June 30, 2011
Does Anything Matter?
Peter Singer on Derek Parfit’s On What Matters:
Last month, however, saw a major philosophical event: the publication of Derek Parfit’s long-awaited book On What Matters. Until now, Parfit, who is Emeritus Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, had written only one book, Reasons and Persons, which appeared in 1984, to great acclaim. Parfit’s entirely secular arguments, and the comprehensive way in which he tackles alternative positions, have, for the first time in decades, put those who reject objectivism in ethics on the defensive.
On What Matters is a book of daunting length: two large volumes, totaling more than 1,400 pages, of densely argued text. But the core of the argument comes in the first 400 pages, which is not an insurmountable challenge for the intellectually curious – particularly given that Parfit, in the best tradition of English-language philosophy, always strives for lucidity, never using obscure words where simple ones will do. Each sentence is straightforward, the argument is clear, and Parfit often uses vivid examples to make his points. Thus, the book is an intellectual treat for anyone who wants to understand not so much “what matters” as whether anything really can matter, in an objective sense.
Many people assume that rationality is always instrumental: reason can tell us only how to get what we want, but our basic wants and desires are beyond the scope of reasoning. Not so, Parfit argues. Just as we can grasp the truth that 1 + 1 = 2, so we can see that I have a reason to avoid suffering agony at some future time, regardless of whether I now care about, or have desires about, whether I will suffer agony at that time. We can also have reasons (though not always conclusive reasons) to prevent others from suffering agony. Such self-evident normative truths provide the basis for Parfit’s defense of objectivity in ethics.
A Modest Proposal
Antti Kauppinen over at the Experimental Philosophy blog:
I was catching up on this blog just now, and noticed that the old question about the identity of X-Phi came up in several posts and comments. Perhaps this is enough of an excuse for me to made a modest proposal. There is, of course, plenty written about the relationship between X-Phi and more traditional philosophy. I think the simplest way to approach it is to ask whether it is psychology, and if not, why not? (After all, the disciplinary identity of psychology is a lot clearer than that of philosophy.) To lay my cards on the table, I think it is: both the methods it uses and the questions it addresses are those of empirical psychology. This is not, of course, to say that X-Phi studies are necessarily philosophically uninteresting – I agree with Tamler (sort of) that such issues of relevance must be settled in piecemeal fashion. But since the two disciplines have distinct questions and methods, it is important to avoid the sort of confusion that easily arises (and has indeed arisen) from using the same or similar terms for different types of inquiry. So I will advocate that people begin to describe themselves as doing psychology of philosophy or of intuitive judgments when that’s what they do. The label ‘experimental philosophy’ and talk of ‘philosophical experiments’ has generated a lot of heat and no light. The admirable modesty of many smart X-Phiers is incompatible with the alleged continuity with the philosophical tradition.
First of all, I hope it’s not controversial to define psychology as the science that studies how the mind actually works. I don’t know what else psychology could be. (Perhaps it also has some limited otherworldly ambitions.) To answer questions about how the mind actually works scientifically, what is needed is systematic observation and controlled experiments of all sorts, including surveys, lab experiments, studies of the brain, and so on. Now, according to Josh Knobe, X-Phi studies how the mind actually works. It does so by way of systematic observation and controlled experiments of all sorts, including surveys, lab experiments, and studies of the brain, among others. Ergo, X-Phi is a branch of psychology that specializes in how the mind actually works when we make judgments about philosophically interesting topics.
At this point Josh would likely say, as he has recently often done, that philosophers, especially prior to the 20th century, did make claims about how the mind actually works, so this is actually just a return to the classical tradition. (There may also be an underlying narrative of progress: put in my terms, the suggestion is that philosophy has always been psychology, but only now it is done properly and scientifically.) Behind this response, there may be a causal hypothesis: certain misguided developments within philosophy (maybe Moore, Russell, Wittgenstein, Husserl) led to an aberration that has now finally run its course.
Steven Shapin reviews Ian Miller's A Modern History of the Stomach: Gastric Illness, Medicine and British Society, 1800-1950, in LRB:
Alexis St Martin was one of the 19th century’s most important scientific guinea pigs. In 1822, the illiterate young French-Canadian was working as a ‘voyageur’ for John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading company in northern Michigan. He was hanging out with a bunch of rowdies in the company store when a shotgun accidentally went off and he was hit below his left nipple. The injury was serious and likely to be fatal – his half-digested breakfast was pouring out of the wound from his perforated stomach, along with bits of the stomach itself – but a US army surgeon called William Beaumont was nevertheless sent for. Beaumont was pessimistic, but he cleaned the wound as best he could and was amazed the next day to find his patient still alive. It was touch and go for almost a year: St Martin survived, though with a gastric fistula about two and a half inches in circumference. It was now possible for Beaumont to peer into St Martin’s stomach, to insert his forefinger into it, to introduce muslin bags containing bits of food and to retrieve them whenever he wanted. Human digestion had become visible.
Beaumont took over St Martin’s care when charity support ran out, and over the next ten years the patient lived intermittently with the doctor, as both his domestic servant and a contractually paid experimental object. St Martin’s fistula was soon to become one of the modern world’s most celebrated peepshows. The experiments were conducted at intervals over the eight years from 1825 and a remarkable contract survives which established a legal basis for scientific access to St Martin’s stomach:
Alexis will at all times … submit to assist and promote by all means in his power such philosophical or medical experiments as the said William shall direct or cause to be made on or in the stomach of him, the said Alexis, either through and by means of the aperture or opening thereto in the side of him, the said Alexis, or otherwise, and will obey, suffer and comply with all reasonable and proper orders of or experiments of the said William in relation thereto, and in relation to the exhibiting and showing of his said stomach and the powers and properties thereof and of the appurtenances, and powers, properties, situation and state of the contents thereof.
In return for letting Beaumont in and out of his stomach, St Martin was to get board, lodging and about $150 a year. But by 1833 he’d had enough: he went back to his old life as a voyageur, and, amazingly, lived well into his seventies.
pass the borax, please
The following menu for a 1902 Christmas dinner party stands—as far as I know—as one of the most unusual ever printed. And also one of the least appetizing. Apple Sauce. Borax. Soup. Borax. Turkey. Borax. Borax. Canned Stringed Beans. Sweet Potatoes. White Potatoes. Turnips. Borax. Chipped Beef. Cream Gravy. Cranberry Sauce. Celery. Pickles. Rice Pudding. Milk. Bread and Butter. Tea. Coffee. A Little Borax Unless, of course, one happens to enjoy meals spiced up by the taste of borax—a little metallic, sweet and unpleasant, or so they say—a preservative used to keep meat from rotting in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This particular menu grew from a series of federal experiments that ran from 1902 to 1907 and were designed to test the toxicity of food additives. In these tests, groups of volunteers—popularly known as “Poison Squads”—agreed to dine dangerously in the interests of science, working their way through a laundry list of suspect compounds.more from Deborah Blum at Lapham's Quarterly here.
being reviewed does beat being executed
Yesterday, with great pleasure, I read the epigraph to Elizabeth Gumport’s short essay on book reviews in the already venerable n+1, the literary magazine out of Brooklyn. The epigraph is from an 1807 editorial in the long gone, but once venerable Monthly Anthology and Boston Review: The office of a reviewer is, in a republic of letters, as beneficial and necessary, though as odious and unpleasant, as that of an executioner in a civil state. This is fun, of course, as long as we don’t have to think too seriously about the death penalty or about book reviewing. There is, I’ll admit, something unpleasant enough about the business — all of us who have received bad notices know it, and we at the Los Angeles Review of Books are aware of it every day, now that we’re editing a bunch of reviews, worrying about our multiple responsibilities to writers, critics, readers, the record. But one thing I’ll wager: being reviewed does beat being executed.more from Tom Lutz at the LA Review of Books here.
spam is bad
On the cut-and-kill floor of Quality Pork Processors Inc. in Austin, Minnesota, the wind always blows. From the open doors at the docks where drivers unload massive trailers of screeching pigs, through to the "warm room" where the hogs are butchered, to the plastic-draped breezeway where the parts are handed over to Hormel for packaging, the air gusts and swirls, whistling through the plant like the current in a canyon. In the first week of December 2006, Matthew Garcia felt feverish and chilled on the blustery production floor. He fought stabbing back pains and nausea, but he figured it was just the flu—and he was determined to tough it out. Garcia had gotten on at QPP only 12 weeks before and had been stuck with one of the worst spots on the line: running a device known simply as the "brain machine"—the last stop on a conveyor line snaking down the middle of a J-shaped bench [DC] called the "head table." Every hour, more than 1,300 severed pork heads go sliding along the belt. Workers slice off the ears, clip the snouts, chisel the cheek meat. caption TK Matthew GarciaThey scoop out the eyes, carve out the tongue, and scrape the palate meat from the roofs of mouths. Because, famously, all parts of a pig are edible ("everything but the squeal," wisdom goes), nothing is wasted. A woman next to Garcia would carve meat off the back of each head before letting the denuded skull slide down the conveyor and through an opening in a plexiglass shield.more from Ted Genoways at Mother Jones here.
Bruce Fleming in the Berlin Review of Books:
Proposing anal sex to someone, for example, is not the same as using the words “anal sex” in a classroom discussion as one topic of publicly unacceptable jokes—such as I did in my classroom at the U.S. Naval Academy, where I’ve taught for more than two decades. I was “counseled” by our Division Director Marine Colonel for uttering these words and warned to avoid a “hostile working environment” Later I was told I could not explain the medical details of a sex-change operation in response to a student question as this had the same effect. (I had proposed that Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, who is clearly unhappy being a woman, might have fewer problems if she were a man: discuss.)
How do words relate to the world? What’s characterized the political left in recent decades is a general acceptance of the stance of linguistic idealism: at its extreme, this view— formed by analogy with the philosophical position of idealism that holds our minds make the world rather than existing in it—means that words are the world. This in turn has led to the insistence on what we call “political correctness,” associated with the political left, with its emphasis on what is said rather than what is thought or done. If words are the world, it’s of utmost importance to police them.
The right, by contrast, tends to see a distinction between what you say and what you do—words are just words. For the right, the world exists independently of our minds, and we, as individual actors, exist in the world. The greatest interest of Palin’s defense of her gun language is her denial of linguistic idealism—even if she doesn’t put it like that—in favor of an underlying view that professional philosophers would call “naïve realism.” This holds that people are agents that act with each other and an independent world using words. Why criticize words? They’re just words.
How Pentagon billions are flowing to strongmen in the Middle East
Aram Rosten in Newsweek:
Officially, the U.S. does not pay other governments for rights to military bases. The logic is straightforward: funneling money to the treasuries of foreign dictators cannot form the foundation of genuine strategic alliances. Yet, to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while staring down the mullahs in Iran, over the last decade the Pentagon has come to rely in an unprecedented way on a web of bases across the Middle East. And a NEWSWEEK investigation of Pentagon contracting practices in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, and Bahrain has uncovered more than $14 billion paid mostly in sole-source contracts to companies controlled by ruling families across the Persian Gulf. The revelation raises a fundamental question: are U.S. taxpayer dollars enriching the ruling potentates of friendly regimes just as the youthful protesters and the Arab Spring have brought a new push for democracy across the region?
More here. [Thanks to Alex Cooley.]
David Foster Wallace's final book is boring
Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
David Foster Wallace's final book is boring. On that, everyone seems to agree. We understand, too, that Wallace intended it to be boring. In the years before he killed himself, David Foster Wallace was writing, after all, a long novel about the IRS. He hadn't finished the book when he died. So, we are left with the incomplete remnants of what he was still in the process of creating. But it is easy to see, in reading The Pale King, published from all the material that DFW was working on before his death, that he fully intended to write a book that would produce long stretches of boredom for the reader. He wanted to produce boredom, he wanted to reflect on boredom, and he wanted, finally, to love boredom.
The most important piece of writing to come out about David Foster Wallace in some time was written by Maria Bustillos for The Awl in early April of this year. Maria is an unabashed fan of David Foster Wallace and wrote a book (Dorkismo: The Macho of the Dork) that includes the chapter, "David Foster Wallace: The Dork Lord of American Letters." Being both a writer and a fan, Bustillos wanted to know. After the suicide, she wanted to know. She wanted what many of us who admired the writer wanted: more of the man. She hoped, as we all hoped, that secrets would be revealed and that the secrets of the interior David Foster Wallace might also shed some light on his terrible, impressive, and depressing final act, the taking of his own life.
Maria Bustillos decided to go to the source. She had the strength to go to his papers and to read them. The papers exist. His books exist, too, the books from DFW's private library, many of which are heavily annotated. There are notes and jottings and lists and letters. It can all be found at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Maria Bustillos went there and she started to read, she started to look through all that material. What she found surprised her.
Last year Ledbury poetry festival asked poets to name their most hated words. For this year's festival – running from 1 to 10 July – they've asked for the expressions that have become such cliches that they have lost all meaning. Here are their responses: please add your own.
Word or phrase: "Thinking outside the box"
Why? This phrase came and bit me whilst I was considering a number of words and phrases. A friend asked if I was unwell. I told them I was thinking about defunct, soiled and spoiled words and phrases and was having trouble settling on the worst one. "Try thinking outside the box!" said my friend with a twinkle in her eye, which I missed because I became so suddenly agitated by her use of this appalling phrase. I believe that I may have wished loudly for everyone who continued to encourage people to "think outside the box" to be sellotaped inside a cardboard box while philosophers ignored their muffled cries and considered whether the prisoners were thinking or not thinking, sealed within their cardboard tombs. "Chill out!" my friend said, laughing, knowing all too well what she was doing and stepping away so she didn't have to listen to the grinding squeak of my teeth.
The Beer Archaeologist
It’s just after dawn at the Dogfish Head brewpub in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where the ambition for the morning is to resurrect an Egyptian ale whose recipe dates back thousands of years. But will the za’atar—a potent Middle Eastern spice mixture redolent of oregano—clobber the soft, floral flavor of the chamomile? And what about the dried doum-palm fruit, which has been giving off a worrisome fungusy scent ever since it was dropped in a brandy snifter of hot water and sampled as a tea? “I want Dr. Pat to try this,” says Sam Calagione, Dogfish Head’s founder, frowning into his glass. At last, Patrick McGovern, a 66-year-old archaeologist, wanders into the little pub, an oddity among the hip young brewers in their sweat shirts and flannel. Proper to the point of primness, the University of Pennsylvania adjunct professor sports a crisp polo shirt, pressed khakis and well-tended loafers; his wire spectacles peek out from a blizzard of white hair and beard. But Calagione, grinning broadly, greets the dignified visitor like a treasured drinking buddy. Which, in a sense, he is.
The truest alcohol enthusiasts will try almost anything to conjure the libations of old. They’ll slaughter goats to fashion fresh wineskins, so the vintage takes on an authentically gamey taste. They’ll brew beer in dung-tempered pottery or boil it by dropping in hot rocks. The Anchor Steam Brewery, in San Francisco, once cribbed ingredients from a 4,000-year-old hymn to Ninkasi, the Sumerian beer goddess.
June 29, 2011
The Art of the Deal
Liz Mermin, also in Caravan:
In October 2009, two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested David Headley at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport as he was about to board a flight to Philadelphia. His intention, he later told interrogators, was to go from there to Pakistan and then on to Copenhagen to attack the Jyllands-Posten newspaper. At the time, investigators had no idea Headley had been involved in the Mumbai attacks (a detail he offered up after he was in custody), but he had been fixated on the Denmark plan following the “success” of 26/11, and intended to carry it out on his own, if necessary.
Although he had been trained to use AK-47s and grenades, Headley had never killed anyone with his own hand. His contribution to the 26/11 attack was intelligence from Mumbai: he provided his LeT handlers with hours and hours of video footage and offered strategic suggestions based on his time living in and scouting out the city. He was impatient for more action, and now wanted to attack the West. But LeT was under intense scrutiny after the Mumbai attacks, and his handler—though initially enthusiastic—had told him to back off. So he turned to al Qaeda. And when the men in Europe whom al Qaeda said would carry out the Copenhagen job were unwilling to do so, he offered to do it himself.
The plan was to enter the newspaper’s heavily secured office building with guns and knives, take hostages, shoot them, and then cut off their heads and throw them out the window into King’s New Square. As in Mumbai, the attackers were not supposed to survive. So it seems that the FBI might have saved David Headley’s life by arresting him—a courtesy they would extend again when he agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with the US government in exchange for a promise that he would avoid the death penalty and extradition to Denmark, Pakistan or India. The latter was something Headley wanted to avoid at all costs.
I had been following the Headley saga since November 2009, when I happened to see a MiD DAY gossip column headlined “Did Headley Date Starlet?” The piece began: “Lashkar-e-Taiba mastermind David Coleman Headley (49), whose reputation as a strikingly handsome charmer almost matches that of his terror history, may have dated starlet Aarti Chhabria.” My first thought—reading the paper online from London—was “who the hell is David Headley?”
One Fine Evening
I was recently invited to dinner at the home of a Pakistani doctor in New York City. There was desi food. Biryani, qeema, baigan bharta, dal cooked to such perfection that one could taste even its fragrance, and rotis replenished as soon as they were gone from the plate. Nusrat was singing on the stereo. From the large glass windows of the thirtieth-floor apartment, I could see Central Park, a splash of green treetops. Inside, the walls were lined with bookcases filled with titles in Urdu and English.
There were ten guests. One of them was a tall, goateed man with his long hair held in a ponytail. He was wearing a maroon cap on his head and necklaces with gems around his neck. I recognised him from the photographs I had seen of him. He was Salman Ahmad from the Pakistani Sufi-rock music group, Junoon.
When we were seated for dinner, it was announced that we needed to reflect on the crisis in Pakistan. Just a few days earlier, Pakistani Taliban militants had made a daring attack on Naval Station Mehran, destroying two surveillance aircraft and killing at least 10 security personnel. An older gentleman raised the issue of rampant corruption and asked what was to be done. Our host, the doctor, dressed in a red shalwaar-kameez, her dark hair falling down to her shoulders, said to Salman Ahmad: “Darling, share your ideas. You have a passionate idea.”
Ahmad said he had recently sent out an email saying that Pakistan needed a revolution. Looking around at everyone at the table, he said that Pakistan “requires a massive social change. It requires a non-violent change.” He began talking of his early days as a singer, when he had been a student at King Edward Medical College in Lahore, and what had shifted in Pakistan since then. “There was a frustration we felt… What we experienced in college, I’d now multiply it to the nth level.” When he was a kid, “everyone wore their art as a badge of courage.” But now it was as if the country were on “a different planet”. Pakistan was standing at the brink. “Out of 180 million, a full 100 million are under 20. They can become suicide bombers or we can build on their potential.”
Is Liberal Society a Parasite on Tradition?
Sam Bowles in Philosophy and Public Affairs (slightly technical):
The parasitic liberalism thesis, advanced in many variants over the past two centuries, holds that the proper functioning of markets and other institutions endorsed by liberals depends on family-based, religious, and other traditional social norms that are endangered by these very institutions. Liberal society thus is said to fail Rawls’s test of stability: it does not “generate its own supportive moral attitudes.”
Consistent with the thesis, market-like incentives are sometimes counterproductive, apparently because they displace preexisting ethical commitments in favor of a self-interested strategic mode of reasoning, as Richard Titmuss claimed is the case when monetary incentives are deployed to encourage blood donations. Until recently, skeptics of the parasitic liberalism thesis could point to the paucity of hard evidence that market-like incentives compromise ethical motives. However, recent experimental studies show that while the “moral sentiments” underpinning the workings of markets and other institutions endorsed by liberals are common in most human populations,3 the same experiments also indicated that incentives that appeal to material self-interest often undermine interpersonal trust, reciprocity, fairness, and public generosity.
Can an Economy Succeed Without a Big Manufacturing Base?
Ha-Joon Chang debates Jagdish Bhagwati in the Economist. [H/t: Mona Ali.] Ha-Joon Chang:
There is truth in the argument that above a certain level of development, countries become "post-industrial", or "deindustrialised". But that is only in terms of employment—the falling proportion of the workforce in engaged in manufacturing. Even the richest economies have not really become post-industrial in terms of their production and consumption.
From expenditure data in current (rather than constant) prices, it may appear that people in rich countries are consuming ever more services, but that is mainly because services are becoming ever more expensive in relative terms, thanks to structurally faster productivity growth in manufacturing.
By their very nature, many service activities are inherently impervious to productivity increases. In some cases, the very increase in productivity will destroy the product itself. If a string quartet trots through a 27-minute piece in nine minutes, would you say that its productivity has trebled? For some other services, the apparently higher productivity may be due to the debasement of the product. A lot of the increases in retail service productivity in countries like America and Britain have been a result of lowering the quality of the retail service itself—fewer shop assistants, longer drives to the supermarket, lengthier waits for deliveries, etc.
Bill Emmott, a former editor of The Economist, is reputed to have remarked wittily about the "manufactures fetish" that most people think that unless one makes things that can be dropped on one's foot, they are not worth making. He would have been wittier if he had changed it to dropping them on one's foe's foot.
As is often the case, this fetish has the highest pedigree: no less than Adam Smith himself. We know of course that Smith is often misunderstood, as when he is condemned by liberals (in the American, not the Manchester School, sense) as an unqualified proponent of laissez-faire, whereas he qualified his support for the division of labour by arguing that specialisation on the narrowest of tasks and endless repetition of them would turn workers into morons and that good governance supplying education to offset this was necessary.
The Freudian Romance
Jean Bollack in Sign and Sight:
The correspondence between the young Sigmund Freud and his fiancee Martha Bernays stretched over 52 months, from June 1882 until their marriage in September 1886. When Freud met the 20-year-old Martha, a friend of his sisters, in the spring of 1882, he had just finished studying medicine. And since external circumstances made it impossible for him to continue his university career, he was now aspiring to become an established neurologist at the Viennese General Hospital. Soon after their engagement, which was initially kept secret, Martha's widowed mother decided to move with her two daughters to Wandsbek near Hamburg. During what was to be almost four years of separation the engaged couple wrote letters to each other on an almost daily basis, a vast bundle of correspondence.
At the time, 1882, no one was happier than he. This is his underlying tone. Freud does not write to convince himself; there is no need of that. From the outset their relationship had been affirmed as leading to the union of marriage, a bond based on rationality. The becoming of the romantic relationship was in and of itself as problematic as it is for every other person. But Freud had solved the problem on two fronts. He was able to dedicate himself wholeheartedly to his further scientific and medical education and find himself at the same time. Without having to roam afar. There was a social relationship between the two Jewish families, the Freuds and the Bernays, during his period of emancipation. The couple also took on the role of matchmaker. Anna, one of Freud's five sisters, became engaged a year later to Martha's brother Eli.
Freud was much taken with Martha and accurately gauged her abilities. For her part, everything about him was significant, not only as the persona of the "man" as the girl calls him, but also the position in society that awaited her and the role that she would thereby play. The existence of countless engagement letters written throughout the years before their marriage can be explained by the dictates of convention, which Sigmund Freud generally respected. These were the usual obligations; and good middle class families kept a close watch that they were observed. The aim of love was marriage and this was fulfilled by the birth of children, which required a regular income. Freud was still unable to provide this, which prescribed the duration of their correspondence. However, this period can be interpreted very differently from the perspective of the aspiring mate. Convention acquires its true meaning somewhere else.
1. agent of goodness & light: a.) In a YouTube interview, a lawyer and author of several books about English usage asks David Foster Wallace what he thinks of genteelisms—those multisyllablic, latinate, important-sounding words like “prior to” and “subsequent to” that substitute for shorter, often Anglo-Saxon, down-to-earth-sounding ones like “before.” Revealingly, the guy who majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College, whose father was a philosophy professor, doesn’t answer at first. Instead, he reflexively makes a sour face. Only then does he suggest “genteelism” is an “overly charitable way to characterize” such “puff words,” and concludes: “This is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start noticing all the people who say ‘at this time’ instead of ‘now.’ Why did they just take up one-third of a second of my lifetime?” 2. agent of goodness & light: b.) The upside to grammatical awakenings, Wallace continues, is that “you get to be more careful and attentive in your own writing, so you become an agent of light and goodness rather than the evil that’s all around.” Such remarkable precision and forethought is what Wallace’s writing is all about—but only in the sense that it’s emblematic of a larger determined noticing. Get that, and in many ways you get it all.more from Lance Olson at The Quarterly Conversation here.
Twombly and Poussin rub shoulders in an uneasy way
A sea of smeared and dripped white is weighed down by undertones of grey. The overall effect is misty and eerie. But what wrenches this painting by Cy Twombly into violent grandeur is the eruption of red, like a slaughtered whale's exploding blood, in the lower left part of the canvas. The painting, from 1985, is called Hero and Leandro (To Christopher Marlowe). Hero and Leandro (or Leander in English usage) were lovers in ancient Greek mythology who both drowned. When you discover that, it is easy to see that Twombly's apparently abstract painting is a brilliant response to the tragic essence of these doomed lovers' watery fate: it is an evocation of death at sea, and its smoky ambiguities suggest a heady cocktail of death and desire. The title invokes the Elizabethan writer Christopher Marlowe, who wrote about Hero and Leander and who was himself murdered close to the river Thames in Deptford; so this is also about the death of Marlowe. The mythical lovers drowned. Marlowe was stabbed. The blood in the painting is surely his. It is a cliche that abstract art is distant from real life, impenetrable and remote. Twombly is an abstract painter who tells stories of love, longing and loss. His art is always tangy with experience – it drips life.more from Jonathan Jones at The Guardian here.
St Martin’s stomach
Alexis St Martin was one of the 19th century’s most important scientific guinea pigs. In 1822, the illiterate young French-Canadian was working as a ‘voyageur’ for John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading company in northern Michigan. He was hanging out with a bunch of rowdies in the company store when a shotgun accidentally went off and he was hit below his left nipple. The injury was serious and likely to be fatal – his half-digested breakfast was pouring out of the wound from his perforated stomach, along with bits of the stomach itself – but a US army surgeon called William Beaumont was nevertheless sent for. Beaumont was pessimistic, but he cleaned the wound as best he could and was amazed the next day to find his patient still alive. It was touch and go for almost a year: St Martin survived, though with a gastric fistula about two and a half inches in circumference. It was now possible for Beaumont to peer into St Martin’s stomach, to insert his forefinger into it, to introduce muslin bags containing bits of food and to retrieve them whenever he wanted. Human digestion had become visible. Beaumont took over St Martin’s care when charity support ran out, and over the next ten years the patient lived intermittently with the doctor, as both his domestic servant and a contractually paid experimental object. St Martin’s fistula was soon to become one of the modern world’s most celebrated peepshows.more from Steven Shapin at the LRB here.
From Harvard Magazine:
More than 2,000 years ago, a Roman named Titus Lucretius Carus set down his thoughts on topics ranging from creation to religion to death. The format for his observations, many of them highly technical and uncannily modern, was a single elegant poem: readers would stomach such material more easily if it was presented artfully, he suggested, just as a child would drink bitter medicine more readily out of a cup with a honeyed rim.
He was right. In later centuries, when that poem, De rerum natura (“On the Nature of Things”), came under siege for its subversive potential, the work’s captivating beauty would be key to its survival. Still, it barely weathered the incursions of time and hostile authorities, which conspired to put it out of view for nearly a millennium. The improbable story of how it re-emerged, and how the mindset it advocated informs our present, is the subject of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
How movies mirror our mimicry
From The New York Times:
Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction is packed with memorable dialogue — 'Le Big Mac', say, or Samuel L. Jackson's biblical quotations. But remember this exchange between the two hitmen, played by Jackson and John Travolta? Vincent (Travolta): "Antwan probably didn't expect Marsellus to react like he did, but he had to expect a reaction". Jules: "It was a foot massage, a foot massage is nothing, I give my mother a foot massage."
Computer scientists Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil and Lillian Lee of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, see the way Jules repeats the word 'a' used by Vincent as a key example of 'convergence' in language. "Jules could have just as naturally not used an article," says Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil. "For instance, he could have said: 'He just massaged her feet, massaging someone's feet is nothing, I massage my mother's feet.'" The duo show in a new study that such convergence, which is thought to arise from an unconscious urge to gain social approval and to negotiate status, is common in movie dialogue. It "has become so deeply embedded into our ideas of what conversations 'sound like' that the phenomenon occurs even when the person generating the dialogue [the scriptwriter] is not the recipient of the social benefits", they say.
From The Owls:
"Author’s Note: Since 2007 I have been corresponding with the war reporter Paul Watson, as he traveled around the world, from southeast Asia to Afghanistan and Iraq. Paul is most well known for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Spot Photography in 1994 for his photograph of a fallen American soldier in the streets of Mogadishu. He claims that when he took this picture he heard a voice, a voice that he believes belonged to the dead soldier, telling him, “If you do this, I will own you forever.” The play we are writing, The Body of an American, is concerned with Paul’s life and career, and specifically the story of this haunting. In February of 2010 we finally met in person in Ulukhaktok, in the High Arctic of the Northwest Territories in Canada, where Paul was enjoying a brief stint as the reporter for the 'Arctic and Aboriginal Beat' for the Toronto Star. He is currently back in Afghanistan now."
Paul Watson Watches TV
I like John Mayer. You like John Mayer?
I like Ryan Adams also. And Queen
Latifah. Her sound’s hot. I like to watch
TV with the sound off and just listen
to my iPod. That okay with you? This
sucks. This sucks. There’s nothing good on TV!
I usually watch just sports, like hockey
or football? sometimes entertainment news
because it’s stupid and I love it when
celebrities do stupid things. It helps
me to relax. Also I like curling
as an Olympic sport. I love hearing
the women’s curling team screaming, Harder!
Faster! All of these women with their brooms
that look more like Swiffer WetJets rubbing
some kind of path in the ice for the weight
or pot or stone or whatever it is
screaming, Harder! Faster! As if that does
anything, really! What about this show,
The Bachelor? Have you seen The Bachelor? Look,
she’s pretending to cry. She’s pretending
to cry! What are all these people, actors?
Strippers? She’s trying so damn hard to cry
real tears! Harder! Faster! How’s it look
out there? You can’t tell if the snow’s falling
down from the sky or blowing off the ice
in the wind. Must be gusting up to what
65 miles an hour? Why don’t you make
a TV show out of this place? You could
pitch it back home in Hollywood: Newhart
meets Nanook of the North. All the crazies
you run into at a so-called hotel
that’s really more of a youth hostel or
low-budget rehab somewhere far away
above the tree line. Want another glass
of Bordeaux? Is that your mug? You look bored,
I can tell. You think I’m wasting your time
here, watching TV. When I’m on the phone
with my brothers and sisters, they’re talking
about, you know, problems at work. I say,
How long have we been talking? Ten minutes.
I tell them: Now you’re ten minutes closer
to dying. Which annoys them. It bugs me
to the core though, that people just don’t see
how quickly we die. Whether you’re driving
home from work, or suntanning on a beach
in Phuket and this wave comes out of nowhere
and that’s it, the end. Unmute this. I love
this movie. Look at those legs! Meryl Streep
is on the run, or she’s on the river
actually, ha ha, in a rafting boat
trying to get away from this psycho
killer Kevin Bacon. Is this movie
good? Or shit? No it’s shit. But God, Meryl
Streep is so gorgeous.
by Dan O'Brien
June 28, 2011
A Brief History of the Corporation: 1600 to 2100
Venkatesh Rao in Ribbon Farm:
On 8 June, a Scottish banker named Alexander Fordyce shorted the collapsing Company’s shares in the London markets. But a momentary bounce-back in the stock ruined his plans, and he skipped town leaving £550,000 in debt. Much of this was owed to the Ayr Bank, which imploded. In less than three weeks, another 30 banks collapsed across Europe, bringing trade to a standstill. On July 15, the directors of the Company applied to the Bank of England for a £400,000 loan. Two weeks later, they wanted another £300,000. By August, the directors wanted a £1 million bailout. The news began leaking out and seemingly contrite executives, running from angry shareholders, faced furious Parliament members. By January, the terms of a comprehensive bailout were worked out, and the British government inserted its czars into the Company’s management to ensure compliance with its terms.
If this sounds eerily familiar, it shouldn’t. The year was 1772, exactly 239 years ago today, the apogee of power for the corporation as a business construct. The company was the British East India company (EIC). The bubble that burst was the East India Bubble. Between the founding of the EIC in 1600 and the post-subprime world of 2011, the idea of the corporation was born, matured, over-extended, reined-in, refined, patched, updated, over-extended again, propped-up and finally widely declared to be obsolete. Between 2011 and 2100, it will decline — hopefully gracefully — into a well-behaved retiree on the economic scene.
Discovering my microbiome: “You, my friend, are a wonderland”
Carl Zimmer in his excellent blog, The Loom:
Some people get a thrill from getting their genome sequenced and poring through the details of their genes. I’m a bit off-kilter, I guess, because I’m more curious about the genomes of the things living in my belly button. And let me tell you: it’s a jungle in there.
I first became curious about my navel in January. I was in Durham, North Carolina, to attend a meeting, and as I walked out of a conference room I noticed a cluster of people in the lobby handing out swabs. They were asking volunteers to stick the swabs in their belly button for the sake of science. Our bodies are covered with microbes, and scientists are discovering weirdly complex patterns to their biodiversity. From fingers to elbows to chin to forehead, different regions of our skin are dominated by different combinations of species. But the bellybutton remained terra incognita.
I happily donated my microbiome to the study, which is being conducted by Jiri Hulcr and Andrea Lucky, two post-doctoral researchers in the laboratory of Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University. After a few weeks, Hulcr sent me a photo of a Petri dish in which some of the bacteria from my bellybutton were thriving. Then Hulcr and Lucky got down to the serious work of identifying the species in the navels of their volunteers (90 and counting).
Yesterday, Dunn sent me a spreadsheet detailing my own results. “You, my friend, are a wonderland,” he wrote.
The Busts Keep Getting Bigger: Why?
Paul Krugman and Robin Wells in the New York Review of Books:
Suppose we describe the following situation: major US financial institutions have badly overreached. They created and sold new financial instruments without understanding the risk. They poured money into dubious loans in pursuit of short-term profits, dismissing clear warnings that the borrowers might not be able to repay those loans. When things went bad, they turned to the government for help, relying on emergency aid and federal guarantees—thereby putting large amounts of taxpayer money at risk—in order to get by. And then, once the crisis was past, they went right back to denouncing big government, and resumed the very practices that created the crisis.
What year are we talking about?
We could, of course, be talking about 2008–2009, when Citigroup, Bank of America, and other institutions teetered on the brink of collapse, and were saved only by huge infusions of taxpayer cash. The bankers have repaid that support by declaring piously that it’s time to stop “banker-bashing,” and complaining that President Obama’s (very) occasional mentions of Wall Street’s role in the crisis are hurting their feelings.
But we could also be talking about 1991, when the consequences of vast, loan-financed overbuilding of commercial real estate in the 1980s came home to roost, helping to cause the collapse of the junk-bond market and putting many banks—Citibank, in particular—at risk. Only the fact that bank deposits were federally insured averted a major crisis. Or we could be talking about 1982–1983, when reckless lending to Latin America ended in a severe debt crisis that put major banks such as, well, Citibank at risk, and only huge official lending to Mexico, Brazil, and other debtors held an even deeper crisis at bay. Or we could be talking about the near crisis caused by the bankruptcy of Penn Central in 1970, which put its lead banker, First National City—later renamed Citibank—on the edge; only emergency lending from the Federal Reserve averted disaster.
One Math Museum, Many Variables
From The New York Times:
For everyone who finds mathematics incomprehensible, boring, pointless, or all of the above, Glen Whitney wants to prove you wrong. He believes that tens of thousands of visitors will flock to his Museum of Mathematics, to open in Manhattan next year, and leave invigorated about geometry, numbers and many more mathematical notions.
“We want to expose the breadth and the beauty of mathematics,” said Mr. Whitney, a former math professor who parlayed his quantitative skills into a job at a Long Island hedge fund. He quit in late 2008 with connections to deep pockets and a quest to make math fun and cool. Two years ago, he and his team built a carnival-like traveling exhibit called the Math Midway, a proof-of-concept for the coming museum. It includes a tricycle with square wheels of different sizes that visitors can ride smoothly around a circular path ridged like a flower’s petals. An accompanying sign explains why: The undulating circular surface rises and falls exactly to offset the odd shape of the wheels, so that the tricycle’s axles — and the rider — remain at the same height as they move. Mr. Whitney hopes that colorful, interactive props will help his cause. “If we just pluck people in the street — ‘What adjectives would you use to describe math?’ — very few of them would say, ‘beautiful,’ ” Mr. Whitney said.
June 27, 2011
The Aesthetics of Change
by Aditya Dev Sood
I’ve been reading Gandhi’s writings off and on for several months now, but just last week I turned to Joseph Lelyveld’s recent book on him. I’d been thinking about the kind of attitude towards the present that Gandhi must have had, in order to undertake social change at such a spectacular scale. How did Gandhi balance his quest for change with the full possibilities of the present, the taste of the world as he found it? Does Gandhi’s life and thought have a particular aesthetic, and if so, how can we better describe it? Great Soul has many virtues, foremost among them, perhaps, being nuance, and both curiosity and sensitivity to the progressive way in which Gandhi came to acquire his moral compass, his powers of communication and persuasion, and the bouquet of social technologies through which he was able to effect change. Being neither acolyte nor nationalist historiographer, Lelyveld is able to read Gandhi beyond his canonization, first in India, and more recently in post-apartheid South Africa.Lelyveld’s account of Gandhi’s experiences in the Free State of South Africa would suggest that he found its social universe about as bitter as it was sweet, and that no easy tasting of it was possible without immediately propelling the man back towards the urgent need to make this society and its laws more palatable. Gandhi had always known prestige and status in India, followed by acceptance and inclusion in London, but was confronted by increasingly constricting and constraining social barriers in South Africa. While the young Gandhi was primarily invested in advancing the status of Indian merchants to an equal or approximate footing with Whites, his consciousness is slowly, very slowly pricked in respect of these ‘educated Indians’ relative to indentured Indians or coolies. It is as if the staggered cline of inequality that Gandhi negotiated in South Africa were overstimulating his fight-flight reflexes, preventing him from retiring into any given status plateau, but driving him always to overturn the earth, to remake the social landscape in closer alignment with his own moral framework. While the unequal and iniquitous status of Black Africans in South Africa was never directly addressed by Gandhi, it nevertheless served as the larger backdrop and context within which Gandhi’s thinking developed.
Gandhi began his journey with lawyerly tools, serving as a kind of advocate and public interest litigator on behalf of the Indian community in South Africa. He used the higher principles and public proclamations of the British Empire to contest individual and institutional forms of apartheid which began increasingly rapidly to take root in South Africa after the Boer War. He wrote legalistic letters of protest to administrators of every grade, wrote letters to editors and eventually created his own mouthpiece, Indian Opinion. He organized and hosted meetings of the Natal Indian Congress to firm up and organize public opinion within the Indian merchant community. He eventually led minutely choreographed and highly stylized forms of public protests against racial and invasive forms of documentation required of the Indian community by the free government of South Africa. All these were important and increasingly effective tools through which to engage the government and spur it to action.
But the positive and novel dimensions of Gandhi’s vision came about not from the law, but from live experiments with living, conducted with and upon his own person, and among small social collectives, first at the Phoenix commune and then at Tolstoy Farm. He experimented with his diet, with mud-pack treatments on different parts of his body, with anal suppositories and enemas, and of course with his libido, forswearing sexual communion after having four sons with his wife Kasturba. He experimented socially by living with a couple, by living with a man, by living in camps as a medical volunteer during wartime, by traveling the railways third-class and even, inadvertently, by being imprisoned with indentured Indians and Black Africans. Throughout his life, but especially during his years in South Africa, it would appear that Gandhi was able to imagine new and better forms of everyday life and social organization on account of his having allowed his body and self to interact with its social and material context in new and unanticipated ways.
Lelyveld has a light touch and a deep feel for how Gandhi’s ideas gradually emerged, in response to the ideas and experiences he gained access to in South Africa. His reading of Tolstoy’s specific and vivid denunciations of the social hypocrisies of Czarist Russia, for example, may have triggered Gandhi’s interest changing the way privileged people went to the loo, failed to clean up after themselves and made other people clean up after them. In all of his communes, and in the many temporary camps and mass meetings over which Gandhi would preside throughout his life, he made hygiene and sanitation a central part of his agenda. At the Sevagram ashram, he taught his followers to defecate and urinate into two separate buckets. The stool was taken out and dumped into a field trench and covered over with earth and then with cut grasses. That bucket was then washed using the urine from the other bucket. In Gandhi’s understanding, the societal-functional cause for the existence of untouchability as a social practice was the need for a separate class of society that were required to deal with human excrement and other unclean substances. By focusing on the design and usage of communal and public latrines, he saw a way of eliminating society’s need for a servile underclass dedicated to sanitation and scavenging functions.
Later in his life, Gandhi described an ideal social community as one in which those involved in the composition and combination of foods would have the same status and goals as those involved in the inspection and evaluation of the qualities of stool created by the members of the community. Both groups would view the object of their inquiry with the same point of view -- the amelioration of the individual and collective health of the community as a whole. For Gandhi at this point, food is equivalent if not identical to shit -- from the point of view of the health of the community. This monistic theory of aesthetics seem to be based on his discovery that ‘the real seat of taste was not the tongue but the mind,’ by which he must also have meant his will. The taste of the tongue was based on habit, routine, context, and social normativity. It can easily be trained to taste otherwise, if only the mind could exert its will over the organ, and allow it to experience life other than it is habituated to doing. Gandhian aesthetics, therefore, involves a drawing away from the direct and uncritical experience of pleasure -- no matter what the body tells you, it is only when experience is further interrogated and tasted by the mind that the stimuli of life can be acknowledged as beneficial and giving of health, even if not quite sweet. All kinds of food, non-food, other kinds of stuff, fabric, spaces and people must therefore be experienced uncritically and without prejudgement. Each must be considered, masticated, and then known and evaluated in terms of the larger social effects and resonances that they bring about on account of their production, distribution and eventual consumption.
The Gandhiist aesthetic also requires that we not indulge the mindbody in what it already knows and enjoys, but rather that we offer it new and alternative options and evaluate what kind of response we receive from it. This explains many different aspects of Gandhi’s life and interests at once, especially his midlife vow of chastity. Gandhi never explicitly says this, but we may extrapolate from his other comments to argue that because we already know that our bodies enjoy sexual congress, nothing can be gained from indulging this yearning, while there is much to gain from experimenting with the body’s other truths. Such experimentation requires an attitude of openness and an avoidance of prejudgement or even of preference. In contrast to the flamboyant and expressive tastes of his sometime partner and companion Hermann Kallenbach, Gandhi said that he was in search of 'simple simplicity.' In practice, that meant continuously experimenting with all kinds of new positive and negative forms of stimulus to his own body, which might open up the senses and the intellect to a richer form of communion with the lived universe, allowing it to be tasted more fully beyond his socially-conditioned preferences.
Upon his return to India, Gandhi began advocating a new kind of approach to rural craft, based on the writings of John Ruskin, and his personal observations of contemporary rural life. This approach was called khadi, being based on the example and model of homespun cloth, called khadi, being made of khaddar, homespun yarn. Gandhi became deeply invested in the socio-economic effects that the growth of khadi spinning, ginning, weaving, and dyeing could have for India’s villages. Each of these activities would necessarily involve a local carpenter, a blacksmith, and sundry other tradesmen gainfully employed and engaged in one another’s productivity. The khadi movement was therefore poised against industrialization itself, which in Gandhi’s understanding was the central cause of the misery and impoverishment of India’s villages.
The ethical and organizational principals implicit in the khadi value chain could also be applied to other cottage industries, involved in the production of goods as diverse as soap, incense sticks, honey, jam, and juice. The khadi mark continues to be nurtured by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission of the Government of India for these and a variety of other goods, for which Gandhi continues to serve as brand ambassador. The non-exploitative, non-violent, community-oriented character of the khadi movement, moreover, has since become the model for any number of non-profit organizations and community networks like SEWA in Gujarat, and ultimately informs and inspires microfinance organizations in South Asia and Africa. In the United States, particularly in the Pacific West Coast, vegetarian, organic, green and slow food movements, family and craft-based agricultural businesses, and even large businesses that similarly pledge to not be evil, all hark back to the ethical aesthetic of Gandhi's khadi movement.
I've always found it noteworthy that Gandhi made the charkha his artisanal tool of choice, rather than, say a more simple cotton ginning tool, which might twang loudly or a more sophisticated fabric loom, which might require greater focus and attention as it clatters. His choice surely had something to do with the healing and restorative powers of the device, which he experienced first hand, and which he wrote and spoke about at length. It allowed the ‘cunning of the hands’ to be expressed, it allowed the mind to unravel and come to rest. It could even bring about silent community, when several people worked on their respective wheels together. On account of quiet, meditative penance of work at a charkha, something of value was also created, almost as an excrescence. Long after Gandhi’s martyrdom, Gandhians have echoed his view that the wide-spread adoption of charkha-s in people’s home might be expected to have tremendous socionomic benefits if significant numbers of the population were to adopt it. This argument seems to recall those made by other kinds of group enthusiasts, like those who pursue and advocate running, cycling, meditation, Indian classical music, prayer or community volunteering, and on account of the popularization and global diffusion of Gandhian thought, it has become to hard to tell who is echoing whom.
Actual homespun khadi fabric can be coarse and uneven, with variable thickness of fibre and density of threadcount. To Gandhi’s eyes, this did not make it an extreme and alternative kind of fabric, to be added to one’s personal repertoire and therefore expand one’s personal style, but rather represented the asymptotic possibility of the absence of style, preference and apperception itself. Here, Gandhi reveals himself as a high modernist, anticipating the ascetic-aesthetic arguments of the Bauhaus, the Russian avantgarde, and other shapers of modern visual culture, value, meaning and total-life-style. In the world of India’s fine fabrics, khadi is like burlap or canvas, the blankest surface, the most basic and therefore pure form of material. It both represents and allows the achievement of Gandhi’s austere, ascetic and abstract aesthetic ideal of simple simplicity, affording a surface upon which the body’s pleasure-seeking senses will never alight for very long, but which the mind will continue to savor.
Gandhi’s aesthetic asks of each of us that we seek out and critically appreciate the underlying meaning of things, as revealed through their societal and moral effects, and not merely their visual play upon the senses or their commercial play in the marketplace. This requires a kind of coolness towards the present, and a quiet dedication to its progressive unfurling, rather like the colorless cotton thread that rises out of the spindle and now coils quickly upon the charkha. Whatever new thing comes out of an equitable and inclusive system of relations must inherently be good, and if only our mindbodies are given the chance and opportunity to experience it, we will eventually come around to its taste.
Men of Straw
Properly run argument requires that we give reasons that provide support for the truth of our conclusions, that we do our best to be clear, and that we stay focused on the issue at hand. But it is possible to succeed in these ways and yet fail to argue properly. We must also respond to each other’s reasons, and this requires that we accurately represent our opponents’ views. When we fail in this latter respect, we commit the Straw Man fallacy.
Although it is common to speak of the Straw Man fallacy, there are actually several Straw Men. What they have in common is that they manifest a certain failure of dialogue. This makes Straw Men different from many other fallacy forms. Inductive fallacies—such as Hasty Generalization—and relevance fallacies—like Scare Tactics—are internal to the individual’s reasoning: Just because some X’s are Y’s, it doesn’t mean that all X’s are Y’s; just because doing A is risky, it doesn’t follow that it’s wrong to do. One can commit these errors on one’s own. But straw-manning involves the misrepresentation of an interlocutor’s view; consequently, Straw Man fallacies involve more than one person. When we commit a straw man fallacy, we fail to live up to the responsibilities of the exchange of reasons. Consider:
Adam: We really need to beef up our military budget—the world’s a dangerous place.
Betty: No way! We don’t need to devote our whole economy to being the world’s bully.
Betty’s right about not needing to pour a country’s entire budget into being a bully, but that’s not what Adam proposed. Betty misrepresents Adam’s view; therefore, she’s not in proper dialogue with Adam. This simple case exemplifies the standard form of the Straw Man. We’ve called it elsewhere the representational form of the Straw Man fallacy; the distortion happens when a specific interlocutor’s views are not accurately represented.
Yet there are other ways in which a dialogue can be distorted. Perhaps a person may get hung up on one weak part of the argument and, even after it has been improved, not be able to let it go. Or consider someone who responds only to the poorly-informed and less-capable proponents of a view. Here’s an example:
Every time Glenn Beck or Ron Paul make a case for “getting the government off our backs,” they do so on the basis of misinformation and conceptual confusion. Hence libertarianism is indefensible.
It may well be the case that Beck and Paul are ill-informed and confused, but no one should expect their views to be especially well-developed. To refute libertarianism, one could, perhaps, start with these two, but the case cannot end there. There are smarter libertarians around, and in order to claim to have refuted the view, one must tangle with von Mises, Friedman, and Nozick. The arguer in Libertarianism selects weak opponents, makes short work of them, and then attributes the defeated view to the class of libertarians generally. The misrepresentation, then, isn’t of the views of the individuals criticized (as it is in the representational Straw Man), but of the overall dialectical terrain. Accordingly, we’ve called this the selectional form of the Straw Man, or the Weak Man.
But what if one’s opponents are complete fictions? In the previous two cases, real opponents either get misrepresented or are selected as distorted representatives of a view or movement. But what about arguers that tangle with and refute arguments that nobody holds and no one could hold? For example, George W. Bush, in defending the U.S.’s continued occupation of Iraq, had this in the 2004 State of the Union to characterize his opposition:
We also hear doubts that democracy is a realistic goal for the greater Middle East, where freedom is rare. Yet it is mistaken, and condescending, to assume that whole cultures and great religions are incompatible with liberty and self-government.
In case the charge against his critics wasn’t clear, Bush later ran another version of this argument in a 2004 Rose Garden speech:
There's a lot of people in the world who don't believe that people whose skin color may not be the same as ours can be free and self-govern. I reject that. I reject that strongly.
The trouble is that nobody says that. India is the world’s largest democracy, and the vast majority of its population has skin darker than G.W. Bush’s. Recently this form of straw-manning has been termed the Hollow Man.
The lesson of this proliferation of Straw Men is that there is more than one way to fail to be responsive to the reasons of others. Another lesson is about the consequences of deployments of these argumentative strategies. A Straw Man succeeds only when one’s audience doesn’t know or doesn’t care about the quality of argument offered by the speaker’s opponent. And so, with the Libertarianism case, not only does the argument badly frame where the issues are, it badly educates those to whom it is presented. In fact, Straw Men depend upon their audiences being ignorant of the issue under discussion. In Military Spending, Betty encourages her audience to think that anyone who supports military spending is thereby committed to bankrupting and bullying. In the Bush case, opposition to continued occupation is painted as little more than veiled racism instead of being about sustainable nation-building.
These three Straw Men do not exhaust the varieties of the Straw Man fallacy. There are others waiting to be theorized. Perhaps there is a Burning Man, wherein one constructs an elaborate bricolage of opponents as a monstrous collection of ideas that must be opposed. Such arguments occur, for example in David Horowitz’s use of detailed lists of the “150 Worst Courses in the Academy”. Alternately, there may be an Iron Man, wherein one, instead of representing the opposition as worse than it is, represents as opponent as being better than he or she is. Some see in the media coverage of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann a tendency to wash away or ignore their most unpalatable statements in order to present them as more formidable interlocutors than they in fact are. Certainly there are many Straw Men around, and as the election cycle in the US begins to pick up, we will meet them.
by Misha Lepetic
“Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.”
Back in undergraduate days, when, if it is to be believed, my prose was even more incomprehensible than it is now, I wrote a paper on the economic history of the concept of private property ownership. After 37 pages, and having only reached JS Mill, I bowed out as gracefully as I could, and spent the next week wondering how anyone could be said to own anything at all. And yet, society’s legal and social construction of property ownership continues to be of the utmost importance in setting the course for economic development in general, and urbanization in particular.
In this sense, past commentators have looked at housing as an especially crucial area, since the larger issue of urban migration had already reached a boiling point in Europe by the mid-19th century. The work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon is worth singling out in this regard. Originally an unapologetic Anarchist best known for the pithy aphorism “property is theft”, by the end of his life Proudhon had moderated his views considerably. Writing in the posthumously published Théorie de la Propriété,
“…property is the greatest revolutionary force which exists, with an unequaled capacity for setting itself against authority … [The] principal function of private property within the political system will be to act as a counterweight to the power of the State, and by so doing to insure the liberty of the individual.” Proudhon, quoted in Gray, p135
For the later Proudhon, the validity of property is resurrected only “if it is purged and infused with justice” (Gray, p243). Specifically, this right to property would encourage workers to defend themselves against the depredations of the State and its capitalist abettors. In contrast, the propagation of rent-based housing only exacerbated the uncertainty of their situation. It would also go a ways towards preventing slum clearance, which was as ineffective then as it is now. In fact, two decades after Proudhon’s death in 1865, Great Britain’s Royal Commission on the Housing of the Working Classes published a report where the acknowledged that
Rookeries are destroyed, greatly to the sanitary and social benefit of the neighborhood, but no kind of habitation for the poor has been substituted… The consequence of such a proceeding is that the unhoused population crowd into the neighboring streets and courts…and when the new dwellings are complete…the tenants are not the…persons displaced [so that] those whose need is greatest suffer most acutely. (p19-20)
Thus Proudhon’s hope was that, in aggregate, the landowning proletarian class would throw up a legal-materialistic barricade against those who would otherwise bulldoze their neighborhoods and subsequently engage in the kind of property speculations that only further exacerbate income inequality and displacement of urban populations.
We shall return to this thesis, but Proudhon’s views were starkly contradicted, if not ridiculed outright, by Friedrich Engels, who responds in The Housing Question:
The whole conception that the worker should buy his dwelling rests … on the reactionary basic outlook of Proudhonism, … according to which the conditions created by modern large-scale industry are diseased excrescences, and that society must be led violently, i.e., against the trend which it has been following for a hundred years, to a condition in which the old stable handicraft of the individual is the rule, which as a whole is nothing but the idealized restoration of small-scale enterprise, which has been ruined and is still being ruined…Proudhon only forgets that in order to accomplish all this he must first of all put back the clock of world history by a hundred years, and that thereby he would make the present-day workers into just such narrow-minded, crawling, sneaking slaves as their great-grandfathers were.
Since the rise of capital (and the city, as a manifestation of capital) was an irreversible phenomenon (that could only lead to socialism), anything else must be considered an intolerable delay. In Andrew Merrifield’s words, “with a “stake” in the system and mortgaged up to the hilt, some workers become paragons of consenting citizens, stifling revolutionary spirit…the Proudhonist plan, far from bringing the working class any relief, was used directly against it” (p45).
However, Engels graciously refuses to design or suggest any future state. As with so much else of Marxism, he discusses the future redistribution of property with the following breezy statement: “As soon as the proletariat has won political power, such a measure prompted by concern for the common good will be just as easy to carry out as are other expropriations and billetings by the present-day state.” This is not helpful. On the other hand, it has led to at least one wonderfully satirical memoir attempting to describe the lunacy of navigating socialist housing in the worker’s paradise that was the Soviet Union.
It may be surprising, then, to realize that while the debate has sharpened, it has not lost its basic contours. For example, it is instructive to consider Engels’s critique in light of the current financial crisis, where homeowners with mortgages almost permanently under water simultaneously function as the taxpayers backstopping the consequences of banks’ irresponsible lending practices.
On a larger stage of global urbanization, two contemporary commentators have taken over from their 19th-century counterparts. In the Proudhonian corner, Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto argues that “the distinction between property-as-possession and property title [is] the basis for the entrepreneurial generation of wealth. The world’s poor have the former; they need the latter.” That is, the lack of a record-keeping system for titling land to squatters obviates the possibility for much further economic development; to de Soto, this is the principle difference between the success of capitalism in the west, and its failure in many other places. To this effect, his Institute for Liberty and Democracy has been consulting to governments interested in developing these kinds of databases.
But is this enough? That is, given significant enough barriers to formal property, is the formation of capital really impossible? De Soto ends The Mystery of Capital with “but for the moment, to achieve those goals [of development and social justice], capitalism is the only game in town. It is the only system we know that provides us with the tools required to create massive surplus value.” (p228)
It should now be clear where de Soto departs from Proudhon: whereas Proudhon’s workers owned their property as a bulwark against the state, de Soto explicitly relies on the state to provide protection and enforcement of property rights (admittedly, Proudhon’s enforcing entity is unclear to me). It should not be surprising that not only governments, but also companies, have been eager to create these information systems, since this is another step into bringing a large segment of the urban population into contact with opportunities for consumption and debt.
Robert Neuwirth, a journalist whose experience of living in slums around the world led to the publication of Shadow Cities, disagrees that formal titling is necessary to provide the baseline for development. Rather, people need two things: a guarantee, however tacit, that they will not be evicted; and access to politics, where residents can organize themselves into entities that are recognized by governmental institutions (see his Long Now talk, starting at 55:15). As an example, Sultanbeyli is an official sub-municipality of Istanbul, with a popularly elected mayor and services provided by taxes collected within the slum. Remarkably, no one owns title to any of the buildings in the community.
Other projects are similarly engaged: the Favela-Bairro project in Rio de Janeiro seeks to “regularize” slums by mapping them, providing better water and construction options, and, while residents are not issued property titles per se, they have tacit assurance that they will not be evicted. In these cases recognition and enforcement of claims may still be precarious, but the uncertainty seems to have been reduced to a point where dwellers are willing to invest in their communities, and in turn, the government is less keen to clear the slum wholesale.
And yet, both de Soto and Neuwirth are firmly entrenched in the belief that the global slum-city is a warren of entrepreneurship just waiting to erupt. For both, the formation of capital, and therefore prosperity, is as inevitable as socialism was to Marx and Engels. This is in itself a peculiar perspective, attacked recently and with relish by journalist Mike Davis in Planet of Slums. Punching away in Engels’s corner at the efficacy of titling, Davis’s newly empowered property owners simply evolve from slum dwellers to slumlords. In fact, this is capital formation by any other name.
An example of another objection to de Soto’s project concerns “'Informal employment,' [which] by its very definition…is the absence of formal contracts, rights, regulations, and bargaining power” (p181). This brings us to the crux of the matter. What are the economic and social relations of the people living in any of these places? As noble as it may be, what is most striking about an attempt like de Soto’s is that, once again, urban planners and theorists are tacitly concerned primarily with the built environment. This is almost as if to say that, once the built environment has been reinvented, formalized or brought into some kind of bureaucratic receivership, all social relationships will uncomplainingly evolve in a complementary fashion. (And yet, like Engels, Davis is short on recommendations. In fact, it is even worse, as Davis cannot avail himself of Marxism’s “As soon as the proletariat wins everything is gravy” attitude. Unlike Neuwirth’s Shadow Cities, which makes a gritty but optimistic case, Planet of Slums is relentless, a sort of Bleak House for our urban future.)
So, what might informal employment look like in “real life”? In a seminal 2006 article, the New Yorker’s George Packer describes economic relations in Lagos’s informal sector:
What looks like anarchic activity in Lagos is actually governed by a set of informal but ironclad rules. Although the vast majority of people in the city are small-time entrepreneurs, almost no one works for himself. Everyone occupies a place in an economic hierarchy and owes fealty, as well as cash, to the person above him—known as an oga, or master—who, in turn, provides help or protection. Every group of workers—even at the stolen-goods market in the Ijora district—has a union that amounts to an extortion racket. The teen-ager hawking sunglasses in traffic receives the merchandise from a wholesaler, to whom he turns over ninety per cent of his earnings; if he tries to cheat or cut out, his guarantor—an authority figure such as a relative or a man from his home town, known to the vender and the wholesaler alike—has to make up the loss, then hunt down his wayward charge. The patronage system helps the megacity absorb the continual influx of newcomers for whom the formal economy has no use. Wealth accrues not to the most imaginative or industrious but to those who rise up through the chain of patronage. It amounts to a predatory system of obligation, set down in no laws, enforced by implied threat.
It is difficult to square this set of socio-economic relations with de Soto’s embrace of capitalism as “the only system we know that provides us with the tools required to create massive surplus value.” In fact, what Packer describes is a proto-capitalistic system; its currency is fear and debt, not trust and credit. This is emergent economic behavior in its most elemental form, and not some fairy-tale story of a microfinance-funded nail salon. It takes an extraordinary leap of faith to think that titled property rights will displace such a brutish, protean system, or even to assume that somehow these two phenomena are mutually exclusive. In fact, it is much easier to imagine that informal systems of such wicked adaptability could survive alongside, or indeed be nestled in, a formalized system of property rights. It is easy to then further extrapolate that the corrupting influence of money and power generated by the informal system will constantly threaten the formal system. On this topic, de Soto himself recently published a trenchant article entitled “The Destruction of Economic Facts.” Its subject? The undermining of the US property title regime by the banks and the federal government.
Life, for the fastidious
by Rishidev Chaudhuri
For the first week after I began taking a cell biology class I dreamed of deserts, vast sterile expanses of open heat with no living things, interrupted only by dreams of inter-galactic space and the structured infinity of mathematical forms. There is something profoundly disturbing and eerie about life at the molecular level. It is too purposive and awake to see it as inert matter – it is impossible not to anthropomorphize it or, more accurately, to attempt to make sense of its motives in the same way we do for people. And yet it is too alien to anthropomorphize in any useful way. Somehow, brute matter has figured out how to replicate itself and has exploded into a cacophony of form. Here proteins rush around cells carrying other proteins on their heads; other proteins slice and dice and reassemble yet other proteins. It is so easily seen as a parody of human ends. Looking into a microscope we are alienated from ourselves by our cells. We stare into a world of automata, a world made uncanny by the juxtaposition of its echo of and utter distance from our world.
To their credit, there is nothing explicitly malevolent about microscopic life or its components, even things as sinister as prions. The suspicion of matter that they induce is not the Gnostic horror of waking up and finding oneself trapped in a coffin that is actively conspiring to stay shut. And it lacks the single-mindedness of a thriving Schopenhauerian will to life. And neither is it the anguish of finding oneself alive in a universe indifferent to life; matter seems all too eager to become animate. If anything, we seem to find ourselves viewing matter in company with the early Buddhists, as life-creating but amoral. They, finding themselves doomed by nature to live (and suffer as an incidental effect), and for whom suicide was subverted by rebirth, sought to live so as to break the chain of causation and extinguish themselves.
Of course we don’t understand the strange frontier towns where inanimate matter begins to wriggle and repeat, though we have lots of interesting speculation about what might happen at those boundaries. In the molecular world of modern life, DNA stores information; this information is transcribed into RNA; and then some RNA is then translated into proteins, which carry out most of the functions of life. Among other things, proteins catalyze a host of reactions needed for life. In one possible origin-of-life scenario, RNA performs the functions of both DNA and proteins: it both stores information and catalyzes its own production and replication. Chains of RNA get longer and more complex, eventually beginning to co-operate with each other and to catalyze the assembly of amino acids into proteins. Eventually, the proteins take over much of the structural and catalytic work, and DNA, being more stable, takes over the information storage.
In an alternate scenario, metabolism precedes information storage and self-replicating genes. Autocatalytic metabolic cycles start to form on the surfaces of minerals near undersea hydrothermal vents, generating larger and more complex sets of organic compounds which eventually begin to store replicable information.
In a third possible story, life begins by inventing interiority. Molecules that have one end attracted to water and the other one repelled by it (delightfully named ‘amphiphilic’) self-organize into primitive cell membranes, like bubbles. Once life has identified and segregated its Other, the story goes, molecules trapped inside the membrane can encounter each other regularly and develop complex society shielded from the floating disorder outside.
Echoes of these ideas live on in some of the odd cast of almost-alive molecular beings that populate modern biology. Prions, famous as the possible cause of mad-cow disease, are self-replicating misfolded proteins: the structural defect is very stable and is able to propagate itself by causing other nearby proteins to misfold and so, zombie-like, forms copies. Viroids and plasmids are free-floating bits of RNA and DNA that can be autonomously replicated by the machinery of a host cell. Nanobes and nanobacteria are either really unusual crystal growths or very tiny DNA-containing cells, perhaps similar to the speculated primitive cell-membranes; no one is quite sure yet which they are. And these are probably only a tiny sub-sample of a diverse menagerie. We know next to nothing about the millions and millions of microbial life-forms in existence, with a diversity of genomes, shapes and strategies that dwarfs anything seen among animals. There are whole ecosystems among microbes that we play no part in and that we are only beginning to glimpse. Horizontal gene transfer might mean that evolution no longer happens by descent but by swapping bits of DNA (or RNA) between different cells, which would mean that our boundaries between species are irrelevant at this level (a taxonomist’s nightmare). There is also speculation about entire shadow biospheres that live undetected alongside us; for example, we’d be extremely unlikely to detect life based entirely on RNA.
There are visions of life that are less uncanny because they are more remote from us. It is not impossible that there could be some form of life in the giant clouds of gas and dust that lie in the vast almost-empty spaces between the stars and galaxies, and a number of people have speculated about self-organization in plasma, including the existence of structures like cell membranes. Some intriguing recent work used computer simulations to show that dust particles embedded in a plasma (as one finds in some interstellar and intergalactic clouds) could form self-replicating helical structures.
In a similar vein, inspired by Fred Hoyle’s novel “The Black Cloud”, Freeman Dyson envisages an organism composed of a large cloud of charge-bearing dust grains, communicating electromagnetically. He calculates that in a forever expanding universe, by slowing down its biological clock and hibernating for longer and longer fractions of time, the organism can survive on a finite store of energy forever, with its subjectively experienced time still being infinite.
Depending on your temperament, this vision of the end of the world might be a comforting triumph of life, thought and complex organization. Or it might suggest the horror of eternal return and the impossibility of nirvana, that the universe will not be allowed to calmly settle towards heat death and stasis but will be forcibly infused with sentient matter and compelled to reenact the same thoughts and gestures over and over for eternity.
 Tsytovich et al, New Journal of Physics 2007
 Dyson, Reviews of Modern Physics 1979. Obviously the paper is very speculative and there are many who disagree with the assumptions he makes to do the calculation. For example, the lack of a continuum of energy states or the existence of protein decay would be problematic for his argument.
Life on a pillar: environmental thought and the odor of sanctity
by Liam Heneghan
The saint on the pillar stands,/The pillar is alone,/He has stood so long/That he himself is stone. Louis MacNeice, Stylite, 1940 [i]
In Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, Melville’s anachronistically recognized ecological masterpiece, a calculation is presented that on a three or four year voyage a seaman manning one of the mast-heads of a whaleship would spend several entire months aloft his pillar above the ship. A whaleship like the Pequod, Ishmael informs, was not provided with a crow’s-nest as was the case with the Greenland ships – the mast-man on the southern whaler was exposed to the elements and to the mesmerizing crawl of the oceans far below him. Our narrator cautions the ship-owners of Nantucket to be especially wary of taking on philosophical lads given to “unseasonable meditativeness”. Whaling could be an asylum for romantic souls, youngsters that are “disgusted with the carking cares of earth”. The cost could be high. Such a youth can lose his identity in his ocean reverie and “[take] the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that, deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading man and nature…” In such a meditation one misplaced step and “your identity comes back in horror” and perhaps “with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever.” Ishmael concludes the observation thus: “Heed it well, ye Pantheists.” By which I take it that he is talking to dreamy youth and latterly to us environmentalists.
In chronological sequence Melville mirthfully compares the solitary, watchful, deprived life on the mast to that of other motionless dwellers, starting with Egyptians who climbed the pyramids to gaze at the stars and concluding with stone or metal men atop columns, figures unresponsive to the beseeching yells of those below them, that is, statues of Washington, Napoleon and Nelson. Included in this evolutionary sequence – for the land-locked lofty paved the way according to Melville to maritime mast-men – is Saint Stylites of whom he says “in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless stander-of-mast-heads…[he] literally died at his post.”
A helpful footnote in my copy of Moby-Dick declares Melville’s entertaining claim about pyramids as astronomical pillars implausible, and of course, statues, though they may remain impressively motionless for quite some time, have the benefit of being lifeless[ii]. In Melville’s roster, Saint Stylites stands out, so to speak, having spent almost forty years on his pillar.
About him I have a few things I’d like to say.
Just as Melville’s masterpiece can retrospectively be read as an ecological classic – a tale of resource consumption; a disquisition on our relationship with something upon which we both monomaniacally depend and that which will be the death of us: I speak here of nature – there are things we can learn from the asceticism of Simeon Stylites valuable to us as environmentalists. The magnetic force of an ascetic impulse that drew the Stylite up the pillar, and that skewed the balance of his life towards denial rather than affirmation also draws environmental writers to their proverbial mountain tops, and oftentimes swerves our environmental instincts towards chastisement rather than celebration. The cooler air on the pillar-top and on the piney mountain trail is languidly scented with the odor of sanctity. Saint Simeon’s life is so brutal, so macabre, that a close reflection is self-revelatory in the way that microscopy turned on the human body exposes within us both the teeming good and the pathologically bad.
Simeon Stylites installed himself on a pillar constructed on a site of his choosing near Antioch, Syria, and lived there for thirty-six years until his death in 459 AD. This can be regarded as one of the more terrifying historical examples of a modest ecological footprint. Simeon remains a revered saint, though it is clear that he shocked many of his contemporaries. Today he serves as an example of the bewildering nature of the early Christian ascetic impulse. Nevertheless, his self-renunciation was so extreme and his self-mortification so unsavory that most modern commentators disavow him. To suggest that the modern environmental movement shares this same ascetic impulse may seem gratuitous. I try to show that the comparison is useful, and do so not in a bid to scupper environmentalism (I am, in fact, a committed environmentalist) but rather to contribute to a more honest discernment of our environment motives.
I start by recounting in modest detail the extraordinary and ghastly details of Simeon’s life.[iii]
Simeon was born in 388 AD in Sis near the northern border of Syria in what is now modern Turkey. His early interest in Christianity was stimulated, some say, by hearing a talk on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He entered into monastic life quite young, perhaps around the age of sixteen. Asceticism was especially prevalent in Syria in early Christian times where eremitic monasticism (solitary anchorites) was more common than in Egypt where coenobitic, that is communal forms of monasticism were favored. Accounts of Simeon's initial feats of austerity and the responses of his fellow monks remind us that he was extreme at a time when spiritual rigor was already quite pronounced. In addition to more conventional forms of asceticism: fasting, sleep deprivation, standing for lengthy periods and not washing, he invented a range of self-mortification techniques that put him in an ascetic class of his own much. For instance, when others in the community finished their nocturns he would hang a heavy stone around his neck as penance while his brothers slept. One night he fell asleep with this apparatus about his neck and injured his head. To prevent this from happening again, he procured a “certain round piece of wood” which would roll from beneath him if he nodded off. [iv] In addition to the asperities already mentioned he also innovated by tying a rough fiber around his waist (in one account, it was the rope from the monastery’s well that he wore) which abraded the skin and produced noisome smells, and had him shedding worms into his bed.
Many of the stories told about Simeon can be classified as hagiographic nonsense. For instance, he was challenged by some of the monks to test his faith and trust in God by grasping a red-hot poker which he did with without harm to his hands. Perhaps the moral of the story is that what protected him from incinerating his hand was that “he despised them (i.e. his hands).” Even his abbot, to whom his chagrined and apparently jealous brothers complained, found his fervor disconcerting (though the community may have been irritated by his flaunting of the monastic rule; indeed, more simply it may have been the smell of putrefaction that so disconcerted them). When the abbot asked the youthful Simeon to account for the vigor of his practice the young monk replied, quoting scripture: "Behold, I was brought forth in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me" (Ps. 50:7).
Ultimately Simeon was forced out of the monastic community and became a hermit living for three years in a hut at Tell-Neschin. There he spent the whole of Lent without eating or drinking, a practice that became habitual for him. He broke his Lenten fast with the Eucharist host which returned him to vigor. Another austerity from this period was standing in prayer for as long as his legs could hold him. He perfected this and the claim is that he would stand in prayer for the duration of lent. From the hut in Tell-Neschin he moved to a rocky platform near Antioch and spent five years standing there. After this he moved to his series of pillars. His first pillar was nine feet high, but it was replaced by a series of others, each taller than the last. Ultimately, the progressively ascending Simeon lived fifty feet or so from the ground and was visible throughout the region, attracting a large congregation of the faithful and the curious.
The list of his spiritual services performed from the rocky platform and from his successively more prodigious pillars is a long one; harlots were transformed into vessels of virtue, the blind saw the light, hunchbacks were straightened, heathens were converted to Christianity, lepers were healed, the exsanguinating possessed were relieved of their demons. All the while our hermit is strenuously attacked by satanic forces which came in all forms, including that of a lustful camel!
One final nauseating story: as the “king of the Arabs” (more correctly, a Saracen) approached our saint’s pillar, a worm fell from a necrotizing tumor on Simeon’s thigh and the king picked it up. He touched it to his eyes and heart. The saint declared, appropriately enough, that it is “a stinking worm, fallen from stinking flesh” and in consternation asks why the king was soiling his hands. The king however regarded the worm as a blessing and on opening his hand found the worm transformed into a pearl." This allegory prompts to ask how we might manufacture a pearl from the tortured life of Simeon. What is the meaning of all of this? What general principles can be deduced?
Ascetic deprivation is a price paid in flesh for metaphysical rewards
Simeon’s turned his back on this world so that he could gain access to that other world: a heavenly one with the angels. In his early monastic life Simeon submitted to the coenobitic rule of the house (though not without chafing at the rule as we have seen), praying in common, celebrating the Eucharist together – the typical trade of earthy freedoms for heavenly reward. The pillar was something different. It is hard not to see in the pillar a more direct emulation of the Christ’s passion. The pillar can be seen as representing the mountainous heights of Christ in the wilderness and the ultimate stasis of Christ on the cross – an emulation that one can term “the prophecy of behavior”, a term coined by Professor Susan Ashbrook Harvey of Brown University to illustrate the significance of Simeon’s actions as powerful in their symbolism.[v] Simeon on the pillar can be seen as an aggressively literal form of standing before God. In his introduction to the translation of the lives of Simeon, Robert Doran locates this practice within the exercises of Gnosticism[vi]. Gnostics, Doran, reports have been referred to as “the immovable race”. Standing before God result in what is termed “immovability”, achieved by means of a visionary ascent to the transcendent realm. For this removal to the heavenly realm Simeon acquitted his debt with ulcerated feet and maggoty flesh. The suggestion is not, I think, that Simeon was a Gnostic, it is just that in his ascetic ascent and his aggravated immobility, he reinvented gestures that hitched him to another world beyond the tears and tribulations of ordinary mortal cares. Asceticism is reproduced both by emulation and by the types of intuitive rediscovery found in the life of Simeon.
We know of Simeon through what was written about him by his contemporaries and those who came after him, but other than the few snatches of conversation reported by his biographers (often regarding his worms, it might seem) we do not have his direct account of what motivated him. A clue though from the Antonius biography: as a youth in church Simeon inquires of an old man about what is being read and learns that it concerns “the control of the soul”. Pressing his elder further, he is told to:
“reflect on these things in your heart, for you must hunger and thirst, you must be assaulted and buffeted and reproached, you must groan and weep and be oppressed and suffer ups and downs of fortune; you must renounce bodily health and desires, be humiliated and suffer much from men, for you will be comforted by angels.”[vii]
Asceticism relies upon the acquisition and application of expert knowledge
Ascetics are called to special vocation – the life in the desert is not everyone’s cup of tea. Thomas Merton, a monk and occasional anchorite of more recent times, writes of the special nature of desert hermits’ lives in the early Christian centuries in the introduction to “The Wisdom of the Desert” his slim but compelling volume of the sayings of the desert fathers.[viii] Those more loquacious fellows had more to say than Simeon about the application of spiritually expert knowledge towards to end of achieving closeness with God. A dramatic account of the purpose of ascetic knowledge is given by Abbot Joseph: when Abbot Lot asked him what he should do in addition to keeping the rule, and applying himself to prayer and contemplative silence, Abbott Lot rose, his hands extended towards the heavens and his fingers “became like ten lamps of fire.” He said: “Why not be totally changed into fire?”[ix]
Merton calls the wisdom of the desert “a very practical and unassuming wisdom that is at once primitive and timeless.”[x] This wisdom concerns self-discovery regarding the spiritual journal – discoveries that Merton describes as “more important than any journey to the moon.” The wisdom of the desert is simple in philosophy but is quite voluminous: I will give just a few examples. Abbot Hyperichius instructs that it “is better to eat meat and drink wine, than by detraction to devour the flesh of your brother.”[xi] Less obscurely Abbot Pastor said that “a life of ease drives out the fear of the Lord from man’s soul and takes away all his good work.”[xii] Again, Abbot Pastor” “[if] you want to have rest here in this life and also in the next, in every conflict with another say: Who am I? And judge no one.” Perhaps you had to be there.
A more technical account of ascetic wisdom can be found in the Philokalia, a collection of texts written from the 4th to 15th centuries, deemed especially important in Eastern Orthodoxy.[xiii] There, a more complex theological lexicon is employed. In order to achieve the end of “being comforted by angels”, or achieving a greater closeness with God, the desert father marshals the following skills: “discrimination”, the spiritual gift of discriminating between the types of thought entering the mind, with the purpose of achieving “discernment of the spirits” – which thoughts come from God and should be cleaved to, and which from the devil; “intimate communion”, the freedom of approach to God; “Watchfulness”, a state of attentiveness where one carefully watches over one’s inward thoughts and fantasies – the state is linked with purity of heart and the rigorous application of the virtues and results in stillness (hesychia) in which one listens to God and can open to Him.
Ascetic deprivation secures a measure of temporal power
The hagiographical exuberance of Simeon’s vitae with their massive iteration of Simeon’s improbable miracles becomes tedious in its pietistic adulation; nevertheless the examples testify to the intercessionary power of our saint, and provide a roster of critical community needs. Surrounding Simeon on his pillar was a fairly dense agricultural population, reliant on reliable irrigation systems. This was a community concerned about disease, drought, crop productivity, and the depredations of large predators. A saint should be able to regulate the elements and master nature.
The equations of ascetic algebra typically balance the significant intercessionary power of the holy man against the self-mortification of his body. Great power is equated with great corporeal contempt. One wins a spiritual war not by inflicting the most violence, but by sustaining the most damage. For Simeon to accumulate the reputation that he did one should expect staggering penance of this flesh. And this, as we have already seen in part is what we find.
Ironically, each incremental rise of Simeon on his pillars, motivated, according to some biographical authorities, by a desire to get away from the throngs and closer to an airy solitude, increased his visibility and attracted more onlookers. Nevertheless, Simeon served this community through his miracle-working, and his fame and influence spread throughout the Christian world.
The ascetic then is marked by i) a commitment to rewards in another realm, by ii) the deployment of an expert’s knowledge in achieving esoteric goals, and by iii) the achievement of certain temporal authority, despite the ascetic’s declared intent. My list is illustrative rather than exhaustive. The problem to which asceticism is the proposed solution is solved by a suite of regularly recurring behaviors that we should also note – an initial departure followed by a commitment to immobility in another place; a rejection of civilization, through a commitment to a new rule; a distain of the city; physical austerity; a preference for raised ground, though ascetics often start their career at lower altitudes (Simeon, for instance, lived down a well for a while after leaving the monastery).
If asceticism was simply a matter of self-mortification then we could claim that we have never lived in more ascetic times. We diet to shed those dozens and dozens of unsightly pounds; some voluntarily submit to a surgical ablating of the flesh for the purposes of fabricating the perfect nose; our star athletes allegedly undergo a period of sexual continence before the big game; some of you may even gallop on scorching days for distances in excess of twenty-six miles, for no better reason than to replicate the achievement of the first person to die from that feat. And in general terms the definition of the ascetic as a person who practices “rigorous self-discipline, severe abstinence, austerity”, might tempt us to smuggle the more excessive of these modern deprivations under the definitional bar. However, the OED qualifies the definition by pointing out that asceticism aims are achieved “by seclusion or by abstinence from creature comforts”. Furthermore, the term derives etymologically from the Greek asketikos, meaning monk or hermit and more generally the root term is ascesis – the practice of self discipline, or exercise. If, in the final analysis, the contemporary mortifications listed above seem to fall short of being ascetic, why might we, in contrast, regard environmentalism as fundamentally so?
To use the life of Simeon Stylites as a point of comparison with environmental thought and practice may be a challenging place to start to make a case that environmentalism is foundationally ascetic. Certainly there are more temperate ascetics, ones who like St Antony of Egypt (231-356 AD) traveled to the wilds there to meditatively dally, but after decades alone returned to society, at least in the sense of taking many disciples under his care. In other words, there are ascetics whose practice might be more appropriately compared to Thoreau’s sojourn at Walden Pond. Perhaps one might compare tree-stylites like John Muir perched in a storm-tossed Douglas Fir or Julia Butterfly Hill residing in her California Redwood to the ascetic sadhus of India, who, practicing what is called urdhamukhi, dangle out of trees. In the case of Hill, she lasted two years; as for the Muir and the sadhus, the latter who dangle upside-down, their tree dwelling lasted a matter of hours. And so on; one might look for a milder ascetic counterpart for Robinson Jeffers dyspepsia concerning his fellows, preferring you’ll recall, to “sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk”; one for Ed Abbey’s hilarious but curmudgeonly defense of inaccessibility for Arches National Monument in Desert Solitaire; one for Paul Ehrlich’s discomfort in an ancient Indian taxi (“People visiting, arguing and screaming…. defecating and urinating”) prompting his writing of The Population Bomb; counterparts even for the simple-living needed for ecological footprint reduction, for the belt-tightening required by sustainability, and for the meat-eschewing dicta of environmental vegetarianism. In all of these examples there is a whiff of asceticism but none requires the foot ulcerating commitment of standing on a pillar for decades. So why Simeon?
As we have seen most definitions of asceticism are vague to the point of admitting too many members into the ascetic fold –skipping a meal or two does not the ascetic life make. The vitae of Simeon Stylites, however, distill his life to the point where there is little to notice other than ascetic fervor. As discussed, the examination of his life allowed us to enunciate some principles, and to register the suite of dispositions associated with the ascetic. These included a commitment to rewards in another realm, a deployment of an expert’s knowledge in achieving esoteric goals, and the gaining of certain temporal authority, often despite the ascetic’s declared intent. The dispositions include a departure from “home”, followed by a commitment to immobility in another place, a rejection of civilization which is typically accompanied by a distain of the city, often physical austerity, and a preference for raised ground. The life of an ascetic is the life of critique. In this we not only see the odd particulars of our saint’s life, but also, I think, if one squints a little, the life of the environmental movement.
Space prohibits a full treatment here of how the ascetic drive underpinning environmental thought and action unfolded over the past century or so. Using the principles and dispositions just enunciated some of this should be fairly obvious; other points are more obscure. Sustainability measures, fairly obviously, call (justly) for a deferment of pleasures right now, for an equitable world in the future; Paul Shepard and David Abram mourn the passing of the Pleistocene or indigenous worlds; nature-lovers almost everywhere incline towards inhospitable places; John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Ed Abbey, Charles Darwin (even): all left though some returned to tend their flock; the mountains beckon to Gary Snyder, David Brower, and to Arne Næss; Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, and Bill McKibben all demand reproductive self-limitation; Rachel Carson, Terry Tempest Williams, and Al Gore are outraged by what our times have wrought; eight biosphereans spent two years in the bubble of Biosphere 2 (like Simeon they had their support "disciples"); Aldo Leopold and Martin Heidegger had a great fondness for the nostalgia of shack-dwelling. And those not in shacks prefer, like Melville's mast-men, and Simeon, life en plein air - leave absolutely no one inside!
And I agree with them all, in many ways at least. My point, and it seems curiously feeble to me to say it, is not that the ascetic impulse is always wrong, though most contemporary writers disapprove of the Simeon’s vigor, or that environmental thought is wrong when it tends towards asceticism (it certainly is not, but our priorities need to be refined). Rather, I am interested in a more straightforward accounting of the motivations and the behavioral reflexes of environmentalism – where it is ascetic let us call it so; and when our ascetic impulses lead us astray let us reconsider. At its worst the ascetic disposition of environmental thought has translated into calamitous action – for instance, inhumane population policies, unjust removal of peoples from their traditional lands. Less tragically, but still detrimentally, the comfortableness of the environmentalists’ ascetic disposition coaxes the “eco-cete”, the everyday ecological monk, into an unbalanced preoccupation with conservation in wilderness areas, a neglect, until quite recently, of the city as a site for conservation, an often ruthless demarcation of the human from the wild, a nostalgia for worlds that have passed if they ever existed at all, a great nausea towards domesticated humanity – that is, most of us, an over-confidence in an expert knowledge of the natural world, a puzzling relationship with technology, and finally (for now) a snooty distain of those who cannot articulate the environmental convictions in the professional lingo of the movement.
Now, an objection to my claim (one of many, no doubt) may be that there is, quite obviously, no direct link between the life of Simeon and other pillar saints and the mainstream of environmental thought. However, the ascetic impulse is an ineradicable component of who we are – the human without some ascetic impulse (even if it is expressed in a diminished key) has not been born. We do not simply copy ascetic gestures, we all seem capable of ascetic innovation. In some movements – religious, philosophical, environmental –they may simply express themselves more blatantly. To illustrate the idea that ascetic gestures can converge, consider this. There is evidence of a phallus worshiping cult in Northern Syria sometime before Simeon’s time and centered about 180 km east of Simeon’s pillar. According to the Greek author Lucian, men would climb the phalli two times a year for a period of a week and “commune with the gods” and bring good fortune to the community. Though the period aloft was not reckoned in years, nevertheless the phallus dweller remained awake for the duration. If he fell asleep, a scorpion climbs up the column and “treats him unpleasantly.” [xiv] So, long before Simeon’s time worshipful clambering up phalli was commonplace. This has led some to suggest that his ascetic practice was merely an emulation of pagan practice. Several Simeonists are outraged and take pains to deny the connection. The issue is moot from my perspective. It seems that when a saint sees a phallus or a pillar he knows just what to do. That, my friends, is the ascetic impulse. And if environmentalists are up there with them, hoisted up their own proverbial pillars, at the very least the view should be clear; it may be time for us to clamber on down, and lead the community as many ascetics have also done.
[i] MacNeice, Louis (1940) Stylite, Poetry, Vol. 56, No. 2, p. 68
[ii] Melville, H Moby-Dick, W. W. Norton & Company; Second Edition (October 2001)
[iii] There are three accounts of Simeon’s life available, one written by Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus, a contemporary of our saint, one by his disciple Antonius, and the so-called Syriac Text, the longest account of his life. Translations are available in a convenient volume by Robert Doran (1989, The Lives of Simeon Stylites Cistercian Publications). There are conflicts between the accounts and not all of the stories are shared between all of them. Indeed, there are some accounts in the broad literature on Simeon that I draw on but which may not be canonical.
[iv] Frederick Lent (1915)The Life of St. Simeon Stylites: A Translation of the Syriac Text in Bedjan's Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, Vol. IV: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 35 (1915), pp. 103-198
[v] S. Ashbrook Harvey (1988) The Sense of a Stylite: Perspectives on Simeon the Elder Vigiliae Christianae Vol. 42, No. 4, pp. 376-394
[vi] Doran, 33.
[vii] Doran, 88.
[viii] Merton, Thomas (1960) The Wisdom of the Desert, New Directions
[ix] Merton, 50.
[x] Merton, 11.
[xi] Merton, 32.
[xii] Merton, 62.
[xiii] Palmer, G.E.H., Sherrard, Philip, Ware, Kallistos (translators) (1979)The Philokalia: The Complete Text (Vol. 1 - 4); Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Markarios of Corinth. My paraphrasing of the definitions of technical terms relied upon the glossary from these volumes.
[xiv] Frankfurter, David T. M. (1990) Pillar Religions in Late Antique Syria. Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 44, No. 2, pp. 168-198
Don’t Look Now, but They’re Back: Bad Mortgage Debts May Surface Once More
by Michael Blim
Ben Bernanke met the press this past week with no good news to report. Rather he admitted that “we don’t have a precise read on why this slower pace of growth is persisting. Some of the headwinds that have been concerning us, like the weakness in the financial sector, problems in the housing sector, balance sheet and deleveraging issues, may be stronger and more persistent than we thought.”
And how. The US economic recovery now almost two years old is the weakest of economic bounce backs over the past one hundred years, according to Richard Milne in the June 25 Financial Times, and economic policy elites like Bernanke are mightily perplexed. Output growth continues to falter, and unemployment will remain as high as seven to seven and a half percent through 2013. Instead of figuring out what to do next, Bernanke et.al. find themselves spending most of their time defending what they have already done as saving America and the world from something much worse.
As the economy slows once more, and the housing market worsens, the chances of really bad knock-on effects increase. You may recall that the collapse of the value of mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) triggered the panic that sent the world economy reeling. Well, those bad securities, some half a trillion dollars worth, are still sloshing around in Wall Street basements, still able to help take us under should the economy start to tank once more.
The securities whose worth relies upon millions of sub-prime mortgages and loans made to homeowners on wildly over-valued houses have been passed around the financial system once more, as bottom-feeding hedge funds have been churning resale markets to increase their prices and take speculative profits. The once high returns of six to eight percent that MBSs offered have made them worth the gamble, and by picking them up at fire sale prices, some funds have been able to even double their money.
It remains a tricky game of pass the parcel. As long as someone other than the speculators were willing to eat the losses of the face value of the MBSs, say the Federal Reserve, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and commercial banks, the game offered pretty good rewards at reduced risks. If the economy slows down, and the housing market, already stalled, deteriorates further, the game can become deadly serious. As Aline van Duyn of The Financial Times explained in a fine column on June 18, the securities can turn toxic once more, risking the money that was borrowed to buy them up, and putting into jeopardy a whole set of hedge funds for whom adding a little bit of high-yielding poison has given them an edge and a growing share of the investment market.
So-called “macro” hedge funds, the riskiest kind according to Magnum Funds, that make bets in any markets that are affected by macro-economic shifts, have included mortgage-backed securities in their investments. They are a big and growing segment of the hedge fund market with currently $380 billion under management. They try to lay off the extreme risks in their portfolio by betting on commodities, currencies, stocks and securities at the same time, hoping that diversification will make money and limit exposure to losses in any given sector.
This strategy and its execution may sound familiar, as van Duyn points out, because it is directly analogous to the reasoning used by the creators of the sub-prime mortgage crisis that got the world economy deep in the hole three years ago. Originators of MBSs mixed lower-yielding, ostensibly good mortgages with the higher-yielding bad ones to create a good-yielding product with what seemed to be manageable downside risk. When the bad ones failed, the ensuing panic and recession destroyed the value of many good mortgages as well, and the bonds became worthless, and the money used to buy them lost.
Once again, a leading segment of the financial markets en masse has made a big bet and borrowed money on mortgage-backed securities whose foundations are suspect and likely to deteriorate along with the housing market. Believing again in the alchemy of mixing the good with the bad to produce higher profits, this time, spreading the risks across markets constitutes the good, and taking risky and even bad assets once again as tolerable as mixing good and bad mortgages. The macro hedge funds, however, seek out high risks wherever they go, from junk bonds to commodity futures, and use derivatives to magnify their chances for higher profits. If the MBS resale market starts sliding, there is some reason to think that other markets will be falling in sync too, as all of them will be responding to the same economic bad news. Like the 2008 crash, there are the makings of a perfect storm: risky assets have been tied together throughout the financial system and a lot of money borrowed at little or no cost to make huge bets that given underlying economic fundamentals could all go sour at the same time, endangering the hedge funds and the banks and private equity firms that lent them the money.
Our world financial system continues to careen wildly through space and time, nothing if not emboldened by the cheap money released since 2008 to make the crisis go away and by the desperate search for higher yields released by the deflating effect of the same cheap money on yields. The question is not whether another crisis if probable, but how probable.
In parallel fashion, the Greek financial crisis goes its way, with banks in major European nations, and the European Central Bank itself, uniformly vulnerable to losses from Greek default or asset devaluation.
What frightens the world economic elite about Greece is that like the mortgage-backed security crisis of 2008, Greek default would spread panic throughout the financial system, triggering losses across the board in all of the financial markets, and precipitating solvency crises among banks and other sovereign bond holders.
Back in the US, given high unemployment, low consumption, little or no economic growth, and the continued deterioration of the housing market, a slump or a mini-crash in the now highly speculative mortgage-backed securities market would not be surprising. Would it once more prove dangerously contagious as it did in 2008? Would it trigger insolvency among the “macro” hedge funds and the banks that lent them the money? Or would something like a Greek-induced panic turn out to be the trigger for an MBS market crash?
These are the imponderables facing the economic policy elite and ultimately all of us. No one knows if or from where a bullet may come, or if it can be dodged in time. In all, it makes the road to Sarajevo albeit in retrospect seem obvious.
The Humanists: Hsiao-hsien Hou's Café Lumière
How often do we get two great cinematic tastes that, as they say, go great together? The Taiwanese director Hsiao-hsien Hou and the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu both, I would argue, display great taste, especially of the visual and rhythmic varietes. (Some insist Ozu had a tin ear, at least for music. Me, I could never strip his movies of those wobbly domestic strings.) But, separated by more than a generation, they never had a chance to collaborate. The next best opportunity came along in 2003, the 100th anniversary of Ozu's birth (and the 40th anniversary of his death). To mark the occasion, Hou made Café Lumière, his homage to the master of the small-scale, the unspoken, and the pillow shot.
Film scholars don't need to waste their time building arguments about whether Ozu's influence really drives the film; "For the centenary of Ozu's birth," a title card nakedly announces right up front. The Ozu diehard, naturally, will only need to have seen the Shochiku logo. Crafting this project under the auspices of the studio for which Ozu worked all his life signals a certain seriousness, especially for a foreign filmmaker in a land famously protective of its inner life. And when this picture reveals how it sees Tokyo — well, case closed.
As unappealingly obsessive as it might sound, Café Lumière never strays far from the mechanics of public transit. Its story opens with a shot of a passing urban train, and many more of them appear throughout. These trains appear not as a fixture of a wealthy megalopolis but as part of a living, breathing, startingly calm organism grown also out of laundry lines, endless layers of icons and text, and web upon web of power and telephone lines. I hadn't glimpsed this sort of Tokyo since Ozu last captured it in the early sixties, this unassuming Tokyo seen, if not always at ground level, at least never from a much higher viewpoint than the average commuter enjoys.
Legend has it that Ozu shot his "home dramas" (including but most certainly not limited to Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and, previously written up in this column, Equinox Flower) with the camera mounted at the height of someone seated on a tatami mat. It always seemed a little higher than that to me, but the humility of the aesthetic choice still came across. It suited the humility of the circumstances; the homes in which his dramas played out always housed the stripe of family that, while appearing outwardly "middle class" to modern audiences, clearly sufferent from the kind of poverty — perhaps "lack" gets closer — that touched everyone in a Japan still so fresh from the Second World War.
In an actual Ozu picture, this would have turned into a matter of life and death, or at least the family would have treated it like one. Hou makes confusion the presiding emotion: it turns Yoko slightly wayward, it oscillates her mother between acting composed and comically flustered, and it drives her father to stare wordlessly out windows for nearly all his screen time. Too occupied with learning more about Wenye and his music to let the trouble at home affect her dramatically, Yoko tries to retrace the composer's long-ago travels in Tokyo while he falls nearer and nearer into Hajime's orbit — an orbit he inevitably makes, I suppose, what with all those train rides.
Both Yoko and Hajime live, relatively untethered, in their own worlds. Unsurprising that Yoko feels no urge to marry; how could her existence, strung from bookstore to coffee shop to the remnants of an avant-garde pianist's past, accommodate it? By the same token, Hajime can't say what he starts to feel for Yoko — assuming he does feel it. He maps out his reality explicitly in a piece of digital art he pulls up on his laptop: himself, as a microphone-wielding fetus, enclosed in a womb made of trains. You could say these two — Hou's characters, but very much modern Ozu characters as well — struggle under an excess of isolation where their cinematic predecessors struggled under an excess of connection, but perhaps too simplistically.
The lack remains, if not as precisely identifiable a lack as in Ozu. Where the older, Japanese filmmaker illustrated the dissolution of his people's families, the younger, Taiwanese filmmaker illustrates the results of that dissolution. This more complicated situation all but demands the hybrid sort of vision you get from crossing Ozu's with Hou's. Café Lumière thus unrolls with the former's stillness, human proportion, and habitation of the architectural, — looking from one door of a home through another into another — but also the latter's spontaneousness and aesthetic drift toward what's (often inexplicably) compelling. Ozu's pillow shots — character-free images of the natural and build environment included not to serve the film's story but its rhythm — like his people, stood mostly still. Hou's pillow shots, like his people, move, often with unclear motivation, but always toward what feels interesting.
I ultimately write about every filmmaker I write about because of the way they see and hear — the way they spin their sense perceptions into cinema. Many film writers have written many variations on the notion that Ozu saw, heard, and felt in ways terribly close to the core sensibilities of mid-20th-century Japan. Somewhat fewer have argued, no less forcefully, that Hou, who roots the bulk of his work in Taiwanese history and Taiwanese themes, perceives something equally essential about his own country in the late 20th century and early 21st. Grand and a little too neatly paradoxical though this may sound, Café Lumière makes you ask the question: could an equally Ozuesque view of a Japan 40 years after him have not just benefited from but required the eyes and ears of a director only influenced by Ozu's culture but just as steeped in another, only influenced by Ozu's aesthetic temperament but just as confident in his own?
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”
—Herman Melville; Moby Dick
“All politicians are loco.”
—Roshi Bob (with a tip o' the hat to Tip O'Neill)
Whatever Floats Your Pequod
Call me Ishmael
—no, on second thought don’t
Call me Lazarus because
I now have a second skin
—the old one was flayed
by a single-minded madman
ambulating on a stump
you’d hear him articulating
his loathing of life
to the cadence of the thud
of his wooden leg upon
a rumble overhead
like the thunder
of a gathering storm
Call me Lone Survivor
alive by dint of flotsam and luck
—if you call it luck to have been
under the spell and thumb
of a lunatic chasing a
Call me Happy To Be Alive
—and do I have a story for you!
Now when I breath the air
of summer blossoms
and taste its berries
I know what they mean
Call me The Old Man And The Sea;
someone eventually will
—big fish are hard to let be
and we all know the allure
of horizons; but
call me Queequeg's Confidant,
buddy of a harpooneer, an island
prince in a tattoo shirt
in a small boat chasing
psyched for murder
aiming to slay them
with a tiny, tooled spear
its tip all meanness
Call me Henchman in pursuit
of lamplight, of oil and cash reaped
from the flesh of leviathan
Call me Ishmael or call me Man
whatever floats your Pequod
It’s all the same to me
by Jim Culleny, 6/23/11
Ritual and the Ringing Grooves of History
by Tom Jacobs
Why should we not enjoy an original relation to the universe?
~ Emerson, “Nature”
One of the most important and enjoyable responsibilities given to a young altar boy is to ring a set of bells at the moment the priest holds the communion host above his head and proclaims something along the lines of:
The lord took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
The reason we rang these bells, my parish priest told me years ago when he first trained me to become an altar boy, is to draw the parishoners’ attention so that they are reminded of what is going on up on stage, as it were. And what is going on up there is meant to be breathtaking and awesome. The little, tasteless piece of circular, unleavened “bread” becomes, at that precise moment in the ceremony of the Eucharist, the actual body of Christ, which we are all then invited to eat. When I was first told this, I was surprised and astounded. What we were doing every Sunday was eating the flesh of a deity (and just after, having a little tug of his blood).
Of course, I had my doubts about the genuineness of this transformation, but still I found the whole concept rather amazing. This is not the sort of thing one sees everyday (unless you go to daily mass, I suppose). To think that these little unremarkable wafers that I had taken out of their little chinese-take out-looking boxes and placed in the tabernacle not one hour earlier, had now become the literal body of a god was an extraordinary idea, and a nice piece of theater, too, it must be said.[i]
And it was my job to ring the bells to get everyone to pay attention, if only for a moment, at what was going on before them. No less astonishing was the parishoners’ typical response: boredom, wristwatch-looking, ongoing attempts to stop one’s children from squirming and playing with their siblings in the pews. Nobody seemed to really grasp what was occurring before them, and even those who did, didn’t seem much to care.
One of the reasons that magical realism is so incredibly compelling is that it inserts the mystical, the magical, the strange and peculiar into the narrative of everyday life. Young lovers are engulfed by swarms of yellow butterflies. A person inhabits the same place but at two different time periods simultaneously. Angels descend to earth and are then exploited, put into a freak show, and then depart, and the townsfolk return to their lives as if nothing had changed. Life leaps out of its grooves, something miraculous happens, and when the dust settles normalcy returns. Coffee is made and sandwiches are eaten and windows are stared out of and friends are met and one tries to figure out what to do with the rest of the afternoon. But even a good sandwich can’t exorcise the sense of haunting mystery behind things.
Spalding Gray, the great monologist, pursued these moments of heightened attention to the sacred and mysterious in everyday life. He had a very fine sense of how what he called “perfect moments” intrude upon and reorganize mundanity. For Gray, a perfect moment was one of those times when everything came into a strange kind of numinous intensity, when the oceanic sense of attachment to something bigger than yourself is momentarily felt, and then you are dropped back into your life and can move onto the next stage, the next thing, the next day. Gray notes that “they’re a good way of bringing things to an end. But you can never plan for one. You never know when they’re coming. It’s sort of like falling in love….” Amongst other prerequisites is that there must be no desire. It’s like a confrontation with the source of your own being, but without the horror. Instead it is sheer exhilaration and bliss. Here’s Spalding, out in the midst of the Andaman Sea, all alone, caught in rip tides that have taken him out farther than he should rightly be, his wallet and all his money laying behind on the beach:
I was so far out—I could tell that I had never been in this situation before because of the view of the shoreline. I had never seen the shore from that point of view before. It was so far away that I felt this enormous disconnection from Mother Earth.
Suddenly, there was no time and there was no fear and there was no body to bite [by the sharks (and bears) that he so fears]. There was no longer any outlines. It was just one big ocean. My body had blended with the ocean. And there was just this round, smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver on top, bobbing up and down. And up the perceiver would go with the waves, then down it would go, and the waves would come up around the perceiver, and it could have been the middle of the Indian Ocean, because it could see no land.
And then it’s over and he knows it’s time to go back home to Krumville. But of course he doesn’t want to, he wants more, but he also knows the danger of staying in a perfect moment, in paradise; he has a “flash,” an “inkling” and he thinks he knows “what it was that killed Marilyn Monroe.” Maybe it is what killed him, too. Perfect moments are best restricted and limited to the momentary and ephemeral. They’re only to be visited. You can’t live there.
I'm thinking back to when I was a child
Way back to when I was a tot.
When I was an embryo - A tiny speck. Jus t a dot.
When I was a Hershey bar
In my father's back pocket.
Hey look! Over there! It's Frank Sinatra Sitting in a chair.
And he's blowing Perfect smoke rings
Up into the air.
And he's singing: Smoke makes a staircase for you to descend.
Ah desire! Ah desire! Ah desire!
So random, So rare
And everytime I see those smoke rings I think you're there.
~ Laurie Anderson, “Smoke Rings”
These eruptions of the fantastic and miraculous into the dullish fabric of life’s routine are the province of a good ritual. Like Auggie Wren’s daily photograph of the street corner in Brooklyn that lay outside the front door of his cigar store, or the person who allots themselves one ruminative cigarette a day, or possibly even one’s daily exercise regimen, all of these actions take on an almost ceremonial quality, and they come to mean something. The meaning of these rites, however, is not resolved but rather extended or deferred beyond the moment of the ritual and into the larger world. A good ritual offers a kind of participatory experience of collectivity that is less discursive than sensuous and emotional, an experience that connects the individual to history or the cosmos or the larger social body and implies, however inchoately, a sprawling skein of normally unobserved relationships amongst things. Durkheim claims that ritual functions to “strengthen the bonds attaching the individual to the society of which he is a member” and that it does so not by means of a conscious act of affiliation but the experience of the collective representation as a simultaneously transcendent and immanent commonality. The spaces of ritual are spaces of freedom and liminality, of abyssal in-betweenness, and evoke a mode of consciousness that is, as Catherine Bell contends, “betwixt-and-between the normal, day-to-day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending.”
I am speaking of profoundly secular rituals here—not the transformation of bread into the body of Christ—but even secular rituals have their own transformative and miraculous elements. In a profane world the sacred suddenly and magnificently shoulders itself into view and then recedes again, until the next time.
I was once in the habit of having a cigarette on my front stoop when I came home from work. I was usually back before my roommates, and I had a twenty minute or so window of solitude. Although it only very gradually assumed the dimensions of a ritual, this solitary cigarette on my front porch had a kind of telescoping effect on my perception of my surroundings. Patterns began to emerge in the cars parked on the streets, the people walking past, the life cycles of the trees lining the street. For the time of the cigarette, I felt integrated into a vitalizing circuit that was quite intense while it lasted.
Rituals like these actually acquire some of their significance from the structure of everyday life, instituting a kind of counter-structure that marks off from the spaces of necessity (and labor, in particular) a space of reflective freedom. These little counter-structures of ritual are like doors, or maybe even like non-silly versions of Reich’s orgone boxes—spaces that we can enter, stand on the threshold for a moment, and then reemerge into the world, somehow slightly changed.
I don’t think rituals can be willed into existence; perhaps they can be coaxed into being, but in general they seem to present themselves to us very slowly, over time and after many repetitions, eventually the energies and echoes of previous iterations converge and it is clear that you are commingling with something large and mysterious. Perhaps you have rituals of your own (and if so, I’d love to hear about them and the nature of their power and effect). They seem important aspects of our everyday experience, and I guess I’m still ringing the bell, wondering if anyone else feels this interweave of mystery and banality.
[i] William Gaddis, in his The Recognitions, has a nice take on how this ceremony has become one of the primary conceptual distinctions that has distinguished orthodox Catholicism from less orthodox sects, and eventually, of course, from Protestantism: “Homoiousian, or Homoousian, that was the question. It had been settled one thousand years before when, at Nicaea, the fate of the Christian church hung on a diphthong: Homoousian, meaning of one substance. The brothers in faraway Estremadura had missed the Nicaean Creed, busy out of doors as they were, or up to their eyes in cold water, and they had never heard of Arius. They chose Homoiousian, of like substance, as a happier word than its tubular alternative (no one gave them a chance at Heteroousian), and were forthwith put into quiet dungeons ….”
the pao of love (part one)
by Vivek Menezes
But he’s still elbow-deep in his work, dusted from brow to toes in wheat flour, and moving with the distinctive balletic grace that master craftsmen acquire after decades of practice.
A seemingly unending series of trays are lined up next to his hip, become filled at full speed with little nubs of steadily ‘proving’ dough (each snipped off by feel alone, yet almost exactly identical to the next), then set aside to await a pre-dawn turn in the massive, ancient oven which dominates the largest room in this old house in Panjim, the pocket-sized capital city of India’s smallest state.
Frias began his evening’s labours as always, preparing thousands of ‘unde’ for baking. These palm-sized, egg-shaped loaves of crusty bread are the addictive favourite of Ponnjekars, the residents of this pleasant riverside city, where ‘pao bhaji’ has to be accompanied by an ‘undo’ or it is not considered the genuine article, and most dailyroutines begin with the ritual purchase of the morning’s supply from a deliveryman who brings the bread right to the front door of every household in the city (the evening’s supply comes separately, in another round of deliveries).
The clock keeps ticking, and I find myself mesmerized by Frias’s swift, efficient movements, the dough rolled out in table-top sized slabs, then kneaded into cables and ropes and knots, then back again across the counter.
By now, he had moved on the ‘katre’, the squarish, flat loaves that give shape to the sandwiches in innumerable tiffins across the city and state, with little toasted corners that small children love to chew on. These are a refined taste in Frias’s neighborhood, so he will lay out less than half the loaves-to-be than he did with the ‘unde’. In full flow, it takes no more than 25 minutes, the baker’s hands ablur in the shadows cast by the tube light on the wall behind him.
And now Frias acknowledges my presence again for the first time since he started work hours ago, He nods towards the dough at his fingertips – it’s finally time to lay out the iconic ‘poee’, the pita-like, whole-wheat bread that’s laced with fresh palm toddy.
Generations of locals have grown up on robust, toothsome ‘poee’ but the demand for its old-fashioned charms is dwindling. Frias now makes just a few dozen every day for his older clients, who count on his bakery’s ‘poee’ just as their parents and grandparents did in previous decades. The clientele is now insignificant, but Frias keeps producing ‘poee’ because it’s a way of life, just like every other aspect of his laborious existence, nothing much changed from generations of baking Friases past, stretching all the way back to the first decades after the establishment of the Estado da India in 1510.
The Portuguese had food on their mind from the moment that they arrived in India – after all it was the scent of spices that lured them across the oceans in the first place.
From Roman times and even before, exotic aromatics from the East were prized across Europe for their ability to transform bland staples into desirable delicacies.But these cameat an extraordinarily heavy price, comparable to gold. A chain of traders was required to shift the precious goods via Malaya and China to the ports of India, and then the Arabs took over, moving them by ship to Africa, whence they came overland to the Meditteranean to be collected by Venetian and Genoan traders who kept a near-monopoly going for centuries.
So when Columbus sailed off in 1492, the main reason was to try and break this centuries-old monopoly, to access the fabled spice markets of the Indies without having to go through middlemen. Thus began the so-called Age of Discovery, which remade the world, with Columbus crossing the Atlantic to the New World, and Vasco da Gama finally making the crucial breakthrough to sail right around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope to wind up in the sheltered bay of Calicut in May, 1498.
It was not a very grand arrival, contrary to European expectations. They were immediately greeted in their own languages, which confounded them. And then the Zamorin and his court were comrehensively unimpressed by the gifts that were presented to them: a dozen coats, six hats, a bale of sugar and four barrels of butter and honey. But da Gama had brought coin along as well, and the multinational traders of Calicut accepted it with alacrity.
The Iberian managed to fill his ship with tens of thousands of kilos of black pepper, bought for 3 ducats the hundredweight. Back in Lisbon, he found the price holding steady at 22 ducats – da Gama and his crew became rich overnight, and the royalcourt immediately began to pay close attention.
Less than three years later, Lopo Soares was back in Calicut with 9 ships in his flotilla. This time, the Portuguese shipped back more than a million kilos of pepper, and thousands of kilos each of ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. The captain and his entire crew became fabulously wealthy, and now there was no stopping the interest of the members of the court, and the sovereign himself.
In 1510, Alfonso da Albquerque moved stealthily up the western coastline of India towards Goa, alerted to the possibility of an easy takeover by local Saraswat Hindu chieftains who were tiring of the Adil Shah’s onerous tax regime. He finally took Goa after a brief, bloody battle.
Just 20 years later, the entire trading routes across the Arabian Sea were controlled by the Portuguese, who had already arrayed a string of 50 forts to control their monopoly, with further military outposts in Bengal and the Coromandel coast, and 100 fast ships devoted to cutting off and killing any competition that might arise.
By the dawn of the 17th century, the Cidade de Goa, the sprawling port city on the Mandovi River whose ruins are now known as ‘Old Goa’, had grown far larger than London or Paris in the same era, and become one of the most important marketplaces in the history of globalization.
It is here that Asia and Europe met, traded, and mingled on a large and sustained scale for the first time, with profound results that have changed the world since then. Goa became the locus of intense cultural exchange and technology transfer: the home of the first printing press in Asia, the first modern lighthouse, the first public library, the first universal civil code, ad infinitum.
Right alongside, the diet of the subcontinent changed permanently: potatoes were introduced (India is now the world’s largest producer); chilies came in for the first time. Corn, cashews, guavas, pineapples, custard-apples, papayas, all came into the Indian diet via the Estado da India.
But it was bread that came in for special emphasis by colonial authorities, who found no substitute in India’s panoply of unleavened chapattis and rotis, thin dosas and appams, soft breads made from ground rice and lentils.
Wheat bread did not merely signify subsistence to the Europeans, it was required for the celebration of Mass. The early Portuguese presence in India was missionary-heavy, and they made bakeries and baking into a priority. It was missionaries who trained a large number of converts from the ‘Chardo’ caste (of Kshatriyas), from South Goa in the arduous art of baking bread in wood-fired clay ovens, and found an alternative to yeast in fresh coconut toddy. In time, the ‘Poders’ of Goa became ubiquitous, and constituted a powerful caste-based union that played an outsized role in state politics right into the 20th century.
The last Poees are ready for the oven, and Frias indicates that he will be ready to talk after he cleans up a bit. I retreat to the tiny balcony overlooking the front yard, and watch the rain crash down in sheets on this small cluster of traditional houses, tucked invisibly into a clump of trees at the base of the Altinho hill that dominates the centre of Panjim.
The Frias bakery is named after the nearby spring that gives it its name (Boca da Vaca = Mouth of the Cow). The modern flat that I live in with my family is just a kilometer south down the riverfront, but the scene I am looking out on feels part of a village world far different from what an Indian state capital is supposed to look like in 2011.
In fact, the Padaria Boca da Vaca came as a revelation to me when I found it a couple of years ago, having never stumbled across it while criss-crossing the city on foot since childhood, despite the fact that Panjim is by far the smallest state capital in the subcontinent (and not even close to the largest city in Goa, either).
The main commercial drag of the city – 18th June Road – is probably less than 150 metres away from the Frias establishment, but a universe apart nonetheless. Each step away from blocks of unremarkable apartment buildings, and up a tiny by-lane lined with bougainvillea, takes you further towards a small stand of soaring, old coconut trees, until you’re completely out of sight of the city, and the countryside atmosphere pervades,
But long before I visited Padaria Boca da Vaca, I had surely eaten its bread. Like every other traditional bakery in Goa, its bicycle salesmen fan out across the neighborhood and beyond, honking insistently on bulb horns that set Goan households salivating at first earshot. ‘Phonk phonk, phonk’ and you know bread is on its way in a fabulously democratic exercise where every home in the state – mansion, hovel, in-between – is served by the network, and everyone buys the same article for the same price: the government-mandated Rs. 2.50 per undo, katre or poee. It’s beyond a daily staple, and more like a basic human right: if every Goan doesn’t get his fresh daily pao, every politician knows that the government will fall immediately.
Similar thoughts turn out to occupy the mind of Sebastiao Frias, when he finally settles down in the comfortable gloom of his balcao a little past two in the morning, with moonlight breaking though the rain clouds overhead.
“I think you are probably educated,” he says, peering at me rather doubtfully, “so I don’t have to tell you what bread is, what it means to the people.” Now his eyes start to shine with excitement, “bread is not just food to me, bread is not just money to me, bread is life, man.” The baker sits back with a sigh, “Poder means respectable, honest, trustworthy. We always deliver, we are known for nevercheating. This is what my family tradition means to me - we have been bakers for more than 300 years!”
The broad-shouldered poder gestured his world to me with his hands – the small hotel he owned in Majorda, the bank account that had grown enough to give him enough interest to live on without having to bother with the odd-hours and endless physical labour of the bakery profession. But, “I was born in this,” he says, with a shrug of acceptance and finality, “and there is no doubt that I feel a big gap in my life when I am way from the bakery, and the smell of my pao.”
‘Te poder gele and te unde gele’ is a pointed Konkani aphorism. “That bread is gone, and the bakers who made it too.’ But while decolonization meant the departure of the Europeans, our cultural landscape has been irrevocably altered.
Can we imagine Andhra food without chilis, or a Bengali culinary landscape without sandesh and rosogollas made from chhana (the cottage cheese preparation introduced by the Portuguese to Bengal)?
Bread is right at the forefront of this cultural exchange – in fact, the original Portuguese word ‘pao’ itself is a amazing cross-over phenomenon, incredibly widespread, and used in every Asian language from Japanese to Marathi.
Without much exaggeration, you could actually read much of modern human history in the spread of these little loaves.
To begin with, they’re made from wheat flour, one of the original grain-bearing grasses that were first cultivated on a large scale in Mesopotamia, and made human civilization possible in the first place. Wheat soon catapulted ahead of the other ancient grains, because it was discovered to have a secret ingredient – gluten.
Though this complex of proteins can be found in oats, barley and rye (and some others), it is found in the highest concentrations in wheat. It is gluten that combines with water to make dough made from wheat flour malleable, and it is precisely this stretchable consistency that is critical to the way that gases are trapped when they’re released by the active yeast in the dough. The result is something like the perfect food: nutritious, easily digestible, highly durable, portable and versatile, bread in all its forms.
But there is a twist, too. You have to take a great deal of trouble and time, and require considerable expertise to bake bread consistently and efficiently. So in every single bread-eating culture, professional bakers emerged quite early, and served the development of this new culinary habit.
Voila, Frenchmen frequent boulangeries to buy their daily baguettes, and Egyptians all troop to get their daily pitas from government-run bakeries, and that is what leads us straight back to Goa’s proliferation of traditional bakeries, and the burgeoning ranks of expert bakers who fanned out across the British and Portuguese colonial possessions all through the 19th century, right up to 1947.
(PART II to follow sometime soon!)
The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World
by Sue Hubbard
Tate Britain until 4th September
It was the modern art movement that brought London, if not quite kicking and screaming, then rather reluctantly out of its Edwardian gentility into the 20thcentury. Most people had never seen a Cézanne or a Van Gogh. The continental ‘isms’ of Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism were more likely thought of, if they were thought of at all, in the manner of foreign food. Something best kept ‘over there’, safely on the other side of the Channel. Vorticism with its continental influences was to change all that.
During the Edwardian period (1901-10) mainstream British culture was vehemently isolationist and the modern art scene tiny. There was a small avant-garde that revolved, on the one hand, around the Bloomsbury Group – Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry and the artists of the Omega Workshops with their French inspired aestheticism and there was the gritty, more socially conscious Camden Town Group that collected around Walter Richard Sickert. But mostly the art establishment, dominated by the Royal Academy, was inward looking and mildly xenophobic.
[Photo: Blast No. 1: Review of the Great English Vortex, June 20, 1914 (Edited by Wyndham Lewis), The Poetry Collection, State University of New York at Buffalo, © Wyndham Lewis and the estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis by kind permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity).]
Between November 1910 and January 1911, the exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists, organised by Fry at the Grafton Galleries introduced an incredulous British public to painting by Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh. It caused a massive rumpus. Two years later Fry organized the Second-Post Impressionistic Exhibition: British, French and Russian Artists that included Picasso and Matisse. These exhibitions were to mark the gradual acceptance of European art within these islands. But it was during the summer of 1914, when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo and Europe plunged into war, that Vorticism stormed into London with a whiff of Italian Futurism smoking at its heels. Waving its manifestos it punctured the genteel upper class experiments of the Bloomsbury group, whose own artistic and sexual boundaries were being tested by Lytton Strachey on a more microcosmic level when, on noticing a stain on Virginia Woolf’s dress, he enquired rather peremptorily whether it might be semen.
Now, with its heady mix of militarism, arrogance, bombastic slogans and phrasemaking, its jagged angles, excitement and love of speed, Vorticism is the subject of a major new exhibition at Tate Britain. Brought together by the belligerent ego of Wyndham Lewis the movement became the focus of major (and diverse talents) such as Jacob Epstein, the poet Ezra Pound who gave it its name, T.S. Eliot and Henri Gaudier-Brezeska - one of the great talents lost to the First World War who died in the trenches at the age of 23. Documenting this period has proved problematic when artists such as Edward Wadsworth and William Roberts went off to fight only to discover, on their return from the Great War, that many of their paintings had been either lost or destroyed.
Although Wyndham Lewis initially worked with Fry’s Omega Workshops to create Modernist home furnishings to introduce the moneyed classes to Modern art and design, he fell out with Fry over Fry’s apparent dishonesty concerning a commission form the Daily Mail to create a Post-Impressionist room at the annual Ideal Home Exhibition. Lewis took his damaged amour propre and the artists Cuthbert Hamilton, Jessie Etchells and Edward Wadsworth and set up a rival avant-garde group, the Rebel Art Centre. In so doing he dammed the Omega Workshops and the Bloomsbury set: “As to its tendencies in Art, they alone would be sufficient to make it very difficult for any vigorous art-instinct to long remain under its roof. The idol is still Prettiness, with its mid-Victorian languish of the neck, and its skin is ‘greenery-yallery’, despite the Post-What-Not fashionableness of its draperies” adding, for good measure, on another occasion that “Post Impressionism is an insipid and pointless name invented by a journalist [Fry], which has been naturally ousted by the better word “Futurism”in public debate on modern art.”
This new avant-garde, an uneasy alliance between the Lewis and the Sickert groups, was to be confirmed in the Cubist Room of a mixed show in the Brighton Public Art Galleries under the snappy title: An Exhibition of the work of English Post-Impressionists, Cubists and others. The magazine Blast was its mouthpiece where, in the first issue, Pound claimed:‘The vortex is the point of maximum energy. It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency.’ This was the era of the manifesto and Blast borrowed from the propagandist style of the Italian Futurist F. T. Marinetti, whose manifesto was launched in 1909, and from Apollinaire’s L’Antitradtion futurist. Manifeste-synthèse (Futurist Anti-Tradition Manifesto) published in Italian in 1913 in the Futurist newspaper Lacerba.
From 1909 to 1918 Wyndham Lewis and his associates struggled to establish a distinct identity for their art within modernism. Blast with its futurist typography and its surreal polemic veered between blasts and blessings: “Blast the years 1837 to 1900! Blast the abysmal inexcusable middle class!” “Bless Bridget Berrwolf Bearline Cranmer Byng Frieder Graham The Pope Maria de Tomaso...”. Published as a response to Marinetti’s attempt to assume leadership of the Rebel Art Centre the young French sculpture Gaudier-Brzeska was a signatory, though Jacob Epstein, whose Rock Drill is often seen as the quintessential Vorticist work, was not and his involvement with the group remained altogether more tenuous. Yet Blast’s legacy has been enduring; it has been an influence on everything from contemporary text-based artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay to concrete poets and punk magazines.
Yet the quarrel with Marinetti and Futurism has tended to obscure the fact that Vorticism was a genuinely groundbreaking British avant-garde movement. The ‘masculine’machine aesthetic was to ‘blast away’ the decadent ‘feminine’ culture of Edwardian England in favour of a purifying hardness. This thinking was encapsulated in a lecture given by the philosopher T.E Hulme on ‘Modern Art and Its Philosophy’ in January 1914 where he spoke of what was ‘austere, mechanical, clear cut, and bare.’
This exhibition at Tate Modern brings together over 100 works, including David Bomberg’s painting The Mud Bath, 1914with its bold zigzags and sculptures such as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska’s monumental and priapic Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound 1914 – a fusion of Easter Island primitivism and the sort of phallic power that was to be embraced by both Pound and Lewis in their subsequent espousal of Fascism. This is the dark side of Vorticism and one not sufficiently explored here. For despite the remark by the art critic Richard Cork (who was instrumental in the movement’s rediscovery in the early seventies) that neither Pound nor Lewis “could be considered Right-wing at the time. They were simply saying that the old Victorian culture no longer worked, that art had to come to terms with the age of the machine,” this ignores Lewis’s puerile Nietzscheanism, his casual fascism and misogynist thinking that blares from every page of his war mongering, yet brilliantly experimental novel,Tarr.
Yet despite this political amnesia the exhibition is excellent on the importance of the previously ignored transatlantic exchange of ideas that influenced the Vorticists and highlights new research that examines the only two Vorticist exhibitions mounted during the lifetime of the group: one in London at the Doré Gallery in 1915 and the other at The Penguin Club New York in 1917 facilitated, with the help of Ezra Pound, by the visionary collector John Quinn. The Tate is also showing the rarely seen Vorticist photography of Avin Langdon Corbon, claimed as the first ever abstract photographs, and a number of newly revealed works by key women Vorticists such as Jessica Dismorr, Dorothy Shakespeare and Helen Saunders.
But the main success of The Vorticists: Manifesto for a Modern World is that it underlies the electrifying force and vitality of this movement and the profound effect that it had on the modernisation of the visual arts in this country. It was one of Britain’s most exciting and genuinely radical moments in art that swept away cosy Edwardian assumptions of drawing room prettiness. Yet by the time the first Vorticist exhibition took place in June 1915, the slaughter of the First World War was well under way and the idealisation of the machine simply looked, at best , naive; an apology for boy’s toys. Technology, it seemed, was not going to provide the western world with some bright Utopian future but leave millions of dead on the battlefields of Europe.
June 26, 2011
Pamela S. Karlan in the Boston Review:
When the Supreme Court heard Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co. in 1886, few would have pegged the case as a turning point in constitutional law. The matter at hand seemed highly technical: could California increase the property tax owed by a railroad if the railroad built fences on its property? As it turned out, the Court ruled unanimously in the railroad’s favor. And in so doing, the Court casually affirmed the railroad’s argument that corporations are “persons” within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provides that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” So certain were the justices of the Fourteenth Amendment’s applicability that their opinion did not engage the issue, but the Court reporter recorded the justices’ perspective on the topic:
Before argument Mr. Chief Justice Waite said: ‘The Court does not wish to hear argument on the question whether the provision in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution which forbids a state to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws applies to these corporations. We are all of opinion that it does.’
That statement marks the origin of the view that corporations are persons as a matter of constitutional law. This played a central role in the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which struck down portions of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act that restricted corporate spending on electioneering communications in the run-up to a federal election. The Court declared that Congress could not discriminate between electioneering communications according to the identity of the speaker: since individual human beings clearly have a First Amendment right to speak about candidates during the election process, so too must corporations.
Atop TV Sets, a Power Drain That Runs Nonstop
Elizabeth Rosenthal in the New York Times:
Those little boxes that usher cable signals and digital recording capacity into televisions have become the single largest electricity drain in many American homes, with some typical home entertainment configurations eating more power than a new refrigerator and even some central air-conditioning systems.
There are 160 million so-called set-top boxes in the United States, one for every two people, and that number is rising. Many homes now have one or more basic cable boxes as well as add-on DVRs, or digital video recorders, which use 40 percent more power than the set-top box.
One high-definition DVR and one high-definition cable box use an average of 446 kilowatt hours a year, about 10 percent more than a 21-cubic-foot energy-efficient refrigerator, a recent study found.
These set-top boxes are energy hogs mostly because their drives, tuners and other components are generally running full tilt, or nearly so, 24 hours a day, even when not in active use. The recent study, by the Natural Resources Defense Council, concluded that the boxes consumed $3 billion in electricity per year in the United States — and that 66 percent of that power is wasted when no one is watching and shows are not being recorded. That is more power than the state of Maryland uses over 12 months.
The untold stories of rape during the Holocaust
Jessica Ravitz at CNN:
Scholars are revisiting old testimonies and documents -- and seeking new ones. Authors have published works to inspire conversation. Psychologists want to help survivors heal from their secrets. Activists, including feminist writer and organizer Gloria Steinem, hope these victims of the distant past can help shape a better future.
But the topic of sexual violence during the Holocaust is fraught with controversy. Some observers believe it's a subject not sufficiently widespread or proven to warrant broad attention. Others fear it's driven by a microscopic view that deflects focus from what needs to be remembered. And still others feel that by pushing the issue, it may harm survivors who've suffered enough.
What everyone can agree on is this: When it comes to learning from those who lived through the Holocaust, time is running out.
A spotlight on this dark subject was switched on with the late 2010 publication of a landmark book bearing a straightforward but telling title, "Sexual Violence against Jewish Women during the Holocaust."
The interdisciplinary anthology touches on everything from rape, forced prostitution and sterilizations to psychological trauma, gender identity issues and depictions of violence in the arts. Co-edited by Sonja Hedgepeth and Rochelle Saidel, it is believed to be the first book in English to focus exclusively on this subject.
Pakistan Unhitches Hitchens
Anjum Altaf in The South Asian Idea:
None of this is to argue that Pakistan is not plagued by very severe problems, some of which Hitchens has enumerated. The appropriate response to Hitchens is not a defense of Pakistan’s civil and military elite, of the kind Christine Fair has penned for The Huffington Post, with its accounting of Pakistan’s cooperation in the war against terror. Nor is it the dismissive posture adopted by many Pakistanis, pointing out their country’s various positives. These are weak defenses, the staples of many a domestic fight: This is all I’ve done for you, think of the good times, we were happy once, and ultimately those defenses are as far from the point as a Hitchens-style diatribe.
The response calls for the kind of unglamorous analysis that won’t make it into Vanity Fair or The Huffington Post. At any given time, a society is characterized by many currents and counter-currents, positives coexist with negatives, and struggles for human rights wax and wane. So has been the case in Pakistan. Hitchens’ statement that “Pakistan takes its twisted, cowardly revenge by harboring the likes of the late Osama bin Laden” is so unnuanced as to call into question the author’s credibility as an analyst; the greatest damage he has done here is to his own reputation.
There is no one Pakistan: There are many Pakistans, and the question to ask is why the forces of repression have been gaining the upper hand in the country.
Why parents can’t cut the apron strings
If Amy Chua is cast as the wild-eyed Tiger Warrior of twenty-first-century parenting, Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University and author of a new book, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, is its amiable Buddha figure. He even looks the part. His publicity photos invariably picture him hugging his kids and grinning from ear to ear. It’s a far cry from Amy Chua’s formal, somewhat stiff family portraits. Pitting the two against one another has proved irresistible. Media pundits have dubbed them ‘gurus’ and taken to sorting parents into one category or another. Of course the irony is that the ‘debate’ between the two is not, as Jennie Bristow has pointed out on spiked, a real debate in any meaningful sense. It’s really more of a half-hearted rehearsal of the old nature-vs-nurture argument. It does not change anyone’s mind; it offers no answers and is unlikely to have any effect on what parents actually do. And this is a pity because Caplan’s book at least represents an attempt to address some of the excesses of today’s parenting culture.
Selfish Reasons begins with the observation that the American family is shrinking, and the main reason for this, according to Caplan, is that parents are stressed out about taking care of kids. More kids mean more stress and less happiness. This in itself might give some readers pause. It seems a bit glib and appears to ignore the long-term demographic trends and yet, just as a snapshot of American life today, it feels true.
For an Anniversary
The wing of the osprey lifted
over the nest on Tomales Bay
into fog and difficult gust
raking treetops from Inverness Ridge on over
The left wing shouldered into protective
gesture the left wing we thought broken
and the young beneath in the windy nest
creaking there in their hunger
and the tides beseeching, besieging
the bay in its ruined langour
by Adrienne Rich
The Double Game: The unintended consequences of American funding in Pakistan.
From The New Yorker:
It’s the end of the Second World War, and the United States is deciding what to do about two immense, poor, densely populated countries in Asia. America chooses one of the countries, becoming its benefactor. Over the decades, it pours billions of dollars into that country’s economy, training and equipping its military and its intelligence services. The stated goal is to create a reliable ally with strong institutions and a modern, vigorous democracy. The other country, meanwhile, is spurned because it forges alliances with America’s enemies.
The country not chosen was India, which “tilted” toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Pakistan became America’s protégé, firmly supporting its fight to contain Communism. The benefits that Pakistan accrued from this relationship were quickly apparent: in the nineteen-sixties, its economy was an exemplar. India, by contrast, was a byword for basket case. Fifty years then went by. What was the result of this social experiment? India has become the state that we tried to create in Pakistan. It is a rising economic star, militarily powerful and democratic, and it shares American interests. Pakistan, however, is one of the most anti-American countries in the world, and a covert sponsor of terrorism. Politically and economically, it verges on being a failed state. And, despite Pakistani avowals to the contrary, America’s worst enemy, Osama bin Laden, had been hiding there for years—in strikingly comfortable circumstances—before U.S. commandos finally tracked him down and killed him, on May 2nd.
June 25, 2011
Michele Bachmann's Holy War
Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone:
It may be the hardest thing you ever do, for Michele Bachmann is almost certainly the funniest thing that has ever happened to American presidential politics. Fans of obscure 1970s television may remember a short-lived children's show called Far Out Space Nuts, in which a pair of dimwitted NASA repairmen, one of whom is played by Bob (Gilligan) Denver, accidentally send themselves into space by pressing "launch" instead of "lunch" inside a capsule they were fixing at Cape Canaveral. This plot device roughly approximates the political and cultural mechanism that is sending Michele Bachmann hurtling in the direction of the Oval Office.
Bachmann is a religious zealot whose brain is a raging electrical storm of divine visions and paranoid delusions. She believes that the Chinese are plotting to replace the dollar bill, that light bulbs are killing our dogs and cats, and that God personally chose her to become both an IRS attorney who would spend years hounding taxpayers and a raging anti-tax Tea Party crusader against big government. She kicked off her unofficial presidential campaign in New Hampshire, by mistakenly declaring it the birthplace of the American Revolution. "It's your state that fired the shot that was heard around the world!" she gushed. "You are the state of Lexington and Concord, you started the battle for liberty right here in your backyard."
Seagull steals video camera while it is recording
Beliefs that give meaning to life can't be dislodged by factual evidence
Salman Hameed in The Guardian:
Millions of individuals in the UK believe in UFOs and ghosts. Yet we know that there is no credible evidence for any visitation from outer space or for some dead souls hanging out in abandoned houses. On the other hand, there is now overwhelming evidence that humans and other species on the planet have evolved over the past 4.5bn years. And yet 17% of the British population and 40% of Americans reject evolution. It seems that for many there is no connection between belief and evidence.
Some – maybe most – of the blame can be attributed to an education system that does not train people to think critically. Similarly, most people do not understand methodologies of science and the way theories get accepted. For some, scientific evidence has no role in the way they envision the world.
People who claim to have been abducted by aliens provide an interesting example. The "abductions" happen mostly in the early morning hours and, apart from psychological trauma, there is no physical evidence left behind. Some scientists have attributed these episodes to sleep paralysis – a momentary miscommunication between the brain and the body, just before going to sleep or waking up.
While abductions have most likely not taken place, the trauma experienced by the individuals may still be real.