Monday, December 05, 2016
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
Still reeling from the unexpected outcome of the US presidential election, commentators understandably have begun diagnosing the political and intellectual condition of the country. One assessment that has been gaining traction especially among Left-leaning intellectuals is that, in electing Mr. Trump to the Presidency, the United States has embraced a "post-truth" politics. Though quickly becoming a predominant theme of political commentary, as yet the term does not have a unified meaning. Arguably, it refers instead to a several related but distinct phenomena. But if the term is going to serve any useful diagnostic function, it is necessary to disambiguate its central uses.
Most commonly, "post-truth" is employed to mark the fact that apparently a large segment of the electorate holds that although Ms. Clinton's alleged dishonesty disqualifies her for office, Mr. Trump's dozens of demonstrable lies, deceptions, and whole-cloth fabrications are acceptable, if not positively admirable. That is, our politics has become "post-truth" in that lying and dissembling no longer necessarily count against a politician. But when one regards lying as disqualifying only for one's political opponents, one reveals that one's concern isn't really with truth telling at all. One is appealing to truth in a strictly opportunistic way.
A second deployment of "post-truth" is closely related, though more radical. It concerns the newfound force of unrelenting denial. When caught in a lie or fabrication, Mr. Trump's leading tactic is to flatly deny that he ever said the lying or fabricated thing that, provably, he said. This goes beyond President Bill Clinton's infamously tortured semantics concerning "the meaning of ‘is'." Here, Trump embraces the view of Humpty Dumpty, whose words mean whatever he at any moment declares them to mean. When meaning is fixed wholly by the speaker's will, what the speaker has said is no long evaluable by anyone but the speaker himself. Hence our politics is post-truth not only in that lying, and even asserting falsehood, is conceptually impossible. There could be no such thing as lying for those who, like Carrol's egg, refuse to be mastered by words, even by their own words.
A third and more distal usage concerns the organized construction of an alternative information environment that reliably delivers to political consumers commentary and news items explicitly designed to confirm their pre-existing political opinions. The current predominance of news outlets that overtly brand themselves as pitched to those with particular political leanings signals a "post-truth" era in that such outlets thrive on the denunciation of the very idea of unbiased journalism. According to producers and consumers of alternative news, all news reporting presupposes a set of substantive political commitments. The difference between CNN and Breitbart is simply that the latter owns up to that fact, whereas the former attempts to disguise it in a shroud of fake journalistic integrity. As Mr. Trump and his many of his supporters frequently claim, the Press is "dishonest." By this they mean not merely that the Press slants the news according to their own political commitments (which is itself not a criticism, since on their view, that's simply what reporting is); the charge of dishonesty is aimed at the Press's portrayal of itself as offering raw information, news that is not adulterated by any particular political point of view. According to this usage, our politics is "post-truth" in that we have given up the illusions of politics-free information and perspective-less facts. It is only with such illusions in place that terms like "propaganda" and "slant" have an intelligible contrast term. In a post-truth environment, we're all propagandists; the problem is that some are dishonest enough to deny that.
Finally, there is the simple challenging situation one finds oneself in when trying to simply inquire as to what the truth of some controversial matter is. "Fact checkers" on the various sides of the issues report conflicting results. For every debunking, there is a debunking of the debunking. And according to the various sources, so many people have pants on fire, it's amazing anyone has any pants at all. And once one's taken on the cynical view of reporting we'd identified as the propagandistic view, it's difficult to even see most others' commitments as little more than the product of their political affiliations, not reflective of evidence or the facts. The trouble is, if it's true of everybody, it's true of us, too. The result is far from a healthy skepticism, but rather a kind of intellectual nihilism. The trouble is, the nihilist just keeps plugging away with the game of keeping tabs on the opposition and criticizing them, but once it is clear what the game is, it's no longer clear what criticism is by the nihilist's lights.
It is hard to know what to make of these phenomena. Indeed, it is hard to know how one might go about addressing the question of whether the phenomena in fact obtain. Surely some of Mr. Trump's supporters still hold that his lies are criticizable and that there is a distinction worth making between news and propaganda. Such supporters might simply have reasoned that in the intrinsically comparative political judgment among candidates, Trump emerged as the better choice. Yet even if one supposes that these four phenomena are in play, there remains the question of how they could be remedied. What argument or reason could possibly count against post-truthism? All argument, reasoning, and criticism presuppose some conception of truth. So what could be offered in defense of that very presupposition?
In Philosophy, there is a familiar distinction between internal and external criticism. When a claim is criticized from an external perspective, the critic attempts to show that the claim fails to satisfy some criterion of success that he himself imposes. External critics hold their targets to standards supplied by the critic himself, external criticisms are commonly met with counter-charges of question-begging. And this is surely the response to expect were one to offer an external criticism of post-truthism. To simply assert that indeed there are politics-free facts is to invite the counter-assertion that the very idea of a politics-free fact is itself a covert assertion of a political viewpoint, one that the post-truthist rejects.
What remains, then, is internal criticism. The internal critic attempts to show that his opponent's view fails to satisfy some desideratum that the opponent herself embraces. Accordingly, the gold standard for internal criticism is self-defeat. That is, one ironclad mode of internal critique is to show that the opponent's view is inconsistent with itself. To get the flavor, imagine the simple-minded relativist who asserts that "no statement is objectively true." This claim is commonly offered as a critical maneuver against some proposed candidate for an objectively true statement. The trouble is that the simple-minded relativist's claim is self-defeating, as it itself purports to express an objective truth. So if there is a version of relativism that is internally coherent (an open question in Philosophy), it can't be simple-minded. The trick for the sophisticated relativist is to figure out a way to deny objective truth while also preserving relativism's critical edge.
A similar line of internal criticism can be launched against the post-truthist. Recall that those who embrace the post-truth phenomena tend to offer post-truthism as a critique of the status quo. As we saw, the denial that Trump's lying is objectionable substantially blunts the critical force of the claim that Hillary is "crooked." The same goes for the tactic of denial; if Trump's unrelenting denials are exonerating, the same must go for any other persistent denier. Insofar as these varieties of post-truthism affirm anything, they lose their critical edge.
Matters differ somewhat with respect to the alternative media and intellectual nihilism. If anything, the difficulty here is more severe. "Alternative" news runs centrally on uncovering and publicizing the biases alleged to be driving the mainstream news media. But this activity draws its critical force from the tacit presupposition that news media are supposed to be unbiased. However, if post-truthism prevails, there is no such thing as unbiased reportage. Consequently, it's not clear what critical force there is in exposing the biases of a mainstream media outlet. To put the point in a different way, the practice of exposing bias derives its critical edge from the implicit claim that the exposing party is itself offering an unbiased objective assessment of its target. But if the post-truthist holds that there is no unbiased perspective, then her perspective is simply another expression of bias. It is not clear how the clash of biases amounts to anyone being exposed or debunked.
The same goes for the intellectually nihilistic version of post-truthism, since the view is supposed to be that those who think that there can be proper inquiry and evidence are either naïve or shills for the powerful. The view has its critical force in unmasking something that had been hidden. But if the nihilist is right, it itself cannot be in any better position to make such a critical point.
And there's ultimately the rub. Although frequently presented as a means for speaking truth to power, cutting elites down to size, and shredding the pieties and practices that serve the interests of Washington politicians, post-truth politics ultimately has no critical force at all. Or, rather, it renders us all defenseless against the will of whoever happens to have power.
when words make love sentences are born
the world’s heft is changed by the weight of nouns,
the hesitations of hyphens and commas,
like the space between breaths,
tell the rhythm of what’s new and what’s been,
the dead stops of periods spell the end of what a breath holds,
adjectives, like the blood blush of infants
color clauses, articles wrap things in skin,
pronouns, unlike the particular names of new beings,
often identify the generalities of their forms by inclusion,
by saying, “We,” suggesting that mine and thine share,
and verbs are the darting eyes of fresh life,
the spastic gestures of unfamiliarity, the random smiles
that pass in the features of infants, sudden, uncalled-for
and of course the cautious steps of the old
reaching for footholds that once came naturally,
without thought, before the foreshadows of final words
“Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design”, current exhibition at The Jewish Museum, New York.
"Commenting on Chareau’s work and the exhibition design, DS+R’s (exhibition design) founding partner, Elizabeth Diller, noted, “Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design is an opportunity to return to a significant figure in every architect’s education, but one primarily known through only one masterwork, the Maison de Verre. This exhibition is a rare opportunity to see so much of Chareau’s creative output brought together in one place. The challenge in undertaking its design was to provide a multi-faceted and imaginative backdrop that would highlight, but not compete with, his exceptional mastery of detailing and assemblage. By engaging with Chareau’s furniture, interiors, and collected ephemera, we are able to absorb and represent his idiosyncratic voice, which has had relatively little exposure in the U.S.'"
Are American Professors More Responsive to Requests Made by White Male Students?
by Jalees Rehman
Less than one fifth of PhD students in the United States will be able to pursue tenure track academic faculty careers once they graduate from their program. Reduced federal funding for research and dwindling support from the institutions for their tenure-track faculty are some of the major reasons for why there is such an imbalance between the large numbers of PhD graduates and the limited availability of academic positions. Upon completing the program, PhD graduates have to consider non-academic job opportunities such as in the industry, government agencies and non-profit foundations but not every doctoral program is equally well-suited to prepare their graduates for such alternate careers. It is therefore essential for prospective students to carefully assess the doctoral program they want to enroll in and the primary mentor they would work with. The best approach is to proactively contact prospective mentors, meet with them and learn about the research opportunities in their group but also discuss how completing the doctoral program would prepare them for their future careers.
The vast majority of professors will gladly meet a prospective graduate student and discuss research opportunities as well as long-term career options, especially if the student requesting the meeting clarifies the goal of the meeting. However, there are cases when students wait in vain for a response. Is it because their email never reached the professor because it got lost in the internet ether or a spam folder? Was the professor simply too busy to respond? A research study headed by Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania suggests that the lack of response from the professor may in part be influenced by the perceived race or gender of the student.
Milkman and her colleagues conducted a field experiment in which 6,548 professors at the leading US academic institutions (covering 89 disciplines) were contacted via email to meet with a prospective graduate student. Here is the text of the email that was sent to each professor.
Subject Line: Prospective Doctoral Student (On Campus Next
Dear Professor [surname of professor inserted here],
I am writing you because I am a prospective doctoral student with considerable interest in your research. My plan is to apply to doctoral programs this coming Fall, and I am eager to learn as much as I can about research opportunities in the meantime.
I will be on campus next Monday, and although I know it is short notice, I was wondering if you might have 10 minutes when you would be willing to meet with me to briefly talk about your work and any possible opportunities for me to get involved in your research. Any time that would be convenient for you would be fine with me, as meeting with you is my first priority during this campus visit.
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
[Student's full name inserted here]
As a professor who frequently receives emails from people who want to work in my laboratory, I feel that the email used in the research study was extremely well-crafted. The student only wants a brief meeting to explore potential opportunities without trying to extract any specific commitment from the professor. The email clearly states the long-term goal - applying to doctoral programs. The tone is also very polite and the student expresses willingness of the prospective student to a to the professor's schedule. Each email was also personally addressed with the name of the contacted faculty member.
Milkman's research team then assessed whether the willingness of the professors to respond depended on the gender or ethnicity of the prospective student. Since this was an experiment, the emails and student names were all fictional but the researchers generated names which most readers would clearly associate with a specific gender and ethnicity.
Here is a list of the names they used:
White male names: Brad Anderson, Steven Smith
White female names: Meredith Roberts, Claire Smith
Black male names: Lamar Washington, Terell Jones
Black female names: Keisha Thomas, Latoya Brown
Hispanic male names: Carlos Lopez, Juan Gonzalez
Hispanic female names: Gabriella Rodriguez, Juanita Martinez
Indian male names: Raj Singh, Deepak Patel
Indian female names: Sonali Desai, Indira Shah
Chinese Male names; Chang Huang, Dong Lin
Chinese female names: Mei Chen, Ling Wong
The researchers assessed whether the professors responded (either by agreeing to meet or providing a reason for why they could not meet) at all or whether they simply ignored the email and whether the rate of response depended on the ethnicity/gender of the student.
The overall response rate of the professors ranged from about 60% to 80%, depending on the research discipline as well as the perceived ethnicity and gender of the prospective student. When the emails were signed with names suggesting a white male background of the student, professors were far less likely to ignore the email when compared to those signed with female names or names indicating an ethnic minority background. Professors in the business sciences showed the strongest discrimination in their response rates. They ignored only 18% of emails when it appeared that they had been written by a white male and ignored 38% of the emails if they were signed with names indicating a female gender or ethnic minority background. Professors in the education disciplines ignored 21% of emails with white male names versus 35% with female or minority names. The discrimination gaps in the health sciences (33% vs 43%) and life sciences (32% vs 39%) were smaller but still significant, whereas there was no statistical difference in the humanities professor response rates. Doctoral programs in the fine arts were an interesting exception where emails from apparent white male students were more likely to be ignored (26%) than those of female or minority candidates (only 10%).
The discrimination primarily occurred at the initial response stage. When professors did respond, there was no difference in terms of whether they were able to make time for the student. The researchers also noted that responsiveness discrimination in any discipline was not restricted to one gender or ethnicity. In business doctoral programs, for example, professors were most likely to ignore emails with black female names and Indian male names. Significant discrimination against white female names (when compared to white males names) predicted an increase in discrimination against other ethnic minorities. Surprisingly, the researchers found that having higher representation of female and minority faculty at an institution did not necessarily improve the responsiveness towards requests from potential female or minority students.
This carefully designed study with a large sample size of over 6,500 professors reveals the prevalence of bias against women and ethnic minorities at the top US institutions. This bias may be so entrenched and subconscious that it cannot be remedied by simply increasing the percentage of female or ethnic minority professors in academia. Instead, it is important that professors understand that they may be victims of these biases even if they do not know it. Something as simple as deleting an email from a prospective student because we think that we are too busy to respond may be indicative of an insidious gender or racial bias that we need to understand and confront. Increased awareness and introspection as well targeted measures by institutions are the important first steps to ensure that students receive the guidance and mentorship they need, independent of their gender or ethnic background.
Milkman KL, Akinola M, Chugh D. (2015). What Happens Before? A Field Experiment Exploring How Pay and Representation Differentially Shape Bias on the Pathway Into Organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 100(6), 1678–1712.
by Dwight Furrow
There is an ingrained set of assumptions and attitudes about creativity in the arts that harms our understanding of art and ultimately human existence. That is the idea of the artist as a relatively unconstrained maker, a fashioner ex nihilo who brings something new into being solely through the force of her imagination and capacity for self-expression. We might contrast this with an older view of art perhaps best expressed by this quote attributed to Michelangelo:
"In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it."
On the view expressed by Michelangelo, an artist is like a skillful craftsperson who attends to the inherent qualities of a piece of raw material, it's shape, grain, texture or color, and then decides what she can do with it. Art is too varied and complex to wholly fit either description, both of which are drawn too starkly, but I want to make the case that Michelangelo's view has more to recommend it than first meets the eye.
Aesthetic appreciation is often described in terms of adopting an aesthetic attitude, a state of mind in which one attends sympathetically and with focused attention to the aesthetic features of objects. Part of that aesthetic attitude is a willingness to be receptive to what is in the work, to refrain from imposing preconceptions on it, to let the work speak for itself. The viewer or listener must open herself up to being moved by the work and to discover all there is to be discovered in it. As important as this attitude of openness and receptivity is to appreciating art, it would be exceedingly odd if this aesthetic attitude was not also part of the process of creating the work. But if we take this receptive attitude seriously it shows the limitations of our assumptions about artists as ultimate masters.
No doubt artists create. They bring something into being that did not exist before. But what they bring into being is not an entirely new object. Prior to the existence of the work there were the materials that are the media being shaped by the artist—canvas, brush, paint and a visual field for a painter, a variety of instruments, recording equipment, and a soundscape for the composer or musician. All of these materials have their own properties that inform the final product, some of them dispositional properties that will be fully revealed only in the final work.*
Dispositional properties are strange beasts. You can't always see them or touch them. But our understanding of the world cannot do without them, and they are probably what Michelangelo recognized in his block of marble. Just as a glass bowl is disposed to break when pushed off the table, a C note is disposed to harmonize when combined with an E note, and converging lines are disposed to lend a sense of depth to a painting.
When an artist or composer is shaping her materials and medium in order to express or embody an idea, what she must first know or come to discover is what her materials are capable of, which possibilities can be elicited from the materials and which cannot. Artists imagine but with the ultimate aim to discover which dispositional properties can be made actual. When a composer elects to write a passage in the key of C major she may or may not be adding something of herself to the work. But what she is doing by necessity is recognizing what the key of C major can do in that particular context and perhaps revealing something new about the key of C major. The painter may or may not be expressing something about her experience, but what she surely does is show what properties those colors and those lines and that canvas can have when viewed in a particular way.
There is a generative step in the creative process akin to brainstorming in which the point is to generate ideas. A painter juxtaposes shapes, colors, and lines. A musician juxtaposes notes and rhythmic sequences. There is a large literature on the psychology of creativity debating whether this is a spontaneous activity or a matter of ticking through organized patterns of possibility. At any rate, it is mostly unconscious as is attested by references to inspiration that comes out of nowhere. But true artistic ability also involves selecting which ideas are worth viewing or hearing and then selecting which of those possibilities can be realized in the materials available. Artistry is as much about execution as it is about the idea and that crucially involves being receptive to how the world is. The materials before being worked on possess particular properties that the artist must recognize in order to create a successful work. She cannot make them do what they are not disposed to do. It's the obduracy of matter, the stubbornness of physical objects, which gives art its friction, and makes art more than the idle spinning of ideas.
It is common in our contemporary discourse about art to claim that all art is a form of self-expression. And sometimes there is indeed a clear message carried by the work that perhaps can be explained by the artist's psychology or biography. But in many, many cases there doesn't seem to be an answer to the question of what an artist was expressing. She is simply able to intuit the intensity and vivacity of that passage if played by an oboe rather than a flute or of a triangular shape against the background grain of the canvas. And for that she needs to grasp the dispositional properties of oboes rather than flutes or the dispositional properties of particular triangles when placed in the context of particular curves and textures. It is not the self being expressed, at least not solely, but the nature of her materials.
Artists are more like sponges than gods. And what distinguishes the artist from a dilettante or amateur is, in part, their degree of receptivity to these dispositional properties. A great composer hears with great acuity; a great painter sees with perspicacity, not the finished product but the condition of matter before being worked over. The materials and medium condition how the content of the work is to appear. The artist will search the limits of the medium and can modify them but can never cancel them out. The vision we want to see in a work is not something ideal. The idea behind many a work of art is banal; it gains depth when it gains materiality, when the idea is fused with matter. It's the idea shaped by the inherent qualities of materials, the manner of that fusion, which sustains our interest.
Why does it matter that we recognize this receptiveness in the creative process? Part of creativity is a matter of responding to the claims things make on us. There are some things that simply cannot be done regardless of the intentions of the artist and the artist must be sensitive to those limits. This is why art is in part a problem solving activity. Creativity is a battle between the imagination and the recalcitrance of matter. When the cubists dismantled the use of perspective or when Cezanne abandoned line in favor of shading and texture it was not simply a bright idea that enabled the work but a battle with the limits of paint and surface that had to be won.
Andy Goldsworthy the environmental artist refers to this struggle when he describes a work he created in a forest using dappled light, stones, and leaves as his materials:
"I have learned a lot this week and have made progress in understanding a quality of light that I have never previously been able to deal with properly…not understanding a woodland floor on a sunny day has represented a serious gap in my perception of nature" (p. 74). Goldsworthy, A. (2004). Passage. New York: Abrams.
Obviously for Goldsworthy making art is not simply imposing an intention on inert matter but requires a process of discovery in which the properties of the materials are clarified through the work.
Perhaps this receptive dimension of art has something to teach us about humanity's relationship to nature. Receptivity demands humility, a knowledge of one's limitations. Perhaps what art reveals is not humanity's control over nature but the limitless potential of matter when it resists our intentions. If the concept of "the artist" cannot sustain the image of humanity as master perhaps the image is itself flawed.
*The philosopher Karl Aschenbrenner published an article with this same title "Creative Receptivity" in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (Winter, 1963). He makes a similar claim about the persistence of the qualities of raw materials in the work of art but it is in the service of a metaphysical point that artists bring nothing new into the world, which I think is mistaken.
For more of my work in aesthetics consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution or visit Edible Arts.
Monday, November 28, 2016
.... —ode to cells
Before metaphorical allusions
we are warm and wet.
Seas surge within us.
In little cytoplasmic bays,
tiny ships of golgi moor
near lysosome cays enclosed by
permeable breakwater membranes
that all rise and fall with nucleo tides
in ebbs and flows through generations
rendering noses pug or aquiline
and eyes skybright or in colors of loam;
tides that sculpt with Darwin’s surf
graceful geographies of bodies
that draw the tissue curtain
between what is and what’s not
over muscle and bone
inflaming passion, heat, desire
to close the current’s ring,
to come together again
immersed in what is warm and wet,
to touch, embrace, to recombine,
to love, to sing, to lose,
to remember to forget
Carrie Mae Weems. From the Series "Not Manet's Type", 1997.
At the Crossroads
by Carol A. Westbrook
Jurgis Daugvilla (1923-2008) was an artist, and a master carver of wood sculptures in the tradition of Lithuanian folk artists. He was a neighbor, and a friend of my husband, Rick, a third-generation Lithuanian. "Richard," he would say, "Your house is at the crossroads of our town. You should have a Kryžius in your yard."
"Kryžius" (pronounced "kree'-jus) means "cross," and refers to the tall, totem-pole-like wooden carvings which appear as roadside shrines throughout Lithuania. The tradition goes back to pagan times, when they were used to mark sites of cult offerings, especially at crossroads and burial grounds. The monuments featured folk carvings, with peaked roofs for protection from the elements. When Christianity arrived at the end of the 14th century, the pagan monuments were topped with crosses, allowing for their preservation by converting them into emblems of faith. Every region in Lithuanian had its particular cross-making traditions, incorporating folk symbols,
pagan cults, geometrical shapes and religious icons.They were found throughout the countryside, but especially at crossroads and cemeteries, continuing in the pagan tradition.
Christianity did not halt this tradition, but politics did. Because of their significance as a national and religious symbol, many of these crosses were destroyed during the Soviet occupation, 1944-1990. The famous "Hill of Crosses" in northern Lithuania became a symbol of peaceful resistance, as crosses were added while the Soviets attempted to remove them, bulldozing the site at least three times. In 1990 there were 55,000 crosses on the hill, and today there are over 100,000. The Kryžius remains an important symbol of Lithuanian nationalism, and new ones have begun to re-appear across the landscape.
Jurgis, himself a Lithuanian who immigrated to the US in 1949, remembered this tradition of woodcarving, and sought to perpetuate in his adopted country. Jurgis, like many of the immigrants, was welcomed into Chicago, and eventually hemade his way to our town of Beverly Shores, Indiana, which also houses many residents of Lithuanian descent. Jurgis produced a number of carvings in the Lithuanian folk style, and some are visible throughout the town, including door and window ornamentation, and Kryžius's.
Yes, Jurgis was right. Our home was at the crossroads. We needed a Kryžius, and Rick commissioned Jurgis to create one for us.
Our Kryžius, shown above, has a religious carving on each of the four sides. In this view you can see the weeping Christ on the right, while the Blessed Virgin Mary is on the left. St. John Nepomucene faces the lake to the north (not shown). Rick requested an image of his family's patron, St. Rochas (aka St. Roch, or St. Rocco). His family's original surname, Rakauskas, is the Lithuanian word for "Rock," which comes from the same root as Rochas, while the saint's August 16 feast day is almost on Rick's birthday. In our Kryžius, St. Rochas is in the panel which looks
toward our house (shown on the left). This saint is usually depicted lifting his tunic to show the plague sore on his leg; our panel does not include his usual companion, a dog. The top of our Kryžius features angels supporting the peaked roof, which is topped by a wrought-iron cross.
There are two other Kryžius's in Beverly Shores. Both were carved by Daugvilla and are located near a junction or crossroads. The Kryžius in Daugvilla's yard, also near a crossroads, is simply carved in the folk tradition and is topped with angels holding a cross.
The third Kryžius, on the right, is elaborately carved with three tiers. The face seen from the road shows a saint with a crown or mitre, holding a sheaf of grain. I don't know the saint's identify, though I'd like to think it is St. Arnold, Bishop of Metz, the patron saint of beer. The upper tier shows the crucified Christ, and the elaborate roof is, of course, topped with a crucifix. Note, too, the intricately carved door and entryway to this house, also created by Daugvilla.
Our town is very proud of these historic reminders of its Lithuanian heritage, which celebrate its close ties to our natural surroundings on the Indiana dunes, and the religious freedom that we all enjoy.
Jurgis Daugvilla was well-known in the arts community of Chicago, and especially highly regarded by the Lithuanians. In 1999 he was awarded the Cultural Prize of the Lithuanian Community, the highest honor an artist can receive in the world wide diaspora of his countrymen. He died in 2008.
This story will be featured in the December 2016 edition of "Sand Tracks," a publication of the Association of Beverly Shores Residents. © Carol A. Westbrook
by Maniza Naqvi
Shared a wooden bench at Union Station. Sat side by side. I hunched. Waiting for Red Caps to come get us. Take us to our tracks. To our trains. Mama GiGi and I. Police in black riot gear with dogs, eyed us, loitering nearby. And around us, more of us. With strollers, carry-ons and backpacks, attached. Thanksgiving travelers. People moving like lines of refugees stumbling along, on and on.
Her train departing at 3.30 to Norfolk, Virginia beach. Mine before hers to NYC. She turned to me and talked and talked. And I with my eyes on this and that watched a clock and listened and listened keeping a look out for a Red Cap. She: All my love. All honey. Mama GiGi.
Long hair flowing flaming volcanic lava red, under a floppy red suede hat. A silver cross hung at her chest. Pale white wrists, red scabs. Pant suit. Fire engine red. Also. Crimson nail polish. To match. Bare feet in sandals. A scarf of old glory draped around her neck. Rhinestone encrusted sunglasses. By her side a tote bag full of pill bottles in Ziploc bags.
Mama GiGi talked and talked. Each sentence preceded by the words, my love. I listened on. And on. Mama GiGi, a pastor of her own church: Treasures of the Heart. She gave me her card. Her daddy was mafia. Her mother a drunk. And. So. She'd been dropped. She said. She'd been a lap dancer, a crackhead, a Heroin addict. She'd aborted two babies at age 15. Born Catholic. She'd left all that. To be born again. An addict again. For Jesus.
She'd found Jesus. Hymns in her, abounded. Jesus had saved her. Founded, the lost. The dropped. Picked her up. Lifted up an addict and a whore. You're looking at a miracle, she said. I said, that's way too easy. I'm looking at America.
Oooh! She cried. Oooh! She kissed my hand. Stroked my face. Gave me a hug. Overcome. Camp-pained, for Jesus and Trump, I did. She said. Get it? Spelling it out for me. Camp pained. For Jesus and for Trump. For my struggles. Made poster signs for ‘em both. Held ‘em up proudly, road side. Lots of appreciative honking. Uh Huh. Praise Jesus. Lots of cussin' and abuse. Well that's fine too. Thank you! Did it for Jesus. And for Trump. God bless. She'd hollered after them down the road. The honkers, the hooters, the cussin' abusers.
She asked me my name. Oooh. That's nice. Pretty. Where was I from? She began to cry. Holocaust. She said. She'd been there. To the Holocaust museum. She showed me a photo on her Iphone. She'd taken of a photo there. Of Muslims. A couple. They had hidden a Jewish family. It's so small. She said. Oooh. Oooh. She mewled. It should be ten feet tall.
The whole Mall, she said, my love, is just a big mausoleum to the dead. Why? Why dwell on death? My love. Why? Wars, the Native Americans, the Jews, the Africans. A big mausoleum. The mall of mausoleums. I asked "Who's next?"
She cried. My love, Honey she said, it's going to be alright. Oohh! Oooh! It's not how many days you live. But how you live those days. Is there a storm coming? Mama GiGi? I asked. She said, honey, it is here. My love. This is the storm.
Oooh! Oooh! Honey! Don't you worry! We'll get through it. It's not how many days you live. But how you live those days. She'd camp pained for Trump for her two aborted babies. She'd dropped them but in heaven, Jesus would pick them up and she would be united with them. She had been promised that. I went wrong at 16 and I'm all right at 60. Jesus has me. I'm beautiful! Thank God for under wire bras she said. You're looking at a miracle. She said. I said, that's way too easy. I'm looking at America itself.
She talked and talked and talked about Solomon, and David, and Goliath, and Ezkheil, and someone who had dropped a baby. Or picked up a dropped one. About death, and death, and death. Talk about beauty, only beauty, she said. It's not how many days you live. But how you live those days.
She'd voted for Trump for her babies. She'd been to Jerusalem where an orthodox Jew had spat on her but she had forgiven him. She had gone there to help orphans, and the elderly. And to tell them that Jesus was coming. She'd gone to Colombia and loaded up on drugs and brought them to America in her body. But Jesus had cleansed her. Picked her up entered her heart and body. Karen and Candy, needed to have a pajama party with Melania, bring her to the heart of Jesus. She said. Ooooh! Ooooh! She had cried, when she saw Hillary on TV. She looked so sad, so sick. All those years trying to please daddy, whose little girl was never good enough!
Hillary talked about her mommy. Trump he talked about his daddy. And America? It voted between Mommy and Daddy. Said, Mama GiGi. America, it picked daddy. Daddy won.
She'd spent twelve nights in a tent at 17th and Constitution. In a Spiritual God sent for born-agains. Jesus had come for her. Picked her up.
My Red Cap arrived. And as I left for my track and train I heard her loop back, to the beginning again with the next bencher. My love, honey, the tent at 17th and Constitution. Side by side, Mama Gigi and I, had sat. Shared a wooden bench. I hunched. At Union Station.
Monday, November 21, 2016
Death of NGC 2440
I can see by your last aura
against a black further distance,
the most distant distance…
I can see by your billowing
halo of expanding gasses
fluffed like god’s pillow
that you are ruled by laws
that also rule terrestrial things
I see the colors of your vast radiant shedding
and realize the force behind that shedding
is a predicate for everything
that’s blown apart, comes apart
falls apart, dissipates, uncomplicates,
is broken down, pulled down
it’s hard to wrap your mind around
the truth that this is where all things
—every brilliance built and done,
fought and won— are heading
except in tiny human scope
which mounts a natal
counterforce of hope
by Genese Sodikoff
In this political climate of upheaval and uncertainty, writing about emerging pandemics seems, all of a sudden, off-topic. Why dwell on disease when the bedrock of liberalism is being pulverized? We are entering unknown waters on a rising tide of anger and fear. The United States, the second largest CO2 emitter after China, is poised to back out of the Paris climate agreement, gut the Environmental Protection Agency, exploit public lands, and unfetter fossil fuel extraction. This means that in addition to sea-level rise, extreme weather events, drought, famine, jeopardized drinking water, and biodiversity loss, species and microbes will continue to be pushed into new geographic ranges, triggering more frequent disease outbreaks and what is likely to be a global pandemic.
Take, for example, wild aquatic birds, many species of which are already endangered by the loss of watery habitats and climate warming. Population ecologists have modeled how global warming disrupts the innate choreography of bird migrations and the availability of marine food sources. When the timing is thrown off, wild and domestic birds come into more frequent contact where previously they may have bypassed one another. In terms of sheer human self-interest, migratory waterfowl pose a risk to our meat sources. Wild birds are reservoir hosts of influenza A, and they can carry it their intestines without getting sick. Through excretions landing in soil and water or through direct contact, wild birds can transmit the virus to domestic birds and trigger outbreaks of the highly pathogenic "bird flu" (H5N1). The disease devastates commercial poultry flocks, and although human infections are relatively uncommon, they are often fatal.
Bird flu (H5N1) gained notoriety during the 1997 outbreak in Hong Kong, but its existence was known as early as the late 1870s. Since then, outbreaks have occurred in Korea, Thailand, Viet Nam, Japan, China, Cambodia, Laos, and then extended into Europe, the Middle East, West Africa, and the United States. When flu is detected in a farm bird, whole flocks must be culled. From December to May 2015, nearly 34 million birds died or were culled across 15 states in the Midwestern United States due to outbreaks of three different strains of bird flu. The gravest danger lies in viral mixtures and re-assortments. If the avian and swine influenza viruses meet inside a pig's body, the viruses can combine to create a new subtype that transmits easily mammal-to-mammal via airborne droplets.
Disease outbreaks are social phenomena and political events. Epidemics flare up in terrains shaped by power-brokering over oil drilling, mining, fracking, factory farming, conservation, and vaccine distribution. Poor, rural areas of the globe have been hit especially hard by epidemics, when vaccination and quarantine efforts hit snags, and human survival often depends on one's status and privilege. Infectious disease outbreaks also ferment rumors about the state, the healthcare agents, and large corporations that want to eradicate disease carriers through genetic manipulation. Some of these rumors went viral during the 2014 Ebola Virus epidemic in West Africa and with this year's Zika Virus in Brazil. The same thing happens in rich countries. Not a year into his first term, Obama confronted a swine flu (H1N1) pandemic that killed 1000 people and risked infecting many more. Vaccine production hit a bottleneck, and conspiracies circulated about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine supply (the administration was accused of colluding with corporate interests to foist unnecessary vaccines on citizens). In the end the swine flu was milder than expected.
For most of us living in well-off countries, the flu shot is our only glimpse of the vast network of biosecurity devoted to flu surveillance and control. Medical anthropologists have been examining various tentacles of the biosecurity network in flu epicenters, immersing themselves in the worlds of poultry farmers and scientists. Deep long-term study yields data about scientists' and farmers' work, as well as human-bird interactions that laboratory analyses cannot or do not always capture.
Scientific studies of bird flu outbreaks and efforts to control them began in Hong Kong as early as the 1970s, according to anthropologist Lyle Fearnley, of Singapore University of Technology and Design, who explains how the interfaces of wild and domestic birds in flu epicenters, such as Poyang Lake in China, became "sentinel indications of future pandemic dangers." Sentinel is a military term referring to a soldier who stays on the look out for the approaching enemy. These wild-domestic bird interfaces bring avian influenza from the sky to poultry farms to human homes. Also examining bird flu in Hong Kong, Frédéric Keck, an anthropologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, argues that the entire territory of Hong Kong gradually became a sentinel post of avian influenza overlaid with invisible viral pathways. Although sentinel posts can alert the world to impending danger, they also become tragic and anxious places when flu strikes.
Ethnographic studies can themselves alert the world about life transformed by bird flu. Anthropologist Natalie Porter points out the extent to which poultry saturates all our lives: "Poultry flesh and fetal matter comprise our breakfast scrambles, barbecue dinners, and baked desserts. Chicken eggs propagate our flu vaccines. Ducks' downy feathers beckon our touch, and their waddling bodies beg to be fed."
Dr. Porter started her long-term fieldwork in Viet Nam after the 2003 bird flu outbreak, when over the next few years 45 million birds were slaughtered, and an alarming number of people got sick: 106 cases of human cases and 52 deaths occurred. Poultry farmers' daily tasks bring them into intimate contact with birds. She labored alongside farmers and veterinarians, picking up chicken droppings, vaccinating ducks, bringing birds to the crowded urban food markets, and she observed people at home as they made the occasional ritual sacrifice of a chicken to the ancestors, processing the birds in their homes. In rural Viet Nam, as in many other countries, chickens serve as tributes to dead ancestors meant to ensure harmonious relations with the dead. Through these varied encounters, Dr. Porter saw constant opportunities for pathogen spillover, points at which influenza could potentially breach the species barrier between fowl and human.
She deploys the term "viral economies" to describe the social life of flu epicenters, where global health interventions spark contests over living biological property (such as birds and viruses) and access to veterinary resources and knowledge. The mood of Vietnamese people post-outbreak was anxious. She told me that people were afraid to consume poultry or eggs for years afterward, even though the price of chicken had been steadily dropping due to the availability of cheaper supermarket chicken. KFC (the fast food chain) even resorted to offering the large sum of 1,000,000 dong, the Vietnamese currency, to anyone who died of the company's chicken (strange comfort!). Multinational efforts to combat the disease through a country-wide vaccination campaign for fowl helped to tamp down the feeling of panic. Initially meant as an emergency measure, the vaccination campaign has persisted, becoming part of routine farm life. Rural poultry farmers, some of whom maintain small, free-range flocks and others who have scaled up, now must present vaccination certificates for their fowl to cross village boundaries. Avian influenza in Viet Nam persists. The threat of outbreak lurks on farms and in wet urban markets packed with live poultry and other food animals, but the Vietnamese state downplays the risk because it is economically costly.
A theme emerges: we cannot disentangle ourselves from our animals or entirely remove ourselves from the flow of pathogen traffic. What else is there to do really, but to embrace the reality of our porous species bodies, pathogens coursing from one creature to another as we eke out our lives? How do you contain a virus that is boundless, swooshing around the skies in bird bodies, and inconstant?
Bioengineering is one defensive strategy: scientists have created a genetically modified chicken that cannot infect other birds with influenza (though it can die of it). It remains to be seen, however, if people will flock to buy GM chickens or whether a viral strain will find its way around the genetic fix. Vaccines are our best weapons now.
Yet flu viruses resist biochemical meddling over time, and it's hard to stay ahead of viral mutations and re-combinations. We store influenza strains from animal reservoirs and stockpile vaccines, preparing for pandemic, as Dr. Keck explains. The strategy is imperfect. Certain strains may no longer be circulating, or vaccines may be ineffective. Useless vaccines are incinerated. Fowl vaccination campaigns contribute to the evolution of viruses as well, since some poultry inevitably miss out on shots and end up keeping a viral strain in quiet circulation. "In a sense," Dr. Keck writes, "the epidemic never stops beginning, as a phylogenic ancestor can always be found in a collection of samples that was previously unknown or not analysed."
What we have is a pernicious feedback loop of livestock production, global warming, and rising levels of avian influenza as migratory birds change their flight paths. The endless human demand for meat, which drives the proliferation of mega-farms,adds to greenhouse gas emissions (methane, specifically). Greenhouse gasses cause the climate to warm, and this diverts the flight paths of aquatic birds. Contact between wild and domestic birds intensifies, and viruses have greater opportunity to transform.
We live and labor alongside increasingly risky animals, as we must, hoping technology can keep pace with cures, but we stop short of changing the food and fuel production systems that underlie disease emergence. Influenza viruses mutate and thrive in environments shaped by excessive human desires. The loud promise of unbridled growth and the denial of climate change are symptoms of a pathogenic terrain.
Vladimir Cora. Cabeza con Iluvia, 2012.
President Trump: The Unknown Unknowns
by Omar Ali
Trump has been elected President. Having participated in a week-long social media freakout to deal with this shock (a fact I did not recognize about myself until a couple of days ago), I have some thoughts and I would like to put them out so that I can be enlightened by feedback. It is the only way to learn.
Very qualified people have written some good pieces already about the why and the how. I am posting links to them below, along with some random thoughts about the articles. They are not the whole story (what is?) but I think all these articles are must reads. My own comments are more like invitations to tell me off, or tell me more...
After these links and comments, I sum up my own thoughts and end with some questions.
You are still crying wolf, from Slate Star Codex. (I don't think Trump is particularly racist or sexist (relative to most 70 year old males, of any ethnicity) and he is obviously socially liberal compared to traditional Republicans. But the possibility is there that this shallow man (more or less socially liberal, a conman, ignorant) will be manipulated by his newfound advisers into disasters (initially abroad) that could have endless branching and mutating unintended consequences here and abroad. That could be a truly transformative crisis... Racism and the rise of the KKK (real and imagined) are small potatoes compared to the storms that could potentially be unleashed in the world... Muslims, being intimately connected to the worldwide crisis in very direct ways, will likely face the consequences within the USA too; but the crucial point is that the whole shitstorm is likely to proceed along tracks that are occasionally parallel, but mostly completely unconnected with the identitarian postmarxist postmodern worldview that dominates the elite Eurocentric Left today... Incidentally, if the ordure does hit the fan (I hope it does not, i hope the much-maligned current world order survives or at least, has a soft landing), then Blacks and Latinos, like other citizens, will fight for America. I suspect that the fantasy worldview that emphasizes supranational and subnational identities well above national ones will prove very flimsy; flimsier even than "class solidarity" proved to be in the first world war...the elite Left's freakout about the KKK and the coming age of Jim Crow is not completely wrong, but misses the biggest threats and their likely consequences. Which is not to say that no connection can be made between racism and the international order, but the race-obsessed post-truth glasses of the new postmarxist Left do get them into endless wrong turns and dead-ends in terms of priorities to be tackled.
I personally think Muslims are pretty much the only group who are actually likely to face government actions that will target entire groups for the real or imaginary behavior of some of them. And the mainstream Democratic party, the ACLU, Americans who believe in the constitution and the rule of law, and fair-minded Republicans will all be needed by them in order to help protect them against excesses. In terms of race, minorities will likely face law-enforcement excesses (as they do today, but these could increase). Occasional public confrontations (some very nasty), as well as indirect effects, arguable effects and fake effects are all possible, but they are not the main plan, or the main threat.
Meanwhile, there is also a mainstream Republican majority that has many longstanding Republican projects ready to go (tax cuts for the rich, supreme court appointments, Medicare privatization, benefit cutbacks, more prisons and prosecutors, renewed marijuana enforcement?) that will be painful for poor people and excessively nice to rich people. But world changing crises, if any, are more likely to start abroad)
The End of Identity Liberalism. NYT (Mark Lilla) (the "prediction" tone of the headline is misleading. It is not going to end. It may not be in power in the federal or state governments, but this meme-complex is fully entrenched in universities and among liberal intellectuals and they will only double down now that Trump has won. EVERYONE is doubling down on their favorite agenda, these people will double down on theirs. And because fear is such a powerful motivator, they will get even more traction in their own constituency. In war, lines harden, people have to tribalize. We will have to line up with all the liberals talking about the "pefrormativity of Whiteness" and suchlike because they will be OUR tribe. We will have no choice. War has it's rules.
Stephen Bannon Speaks (this is my own blog post, which has links to two long pieces about Stephen Bannon; he describes himself as wishing to be the Thomas Cromwell of the age. Leaving aside the minor detail that Thomas Cromwell was beheaded by the King he served, I see where he is coming from; Cromwell’s historic achievements were real and lasting. My impression (and I am not a historian, so I look forward to being corrected) is that he smashed and grabbed all the monasteries and materially ended the domination of the Catholic church in England. He improved the administration, promoted the Protestant reformation in England and left England a stronger kingdom than it was when he became its dominant minister… before he was finally beheaded by his beheading-friendly king. Not being a supporter of Trump, I hope Bannon is not 10% as successful or as talented as Cromwell was)
Trump Country, and Trump Supporters (from Mother Jones) (the usual supporters of the modern Republican party: richer people, evangelicals, small business owners, all voted for Trump more or less as usual, this is about the new supporters he mobilized and the old supporters he mobilized for his candidacy versus traditional Republicans. It is well worth reading, a great work of ethnography.. though no attempt is made at drawing any deeper lessons. Since it was published in Mother Jones, the deeper lessons may be left-leaning for most readers, but I can also see people drawing the lessons Bannon is preaching (TBF, some of them are left wing too)..I suspect both (mainstream Left AND Bannonism) are likely to be wrong. So we are still waiting for the pieces about what to do next. No one intelligent seems to think that Trump can fix their problem, so what happens next? Some people will say that there is no solution for a lot of these people...a callous way of putting it would be that they will die of poor health, drug abuse and violent crime, kept away from gated communities by armed guards and drones. But who will live in those communities and under what code of life will they live? Will most of humanity find a new and relatively comfortable equilibrium? a better equilibrium? Or maybe there is no deeper pattern. One foot in front of the other...)
The Right Way to Resist Trump. NYT. Luigi Zingales. (This article is good, but it seems unlikely that the Democrats will be able to stay off super-elite liberal issues and freakouts. Trump's own mistakes, infighting within his team, and the iron hand of the market (aka economics, a voodoo science about which nobody knows much) may ruin his administration so much that he will lose to whatever choice the Dems make next time, but I do have my doubts about the Democrats switching to some new "on-message" message that people like this columnist would approve of... During the campaign we heard about how Trump is easily manipulated into biting at every story that he should just leave well alone...well, that applies to the Democrats in spades. And Trump seems to know this and he will relentlessly use this fact to create fake controversies about some Broadway musical or some bathroom labeling issue, where the entire liberal media will be against him and the Nixonian silent majority will think "those liberal elites really ARE idiots" and so on....it will be a horrible four years (I still hope, not 8)
To sum up, I think we had a close election; one that the Democrats could have won, in spite of all of Trump's newly mobilized voters because he also had such huge negatives. But as it is, they did not win. Relatively contingent events probably played a part in their loss (Comey), but that should not obscure the fact that something huge has happened on the Republican side. A trash-talking socially liberal outsider, with a reputation as a conman (or at a minimum, a shady businessman, which is pretty much the same thing) took over the Republican party in the face of near-total establishment disapproval and then generated enough excitement in his core constituency (disaffected White people, rich and poor) to win a US general election. And he did this in spite of being rejected by almost every traditional newspaper and media outlet in the country (even at Fox, some hosts were ambivalent). And he did so with an unconventional campaign that relied on voter excitement and (frequently negative) media coverage rather than on the kind of professional political operation that has characterized all recent American presidential campaigns. This is an event worth paying attention to.
But having taken him seriously, we still have what his own chief strategist calls "a perfect vessel", waiting to be filled. But with what? Partisan commentary almost necessarily has to try and freak-out their support base for or against the incoming administration, and may be grossly exaggerated. But there are some grounds for thinking it may not be business as usual. My preference is clearly for business as usual (because I tend towards the belief that change will happen anyway, but it is better if it happens slowly and imperceptibly; of course, this is not how providence sometimes operates, so real life can and does deviate from my personal desires) so I personally will be relatively at ease if Trump turns out to be mostly talk; relying on distractions and culture wars to keep his constituency from noticing that nothing has changed for the better in their life, in short, just another modestly corrupt Republican administration; consistent in serving the short-term interests of the "top 1%" , willing to damage the long term interests of America (and the world at large) if it means more profits in the short term, and more than likely, losing the next election. Hopefully without terminally tarnishing the dignity and gravitas of the office of President.
It may turn out this way. Which will be unpleasant, but life will go on until the next election and then perhaps the next (modestly corrupt) Democratic administration. Such is the best case scenario. And I hope this less than exciting outcome does come to be.
But suppose it is not business as usual? Then I am looking for insights about two scenarios:
1. World War Z. The big changes will start abroad in this scenario, and most will probably be unintended. We will soon have a National security adviser who thinks that war against Islamism (or as he prefers to call it, Islam) is the defining feature of the world today. Without getting into any long discussion of whether this is true or not, look at it this way: there is no competing Islamic civilization out there in terms of unity, material progress or military strength. Even if we imagine (as Islamists sometimes do) that superior fellow-feeling and social organization (a patriarchal but otherwise egalitarian religion, resistant to culture-destroying postmodern memes; their view, not mine) means that they win in the long term, even Islamists recognize that in the short or medium term this "victory" involves getting invaded by competing infidel powers with better artillery and missiles.
So let us imagine Flynn has his way. What would such a war look like? His views are frequently incoherent and it is by no means clear where they will end up. e.g. he seems to regard IRAN (not Pakistan, Turkey or Saudi Arabia, the big three Sunni hopes) as the main threat and regards Russia as both threat and ally. There is just no rational way to predict what happens next based on these reported views... The US would presumably want to smash any and all Islamic counties that don't cooperate, but isn't it then a given that China, Russia and the US would also compete against each other in this new "scramble for Africa" (the Muslim world being only one order of magnitude more capable than Africa, while the big three are several orders of magnitude more materially capable than any Muslim country)? Who will line up on what side? Will it be mostly covert, low intensity warfare or will things spin out of control (the "scramble for Africa" being followed by World War One)? What about India? Japan? Latin America? The Baltics? Poland? Ukraine? This is a very complex system. Start a disturbance at a few critical points and the transitions can become totally unpredictable.
Think about it this way and it is easy to reach the comforting conclusion that this scenario is so nightmarish that "saner heads will prevail". The current international order will survive. I certainly hope so, but then again, that is probably what many sane people thought in 1913. I look forward to your thoughts.
2. From Dawn to Decadence...to collapse?
The amazing rise of Western civilization and its steadily increasing dominance of the globe in the last 500 years have given it an aura of inevitability and permanence. Not in terms of particular nationalities (particular powers rise and fall), but in terms of intellectual paradigms and visions of reality. But alongside this dominance are well established currents of doubt, pessimism and rejection, from Ivan Illych to Dugin (and even, in a way, Bannon). I am not including the currently fashionable postmarxist postmodern current in Western universities, with its rejection of tradition, authority and "dead White males" and its glorification of identity politics and not so critical "critical studies". This current seems just the next (last?) stage within the Western tradition itself; more a sign of its bankruptcy than the vision of an alternative (simply put, because it's major themes seem to have such tangential,incidental, and minimal, contact with actual biology, history, culture or science). Anyway, without getting too far into this potentially book-length debate , suppose this really is terminal decadence, then what comes next?
The unknown unknowns get really interesting at that point.
I, of course, have no good idea about what comes next. But who does? I await your suggestions about reading material 😊
Meanwhile, a few random videos that have little or no connection with one election and one president.. (the first one in particular does not imply complete agreement with his detailed views; mostly I posted it for his questions 😊 )
Monday, November 14, 2016
Maxine Helfman. Enin, Historical Corrections Series, 2012.
This Is Not About White People
by Akim Reinhardt
Maybe one day I'll publish the 2,500 word screed I wrote for this website about how fucking sick I am of white people. And not just the racist, sexist ass holes who eagerly voted for a racist, sexist ass hole flaunting racism and sexism as a central part of his campaign; or the not-racist, sexist ass holes who held their noses and pulled the lever for a racist, sexist ass hole, and in doing so exhibited morally bankruptcy by giving public sanction to racism and sexism; but also the middle class, white liberals ass holes who valiantly fought hard to prevent a racist, sexist ass hole from reaching the White House, but once they lost, became self-centered, self-indulgent turds who had to publicly make everything about themselves, because nobody fucking suffers like white people.
Maybe one day I'll publish that essay.
But not today. Because publishing that essay, ironically enough, would be just one more way in which a white, middle class ass hole (me) found a way to use his privileged platform (this site) to make public declarations about white people. And even though it's a blistering critique which I stand behind every word of, it would just be another example of a white person making this all about white people.
But right now, this is not about white people. This is about what we, as Americans, choose to do amid the horror that some of us have wrought.
So instead of going an angry rant, I am going to write in of support brown people, in support of immigrants, and in support of women, and in support of LGBTQ people.
People are complex, contradictory beings. Despite the absurd fantasies of some economists, we are not like cats, simply licking what we like, clawing what we don't, ignoring all that doesn't matter or captivate us, and always working in our self-interest.
And sometimes that shit goes really wrong.
The wrong can take as many forms as we humans can assume, which is nearly endless. As Townes Van Zandt once said, sometimes our pain and trouble fall upon us like a storm, and sometimes we dig our own holes.
Right now, this nation is digging holes. Holes that force people into pits of isolation and inequity. What to do?
Refusing to dig is good, but it is not enough.
Imploring others not to dig is also good, but it is also not enough.
Reach down. Extend your hand. Pull people up.
And those of us who are in no real danger of falling into a hole must be prepared to climb down in there, willingly, and stand side by side with those who are caught, those who feel the earth around them falling away. Offer words of encouragement, yes, but offer tangible support as well.
On January 21, when the Million Woman March comes to Washington, D.C., just a 50 minute train ride from Baltimore where I live, I will open my home to a small army of women prepared to descend upon the capital. I will march with them only if they want me to. And I will fight to support equality for women, and offer my body as a shield against the pussy grabbers, the molesters, and the men who would use their power and authority to gaze upon nude 15 year old girls.
I will voice my support for immigrants of all stripes, rejecting the divisive notion that some nations send us better people than other nations. I will pressure politicians to enact and support humane laws. And I will actively work to make my city and my personal home a sanctuary for families facing fracture upon the anvil of deportation.
I will continue to advocate for and aid Native people struggling to maintain and assert their independence in Indian Country, and Native people in urban and suburban America who endure anti-Indian racism on a daily basis so frequent and so casual that perhaps the most shocking thing about it is that hardly anyone is shocked by it.
I will be adamant that we as a nation never return to the sexual dark ages; I will openly recognize that LGBTQ people are our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, lovers and friends, and I will work to ensure they maintain and expand their hard won legal rights and continue to live freely and openly among us.
As a middle class person, I will not ignore the increasingly grim economic reality of a modern America where unskilled and semi-skilled workers of all colors and sexes face not just diminishing opportunities, but also a seemingly endless array of predators and scavengers looking to exploit them.
And I will not become self-satisfied.
I will never believe that I have done enough simply because I publicly condemn racism against brown and black people. Or because I write a check to support a cause. I will never forget that other people can never remove their dark skin and escape into the comfort of majority and power. I will never forget that I have the luxury of not caring, or the luxury of caring deeply yet staying out of harm's way.
As a teacher, as a public writer, and more importantly, as a citizen and human being, I will not only condemn racism and sexism, but I will work towards banishing them by doing the only thing that can free us in the end: building bridges between people.
This past Friday night, my girlfriend and I along with another couple blew off some steam at a neighborhood bar in a working class section of Baltimore. The corner row home bar itself reflects the neighborhood it is nestled in. The clientele is mostly white, but not entirely. On Friday, there was a typical crowd: maybe a dozen white men, two black women, plus me and my friends (three of us white, one from India). The owners are a Korean woman and her older white husband.
Everyone was at least in their thirties. All of the other patrons, aside from my group, were decidedly working class. At one point, a guy with no front, bottom teeth told me he had saved up $1,500 so he could go be homeless in Florida this winter. Maybe he was serious, but he was pretty plastered so who knows. He also gave me really good advice about hanging doors.
Some twenty-something whites, who are part of the recent gentrification wave in this neighborhood, wandered at one point. They were excited to be there, perhaps wanting to burnish their street cred. But it was probably a bit too gritty for them, and they were gone after about 20 minutes. They missed the show.
If this bar is emblematic of America's many confusions, contradictions, and conflicts, it could be pinpointed in the owner. She left Korea decades ago, but retains a very thick accent. She voted for Obama the first time, not the second time. She has a very low opinion of politicians generally. She voted for Trump this time, but repeatedly mused that no one knows what the future holds and maybe he'll be assassinated. Based on her face and tone of voice, she neither relished such a prospect, nor would be bothered in the least by it.
For a while, things were copacetic. People drank cheap cans of beer and the occasional shot of soju. Then the fireworks started.
The spark of politics lit the room. I didn't quite catch the pro-Trump moment that ignited it, but soon enough, one of the black women began repeatedly shouting: "Fuck Trump, leave it alone!" One of the white guys bellowed that this would be the end of welfare. The bartender and her husband tried to dampen the outburts, less out of any real political concern I think, but because it was bad for business.
The initial wave of anger settled down into the occasional grumble. There never seemed to be a threat of physical violence, but the tension and catharsis were very real.
About 20 minutes later, one of the black women, who had a voice of stunning beauty, was singing karaoke arm-in-arm with one of the white guys as many of the patrons got watery eyes.
This is my America, in all its ugliness and beauty, its shame and potential.
Akim Reinhardt's webste is ThePublicProfessor.com.
We Elect Soundbites
by Saurabh Jha
In 2004, India’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the incumbents, lost the election to the Congress party. Their loss was a surprise. Though polling is not an exact science, least of all in the sub-continent, what made the loss even more surprising was the election slogan used by the BJP - “India Shining.” India seemed to be shining. There was an economic boom, particularly in cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore. The Indian cricket team almost beat Australia in Australia, and had just beaten Pakistan in Pakistan. The Indian cricket team usually got walloped by these countries. The successes on the cricket pitch were extrapolated to the happiness of the proletariat.
I was in Hyderabad, Telangana, at the time. The youth had optimism and spoke about making crores (10 million rupees), not just lakhs (100 thousand rupees). Satyam, a computer giant, was building, literally, a computer village in Hyderabad. Though the skies were polluted in Hyderabad, everywhere you went there was beer, biryani, and belief. It was a good time to be in Hyderabad.
I visited a village less than 100 kilometers from Hyderabad, in the Ranga Reddy District, partly to fulfil my desire for “poverty porn.” The sky there, though less polluted than Hyderabad, seemed darker. Suicide of farmers, because they couldn’t pay their loans, was particularly high in that village. It was the sort of place where people still died from snakebites. The villagers couldn’t give a crap about India’s success in cricket – such joys are a bourgeoisie indulgence. For them, India wasn’t shining and it annoyed them to hear that India was shining, India was the same old, same old. Over two thirds of Indians live in villages. It is the villagers who decide who governs the nation. By rejecting the soundbite, “India Shining,” the villagers rejected the BJP.
In the 2008 elections, Americans gyrated to “Hope and Change.” I never understood what exactly was hoped for, and what one should change to. I’m still unclear. I presume “change” meant “be less capitalistic” and “hope” was a promised utopia where we’d all be our brother’s keeper – although if everyone was going to be kept who would do the keeping?
Shortly after Obama beat McCain, I was in Danville, a small town in Pennsylvania. It is said that Pennsylvania is Alabama between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Danville is Alabama central. Things are different in Danville from Philadelphia, where I live. You know you’re entering Philadelphia when you see billboards of mustachioed plaintiff attorneys. In Danville, the billboards advertise guns, not lawyers. Whilst Philadelphians swooned to Obama’s “Hope and Change” melody, there seemed little evidence of swooning in Danville. I admit I didn’t survey everyone in Danville, but the barman who served me a drink pithily said something I’ll never forget. I asked him if he was happy with Obama’s victory. He replied, “What fucking hope? What fucking change?” I suspect his questions were rhetorical.
For many of my colleagues - Ivy-league-educated doctors, who drive Priuses and Teslas, who know which red wine to pair with steak, who meditate to Bikram Yoga, and eat non-American cuisine, usually sushi, at least once a week - that someone voted for Donald Trump, not Hillary Clinton, strains their credulity. “I don’t get it”, they say. But such intellectual savants miss a point. People, including they, don’t vote for the greater good; people vote for soundbites. In this election, Trump had the catchier soundbite. Trump’s soundbite, “Let’s make America great again,” is genius in its simplicity. It captured America’s great past, instilling pride and nostalgia. It emphasized the dismal present, or at least convinced you that the present is dismal. And promised a bright future. It’s all of history in a single Tweet. “Let’s make America great again” is the heir apparent to “Hope and Change.”
A friend, who supports Trump, challenged me to name a specific policy of Hillary Clinton’s that would arouse the masses. I thought carefully and said, “minimum wage.” “LGBT rights.” Reproductive justice.” He was nonplussed. I then imagined how the barman in Danville would have reacted if I came in shouting “minimum wage, reproductive justice, hope and change.” The best soundbite Mrs. Clinton had at her disposal was “Never Trump,” which seemed to have spectacularly backfired.
If Mrs. Clinton had mastered the science of policy making, Mr. Trump owned the rhetoric of democracy. And rhetoric gives science a run for its money. Democracy has always been about soundbites. “India Shining” failed not because it was a soundbite, but the wrong soundbite. In 1971, Indira Gandhi romped to victory by using a clever slogan, “Garibi mitao”, which means “remove poverty”. Mrs. Gandhi never explained how she would remove poverty. Nor has Mr. Trump explained how he will make America great again – he doesn’t need to. Soundbites have an inherent appeal in a democracy – they’re a heuristic of sorts.
But soundbites aren’t just expedient, but necessary. It’s unlikely that many voters, even those with a PhD in economics, calculate an expected value of the benefits and harms of presidential candidates before voting. And even if they did, it would be a forlorn endeavor because of Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem. The theorem, devised by an economist, Kenneth Arrow, says that it is not possible for choices of individuals, which vary, about competing public policies to be retained by the group. This means that when different people prefer different things to different extents, and you add their preference to derive a preference for the group, the result is that everyone is unhappy. This sounds like common sense – you can’t please everyone about everything all the time – but Kenneth Arrow got a Nobel Prize for this intuition.
The only way to achieve unanimity in governance is a dictatorship. The alternative is a soundbite. A soundbite is a crafty dictator. Rather than forcing you to obey, the soundbite coaxes you into suspending cerebral activity. Better a soundbite than a dictator. I hope.
Campari on the Rocks with Nietzsche
by Leanne Ogasawara
Turin is a city which entices a writer towards vigor, linearity, style. It encourages logic, and through logic it opens the way towards madness. —Italo Calvino
We were in town to see a particular picture; for Turin is home to a precious painting of Saint Francis receiving the stigmata. Attributed to van Eyck, the picture has an exact --but much larger size-- copy in Philadelphia; and art historians have gone back and forth over the years about which one is the copy of which. Both paintings were believed to have been part of the 1471 inventory of the will of none other than Anselm Adornes, the fabulously wealthy Bruges merchant (who happens to be a great obsession of mine).
It seems strange to have two identical paintings created, when the cost was so high to buy a van Eyck, but it turns out that back in the 15th century, the super wealthy sometimes had different sizes of a painting created so they would be able to bring the smaller version with them when they traveled or perhaps give one to a daughter on her wedding day. Why not, right? It is possible the smaller version of the van Eyck, held in the Sabauda Gallery in Turin, was created for just this purpose.
The painting does not disappoint and it was well worth the trip--but to say we got distracted along the way would only be an understatement.
For me, it started sitting in a cafe in the Piazza San Carlo. The piazza is, as I suggested above, possibly the most beautiful square in the world. Being the capital of the House of Savoy, the city is in many ways more French-feeling than Italian. With its standardized building facades made of huge pieces of cut stone adorned with tall windows and wrought iron balconies, the city evokes a more Northern, noble atmosphere. Like Paris, it is a city built for kings. But rather than in the grand boulevards one finds in Paris, in Turin, it is the piazza where the Baroque architecture dazzles.
And no where dazzles more than the Piazza San Carlo.
Laid out in the late 16th century, the covered arcades bordering the four sides of the square stand facing an equestrian statue of an armor-clad king in feathered helmet brandishing a sword looking as if he had just returned from battle. With his feathers streaming behind him in the wind, the man and his horse seemed to be in a state of breathless motion. Like the city of Bologna, Turin is renown for its porticos, and it doesn't take long before one realizes what a brilliant invention covered walkways can be. On that day, the sun was blazing down and neither of us wanted to leave the cool shade of the arcade to venture out into the square to try and figure out who the statue was supposed to be honoring.
But venture out we did-- and standing there in the middle of the square, we stood blinded by the unrelenting heat of the afternoon sun. Standing there uncomfortably in front of the statue, we decided to forget the mysterious Savoy king and go have a campari instead. For not only is Turin a city of arcades but it is also a city full of cafe-bars. Indeed, that very square was home to two of the finest cafes in the city--and in a city famed for its legendary historic cafes and bars, that seemed extremely promising indeed!
The older of the two, Caffe San Carlo, dates from 1842 and was a favorite of Franceso Crispi, as it was of Gramsci, Roselli and Giolitti. Opulent beyond imagination, its known for its coffee, as well as cakes and candies. As tempting as that sounded, we decided that our choice had to be Caffe Torino. For in addition to it's wonderful belle-epoque style interior and long history of equally glamorous habitué, like Bridgette Bardot and Ava Gardner, the cafe serves some of the finest Italian apertivo in the city.
Known for inventing vermouth and such iconic brands as martini and Cinzano, Turin is awash in cocktails.
What to have? Campari on the rocks or maybe a campari spritz? But then why not something stronger like a negroni? Made of a deliciously lethal mix of Martini Rosso, Campari and gin--did you know that until comparatively recent times Campari got its brilliant carmine from cochineal beetles? But Turin is not just about campari and vermouth; for behind the marble-topped bar were countless beautiful bottles of many different kinds of amaro. Sitting alongside the brilliant red campari, was zucca rabarbaro (another favorite, made from Chinese rhubarb), Amaro Nonino Quintessentia,Varnelli Amaro Sibilla-- each as delectable as they are medicinal....There are so many possibilities and all of these apertivo in Italy are served with the most mouthwatering happy hour fare the world has ever seen! As we sat there, we watched transfixed as a waiter clad in a pristine white jacket rolled in a brass trolley piled high with the most mouth-wateringly delicious-looking miniature pizzas, cheeses, salamis, homemade pickles, and tramezzini I had ever seen. And all around us were people ready to dig in-- and this is all before going out for dinner!
Indeed, we were insistently told by the Turinese that they start eating around 5 during apertivo and that this eating then continues on until it is time for dinner, sometime between 8 and 10 pm!
How did I not know about this wonderful and amazing custom till then?
Several years ago while crying on a friend's shoulder about how scared and sad I was at leaving Japan after two decades, I was reminded by my friend of Churchill's famous words:
"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."
Well, there you have it! For I can now say, if leaving Japan was the end of the beginning, Please God, let Turin be the beginning of the rest of my life-- for no finer city exists in the world! With its sanctuaries of covered walkways for strolling and stupendous museums; it's baroque architecture, historic cafes and fabulous food, the city has absolutely everything. Even including stunning views of the Alps. No lesser eye than that of Le Corbusier declared that no other city had a finer natural setting, being placed as it is between the towering alps to the north and the verdant Po River in the south.
Did you know that Nietzsche also loved the city of Turin beyond compare?
Like me, he loved the way the mountains dominated the view. Turin was, after all, the place where the Grand Tour began for Victorian English travelers. Mainly because it was the first stop after descending over the mountains. Hannibal similarly landed in Turin with his elephants: where, after crossing the Po River, he wrecked havoc on the inhabitants. Nietzsche considered the city to have a musical quality and repeatedly wrote about its charm and refinement. From his letters, we know that he treasured the view of the alps from the center of the city and spent his afternoons strolling under the arcades, shaded from the sun, which caused his eyes so much pain. Not being much of a drinker, he still raved about the cafes, where I suppose he indulged in the city's famous bicerin (the Turinese specialty of espresso topped with hot chocolate and cream).
Leslie Chamberlain, in her book Nietzsche in Turin, suggests that for Nietzsche, Turin was a kind of "Zarathustrian paradise."
And maybe because he loved the city beyond compare, it makes it somehow less tragic that it was in this place where he would suffer a mental breakdown from which he would never recover.
The story is well-known and it takes place not far from the Caffe Torino. In another impossibly elegant Baroque square, Piazza Carlo Alberto, on the corner behind yet another equestrian statue is the apartment where Nietzsche lived from 1888-1889 and where he worked on his books the Antichrist, Twilight of the Idols, and Ecce Homo. His third story room was on the side facing Via Po, where he loved to walk, and is easily recognized by the plaque adorning the ground floor of the building; as well as for the red curtains hanging from the window.
It was from this apartment that Nietzsche on the morning of January 3, 1889, left his residence and walked a few minutes along Via Carlo Alberto. He was perhaps heading toward the river, when coming onto the Piazza Carignano, he happened upon the sight of a horse being flogged by its driver. And it was there, in the words of Milan Kundera that,
Seeing a horse and a coachman beating it with a whip, Nietzsche went up to the horse and, before the coachman’s very eyes, put his arms around the horse’s neck and burst into tears.
Mother I am stupid (ich bin dumm)
Why he said those words and what he meant has never been understood. Rushed back to his apartment, poor Nietzsche never recovered from that breakdown in the street. His friend Franz Overbeck arrived from Germany a few days later, and found him sitting on the floor reading Nietzsche contra Wagner. Nietzsche was in such a state of anxiety that Overbeck had to arrange for transport back home in the care of a psychiatric nurse
Nietzsche would die a decade later, without ever saying another coherent word.
Walking in Nietzsche's fateful footsteps that day in Turin, I thought a lot about how he had written that this city above anywhere else was "the capital of discovery" --and the "first place where I was possible." I love those words-- and like Nietzsche after a lifetime wandering abroad and feeling never at home in many ways, landing in Turin was a kind of miracle. A miracle of Renaissance oil paintings, cocktails made of colorful herbals; dainty tramezzini tea sandwiches and warm chocolate coffee. The world is wide and there are so many places left to explore; so many possibilities for discovery. That Nietzsche, whom I read so devotedly in my youth, also loved the city made it even more full of possibilities for me. And so it was that sitting there in Cafe Turino sipping my campari, I did somehow feel like I had finally arrived to the rest of my life.
(For more on Italian cocktails, with recipes, and Fellini's legendary Campari commercial, see my post: Campari on the Rocks)
In addition to Leslie Chaberlain's wonderful Nietzsche in Turin, I also wanted to recommend highly a book by a friend of this blog, Charlie Huenemann, called Nietzsche: Genius of the Heart. It really illuminates brilliantly Nietzsche's concepts of health and nobility. I loved it.
Picture on top is of Turin's famed Mole Antonelliana, Nietzsche's favorite building in Turin. With its soaring contours, he designated the building as"Ecce Homo." Begun as a synagogue in 1863 the architect, Alessandro Antonelli, quickly began to run amok and the poor Jewish community coul only watch as he kept building the synagogue taller and taller still. Monumentally over budget, the community begged the city authorities to do something and were given an equally fine piece of property where they built a Moorish revival temple.
Bottom photo is my attempt at the Ambrogino--made with my favorite Amaro of all, Rabarbaro Zuzza
Exposed! Daniel Everett Shines a Light on the Mind’s Dark Matter
Dan Everett. Dark Matter of the Mind: The Culturally Articulated Unconscious. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
I want to approach Everett’s dark matter indirectly. In 1973 David Hays, who soon became my teacher, published an article entitled, “Language and Interpersonal Relationships” . It begins with a simple one-sentence paragraph: “How does language engender love?”
That’s certainly not a question that’s central to linguistics or even peripheral to it. But it was central to Hays’s understanding of language and, if I read him rightly, it’s a question Everett would understand. For both of them see language in the context of social interaction. How natural, you might say, for language is a means of communication, no? Yes, it is. But much of the most important and influential thinking about language over the past six decades, thinking catalyzed by the work of Noam Chomsky, sees language primarily as a tool of thought and only secondarily as a tool of communication. How peculiar, you say, how very peculiar.
Hays went on to discuss communication, reporting that Harold Garfinkel once had his undergraduate students “write down what the participants in a conversation actually said, then in parallel what they understood the participants to be talking about.” Garfinkel concluded that much was unsaid. Much of what’s unsaid belongs to the mind’s dark matter. Some of it could be said if the conversation required it, but much of it could not.
Consider a wellknown thought experiment, something of a parable if you will, by Herbert Simon . He asks us to imagine an ant walking on the beach. Its path is complex, irregular, and difficult to describe. Does that mean the ant had complex intentions and capabilities? No, the ant’s intentions and capabilities were simple, but it pursued them in a complex world, a beach littered with debris and marked with the cliffs and valleys traced the weather, the water, and by larger creatures. In that world the pursuit of a simple purpose by simple means led the ant to trace a complex path.
* * * * *
And so it is with conversation, or any other social interaction. However complex the visible activity–the ant's path, the words said back and forth, it depends on the even greater complexity of the invisible and unspoken dark matter that supports it–the beach on which the ant walks. Some of that unconscious material is background information that could be articulated if necessary. Thus in a conversation about the 2016 Presidential election there might be unexplained references to “the popular vote” and “the electoral vote” . If you don’t know any more about American political institutions than I know about British political institutions you’re likely to be mystified about this talk of two votes when there was only one election. That particular mystery can be cleared up with a little questioning and discussion.
But that’s only part of it. We know that attitudes and affect can be communicated by intonation and gesture too. That’s not so easily verbalized. This dark matter is ineffable (Everett’s word, and it’s a good one). And yet gesture, as Everett argues in one of his best chapters (Chapter 7), is essential to spoken interaction and is culturally patterned as well.
OK, I get it, I think, you say, but this dark matter stuff is so vague and metaphorical. You’re right. And it remains that way to the end of the book. And that, I suppose, is my major criticism, though it’s a minor one. “Dark matter” does a lot of conceptual work for Everett, but he discusses it indirectly.
In terms of Simon’s ant-on-the-beach, if we want to explain the ant’s path we need to know, on the one hand, the ant’s capabilities (perceptual, motor) and needs, and, on the other hand, the features of the beach on which the ant walks. The beach itself is Everett’s dark matter; that's what he's trying to understand. But he discusses it primarily through its effects as observable in the ant’s paths. The beach itself remains invisible (dark).
* * * * *
Consider Everett's discussion of the difficulties the Pirahã had in perceiving photographs Everett had taken of them. Abstractly considered this is not too difficult to understand. After all, photographs are, well ‘unnatural’ and they present contradictory cues. They are obviously flat objects, but the scene being depicted has depth cues indicating a world in depth. It just doesn’t make visual sense, unless, that is, you have been raised in a world where such strange objects are common. Everett was raised in such a world, but the Pirahã were not.
And now things get interesting:
In the rainy season, jungle paths flood. Snakes exit their holes. Caimans come further inland. Sting rays, electric eels, and all manner of creatures can then be found on what in the dry season are wide, dry paths. It is hard to walk down these paths in daylight during the rainy season, covered as they are by knee-deep, even chest-high water (though I have had to walk for hours in such conditions). At night, these paths become intimidating to some of us. As I walk with the Pirahãs, I am usually wearing shoes, whereas they go barefoot. Two memories stand out here. The first was me almost stepping on a small (three feet long) caiman. The second was me almost stepping on a bushmaster (there are many other memories as dangerous). In both cases, my life or at least a limb was saved by Pirahãs who, shocked that I did not or could not see these obvious dangers, pulled me back at the last moment, exhorting me to pay more attention to where I stepped. Such examples were frequent in my decades with Amazonian and Mesoamerican peoples. And each time, they were astonished at my apparent blindness. (141-142)
The Pirahãs live in the Amazon and can see its creatures clearly. But Everett, though he spent years in the Amazon among the Pirahãs, had not been raised there. His visual system had matured long before he entered the Amazon. He could not see its creatures so well as those who’d been raised among them.
That is to say, Everett had recognized that his blindness to the jungle was essentially the same kind of phenomenon as Pirahã blindness to photographs. Photographs are obviously cultural artifacts and it’s not so difficult to see how people raised in a culture lacking those artifacts would have troubles dealing with them. But the Amazon jungle is not a cultural artifact. Though Everett doesn’t say this, it’s almost as the Amazon itself is part of the dark matter of the Pirahã mind, as photographs belong to the dark matter of the North American mind.
* * * * *
The concept of culture is as strange as it is important. There is, of course, the concept of culture enshrined in the notion of “the finer things”, art, opera, paté, and so on, but that’s not what Everett is after. He’s after culture as anthropologists understand it, and that’s tricky – Everett lists 10 representative definitions in an endnote (333-334). This conception of culture is sometimes opposed to nature¬–an opposition central to such different thinkers as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bruno Latour–and often entwined with nature and nurture, instinct and learning, all of which Everett contends with.
He offers his own definition:
Culture is an abstract network shaping and connecting social roles, hierarchically structured knowledge domains, and ranked values. Culture is dynamic, shifting, reinterpreted moment by moment. Culture is found only in the bodies (the brain is part of the body) and behaviors of its members. Culture permeates the individual, the community, behaviors, and thinking. (p. 66)
Everett delivers on all of this, with discussions of language, both written and spoken, gesture, visual perception, attachment (among individuals, and of individuals to culture in general), learning and maturation. His discussion is inevitably interdisciplinary, calling on linguistics, anthropology, perceptual psychology, evolutionary biology, rhetoric, and philosophy.
In fact I will venture to say that Dark Matter of the Mind is at heart a work of philosophy, not so much in the sense of philosophy as contemporary academic discipline as in philosophy as a synthetic intellectual enterprise. For the ancient Greeks philosophy was simple abstract knowledge encompassing the natural and human world. In a standard view, as this enterprise developed, various topics split off from the main and became specialized disciplines, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and so on, with the various human sciences only differentiating and emerging in the last century and a half or so.
The differentiation is necessary because knowledge is found in patterns over details. The more patterns we find, the more details too. The only way to get a handle on the details is to pick a limited field and concentrate on that. And so, as the cynical saying goes, we end up knowing more and more about less and less.
Everett’s enterprise gathers its details from various disciplines and that gives it a philosophical cast. He aligns himself with Aristotle over Plato and traces their influences through a variety of thinkers of the last four centuries. The dark matter conception feels Continental to me, though Everett does not, as I recall, cite contemporary Continental philosophers of the last century. Instead he hangs with Wittgenstein, the Wittgenstein of the Philosophical Investigations rather than the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
This is all fine and necessary, which is not to say that I agree with all of it, but simply to acknowledge that I don’t see how he could have gone about his work in any other way. While the intellectual world is rife with specialized argumentation arrayed around culture and associated concepts (nature, nurture, instinct, learning) these concepts themselves do not have well-defined technical meanings. In fact, I often feel they are destined to go the way of phlogiston, except that, alas, we’ve not yet discovered the oxygen that will allow us to replace them . These concepts are foundational, but the foundation is crumbling. Everett is attempting to clear away the rubble and start anew on cleared ground. That’s what dark matter is, the cleared ground that becomes visible once the rubble has been pushed to the side. Just what we’ll build on it, and how, that’s another question.
* * * * *
Let us conclude with a look at translation, to which Everett devotes a chapter, his eighth. I gather from various sources that Everett’s defining experience was his work among the Pirahã people . He went there as a missionary linguist intent on converting them to Christianity and translating the Bible into Pirahã. Instead he became an atheist and a cultural theorist while continuing to develop his skills as a linguist.
But that specific task, translation, takes me back where I began this review, with David Hays’s article on language and love. Like Everett, Hays was a linguist, though of the previous generation. Hays’s defining experience was quite different but it too was one of translation.
Hays was among the first generation of researchers in machine translation, the use of computers to translate texts in one language into another . That enterprise collapsed in the early 1960s when the federal government of the United States withdrew its funding because it wasn’t getting useful practical results. But Hays continued to study language and, in particular, semantics, which he understood to be embedded in thought, perception and yes, culture. That is, his very different experience led him to a view quite similar to that Everett expounds in this book.
That is not, I suppose, so very unusual. If all roads lead to Rome, then there’s no particular mystery inherent in thinkers with very different backgrounds arriving at similar conclusions. But this particular convergence is worth a moment’s reflection.
If language was in fact the Platonic, rational, tool of thought so beloved by the school of Chomsky, then machine translation should have been a smashing success years ago, much to the delight of fans of Star Trek’s computer, and Everett would have translated the Bible into Pirahã in a matter of years–whether or not they would also have converted him out of Christianity is another matter. For the rationalist view of language would have us believe in a strict and transparent separation between syntax and semantics, with semantics being couched in a “mentalese” taking the form of logical propositions.
On that view, translation is simple. You take a word in your source text, match it to the appropriate word in your target language, and do the translation. You stick a coin in the slot, and out comes your piece of candy (to use a metaphor favored by Paul Garvin, another pioneer in machine translation). When you get a sentence’s worth of words lined up, you clean up the syntactic details and go on to the next sentence.
Unfortunately it’s not so simple, as Everett makes quite clear the translation chapter. More often than not you aren’t going to find word-for-word correlates in your two languages and what is worse, concepts are simply going to be missing. Thus Everett discovers
… the Pirahãs find the concepts of savior, sin, and salvation incomprehensible; that in spite of American missionaries’ belief that people like the Pirahãs are afraid of a dark, threatening evil spiritual world and that many of them will be overjoyed at the missionary’s arrival with the news that Jesus has freed them from this fear, the Pirahãs fear nothing and were uninterested in the missionary message; that American missionaries believe all languages will be able to convey all the concepts necessary to express the full New Testament message. (259)
How do you translate a text written for one culture into the language of an utterly different culture? How does someone raised on photographs learn to see bushmasters in the jungle, and vice versa?
The cultural difference Hays faced was not so drastic. Both English and Russian (the target language for most of the early American work in machine translation) are Indo-European languages and both reflect modern scientific and technical cultures. Hays’s problem wasn’t so drastic as Everett’s, but it was of the same kind and it led Hays to the same conclusion, no language without culture.
As for embodiment, our rationalist culture tends to see computation as an abstract and disembodied activity, but Hays took a different view. Yes, there is an abstract theory of computation in which the physical world has no role, but Hays never tired of emphasizing that all real computation is embodied in physical processes. The physical stuff of the machine is not incidental; it is essential.
As a final remark, I strongly suspect that computation will play a major role in constructing the new accounts of language and culture that Everett’s work calls for. In this I probably differ from Everett, who is skeptical about computation. As Everett has argued, language and culture are dynamic, and on many time scales. Computation unfolds in time; it is dynamic. It is certainly not the only source of dynamic concepts, but it is a source we cannot ignore, no more than we can ignore the mind’s dark matter.
Let's refit Simon's story of the ant on the beach for one last look. As before, the beach is Everett's dark matter of the mind. The ant itself, now, is but the small core of computation that organizes the walk. It's the conductor and the beach is the orchestra.
Or does that give it too much power and knowledge?
 David G. Hays, “Language and Interpersonal Relationships”, Dædalus, Vol. 102, no. 3, 1973, pp. 203-216, URL: https://www.academia.edu/9074170/Language_and_Interpersonal_Relationships For what it’s worth, Hays’s original title for the article what rather more whimsical than the editors of Dædalus could countenance, “How Now, I and Thou.”
 Herbert Simon, Chapter 3, “The Psychology of Thinking: Embedding Artifice in Nature,” The Sciences of the Artificial, Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981. A Google search on “Simon’s ant” produces a lot of hits, URL: https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=%22simon's+ant%22&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8
 This Wikipedia article explains it, Electoral College (United States), URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electoral_College_(United_States)
 See Wikipedia’s entry, Phlogiston theory, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlogiston_theory
 I believe he first came to general knowledge through John Colapinto, “The Interpreter: Has a remote Amazonian tribe upended our understanding of language?”, The New Yorker, April 16, 2007, URL: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/04/16/070416fa_fact_colapinto
 Wikipedia, David G. Hays, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_G._Hays
Monday, November 07, 2016
by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse
When we tell people that we write about logic and politics, we let our interlocutors make the big joke. There is no logic in politics! It's a funny joke, for sure. But it's also tragic. And the tragedy is double-barreled. First, good reasons should be behind decision making. Without good reasoning, policy will likely be an irrational hash. There may be no logic in politics, but there ought to be. Second, the politics referred to in the quip is the politics of our democracy. And in a democracy what's true of the politics is often true of the participants. This includes not only the candidates, politicians, lobbyists, and media personalities, but the citizens as well. And it's hard to deny that we, the democratic citizens, are not users of logic when it comes to politics. The joke's on us.
As the current election cycle grinds to its finish, we easily see the toll it has taken on us. As a democratic nation, we are fatigued. We are so exhausted by our politics that it has become a common theme on the news channels and the late night comedy shows. Keeping up with the latest scandal, press release, spin, poll, and decision from governmental investigative institutions has worn us down. Moreover, the months of daily demands for outrage, disgust, and indignation have left the nation drained. Were such a thing conceptually possible, a clever politician would mandate a moratorium on politics beginning on November 9.
There is good news and bad news about our weariness. The bad news is that many of the items that have consumed the citizenry's attention of late have sapped us in a way that has diluted our trust in democracy itself. It is a common observation among democracy's enthusiasts that democracy is, even at its best, hard to love. But it really shouldn't be this easy to despise. The country has spent months feeding on a forced diet of doomsday politics, with each candidate and nearly every political officeholder given an abundance of reasons for thinking that November 8, 2016 marks the beginning of the End Times for democracy. When this message is accompanied by an "unless" clause that conveniently identifies the speaker, his Party, of his favored candidate as the country's only savior, the nausea is only exacerbated. The full-tilt political season, now arguably in its fourteenth consecutive month, has been not only something difficult to endure. It has provided good reason to wonder whether self-government is worth all the psychological trauma.
The good news comes on a few fronts, but is in no case untarnished. The first is that things are almost over. The country votes tomorrow. That brings an end to the phone calls and the advertisements and all of the unbelievably hostile discussions on television news channels.
But we will have to endure the aftermath of the election. And this includes the recriminations that will come from the losing side. The Republican candidate has already claimed that his loss would constitute a proof that the voting had been rigged against him, and perhaps this is the basis for his refusal to say in advance that he will accept the election results. The longer-term impact of Trump's candidacy on American democracy is difficult to fathom but impossible to cast in a wholly positive light.
Still, there is an optimistic point lurking in all of the darkness. The fact that the entire country has found so much of this election – its coverage, the behavior of at least one candidate, the way surrogates have conducted themselves, and so much of the political discussion around all of it – categorically tiresome is revealing of an important fact about ourselves. Despite the fact that live in an environment of bad argument and cynical political maneuvering, we citizens still find it all objectionable. We still see incivility, dishonesty, evasion, exaggeration, threat, and innuendo as worthy of criticism. Accordingly, we haven't yet normalized the traits that have driven the current election season. We have grown weary of our politics because we implicitly believe that democracy must not succumb to the vices of acrimony and sophistry. Citizens have tuned out because they demand better than what this election has offered; they have placed themselves above the despoiled condition of this election.
Of course, not everything is sweetness and light. The country is apparently deeply divided over who is culpable for debasing our democracy. We agree on the norms that should govern our democratic politics, but do not agree about when they've been most severely violated and by whom. This is to be expected. Getting democracy right is no easy task, and it is even more difficult to do democracy correctly on a large scale when the stakes are perceived to be high. Nonetheless, in the wake of this truly awful election season, our democracy needs rehab.
Democratic rehab will require sustained reflection on how and why things deteriorated so quickly. This kind of reflection will involve public debate. The trouble is that in the course of this election, the country seems to have lost its capacity to engage in debate. Hence the essential first step is to rehabilitate our practices of public political discussion. Democracy runs on civil argumentation, and argumentation is driven by disagreement. In order to disagree, one must be able to see those on the other side of a dispute as having reasons. Of course, to see others as having reasons is not to see that as being in the right; in fact, in order to disagree, one must see those on the other side as having weak reasons and being mistaken about their force. There can be no disagreeing with those who one cannot recognize as having reasons, only the kind of verbal maneuvering that made for such an exhausting election cycle.
The biggest hurdle to get over in our rehab will be to firmly renounce the common practice, made even more prevalent in the current election cycle, of pathologizing our political opponents. From the widespread use on the Right of the offensive epithet ‘Libtard,' to the Left's regular invocation of DSM personality disorders (particularly, paranoia and narcissism) to explain the behavior of Trump and his supporters, there is an overwhelming temptation to see those who we oppose as utterly irrational, driven not by reasons but simply driven. When we engage the activity of political argument, we first need to preserve the sense that there is an argument to be had. And this requires us to sustain a view of the opponent that unrelentingly attributes to him or her reasons. The point of argument is to lay bare all or many of the reasons in play, and jointly assess their force; so unless one is prepared to regard one's political opponents as nonetheless reasoners, there can be no arguing with them. The pathologizing tropes that have become all too common in the public political vernacular are at best blocks to democracy; at worst, they are instruments of self-deceived insulation from criticism.
Yet the nation seems hopelessly addicted to language that pathologizes political opposition, and there may be no sure-fire treatment. One thing worth trying is to force oneself to sincerely seek good (or at least plausible) arguments from one's opposition. Again, to see one's opponent as rational is different from seeing him as correct; so sincerely looking for cogent reasons from the other side doesn't require one to abandon one's convictions. Thus it's possible to assess the opposition's reasons as reasons and yet hold that the opponent is mistaken. But in pursuing this, we must also acknowledge that finding the good reasons the opposition has to offer will require us to actually listen to the opponents themselves. We must recognize that we are not the best judges of what reasons there are on the other side of an issue that we care about. And we should especially avoid getting our sense of the reasons on the other side from those on our own side who are all too eager to condemn the opposition. In short, weening ourselves off of the tendency to pathologize our opponents, we will need to actually talk to them.
No doubt a little humility will be helpful here. In looking for the best reasons our opposition has to offer, we will need to do a lot to invite their best thoughts, and this will require us to adopt the attitude that we have something yet to learn from our opponents. This kind of humility can be motivated by reflection on the ways our own views have changed and developed over time. We have all had the experience of learning better how to articulate our own ideas, and sometimes we may have even changed our minds about an important issue. What moved us? In all such cases, we learned something new. How did that happen? We had a good conversation with someone where a crucial fact was well-communicated, or we struggled to respond one of their criticisms. None of us ever learned anything by shouting down and demeaning others or by convincing ourselves that our own view is so obviously correct that only those suffering from a pathology would reject it. Democratic rehab, then, begins at home, with the willingness to recognize that our political opponents are nevertheless our fellow democratic citizens.
Chiyo-ni, Issa, and Their Children
by Olivia Zhu
Not too long ago, I was struck by a haiku. It’s a form I know very little about, aside from what most students are taught in school about its five-seven-five syllabic structure. Moreover, I don’t read or understand Japanese, and feel very much at a loss to understand the paragons of the form in their original language—essential, I think, given their length.
But I’ll venture a clumsy stab at explaining why this haiku might be so striking, and then dare to do the same for another, because I do think there’s something here that transcends translation. I’ve taken the liberty of picking the translations I thought sounded nice, but versions abound.
First, the Japanese poet Fukuda Chiyo-ni wrote:
How far have you gone today
In your wandering?
She wrote it after the death of her son, when she had already been widowed. It is, perhaps, a simple work—for her child, who loved dragonflies and died young, the same flavor of thought for a living boy and one no longer. It makes me imagine a mother wondering where her son is playing, only to remember with a sharp breath that he has died. Yet this haiku is at once the moment before that breath, and the one after. What a sweet thought, to then picture your child continuing to do what he liked best in life, no matter that he has wandered far beyond where a mother might find him and care for him.
Here, it is the brevity of the haiku that makes me feel as if it is a passing thought, but perhaps a thought that Chiyo-ni might have had every day, multiple times a day, before committing it to paper.
This work also seems to have touched Kobayashi Issa, considered one of the great four masters of haiku. He, too, lost his children—a son, and then a daughter. It was the death of his daughter Sato that caused him the most heartbreak, for in one of his diaries, he said he believed she “lives in a special state of grace, and enjoys divine protection from Buddha.” His descriptions of her burst with a proud love and bemusement, and so his diary entry when she contracts and dies from smallpox seems all the more sorrowful by contrast. Upon her death, he wrote an entry in his journal, accompanied by Chiyo-ni’s poem on her dragonfly hunter, several other works about the loss of a child, and this haiku, his own:
The world of dew —
A world of dew it is indeed,
And yet, and yet...
Scholar Guy Newland discusses the work in his book on Buddhist grief, noting that the Issa would have followed the Buddhist belief that living things are fleeting, vanishing like dew. As Issa himself writes, "I knew well that it was no use to cry, that water once flown past the bridge does not return, and blossoms that are scattered are gone beyond recall. Yet try as I would, I could not, simply could not cut the binding cord of human love." This is what he means when he says “and yet, and yet,” that even recognizing that he cannot recover his beloved daughter from death, he knows still that he shall love her and think on her, as Chiyo-ni does with her son. Newland describes it in quite a lovely way, saying that “Now this little girl’s death hurts him bone-deep, cuts him to the core. To be utterly heart-wrecked and, at the same time, strangely grateful for some lost grace—this is what it will always mean to be a human who loves another mortal.”
Consider again the haiku form, and how it shapes Issa’s feeling. It is a thought, a concise one. Yet it is a thought that lingers. Chiyo-ni’s thought—her question—revisits her over and over again, but Issa’s here is left to extend, a remnant of the cord that still binds him to his daughter. Critic and translator Donald Keene notes that Issa was generally “reluctant to express [tragic] feelings in his poetry,” yet he does so in his diaries, and especially in this haiku that reconciles his reckoning with the physics of the real world and his grief. Chiyo-ni, on the other hand, has elided that barrier, blending the spheres of life and death into her question.
So much, from thirty-four syllables!
“The Finest Female Haiku Writer”
“The Life of Kobayashi Issa”
Guy Newland, A Buddhist Grief Observed, (33-34)
Issa Kobayashi, The Year of My Life, (Chapters 12 and 14)
Donald Keene, World Within Walls: Japanese Literature of the Pre-modern Era, 1600-1867, Volume 1, 368
"On the way from mythology to logistics…
machinery disables men even as it nurtures them."
~ Adorno & Horkheimer
A few years ago I heard the Seattle Symphony play Carnegie Hall here in New York. There were three pieces on the program. The first two - Claude Debussy's La Mer and John Luther Adams's Become Ocean - are clearly of a type. They share the subject matter of the sea and its sonic representation. More importantly, Become Ocean is a clear stylistic descendant of Debussy's seminal, impressionistic work. Written a hundred years apart, both pieces nevertheless explore shimmering textures and slowly shifting planes of sound. The emphasis is not on seafaring - a human activity - but rather on the elemental qualities of the ocean. So far, so good.
The third selection, however, was Edgar Varèse's Déserts. As the title implies, Déserts is possessed of its own vastness, but this is an expanse that is jagged and abrasive. Written in the early 1950s, that is at about half-way between La Mer and Become Ocean, its exploration of timbre is arid and dissonant, and is an early example of a score that calls for interweaving the ensemble's playing with pre-recorded electronic music. Some listeners may be reminded of avant-garde movie music where the scene calls for danger and uncertainty; one YouTube commentator wrote that "parts of this remind me of the music on Star Trek, when Kirk is facing some Alien on a barren world, kind of thing".
Varèse has always been a favorite of mine when it comes to the canon of twentieth-century "new" music. Prickly and uncompromising, he was a passionate and broad-ranging thinker. After meeting him for a possible collaboration, Henry Miller mused that "Some men, and Varèse is one of them, are like dynamite." Indeed, Varèse envisioned Déserts to be accompanied by a film montage - what we would casually characterize today as a multimedia experience. While the pitch to Walt Disney never went anywhere, the music is still with us today. But be that as it may, what is Déserts doing, sharing the stage with the marine masterpieces of Debussy and Adams?
As a counterfactual, had an algorithm been curating the evening, we would certainly not have had this juxtaposition. (Perhaps, in keeping with the evening's theme, we would have been subjected to Handel's Water Music instead). You may contend that it's absurd to think of an algorithm holding such sway over the well-heeled patrons of Carnegie Hall, but consider how much of our lives have been pervaded by exactly this sort of machine-driven ‘curation'.
So here is a seemingly uncontroversial claim: one of the great triumphs of modern software is the recommendation engine. From Amazon's ‘customers who bought this item also bought' to Netflix's ‘other movies you might enjoy', recommendation engines are ubiquitous and always ready to help, especially when they are wrapped up in the soothing tones of a Siri or an Alexa. Recommendation engines also occupy an interesting niche in our information ecosystem. In a world of infinite content, they are the osmotic membrane that regulates the exchange of data and preference. And they thrive on scale: the more data is thrown at them, and the larger the network of users, the better they function. This is true for both the raw inputs (what's available to be consumed) and the raw outputs (what is consumed). The design masterstroke of this paradigm is that the outputs are converted into new inputs. By simultaneously taming and leveraging the deluge of data, recommendation engines aspire to make a cornucopia of choice legible to us.
But this design masterstroke is also its fatal flaw. Recommendation engines are really good at homogeneity. If you like salsa music, start a Pandora station and keep giving the thumbs-up until you've locked in your sound. You can be sure there won't be any heavy metal songs popping up in your stream. Need more than one cordless drill? Amazon has got you covered. Have a look at some drill bits while you're around. And let's not even get started on the abundance of potential partners that online dating apps dangle before us. It brings to mind MTV's original catchphrase, "Too Much Is Never Enough."
They watch over us, these engines of loving grace. Obviously, sometimes you just need a cordless drill, in which case these platforms can be of great utility. But more broadly, what they are poorly equipped to do is help us understand or create the idea of difference. Or to be more specific, the hedgehog-like nature of this worldview gently deflects us away from the idea that there are styles, stances and yes, objects, that are not contiguous to our own narrowly formed desires and preconceptions. How do we find these, or rather, how do we acquire the critical apparatus by which we can find and judge these?
This question is worth elaborating because recommendation engines are growing beyond the simply utilitarian, and making a bid to occupy a more nuanced space. Here is an example from the world of design. In a recent article about the curious ubiquity of the so-called mid-century modern style, Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan notes that
It may also be the product of a great averaging: as algorithms track our preferences and shape our online lives accordingly, we're all becoming more and more similar. Siri and Alexa, for example, are killing off regional accents. Facebook crafts our news feeds so they match up to what it knows we already love and hate. Companies like Airbnb and WeWork are popularizing the same generic spaces across the globe; it even has a name, recently christened by Kyle Chayka: airspace. Midcentury modern design, it seems, is another form of technological averaging—the cream, gray, and wood-paneled amalgam of all user tastes.
To be fair, the decline of regional accents in the United States was a process that began with the advent of first radio and then television; current technology has merely hastened it. But mid-century modern design is an excellent example of how software-driven recommendation is flattening our preferences: Modsy, a startup playing in this space, uses a quiz to help homeowners plan their design moves, hopefully obviating the curatorial presence of a human interior designer. Overwhelmingly, its clients end up favoring this specific, anodyne style.
Now, one could make the argument that this is a self-selecting population and as such may have a bias towards this design paradigm. But the subtler point is that the individual's process of questioning, discovery, learning and discrimination is undercut substantially when the heuristic of a recommendation engine is employed. It is the opposite of engaging in the serendipitous act of browsing the jumble of an antiques shop, where one goes to explicitly find difference and therefore implicitly invoke the faculty of taste. The benefit of feeling the texture of a swatch of cloth, the heft of an object, the smell of a book? These holistic sensory judgments are forfeited in favor of a quicksilver virtuality, where only the eye is privileged. And of all the senses, the eye is the most easily deceived.
I'm not offering a romantic sentiment of days gone by. This way of going about being in the world is work. It is not by any stretch ‘efficient' - to invoke, with as much contempt as possible, one of Silicon Valley's favorite words. It cannot be. Recommendation engines putatively do this work for you, but the result, as evidenced by Modsy's result, is bereft of identity. I would not have much of an issue with this except I am certain that, once having made an interior design choice, these homeowners would be unable to describe why they made these choices, except in the most superficial terms (eg: "I like clean simple lines"). If you're such a fan of midcentury modern design, you should be able to distinguish between a chair designed by Arne Jacobsen and one designed by Hans Wegner.
Nor am I being unduly snobbish. For there is a difference between snobbery, which is at its heart a power play, and connoisseurship, which is a desire for knowledge and therefore an understanding of the importance of difference - the difference that a difference makes, if you will. A snob is someone who will tell you that the wine you are drinking is good because Robert Parker gave it 96 points and it cost $200 for the bottle (and aren't you grateful). A connoisseur will tell you that this wine is good because of how it is made, or what it tastes like, or why it tastes the way it does and how it is different from any other bottle.
Furthermore, our connoisseur will be able to describe what food goes well with this wine, and at what point in the meal it's most appropriate to drink it. A connoisseur ultimately understands each experience and object as existing in relationship to other experiences and objects. It is the interaction of these entities that ultimately creates meaning and value. As hokey as the phrase may be, this is the judgment that is required to find that one object "that really ties the room together". Recommendation engines, by their very nature, are incapable of providing an holistic experience.
To be clear, the kind of connoisseurship I am positing is not one of absolutes, either. Values are never fixed; rather they are always being negotiated. This is another failing of recommendation systems. The flatness of fully quantified consumption behavior sets the stage for feedback loops that gradually become divorced from other criteria. Something that is popular becomes more popular simply due to its increasing popularity (in this sense, political parties and stock market bubbles share significant characteristics with recommendation engines). Other choices may experience a decline in popularity, but the system may not be able to ascertain why. Platforms may attempt to remedy this flatness and market opacity by creating multiple tiers to privilege "influencers" but this is misplaced, since it continues to impose no effort of learning on the mass of people accessing the engine. Simply put, we still cannot answer the question ‘why' in any meaningful sense.
Not surprisingly, the abdication of decisionmaking in favor of a recommendation engine has another consequence. In a distributed scenario populated by many actors - customers, consultants, designers, manufacturers, marketers - information is continually being exchanged. It is lumpy and uneven, but it is vital and dynamic. Various actors acquire different degrees of knowledge which they then use to modify their tastes and behaviors going forwards. But in a recommendation engine scenario, knowledge tends to flow overwhelmingly inwards - into the network. As Michael Tyka, a biophysicist and programmer at Google, notes, "The problem is that the knowledge gets baked into the network, rather than into us. Have we really understood anything? Not really - the network has." Well, except for the people who own the network; they might have access to the sum of this knowledge, with which they dispense as they please.
More troubling is the suspicion that recommendation engines, socially speaking, function as a sort of gateway drug for generating consent for the much broader and more pervasive rubric of what has become known as algorithmic judgment. Amazon recommendations and Netflix suggestions are all well and good if this sort of impersonal guidance remains an elective activity. However, once we begin using algorithms to determine the likelihood that someone is a good credit risk, or is likely to commit a crime, then we have raised the stakes substantially. I'll take a closer look at this wave of technologies next month.
In the meantime, we have strayed rather far from that performance at Carnegie Hall. So why did Varèse's Déserts join Debussy and Adams? As George Grella elegantly stated in his review of that evening, "Two is a trend, three is an argument. The stated connection through landscape and ecology was window dressing for abstract music about form, structure and time." A good critical assessment always provides, in addition to analysis and interpretation, an invitation into further conversation and deliberation. Grella intuits the intention behind the programming, and generates a narrative that also invites our own engagement. We build stories on top of stories. Can we do the same in a society excessively informed by recommendation engines? You walk into a stranger's home; in a friendly attempt to strike up conversation, you take note of the décor, but the conversation begins and ends with "oh, the computer did all of that for us".
Creativity and Art
by Dwight Furrow
Philosophical definitions of art are not only controversial but tend to be unhelpful in understanding the nature of art. While trying to accommodate new, sometimes radically unfamiliar, developments in the art world, philosophical definitions typically do not explain why art is something about which we care, arguably something a definition should do. Institutional theories that treat art as any work intended to be displayed for the art world, or historical theories that view art as having some intended relationship to prior artworks, leave out any reference to why art is worth making and appreciating.
Aesthetic theories get closer to bringing the value of art into the picture. They privilege an artist's intention to imbue objects with aesthetic character, which when successful produces aesthetic pleasure, surely a primary reason for valuing art. But embodying an intention to produce aesthetic pleasure is not sufficient for something to be an artwork. An attractive, mass produced set of dishes or a potted plant might be intended to have aesthetic properties but are not works of art. Furthermore, the appeal of some works of art such as the ready-mades (e.g. Duchamp's shovel) is not primarily aesthetic at all. Clearly aesthetic pleasure is an important goal of art and one reason why we value it. But considering other reasons to value art might get us closer to a definition that clarifies art's nature.
It seems to me that in addition to art's ability to produce aesthetic pleasure we value works of art because they are accomplishments. We admire and appreciate the skill, effort, depth of insight and conceptual dexterity required to produce art. But more importantly we appreciate works of art because they exemplify creativity. Above all, works of art are works of imagination that constitute a departure from the everyday and the mundane. They surprise us and move us because of their unfamiliarity. I would argue that creativity constitutes the distinctive kind of accomplishment that is a work of art. Thus, it is puzzling that most philosophical definitions of art do not include creativity among their conditions.
To my knowledge the only one that does so is Nick Zangwill's "Creative Theory". (See Zangwill, Aesthetic Creation) However his theory suffers from a lack of attention to the creative process. I want to take a stab at a more adequate creative theory.
According to Zangwill, "Something is a work of art because and only because someone had an insight that certain aesthetic properties would depend on certain nonaesthetic properties; and because of this, the thing was intentionally endowed with some of those aesthetic properties in virtue of the nonaesthetic properties, as envisaged in the insight". ( Aesthetic Creation", 36 )
Just to be clear, non-aesthetic properties include ordinary physical properties such as shape, size, color, sound, etc. Aesthetic properties are properties such as beauty, gracefulness, elegance, ugliness, etc. For something to be an artwork, on this theory, the artist has an insight into a particular connection between non-aesthetic and aesthetic properties that leads her to intend to produce something with non aesthetic properties in order that it might exhibit aesthetic properties, an intention that must be successfully executed to count as a creative act. Essentially Zangwill's view is that artistic creativity is a matter of the artist knowing the aesthetic end she wants to achieve and the means to achieve it. Zangwill is clear that in order for the action to count as a creative act, the insight must occur before the execution. He also seems to have in mind that the insight is a consciously held belief about this relationship between the non-aesthetic properties and the aesthetic properties.
This strikes me as shockingly clueless about the artistic process. No doubt some art does proceed from clearly defined intentions regarding artistic aims and with a full understanding of how to achieve them. But much art is more serendipitous than that. Artists often begin with a vague feeling about what they are trying to achieve or may proceed with no end in mind by experimenting with various techniques or combinations of colors or textures until something aesthetically significant appears. In these cases, they are creating often with no insight into how the aesthetic effect is to be achieved even after the fact. Or, alternatively, artists sometimes gain insight into what they are aiming for as they proceed. The insight is a result of their process not antecedent to it. Often the aim of a work is constituted as the artist discovers how to execute the work continually breaking with her prior aims and constraints as new possibilities unfold. Back in the day when I was a musician and songwriter, some of my best songs were created by aimlessly plucking out melodies on a guitar until something compelling emerges. Even after going into the studio to record tracks I would discover the genre, subgenre or main motifs of a song only as the recording process was coming to a close with results radically at odds with assumptions going in. Zangwill anticipates these kinds of objections.
"Am I implying that every aspect of a work of art is intentionally produced? No. Chance often plays a role. This is most dramatic in the paintings of Jackson Pollock. But even in his paintings, chance plays a role only within certain confined parameters. How his paintings turned out was very far from being completely a matter of luck. There is always some result that was deliberately produced."
But this response won't fly. The theory purports to give us insight into the creative process and the value of art as a creative accomplishment. If only minor features of a work are the result of well-defined creative intentions, the ability of the theory to explain the major features of art works would be undermined. Zangwill needs the stronger claim that the main aesthetic features of artworks are the result of an intentional process, and that seems not to be necessarily the case.
Nevertheless, Zangwill is right that there are some intentions involved even in those cases in which chance plays a role. My aimless, experimental picking on the guitar was motivated by the intention to create a song with aesthetic value. What I would deny is that such a process necessarily presupposes insight into how sounds are to create that aesthetic value. Thus, a viable creative theory requires a more plausible account of creativity. Yet Zangwill's approach is in the right direction. If a work exemplifying creativity is an accomplishment of the artist, then that accomplishment must reflect something about the artist's intention, vision, or point of view. Random acts of creativity would seem not to do that.
Zangwill's view aside, the most widely held philosophical definition of creativity holds that creativity "is the capacity to produce things that are original and valuable." (See Berys Gaut's useful summary here) This second condition, that a work must be valuable to count as genuinely creative is necessary to rule out frivolous novelty or creative nonsense, neither of which would count as an accomplishment. Yet this seems to also rule out creative violence and other creative acts that would lack value yet intuitively would exhibit creativity. It might be nice if we could define evil out of the pantheon of creative acts but evil is always a stubborn thing that resists wishful thinking. The first condition, originality, is also problematic. The creativity embodied in a work is not diminished by the fact that someone, somewhere created something similar assuming that the second work is not a copy or excessively derivative. Creativity is at least in part about the process through which something is created—it is not exclusively about its relationship to other works. Originality and creativity are both valuable in the arts but should not be collapsed. Thus, this widely accepted definition is not promising.
I don't have a fully fleshed out theory of creativity in my pocket but I will gesture in the direction of where we should look for one. Creativity is a capacity, a disposition, and thus something like a quality of character possessed by people. Aside from the fact that we enjoy their creations, what is it we admire about creative people? To put it in the vernacular, we admire their ability to "think outside the box", i.e. to be relatively less constrained by norms, habits, and conventions than the average person, at least within the boundaries of some sphere of activity. (I don't think that in order to be creative one must be in general unconventional, but only unconventional within a domain.)
There are two components to this capacity. One is the ability to have creative thoughts—an imagination that ranges broadly and deeply outside the conventional range. But the second is the willingness to nurture this imaginative ability and go with its results. Creativity involves a kind of receptivity, an openness to what is new, atypical or unconventional and a willingness to be affected by it. I said above that we value art because individual works are accomplishments and raised the issue that, if creative acts are often the result of unconscious processes and chance occurrences, these would not be an accomplishment of the artist since they were not intended. But what the artist can take credit for is nurturing this receptivity and honing its products into an artistic vision. Receptivity, making oneself available for the unconventional, requires a certain kind of attention and energy that can be enhanced or suppressed, and the lives of creative people often involve resistance to external and internally imposed attempts to stifle imagination. There is self-overcoming and the hurdling of obstacles involved in a disposition to be creative even when such a capacity comes naturally. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly for the issue of intention, creative people must take the results of their mysterious unconventionality and shape it into something intelligible. Ultimately it is that work, that shaping into intelligibility, which constitutes the artist's vision and the accomplishment. Aimless noodling on the guitar or experimental brush strokes, however inventive they may be, are not yet works of art. They need to be worked on until they acquire intelligibility and aesthetic character. The spark of insight that constitutes the creativity may not be intentional but the deployment of the idea will be. The intention may occur downstream from the creative idea but it is no less a part of the process of creation represented by the finished work.
This may be what Zangwill had in mind. In shaping their artistic media in order to make their idea intelligible the artist is manipulating non-aesthetic properties of sound, line, or color to bring out the aesthetic properties available in the creative insight. If this is what Zangwill intended, the creative theory can be rescued by paying more fine grained attention to the creative process.
For more on aesthetics, especially the aesthetics of food and wine, visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution
Spying Jokes in the DDR: Cold War Humor and Political Resistance
by Jalees Rehman
Political jokes were no laughing matter for the East German state security service., The Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (MfS, more commonly known as the "Stasi") viewed humorous quips about the political leadership as a form of political resistance during the Cold War years. The culture of repression enforced by the Stasi in the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the official name of East Germany) outlawed anti-government propaganda and sedition, and these anti-sedition laws enabled the Stasi to arrest citizens who shared political jokes.
Just a few months after the Berlin Wall was constructed, the Stasi arrested a 32-year old building painter at his workplace in the town of Sassnitz, hand-cuffed him and drove him to an undisclosed location. The Stasi agents provided no explanation for his arrest until late at night when he was lay down on a plank bed in a prison cell, trying to make sense of what crime he had committed. Exhausted and befuddled, he was just about to fall asleep when Stasi prison guards dragged him out of his cell into an interrogation room and informed him that he had been arrested for sedition. A Stasi interrogator wanted to know exactly what his opinions were about the party leadership, the relationship between the DDR and the Soviet Union and which Western radio channels he listened to. The painter provided all the details in a reasonably honest manner, without hiding his critical views.
The interrogator then asked him to write down every political joke he had ever heard or shared. He knew of nine jokes that he had told and wrote them all out for the Stasi. Here is one of the nine jokes:
Three DDR citizens are sitting in a prison cell and talking about why they have been arrested. The first says, "My watch always went ahead, and I would arrive too early to work so they said I was spying." The second says, "My watch was always behind, I always came too late so they said I was engaged in sabotage. The third said, "My watch always worked perfectly, I always arrived on time, so they said my watch must have come from the West."
After spending several months in Stasi custody where he underwent repeated interrogations, he was sentenced to three years in prison for engaging in anti-government propaganda and sedition by a penal court. The summary report by his Stasi interrogators was a central piece of evidence in the mock trial and it specifically listed the political jokes as well as the names of fellow citizens who heard him tell the jokes.
The journalist Bodo Müller describes the fate of this painter in his recent book "Lachen gegen die Ohnmacht: DDR-Witze im Visier der Stasi" (Laughter as medicine against impotence: DDR jokes in the crosshairs of the Stasi) as an example of how seriously the Stasi approached the matter of political jokes, especially in the 1950s and 1960s. Müller was a DDR journalist who had been arrested and imprisoned by the state authorities after a failed attempt to escape in 1985. After the reunification, he was granted access to the secret files the Stasi has kept on him. Müller found out that the Stasi had kept a file on him since the 1970s, long before his attempted escape. He had been flagged because he collected and told jokes mocking the DDR leadership since his teenage years. When perusing the Stasi files about his activities, he learned that secret Stasi informants among his acquaintances had provided detailed information about the exact dates of when he had begun telling jokes, details that Müller himself had long forgotten. In fact, Müller had written down several hundred jokes about the DDR government and hidden those notes in the wall behind his kitchen sink. Fortunately for him, the Stasi never found his joke stash despite conducting secret searches of his apartment to find signs of conspiratorial activity.
Reading his Stasi file inspired Müller to scour 40,000 pages of now declassified Stasi files to understand the depth of the Stasi involvement in monitoring and persecuting jokesters. It appears that the DDR authorities aggressively pursued joke-tellers in the 1950s and 1960s but had relented somewhat by the 1980s. Perhaps they had realized that some degree of political humor allowed the DDR citizenry to blow off steam without engaging in activities that might pose an even greater threat to the regime. Or perhaps political jokes had become so widespread that containing humor by arresting perpetrators would have been futile.
How did the West German authorities view political joke-telling in the DDR? The West German intelligence agency BND (Bundesnachrichtendienst, now the primary foreign intelligence agency of the reunified Germany) recently declassified documents which revealed that one of their divisions monitored political humor in the DDR as a barometer of resistance in the DDR. The historian Hans-Hermann Hertle and the journalist Hans-Wilhelm Saure reviewed the declassified BND materials in their recent book Ausgelacht: DDR-Witze aus den Geheimakten des BND (Mocked: DDR jokes from the secret files of the BND). The BND emphatically denied that they actively disseminated political jokes to undermine the DDR leadership but the BND did have agents in the DDR who reported on the latest comedic developments. A number of the jokes compiled by the BND remarkably overlap with those found by Müller's research in the Stasi files.
Here are some examples of the jokes told by DDR citizens documented in the BND records:
What is the difference between an egg and a DDR citizen? An egg can only be broken once.
Reagan, Gorbachev and Honecker [DDR leader from 1971-1989] are talking to God. Reagan asks when the US will experience race problems like South Africa. God responds, "In five years!" Reagan is relieved and says, "Great, I will no longer be in office at that time!" Gorbachev asks God when the Soviet Union will no longer depend on wheat imports. God answers, "In 30 years!" Gorbachev is dismayed and says, "Too bad, I will no longer be in office at that time!" Honecker asks when the DDR will catch up with the West in terms of technology. God hesitates and then says, "I will no longer be in office at that time."
How was the legacy of Karl Marx divided? The East inherited the Manifesto, the West inherited the Capital.
What is a 3/8 joke? Three years prison for the listener, eight years prison for the joke-teller.
Why aren't there any bank robberies in the DDR? The robbers would have to wait 14 years for the escape car.
Why do DDR athletes always win Olympic bobsledding events? People in the DDR grow up squished between walls while racing downhill.
The majority of these jokes found in the BND files were collected in the late 1980s, just a few years before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the DDR. The growing number of jokes and widespread usage may have been indicative of the shifting mood and increased political defiance among the broad DDR citizenry towards the late 1980s, especially when the authoritarian DDR regime stood our as being even more reactionary than the Soviet Union under Gorbachev.
It may be an interesting undertaking to similarly analyze political or anti-authoritarian humor in other totalitarian settings, both historically as well as in the present. Does increased telling of jokes about contemporary religious and political leaders in religious or political totalitarian systems, for example, foreshadow their downfall? Humor as an indicator and even a vehicle for bringing about political or ideological change is an exciting area of research that could yield important insights into the psychology of resistance and revolution.
Even though the BND meticulously collected political DDR jokes, it is not clear that these jokes were adequately analyzed and that they provided valuable intelligence. Instead, it appears that they represented a missed opportunity for the BND which was blindsided by the political change in the weeks leading up the resignation of Erich Honecker and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Perhaps the best – albeit unintentional- joke in the BND files is a statement made on September 26th 1989, two weeks before the famous Leipzig mass demonstration against the DDR government and seven weeks before the opening of the Berlin Wall: The BND stated that the protestors belonged to marginalized groups who would have little political impact.
1. Müller, Bodo (2016). Lachen gegen die Ohnmacht: DDR-Witze im Visier der Stasi. Ch. Links Verlag.
2. Hertle, Hans-Hermann and Saure, Hans-Wilhelm (2015). Ausgelacht: DDR-Witze aus den Geheimakten des BND. Ch. Links Verlag.
Monday, October 31, 2016
"(Swifts) feed in the air, they mate in the air, they get nest material in the air.
They can land on nest boxes, branches, or houses, but they can't really land on
the ground."— Researcher Susanne Åkesson
I’ve been airborne since
Augustus layed the footings of the Roman Peace
……—in that alone I flew two hundred years
without alighting once. My forebear’s bodies
so studied the inclinations of drafts
they bequeathed me wings and means
to defy grounded predators (their craft
is stealth and might while mine is
lift and flight)
Angels I’ve known I met
in clouds real as the dust
of parched whirlwinds,
but sweet and wet
free in vapor we rolled and bet
that a universe of soil and stone
may last but that of blood and bone,
ligaments, limbs and breath
will be snapped as short
as the short straw
in the short-sighted lottery
Anicka Yi. 6,070,430K of Digital Spit. 2015
"... The artist’s sculptural installation examines how “flavors”—visual, olfactory, gustatory, auditory—can form sense memories and spur longing, though their cultural and economic value is subject to global consumerism and a politics of taste. For the exhibition, the artist will create a large, illuminated pond containing synthetic and biological matter such as hair gel and the cellulose “leather” that grows from the bacterial cultures in kombucha tea. The gallery is scented with menthol—which for Yi recalls the dish Mint Pond, a plate of molecular gastronomy she once consumed at el Bulli, the famous but now defunct restaurant. The installation also features an intermittent soundtrack playing over speakers, as the exhibition plays on ideas of good and bad taste throughout."