jobs. It goes without saying that any solution should make it less likely, not more likely, that we will have problems in the future.
By these standards, the TARP bailout has so far been a dismal failure. Unbelievably expensive, it has failed to rekindle lending. Former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson gave the banks a big handout; what taxpayers got in return was worth less than two-thirds of what we gave the big banks--and the value of what we got has dropped precipitously since.
Since TARP facilitated the consolidation of banks, the problem of "too big to fail" has become worse, and therefore the excessive risk-taking that it engenders has grown worse. The banks carried on paying out dividends and bonuses and didn't even pretend to resume lending. "Make more loans?" John Hope III, chair of Whitney National Bank in New Orleans, said to a room full of Wall Street analysts in November. The taxpayers put out $350 billion and didn't even get the right to find out what the money was being spent on, let alone have a say in what the banks did with it.
TARP's failure comes as no surprise: incentives matter.
The Hindus of Peshawar
Shahan Mufti at Global Post (via openDemocracy):
Arendt and Heidegger, The Play
Michael Handelsaltz over at Jewish Theatre News:
In the scene portraying the nadir of Heidegger's career, he is standing far upstage, on the backdrop of a screen properly illuminated for a Nazi parade, wearing a Nazi uniform (the lighting, very impressive in general, was done by Keren Granke). Oded Kotler, with a haircut reminiscent of the Fuhrer's, looks like the real thing throughout the play. And here - and mainly in the explanations by Heidegger and Arendt for his behavior, in hindsight, the metaphor of the hammer and the carpenter, the tool and its user, resonates. The music heard in the background is Mahler's Sixth Symphony, chosen, no doubt, because the composer was Jewish, although Wagner would certainly have been more suitable and right for the spirit of the period and of the man.
Heidegger believed he was using Hitler, while pretending to be an obedient tool, to resurrect the genuine Germany. Arendt claimed the Nazis used him. On the other hand, Arendt understood during their relationship, certainly even more toward the end of her life, that she was a willing tool in Heidegger's hands, and he used her. The fact that he enjoyed it is not relevant here; she enjoyed herself, too.
In short: The philosopher and his student can philosophize about themselves, about the carpenter and about the hammer. But they, and all of us, merely function as a hammer. We are convinced that we are hitting nails on the head, or are iconoclasts, but in the final analysis the driving hand - our passions, history and simple human irony - use us.
A Brief Tour of Consciousness on the Neuron Express
A video interview with V. S. Ramachandran, over at The Science Network:
RAMACHANDRAN:...I think the problem with Ev Psych, by the way, and I’ve said this before in print.
BINGHAM: By which you mean…
RAMACHANDRAN: By which I mean evolutionary psychology, by which I mean you take every conceivable trait, physical or mental propensity and say, why did this evolve, it must have something to do with the way our ancestors were walking around the savanna and all the selection pressures. Now, of course, it’s partly true, that some of our mental traits are because of that. But some of it has this banal ring to it. You say, you know, men like young women because they are more fertile. Ok, maybe. But a, it involves the cultural dimensions of the mind and I think what’s unique about the human brain especially is we are the cultured primate; and I’m not saying this to be politically correct, I have absolutely no interest in politics. But what I’m saying is what’s unique about the human brain is the fact that we have systems of neurons including mirror neurons that enable us to assimilate culture and knowledge through imitation, through emulation, through learning, much more rapidly than any other brain of any other animal. This is what makes us uniquely human.
Ok, so that’s one problem with evolutionary psychology. The other, more serious problem, I think, is you can come up with any ad hoc theory you want and it becomes very difficult to test. For example, I could say, people say, well because we were on the savanna, we like this, we like young women, you know, men. And there are dozens of examples, maybe you could think of some. But you could say, well men or women like going to the Scripps aquarium. Why? Why do we like to go to the aquarium? Well its because our Devonian ancestors were fish, up in the Devonian seas, enjoy mating with other fish, obviously, and found them attractive. And maybe there’s a residue of this in the brain and that’s why we enjoy going to the aquarium. Now immediately that strikes you as ludicrous and absurd.
Freedom's Just Another Word...
Gary Hart reviews Alan Wolfe's The Future of Liberalism and Jedediah Purdy's A Tolerable Anarchy, in the NYT:
Wolfe’s style is elucidatory rather than polemical. His balanced explication of ideas and their histories makes the book a candidate for advanced undergraduate courses, though more in political theory than in political science. He is strongest in showing the clash and bang of ideas in contest with one another. Most interesting, he demonstrates how conflicting ideas can be at once advantageous and antagonistic to the liberalism he advocates.
Having rejected Rousseau’s nature in favor of Kant’s culture (what Wolfe calls “artifice”) as the basis of liberal thought, he then points out that both Calvinism (or fundamentalist Christianity) and modern evolutionary theory (atheistic Darwinism) are predestinarian enemies of liberal self-determination; that neither socialism on the one hand nor the ruthless markets of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman on the other guarantee any degree of equality of opportunity; that militarism’s roots in Romanticism produce today’s neoconservatism, itself a reaction against the perceived failure of cold war liberalism; that both traditional liberals and conservatives are guilty of a concentration of power that threatens freedom.
Wolfe falters, however, in applying his liberalist structure to the globalized world. Though shunning antiglobalist window smashing, he concludes that “the heyday of American liberalism’s commitment to an open global economy . . . is clearly over.” In response to this Canute-like assessment, reality might say, “Not so fast.”
Acting Now To End World Poverty
Passages From India
Michael Dirda in The Washington Post:
Any of us might make the same mistake: I didn't really notice the subtitle of Wendy Doniger's massive study, "The Hindus." I knew that she was an eminent Sanskrit scholar at the University of Chicago, author of many books about cultural, religious and folkloric beliefs, and a translator of several Indian classics, including "The Rig Veda" and "The Kamasutra." Her annotations to the latter, that notorious manual of sexual practice, are, I can attest, as entertaining and informative as the book itself.
However, "The Hindus: An Alternative History" is probably too scholarly and specialized for readers looking simply for an introduction to Indian philosophy and religion. In its notes Doniger suggests that her book could be used for a 14-week course, and I suspect that it originated as a series of class lectures. She herself recommends some more conventional histories and guides, including Gavin Flood's "An Introduction to Hinduism," John Keay's "India: A History" and that old standby, A.L. Basham's survey "The Wonder That Was India." While Doniger does trace the evolution of Hinduism from the time of the Indus Valley Civilization (2,500 B.C.) to the present, she deliberately emphasizes a small number of recurrent threads, in particular the ways that "women, lower classes and castes, and animals" have endured or surmounted their traditional status. Horses, for instance, are typically glamorous, cows sacred and dogs despised -- but not always.
March 21, 2009
Chickens and Eggs: A Memoir by Doris Lessing
‘What a scatterbrain, what a feckless girl’—so my mother would say of me to a guest, a visiting policeman, a neighbour coming over about some farm problem. ‘What a harum-scarum!’ Did she believe in the evil eye? No. And the Chinese, who, we are told, may say of their own, ‘This is my worthless wife’, ‘This my useless son’. Are they averting the evil eye? ‘She’s such a flibbertigibbet,’ usually said with a fond little laugh. What could she have meant? But the real question came much later, for if you are thirteen, fourteen, what she says has to be taken as true. This knot of wants, needs, angers, attitudes, a confusion of emotions, amounts to being a scatterbrain, the feckless child? Later you had to ask, how could she have used those words on this over-serious, critical bookworm of a girl? A mystery.
Was it in order to cure my flightiness that she said I must look after the sitting hen ‘from start to finish’? Was she curing me of irresponsibility? But I was already bound to the hen, kneeling in front of her cage, an hour, two, most passionately identifying with this incarcerated one, who was as united with those eggs as if tied to them, peering out from the bars as the long hours, and days, went by on our farm in the old Southern Rhodesia.
Before my mother had made the hen my charge, I was gathering up her eggs. A hen, doing what her nature suggests, lays eggs under a bush, returning to add another, and another, but it is unlikely that an unguarded egg could survive more than a day or so.
War and Peace in Our Time
Michael Katz in New England Journal:
The main question for us to consider now is why there should suddenly be such a surge of interest in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when there is certainly no shortage of translations of this famous work. Indeed, there have been at least ten previous English versions, the first translated (from the French) and published in 1886 by one Clara Bell, an enormously prolific professional translator; the second, in 1889, by Nathan Haskell Dole, an extraordinary character, writer, and journalist, whose apparent lack of skill in the enterprise was such that Tolstoy himself felt compelled to beg him to stop translating his works. The indefatigable Constance Garnett also undertook this demanding project, as did another husband-and-wife team, the highly reliable Louise and Aylmer Maude (who knew Tolstoy personally); the first Penguin edition (1957) was done by Rosemary Edmonds, followed a decade later by Ann Dunnigan’s in Signet Classics (1968). Of all these many previous versions, the two that have best stood the test of time and the stricter test of scholarly examination are those produced by the Maudes and Ann Dunnigan.
But why do we have three brand new translations now and why have they caused such a stir? Well, for one thing, as everyone knows, we are currently at war. A quick search of the internet with the two words “Tolstoy” and “Iraq” yields a wealth of articles with titles such as “Perhaps Saddam Read Tolstoy and Bush’s People Didn’t” (Ben Bagdikian, countercurrents.org, 2003) and “No Military Hope, So Send More Troops” (W. Patrick Lang and Ray McGovern, consortiumnews.com, 2006), not to mention the posts in various weblogs opining on the subject.
On July 17, 2007, in a New York Times op-ed column entitled “Heroes and History,” David Brooks observed:
Many will doubt this, but Bush is a smart and compelling presence in person, and only the whispering voice of Leo Tolstoy holds one back.
Tolstoy had a very different theory of history. Tolstoy believed great leaders are puffed-up popinjays. They think their public decisions shape history, but really it is the everyday experiences of millions of people which organically and chaotically shape the destiny of nations—from the bottom up.
If what is taken to be Bush’s theory of history is correct, the right security plan can lead to safety, the right political compromises to stability. But if Tolstoy is right, then the future of Iraq is beyond the reach of global summits, political benchmarks, and the understanding of any chief executive.