Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Russia’s ‘Absurd’ Justice System
Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in n+1:
I would like to speak again about “reform.” Once again, I am reaffirmed in my conviction that if true education is at all possible in Russia, it can only take the form of self-education. If you don’t teach yourself—then no one else will teach you. Or if they do teach you, they’ll teach you who knows what. I have a great many stylistic disagreements with the powers-that-be. Their quantity is approaching a critical point.
What can the institutions of the state teach us? How could I possibly be educated by a prison colony, or could you be educated by, let’s say, the Russia-1 TV channel? Joseph Brodsky said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “The more substantial an individual’s aesthetic experience is, the sounder his taste, the sharper his moral focus, the freer—though not necessarily the happier—he is.”
In Russia, we have again found ourselves in circumstances in which resistance, including quite importantly aesthetic resistance, has become our one remaining moral option and civic duty.
he style of the Putin regime is a conservative, secret-police aesthetic. By no accident—and actually quite logically—this aesthetic persistently samples and recreates the principles of two previous regimes, both of them historical precedents to the present one: the tsarist-imperial aesthetic and the wrongly understood aesthetic of Socialist Realism, complete with workers from some kind of standard-issue Train-Car Assembly Plant of the Urals. Given the clumsiness and thoughtlessness with which all of this is being recreated, the present political regime’s ideological apparatus deserves no praise. Empty space, in its minimalism, is more attractive and tempting than the results of the aesthetic efforts of the current regime.
From the Favelas
Neima Jahromi and Zoe Roller in New Inquiry:
One autumn night in São Paulo, Brazil a police officer dressed like Robocop sprayed tear gas into a small crowd of chanting protesters and they all dispersed. A bystander took a video and uploaded it to the website LiveLeak. For years, middle class students have been organizing to protest city bus fares, but their movement suddenly became a national force when legislatures around the country, under the guidance of the federal government, elected to impose a nine-cent increase in cities that would host the 2014 World Cup. On June 11, the demonstrations turned especially violent. A group of protesters in São Paulo burned busses and damaged a subway station. Riot police appeared and made dozens of arrests.
Several days later, someone posted a link to the LiveLeak video on Facebook and tagged Zoe Roller, a 26 year old American who has been living and working for two years in one of Rio de Janeiro’s thousands of favelas, poorer neighborhoods with improvised infrastructure that sit outside the city’s normal zoning. Below the link a friend, referring to the protests in Gezi Park 6000 miles away, commented, “I am with you, and with Turkey!” Facebook pages started to appear, created by members of existing activist groups like Movimento Passe Livre (Free Fare Movement), calling for more protests.
Zoe heard there would be major protests the following Monday, June 17, so she waited around in downtown Rio after work. When the bus fare raise was announced at the beginning of the month she, like many in Brazil, expected some resistance but assumed it would taper off into resignation as it had after the last fare increase. However, protests at Maracanã stadium the day before had been met with brutal police response. And as the protests that raged throughout June showed, something bigger is afoot.
The Persisting Vision: Reading the Language of Cinema
Martin Scorsese in the NYRB's blog:
In the film The Magic Box, which was made in England in 1950, the great English actor Robert Donat plays William Friese-Greene—one of the people who invented movies. The Magic Box was packed with guest stars. It was made for an event called the Festival of Britain. You had about fifty or sixty of the biggest actors in England at the time, all doing for the most part little cameos, including the man who played the policeman—that was Sir Laurence Olivier.
I saw this picture for the first time with my father. I was eight years old. I’ve never really gotten over the impact that it had. I believe this is what ignited in me the wonder of cinema, and the obsession—with watching movies, making them, inventing them.
Friese-Greene gives everything of himself to the movies, and he dies a pauper. If you know the full story of his life and its end, the line in the film about the invention of the movies—“You must be a very happy man, Mr. Friese-Greene”—of course is ironic, but in some ways it’s also true because he’s followed his obsession all the way. So it’s both disturbing and inspiring. I was very young. I didn’t put this into words at the time, but I sensed these things and I saw them up there on the screen.
My parents had a good reason for taking me to the movies all the time, because I had been sick with asthma since I was three years old and I apparently couldn’t do any sports, or that’s what they told me. But my mother and father did love the movies. They weren’t in the habit of reading—that didn’t really exist where I came from—and so we connected through the movies.
Maxim D. Shrayer on Vladimir Nabokov
A revisionist biography of Nabokov is due, says the bilingual author and translator. He picks the best books by - and about - Nabokov.
Interview in Five Books:
This is my favourite collection, and a lot of my own work on Nabokov deals with the stories. About 60 of them were written in Russian, ten in English. They cover four decades of Nabokov’s literary life and are representative of his dynamic as a writer both in Russian and in English, and as both a European and an American émigré. If you want to see his various predilections, the aesthetics and politics of Nabokov’s work, then the stories are a great place to go. Nabokov leaves a mark on the genre – some have argued that they are among the very best Russian, European, American short stories ever written. They are a great example of late, blazing modernism.
After Lolita made Nabokov famous, he oversaw the enterprise of Englishing his Russian works, and the stories are done very well. Back in the 1930s – he was already a famous émigré author but unknown in the English-speaking world – several stories had been translated, by Gleb Struve and others. In the 1940s Nabokov had collaborated with a man by the name of Petr Pertzoff, producing exemplary translations of his finest Russian stories. Subsequently, he worked closely with his son Dmitri Nabokov, who is a dedicated son and a gifted translator. Vladimir Nabokov would say that, unless a translator was working directly from the Russian, they should work from an existing English translation – not necessarily a kosher procedure, strictly speaking, but a valid one in Nabokov’s case. If you were to compare some of the Russian originals with the English versions line by line, they would not be identical. But Nabokov got to have a second go at the stories, in a way, and he made changes. I don’t want to say he improved them, but they tell a more complete story – in English – of his literary career.
where is my mind?
For much of human history, the source of human intelligence and individual character was thought to have been the heart, the liver, or the spleen—not the brain. Before and after the mind was linked to the brain, the supposed significance of the organ has shaped how it is represented—both as a body part and as the locus of the self. Images of the brain have for the most part been, and still are, speculative, thanks to the opaque relationship between the organ and its functions. The subjective experience of consciousness—dynamic, diachronic and synchronic—cannot readily be transposed onto the brain's physiology. The kidney, by contrast, filters and secretes a fluid with properties that can be correlated and classified according to smell, color, and sedimentation, leaving traces of a time-based process with a clear beginning and end. Diagnosis from urine, practiced for many centuries, is a deductive process based on the commonsensical intelligibility of this process: intake, excretion, repeat. We tend to think of contemporary, digital images of the brain—the beguiling, arresting concoctions derived from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines—as evidence of “activity,” regardless of the complicated mathematical operations involved in their production. We encounter them in reports about “your brain on poker” or “your brain on sex.” The use of brain scans to trumpet what are often insignificant and sensational studies has demystified the discipline and helped provoke a backlash against so-called neurophrenology, and against the use of neuroscience as an explanatory panacea.more from Isabelle Moffat at Triple Canopy here.
shteyngart and the glass
When I was a geeky child, the highlight of each month was the arrival of Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, with its lurid interstellar and darkly apocalyptic covers. In 1984, William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” came out, a cyberpunk novel that proved to be incredibly predictive of what life would be like when we committed ourselves to the virtual world. But the narrative that really caught my imagination was a short story called “Bloodchild,” by Octavia Butler. The story takes place on a faraway planet dominated by a large insect-like species called the Tlic. The humans who have fled oppression on their own planet live on a so-called Preserve, where their bodies are used as hosts for the Tlic’s eggs, culminating in a horrifyingly graphic hatching procedure often resulting in the death of the human host. Many reviewers thought of the story as an allegory of slavery (perhaps influenced by the fact that Butler was African-American), but the author denied the claim. Butler wrote that she thought of “Bloodchild” as “a love story between two very different beings.” Although their relationship is unequal and often gruesome, Tlic and humans need each other to survive. Today, when I think of our relationship with technology, I cannot help but think of human and Tlic, the latter’s insect limbs wrapped around the former’s warm-blooded trunk, about to hatch something new.more from Gary Shteyngart at The New Yorker here.
wutheringI was reminded by the Paris Review blog that yesterday was both Emily Brontë's AND Kate Bush's birthday. So, here is the delightfulness....
Feynman on Biology
Christina Agapakis in Scientific American:
Richard Feynman was a brilliant, bongo-playing, lock-picking, eminently quotablephysicist. His quips, on anything from the pleasure of findings things out to the key to science to how fire works are standard fare for science fans.
For synthetic biologists, it’s a quotation he left on his last blackboard at Caltech before his death in 1988 that is most frequently quoted: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” This statement gives quotable form to the “drive to make” that happens when engineers start doing biology.
Feynman of course wasn’t an engineer, he was a theoretical physicist–a field less often associated with creating stuff than with creating equations. But Feynman also liked to dabble in other fields, including a sabbatical year in Max Delbrück’s biology lab at Caltech studying genetic mutations in viruses that infect bacteria. The chapter on this disciplinary dabbling in Feynman’s autobiography, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, is a fascinating look at what happens when a physicist starts doing biology.
The 3:07 AM Project: One-minute Horror Movies
6 Lessons Disney Could Learn From Pakistan's 'Burka Avenger'
Lindsey Davis in the Huffington Post:
She's called the Burka Avenger, and she's the defender of girls' education and women's rights.
The brainchild of Pakistani pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid, the cartoon was created as a way to combat the Taliban's intense opposition to educating girls, AP reports.
We think Disney could learn a thing or two about what a female protagonist should look like from the fearless Burka Avenger.
1. She fights villains with Takht Kabaddi -- a form of karate that uses books and pens as weapons, because she's all about emphasizing the importance of education.
And from the BBC: 'Burka Avenger' fights for Pakistani schools
And also this: The Burqa Joins The League Of Cape And Cowl
Wednesday PoemVan Gogh
Well, he lived among us and hated winters.
He moved to Arles where summer and blue jays
obliged him to cut off his ear.
Oh, they all said it was a whore
but Rachel was innocent. When cypresses
went for a walk in the prison yard
he went along and sketched them.
His suns surpassed God’s.
He spelled out the Gospel for miners
and their potatoes stuck in his throat.
Yes, he was a priest in sackcloth, who hoped
that one day humans would learn to walk.
He willed mankind his shoes.
by John Balaban
from Path, Crooked Path
Copper Canyon Press, 2006)
translated from the Bulgarian
by Lyubomir Nikolov with the author
A Once-Split Identity Becomes Whole
Actress Najla Said is a Palestinian-Lebanese-American Christian, but growing up in New York City, her identity was anything but clearly defined. The daughter of prominent literary critic Edward Said, she spent her childhood in one of the most influential intellectual households in America. Edward Said, who died in 2003, was a renowned professor at Columbia University and was critical to defining Palestinian independence. As much as her father felt grounded, Najla Said felt disoriented. Balancing the worlds of her mother's Lebanese family, her father's Palestinian heritage and her American lifestyle led to large, unsettling questions of identity and self-worth. She describes this personal struggle in her new memoir, Looking for Palestine: Growing Up Confused in an Arab-American Family. She discusses the rival narratives she encountered about the Middle East and how solidarity saved her with Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.
On how a daughter of Edward Said could feel confused
"There was just so many mixed messages around me about the Middle East that I think I was so afraid to confront it. I just wanted it to go away and thought it might. "So, even though I knew I was Palestinian, and I knew I was Lebanese, and I knew I went to Beirut, and I knew that the TV was saying that Beirut was this crazy place were people were killing each other, and Palestinians were terrorists, I thought that if I just avoided it, it would go away."
On the Sept. 11 attacks as a personal turning point
"I was petrified in the way that everyone was petrified — I was scared of being killed. But I was also scared of Americans wanting to kill me. And then, you know, I remember saying to my mom, 'But now everyone is going to hate me.' And she was like, 'They're not going to hate you.' And people would say, 'You don't even look Arab; you're not even Muslim.' "So then you kinda wanna identify with your race in a different way because you're like, 'Why am I special? Why do I look different or seem different? And why do I get to pass?' And so all of those things compounded at once, and I think that there was also no choice, 'cause from then on, I was constantly referred to as an 'Arab-American,' which I hadn't been before."
Conflicting studies rekindle monogamy debate
There are two broad theories about what drives monogamy. Some researchers hold that in certain species, females were dispersed so widely that it would have been difficult for males to monopolize an area large enough for them to have multiple partners. Others think that monogamy evolved as males stuck around their mates to protect their offspring, in particular from being killed by rivals. Christopher Opie, an anthropologist at University College London, and his colleagues have now traced potential drivers of monogamy in 230 primate species, back to a 75-million-year-old common ancestor. The researchers compiled information about how each species behaves, such as the range of females’ territories and whether the males care for their young and guard their mates, then they ran computer simulations of the evolutionary process. “We’re effectively re-running history millions of times to see how all these behaviours would have had to have evolved in order for us to get to where we are now,” says Opie. The researchers found that mating relationships co-evolved with several behaviours. “When the mating system changed, the behaviour changed,” says Opie. But of all the behaviours, infanticide by rival males was the only one to consistently precede a shift to monogamous mating, they report today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1. The fear of infanticide alone can be postulated as a cause of monogamy in primates, Opie says; the other behaviours are consequences.
Yet the waters will be muddied by a report published today in Science2. This study considered the wider origins of monogamy in mammals. Whereas almost one-third of primate species are monogamous, fewer than one-tenth of mammals are. Tim Clutton-Brock and Dieter Lukas, both zoologists at the University of Cambridge, UK, used a previously published detailed evolutionary tree of 2,288 species of mammal3. They found that all but one of the evolutionary transitions to monogamous partnerships arose from scenarios in which females were solitary. Unable to mate with more than one female, males were probably guarding their mates as a way of maximizing their number of offspring, and any increase in paternal care was a “consequence, not a cause”, says Lukas.
Tuesday, July 30, 2013
A Lecture on Johnson and Boswell by Jorge Luis Borges
Excerpted from “Class 10: Samuel Johnson as Seen by Boswell. The Art of Biography. Johnson and His Critics. Monday, November 7, 1966,” in Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature, a compilation of twenty-five lectures Borges gave in 1966 that has been translated into English for the first time by Katherine Silver. It will be published by New Directions on July 31.
Jorge Luis Borges in the New York Review of Books:
Dr. Johnson was already fifty years old. He had published his dictionary, for which he was paid 1,500 pounds sterling—which became 1,600 when his publishers decided to give him one hundred more—when he finished. He was slowing down. He then published his edition of Shakespeare, which he finished only because his publishers had received payments from subscribers, so it had to be done. Otherwise, Dr. Johnson spent his time engaged in conversation.
….The truth is, in spite of his numerous accomplishments, he had a natural tendency toward idleness. He preferred to talk rather than write. So, he worked only on that edition of Shakespeare, which was one of his last works, for he received complaints, and satirical responses, and this made him decide to finish the work, because the subscribers had already paid.
Johnson had a peculiar temperament. For a time he was extremely interested in the subject of ghosts. He was so interested in them that he spent several nights in an abandoned house to see if he could meet one. Apparently, he didn’t. There’s a famous passage by the Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, I think it is in his Sartor Resartus—which means “The Tailor Retailored,” or “The Mended Tailor,” and we’ll soon see why—in which he talks about Johnson, saying that Johnson wanted to see a ghost. And Carlyle wonders: “What is a ghost? A ghost is a spirit that has taken corporal form and appears for a while among men.” Then Carlyle adds, “How could Johnson not have thought of this when faced with the spectacle of the human multitudes he loved so much in the streets of London, for if a ghost were a spirit that has taken a corporal form for a brief interval, why did it not occur to him that the London multitudes were ghosts, that he himself was a ghost? What is each man but a spirit that has taken corporal form briefly and then disappears? What are men if not ghosts?”
A Response to PZ Myers
Jesse Marczyk in Psychology Today:
Since my summer vacation is winding itself to a close, it’s time to relax with a fun, argumentative post that doesn’t deal directly with research. PZ Myers, an outspoken critic of evolutionary psychology – or at least an imaginary version of the field, which may bear little or no resemblance to the real thing – has criticized it again. After a recent defense of the field against PZ’s comments by Jerry Coyne and Steven Pinker, PZ has now responded to Pinker’s comments. He incorrectly asserts what evolutionary psychology holds to as a discipline, fails to mention any examples of this going on in print (although he does reference blogs), and then expresses wholehearted agreement with many of the actual theoretical commitments put forth by the field. I wanted to take this time to briefly respond to PZ’s recent response and defend my field.
Kicking off his reply, PZ has this to say about why he dislikes the methods of evolutionary psychology:
“PZ: That’s my primary objection, the habit of evolutionary psychologists of taking every property of human behavior, assuming that it is the result of selection, building scenarios for their evolution, and then testing them poorly.”
Familiar as I am with the theoretical commitments of the field, I find it strange that I overlooked the part that demands evolutionary psychologists assume that every property of human behavior is the result of selection. It might have been buried amidst all those comments about things like “byproducts”, “genetic drift”, “maladaptiveness” and “randomness” by the very people who, more or less, founded the field.
The Charitable-Industrial Complex
Peter Buffett in the New York Times:
Because of who my father is, I’ve been able to occupy some seats I never expected to sit in. Inside any important philanthropy meeting, you witness heads of state meeting with investment managers and corporate leaders. All are searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left. There are plenty of statistics that tell us that inequality is continually rising. At the same time, according to the Urban Institute, the nonprofit sector has been steadily growing. Between 2001 and 2011, the number of nonprofits increased 25 percent. Their growth rate now exceeds that of both the business and government sectors. It’s a massive business, with approximately $316 billion given away in 2012 in the United States alone and more than 9.4 million employed.
Philanthropy has become the “it” vehicle to level the playing field and has generated a growing number of gatherings, workshops and affinity groups.
As more lives and communities are destroyed by the system that creates vast amounts of wealth for the few, the more heroic it sounds to “give back.” It’s what I would call “conscience laundering” — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.
But this just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place.
Eric X. Li: A tale of two political systems
A Personal History of Afghanistan in Seven Acts
Sunday nights are for tango at the Canadians’. Embassy staffers come wearing wing-tip shoes—improbably clean, despite the mud-sodden streets of Kabul. Humanitarian aid workers, the toughest of tribes, are here too. An air of fatigue clings to them. One evening, an American woman who used to tango in New York shows up, and we note that her embrace is far tighter than anything we are accustomed to. An Afghan who runs a logistics company is a regular. So is a German doctor who runs a children’s hospital. Female officers with the EU police mission come bearing delicate-sounding names like Elise and Marianna. When the dance class adjourns, these women put on their flak jackets to walk the twelve paces from the compound gate to their armored SUVs. Someone tells me it’s an insurance policy mandate. Members of the Australian close protection team (bodyguards for diplomats), whom I’ve heard referred to as “eye candy,” are also present. They are never short of willing women.more from May Jeong at n+1 here.
Fate’s only gift is death
Death and fashion are sisters, though not everyone knows this. They have known periods of estrangement, but these have been without cause, for they share not only a mother but a calling. It is with these family matters that Giacomo Leopardi begins his “Dialogue Between Fashion and Death,” written in 1824, when Leopardi was twenty-six years old, and published in a book he titled Operette morali (which is normally rendered in English as Essays and Dialogues, but whose title means “diminutive moral works”). The book does not offer a bright view of existence. Its last lines (spoiler alert) are: “If I were offered, on the one hand, the fortune and fame of Caesar or of Alexander, pure of all stains, and, on the other, to die today, and if I were to make a choice, I would say, to die today, and I would not need time to think it over.” But on to brighter matters—like fashion. As the reader of the dialogue will have noted, Fashion has sought out her sister to remind her of a few things (Death has a poor memory). Fashion begins with the bright side of death, that it “continually renews the world,” and argues that this renewal is a part of their shared calling.more from Leland de la Durantaye at Cabinet here.
In Virginia, legends offered themselves up for our affiliation. We were allowed to imagine ourselves against their tableaux. My aunt arranged private tours of Tuckahoe Plantation, Jefferson’s childhood home. We learned about the scandal at a plantation called Bizarre, in which one sad Randolph woman, in a tragic turn, was accused of murdering a child who had been conceived out of wedlock. Only later would I learn that the rumor of the time had been that the child had been conceived with one of the enslaved members of the household. Her family valiantly tried to protect her (and themselves) from shame. Patrick Henry successfully defended her in a proceeding that had been the days’ equivalent of the O. J. Simpson trial, and about which books are still occasionally published by small Virginia presses. As for Jefferson: How could I help but like him? A portrait of Monticello hung on the guest-bedroom wall. Jefferson’s signature pin glinted above the fireplace. How beautiful his books were, full of gardens, science, democracy. My first visit to Monticello was a private tour. We strolled past Jefferson’s bed nook, his cluttered desk. I remember his micrometer, clock, telescopes.more from Tess Taylor at VQR here.
My grandmother on my father’s side
My grandmother on my father’s side had a favorite saying.
Live for the moment is what she said.
So I lived for the moment.
One of my uncles had a favorite saying.
Live by the moment is what he said.
So I lived by the moment.
A zen master in a book I read had a favorite saying.
Live as the moment is what he said.
So I lived as the moment.
A zen master in another book I read had a favorite saying.
Live with the moment is what he said.
So I lived with the moment.
My friend Jeff has a favorite saying.
Live without prepositions is what he says.
So I live moments. So moments are what I live.
by J.R. Solonche
from Gravel, 2013
Reza Aslan Knew Exactly What He Was Doing in That Fox News Interview
By now, you've no doubt watched the video and seen the headlines: On Friday, Fox News' Lauren Green aggressively questioned religious scholar Reza Aslan over why he, a Muslim, would choose to write a book about Jesus Christ. During the length of the increasingly absurd 10-minute segment, that implied criticism quickly became direct with Green accusing the author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth of being incapable of providing an unbiased academic account because of his faith, and even wrongly claiming that Aslan had gone to great lengths to hide the fact he is Muslim. The Internet's response was not kind. BuzzFeed, one of the first to spot the clip, spoke for the masses: "Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?" Andrew Kaczynski asked in a headline that needed no answer. The interview was "absolutely demented," said New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum. "This may just be the single most cringe-worthy, embarrassing interview" in Fox News history, wrote my colleague Daniel Politi.
Green's almost blindingly illogical and offensive line of questioning, though, seems to have obscured the fact that Aslan appears to have arrived ready to do battle. This wasn't a case of an academic being blindsided by a TV anchor. If anything, it was Aslan who had the upper hand at the outset. The day before the interview, FoxNews.com had published pastor John S. Dickerson's screed accusing the mainstream media of helping Aslan hide the fact that he is Muslim. Shortly after, a series of one-star reviews began to appear on Zealot's Amazon page. Aslan had heard the criticism and came ready to smack it down. And—thankfully!—he did.
Is This The Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?
Monday, July 29, 2013
Philosophy and Humor
by Gerald Dworkin
There is a story about the philosopher Nuel Belnap who collapsed in his classroom. After a period of time, having recovered, he returned to the classroom and began “As I was saying...” It has been several years since my last blog. My absence is partly due to my having had heart surgery and partly due to trying to finish several philosophical projects. Since both were successful, I return to the fold.
Readers with a long memory will remember two pieces Short Takes and More (and longer) Short Takes. They were excerpts from a commonplace book on philosophical humor-- and lots of short, serious stuff-- that I had been collecting for many years. One of my projects was to finish (or rather just stop collecting) this book. It now has been published as an e-book on Amazon and other sites. It is called Philosophy: A Commonplace Book.
A few weeks after the book came out, and with no causal relation, a post on the website Reddit called “What’s the most intellectual joke you know?” went viral. Since intellectual does not equate to philosophical, the majority of the jokes are of the “a mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer” type. But there are some good philosophical ones as well.
“I’m a linguist. So I like ambiguity more than most people.”
“According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex? Fünf.”
“This sentence contains exactly threee erors.”
“Every word in this sentence is a gross misspelling of the word "tomato." --Doug Hofstadter”
So far the site does not include two of my favorites, and I forgot to include them in my collection as well.
Heaven is where the police are British, the chefs Italian, the mechanics German, the lovers French, and it's all organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the police are German, the chefs British, the mechanics French, the lovers Swiss, and it's all organized by the Italians
A Franciscan priest sits down next to a Jesuit priest while riding a train to Rome. After a while the Franciscan notices that the Jesuit is smoking and praying. Franciscan: I’m surprised to see you doing that. Jesuit: Why’s that? Franciscan: Well, our order asked the Holy Father for permission to do that and were denied. Jesuit: Really? We asked the Pope, and he said we could. What did you ask him? Franciscan: We asked if we could smoke while we prayed, and he said no. Jesuit: Ahhhh! That’s the problem. We Jesuits asked if we could pray while we smoked, and he said, “of course!”
Now, for something completely serious. Wittgenstein famously said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes. It is not at all clear what he had in mind by this. Perhaps it is significant that he never wrote this down. It was reported by Norman Malcolm as something he once said to Malcolm.
My best interpretation of this gnomic saying is that many philosophical theses, e.g. to be is to be perceived, one cannot be sure of anything unless God exists, to say that Hitler was an evil person is to say “Hitler. Boo!”, the only serious philosophical problem is suicide, can best be met by saying, “You must be joking” or “You can’t be serious.” For a very funny take-off of Wittgenstein see this piece by Michael Frayn.
Jack Handy used to have a regular feature on Saturday Night Live called Deep Thoughts. One of them seems to me a wonderful parody of the the period in contemporary philosophy called by Rorty the linguistic turn. “Maybe in order to understand mankind, we have to look at the word itself. Mankind. Basically, it's made up of two separate words: "mank" and "ind". What do these words mean? It's a mystery, and that's why so is mankind.”
Freud observed of the Jews that “I do not know whether there are many other instances of a people making fun to such a degree of its own character.” A nice example is this. A Frenchman, a German, and a Jew walk into a bar. The Frenchman says, “I am so thirsty. I must have wine.” The German says, “I am so thirsty. I must have beer.” The Jew says, “I am so thirsty. I must have diabetes.”
Can something similar to Freud’s observation about Jews be said about philosophers? While every discipline has its jokes--mathematicians, lawyers, economists-- philosophers seem particularly prone to wit; perhaps because so much of the writing is critical in nature and hence open to sarcasm, irony, and other forms of intellectual assault.
Another reason is that the discipline itself is regarded by so many with disdain, scorn and skepticism. One defense is to pre-empt such attitudes by insider fun-making. Berkeley and his philosophers raising a cloud of dust and then complaining they cannot see. Russell who said philosophers, for the most part, are constitutionally timid, and dislike the unexpected. Few of them would be genuinely happy as pirates or burglars. David Stove observing that Hegel loses a lot in the original.
But even if this speculation were true--how would one measure the relative disciplinary amounts of humor?-- it would be true because of a contingent fact. Philosophers don’t get much respect from the general public. So humor is explained as a defense mechanism.
The more interesting issue is whether there is something about the nature of the philosophical
enterprise that encourages humor. One speculative thought is that both Jews with their logic-chopping interpretation of the Talmud, and philosophers with their logic-chopping as occupational deformation are led to conclusions that might be seen as laughable. Reductio ad absurdum is well-named.
There is a well-known joke about Talmudic interpretation. A Jew is talking to his Rabbi.
Rabbi," the man said, "Explain the Talmud to me."
"Very well," he said. "First, I will ask you a question. If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?"
"The dirty one," answers the man.
"No. They look at each other and the dirty man thinks he is clean and the clean man thinks he is dirty, therefore, the clean man washes himself."
"Now, another question:
If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?"
The man smiles and says, "You just told me, Rabbi. The man who is clean washes himself because he thinks he is dirty."
"No," says the Rabbi. "If they each look at themselves, the clean man knows he doesn't have to wash himself, so the dirty man washes himself."
"Now, one more question.
If two men climb up a chimney and one comes out dirty, and one comes out clean, which one washes himself?"
"I don't know, Rabbi. Depending on your point of view, it could be either one."
Again the Rabbi says, "No. If two men climb up a chimney, how could one man remain clean? They both are dirty, and they both wash themselves."
The confused man said, "Rabbi, you asked me the same question three times and you gave me three different answers. Is this some kind of a joke?"
"This is not a joke, my son. This is Talmud."
Perhaps the analogy between Jews and philosophers is not a good one. As the following joke embodying both jewish and philosophical humor suggests.
What’s purple, hangs on the wall, and whistles?
I don’t know.
Herrings aren’t purple.
So, paint it purple.
Herrings don’t hang on the wall.
Hang it on the wall.
But, herrings can’t whistle.
No analogy is perfect.
Enchantment and the Nine Bronze Tripods 九鼎
by Leanne Ogasawara
From Xia to Shang
And from Shang to Zhou....
You know the story: Nine bronze tripods-- cast back in the mists of great antiquity-- were treasured by ancient Chinese Kings as a symbol of their right to rule.
Passed down from dynasty to dynasty-- for nearly 2,000 years (or so the story goes) until the time when the First Emperor, Shihuangdi, finally toppled the last Zhou King-- and rather than see their transfer to Shihuangdi’s new dynasty-- the last Chu King flung the nine bronzes forever into the River Si
(English wikipedia suggests it was the Qin king; Japanese wikipedia has it as the Qin king who did the flinging).
Given their symbolic significance, Shihuangdi actively attempted to dredge up the sacred bronzes from the river, but it was to no avail; and scholars of later dynasties saw this as further evidence of the lack of moral virtue of the First Emperor.
There is a well known story about these matters, which supposedly took place at the start of the Eastern Zhou Period (770-256 BC). Severely weakened by external and internal threats, the Zhou kings came to rule in name only. Although the Zhou dynasty was the acknowledged recipient of the Mandate of Heaven and therefore possessor of the Nine Tripods, the real political power was held by the kings and generals of various surrounding kingdoms, chiefly those of the Qin, Qi, Chu, Wei and Yan.
The Chu were especially troublesome, and after some showy military displays near the Zhou capital of Luoyang, the worried Zhou king dispatched his trusty Minister, Wáng-sūn Mǎn (王孫満), to negotiate for peaceful relations with their southern Chu neighbors.
Arriving at the military camp outside the capital, the belligerent Lord of Chu immediately asked Minister Wang about the size and weight of the Nine Tripods (問鼎之輕重)-- thereby implying that with their transfer to the House of Chu, the Mandate of Heaven would also be transferred to Chu.
Minister Wang--always quick of wit-- sharply responded that unless it could be shown that the Will of Heaven had in fact changed, then it was forbidden to inquire after the weight of the tripods. He then went on to explain that the actual weight of the tripods was beside the point--for in fact, their weight corresponded directly to the virtue of the king who had them in his possession; that is, if the ruler truly held the Mandate of Heaven then the tripods would be immovably heavy. However, should a ruler lack virtue, the tripods would become weightless and therefore meaningless as a political and psychological symbol.
He then drove in his point: The tripods do not matter, virtue does.
The Lord of Chu, moved by the Zhou minister's logic, was thus convinced of the righteousness and virtue of the Zhou Dynasty and a tentative peace was agreed to.
Shihuangdi’s reign lasted a mere 15 years, and it was followed by the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220). Contemporaneous with the Ancient Roman Empire, the Han Dynasty was one of the most prosperous and comparatively harmonious times in all of Chinese history. And, just like in Roman times, the greatness of the Han saw its proof in the fact that ancient bronzes began to emerge from the earth in a fashion a little short of miraculous. This dynasty, where the arts and philosophy flourished, is looked upon as one of China’s past “golden ages.” This intense fascination with antiquity has much in common with the pre-Renaissance idea that a Golden Age was something seen to have been already realized, solely in the reality of the past. It was never, for example, imagined in any sort of hope in the future or an afterlife. And it was in the past that one could find the “exemplary models” necessary for all moral actions, including the methods of enlightened government.
So while they were artifacts of power, their allure wet far beyond that of mere treasures of state. Rather they served as symbols of the virtuous character of a wise king-- linking current kings to those exemplary models in the past. In that way, I suppose the tripods had more in common with the Medieval concept regalia and with that of Excalibur.
Heidegger's das ding.
Foucault, taking his cue from Heidegger was especially interesting on the topic of artifacts. If you think about it, artifacts are --ultimately speaking--historical events. Produced as deed (facere) out of skill (ars, artis), an artifact does not just happen. Rather, like all historical events artifacts come into being through causes. And, what is particularly fascinating about the study of material culture is how these artifacts can be examined in terms of the way they "present themselves" to us differently over time.
But do artifacts have the power to enchant us anymore?
Thinking I might try and write a post here that did not make mention of Heidegger, as I was jotting my thoughts down, I quickly realized how impossible that would have been --for on this topic, Heidegger is the real thinker who thinks. He thinks about artifacts intensely -- and about how "things thing."
How do "things thing?"
"Things thing" in a particular way for a particular human purpose. Things also can have a life of their own. Bronzes are the perfect example, really, for the same artifact could show up in very different ways depending on the culture--from religious symbol of the right to rule and mandate of heaven to becoming crucial vessels in state and family rituals; over time bronzes changed from being magical artifacts of power connecting one regime or great family vis-a-vis its charisma and virtue to a golden age in the past; to becoming mere museum piece and object of amusement and entertainment --if in a blockbuster exhibition, for example.
Chiang Kai-Shek went to extraordinary lengths to protect his control over bronzes and other artifacts for precisely this reason. They bestowed enormous power and prestige--connecting his regime back to the glorious Golden Ages of the past.
The destiny of objects.
Heidegger was very concerned with the fate of things. Throughout human history, things could be infused with magical properties and could hold great power to enchant. Standing at a kind of crossroads between physical form and human imagination--artifacts could draw together people in shared meaning and emanate a kind of cultural gravitas.
In today's world, however, things have become much as Heidegger predicted--everything has become some sort ofresource to be consumed and used. I wonder in a worldview that sees things as being throw-away (object for consumption) about the fate of objects of art, of craftsmanship and of enchantment. It does seem ironic that in no other time and place in history have people been so surrounded by things and material artifacts and yet the care and prestige surrounding artifacts seems to have disappeared completely. Rather than repairing something or keeping things as heirlooms, so much of everything has become throwaway. It seems somehow sad.
Human beings are, after all, creatures who live in playfulness (homo ludens) within narratives (Nietzsche's homo fingens). And artifacts play a crucial role in this, I think. So significant is our relationship to "things" that some historians of material culture even include unmodified natural objects in their scope of study to "understand better the relationship between the structure of human-made things and the structure of natural things in the physical universe in which we live" (see Lubar and Kingery).
In this way, my Beloved is also standing at a kind of crossroad between physical objects and human imagination as he looks deep into space at the light of galaxies and stars. To try and make the invisible visible --as he does-- is an ancient occupation, after all.
To illuminate in enchantment....
What about the rest of us, though? Max Weber famously declared that The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world. One wonders what artifacts, works of art, or physical objects have a similar power to exert control over our human imagination, and what imbues our world with a shared feeling of mystery, wonder; order and purpose?
Modern science along with poetry are perhaps more than anything else well-situated to restore our world with mystery and awe --and yet if even there everything becomes a mode of consumption and a means toward some end, I end up gloomily back here again with Heidegger's words that,
“Only a god can still save us”
For only through poetic thinking and discourse, can we prepare "for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god.”
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