Sunday, December 08, 2013
Over at Philosophy Bites:
Bernard Williams was one of the most brilliant philosophers of his generation. In this episode of the Philosophy Bites, Adrian Moore, who knew him well, discusses his views about ethics.
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John Hibbing makes the case in the Washington's Post's Monkey Cage:
Larry Bartels recently asked what studies of genes and politics — “genopolitics”– add to our “understanding of politics” and suggested the answer is “not much.” Bartels’s question is perfectly legitimate but his answer deserves more considered reflection.
I suppose those of us involved with genopolitics should be heartened by the tone of Bartels’ essay. After all, if the three stages of scientific discovery are “that can’t be true,” “that’s not important,” and “we’ve known that all the time,” it would appear that the genopolitics movement has entered the second stage.
From my perspective, it is unfortunate that Bartels focuses entirely on genopolitics given that much of the new work on biology and politics does not explicitly involve genes. Early (even pre-natal) development, salient environmental experiences, and genetics all interact to mold people’s biological predispositions, which then shape individuals’ responses to given environmental stimuli. Biology, not genetics alone, is the key and it is now possible to measure politically relevant biological predispositions with physiological, endocrinological, cognitive, and neurosciencetechniques.
But why would we want to? Here we come to an important potential contribution of work on biology and politics. Whether the preferred phrase is implicit attitudes,internalized information, motivated social reasoning, antecedent considerations, orpredispositions, much research shows that, though change is possible, people’s politics are quite consistent over the course of a lifetime.
For Azra and Sughra:
Lisa Allardice in The Guardian:
"In many ways I've been writing personal stories all my life," she said in Bailey's. If you are a Munro fan, you will know about the struggling mink and fox farm of her Depression-era childhood; the family's house at the end of the road; the burden of her mother's Parkinson's disease in her early 40s; her scholarship to university; her early marriage to a bookish student, young motherhood and divorce. And you will recognise the watermarks of shame and guilt running through each collection: "I was brought up in a community where there was shame," she says of her Scots-Irish Presbyterian rural upbringing. "We say of some things that they can't be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves," she writes in the last line of Dear Life about her failure to visit her mother during her last illness or even to go to her funeral. "But we do," she continues with characteristic insistence on absolute truthfulness – "we do it all the time."
She says her feelings about her mother are "probably the deepest material of my life. I think when you are growing up you have to pull apart from what your mother wants or needs, you've got to go your own way, and that's what I did. And of course she was in a very vulnerable position, which in a way was also a position of power. So that was always a central thing in my life – that I did pull away from her when she was deeply in need. And yet I still feel I did it for salvation." Her mother's illness meant that Munro took over the housework and care of her younger brother and sister from when she was around nine. "I wanted the house always to be clean. I would bake on Saturdays and I would iron everybody's clothes. It was a way of keeping up respectability. Superficially I was very kind to my mother, but I never allowed myself to enter into her predicament or I would have stayed and become the person who ran the family until she died and then it would have been too late for me to go."
Lee Lawrence in The Wall Street Journal:
Whether recounted in sweet-smelling tea shops or presented in illustrated manuscripts, the "Shahnameh" has entertained and inspired Iranians for more than 1,000 years. Of all their artistic treasures, Abu'l Qasim Firdausi's "Book of Kings" is the one Iranians most prize. They may not have its 50,000 verses memorized, but they are all familiar with this blend of myth and history filled with tales of heroes slaying demons, portents so fierce that kings fear "their liver will split in terror," and maidens—oh, what maidens—"as elegant as cypress" and as pure as smokeless candles. From the start, however, the epic has also repeatedly served as a political tool. When Firdausi was penning his verses in 1007-10, Muslim Arab dynasties had ruled Persia for more than 31/2 centuries. Yet he avoided using Arabic words almost entirely and incorporated no elements of Islamic thought. His motive? To stir national pride and resistance to foreign rule by celebrating Persian culture. In the short run, Firdausi's gambit failed. For some 200 years the epic lay dormant, gaining traction only after the Mongols invaded in 1219. Scholars posit that courtiers advised the new rulers to win their subjects' hearts by commissioning sumptuous, illustrated copies of the "Book of Kings" or, as it is sometimes translated, the "King of Books."
Over the coming centuries, rulers gave manuscripts to dazzle, curry favor or, as happened in 1829, avoid war. Two months after the Russian ambassador was murdered in Tehran, the shah sent a lavish gift package to the czar. Its most precious offerings, says Firuza Abdullaeva, head of the Shahnama Centre at Pembroke College, included Arab horses, gold, an 88.8-carat diamond and a 1651 "Shahnameh" with 192 miniatures. The shah hoped his largesse would so appease the czar that Russia would not only refrain from retaliation but forgive some of the indemnity Iran owed as part of a recent treaty. It worked.
I Had a Revelation
I had a revelation
at the SuperCenter in the mall
I was trying on a polo shirt
of an apple-green shade
and between the two mirrors
I saw my face
and my exposed chest
and it occurred to me that I am ripening
and that soon I will drop like an apple
and will crash onto the warm ground
and a thump will sound
and the earth will not shake
and the sea will not flood
and the sun and moon will not go dark
by Mordechai Geldman
from Halachti Shanim Le-Tzidcha
publisher: Hakibbutz Hameuchad,
Mossad Bialik, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, 2011
translation: 2013, Tsipi Keller
Saturday, December 07, 2013
Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine:
This last weekend, I finally saw 12 Years a Slave. It was the most powerful movie I’ve ever seen in my life, an event so gripping and terrifying that, when I went to bed ten hours later — it was a morning matinee — I lay awake for five hours turning it over in my mind before I could fall asleep. I understand it not merely as the greatest film about slavery ever made, as it has been widely hailed, but a film more broadly about race. Its sublimated themes, as I understand them, identify the core social and political fissures that define the American racial divide to this day. To identify 12 Years a Slave as merely a story about slavery is to miss what makes race the furious and often pathological subtext of American politics in the Obama era.
While its depiction of physical torture has commanded the most attention, I found the psychological torture more disturbing. To make a person a slave requires making them complicit in their own subservience, through rituals of degradation, such as forcing them to clap their hands to mocking songs, dancing for their masters, or being stripped, or compared to animals. The one time Northup tries to escape, he wanders immediately onto a lynch party, which underscores the threat of violence lurking invisibly everywhere. (And the threat of the noose survived in the South a century past the threat of the lash.)
More here. [Thanks to Richard B. Bernstein.]
Bob Herbert in Jacobin:
Even though it had been expected, I was jolted when I got the phone call with the news that after many long decades the defiant fire of resistance had gone out and Nelson Mandela had died. He was the only truly great public figure I’d ever covered, an authentic revolutionary who refused to cower in the face of the most malignant of evils.
I knew that the tributes would be pouring in immediately from around the world, and I also knew that most of them would try to do to Mandela what has been done to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: turn him into a lovable, platitudinous cardboard character whose commitment to peace and willingness to embrace enemies could make everybody feel good. This practice is a deliberate misreading of history guaranteed to miss the point of the man.
The primary significance of Mandela and King was not their willingness to lock arms or hold hands with their enemies. It was their unshakable resolve to do whatever was necessary to bring those enemies to their knees. Their goal was nothing short of freeing their people from the murderous yoke of racial oppression. They were not the sweet, empty, inoffensive personalities of ad agencies or greeting cards or public service messages. Mandela and King were firebrands, liberators, truth-tellers – above all they were warriors. That they weren’t haters doesn’t for a moment minimize the fierceness of their militancy.
Long before Cole Porter observed that birds, bees and educated fleas do it, the French poet Alexis Piron made the same point in his X-rated “Ode to Priapus.” Anthologized in “The Libertine,” the literary historian Michel Delon’s delectable new volume of 18th-century French erotica, it catalogs an array of fauna (“Dromedary, whale, and duck, / Insect, critter, man”) united in their lusty predilection for verbs and nouns too obscene to print in this newspaper, though collectively identifiable by Porter’s own euphemistic pronoun of choice: “Everything does it, reasonable or not.” Reminiscent, too, of the catalog aria from Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” — an enumeration of the skirt-chasing hero’s thousands of conquests by age, rank, nationality and hair color — Piron’s dirty laundry list underscores both the dogged ubiquity of the sex instinct and the inexhaustible variety of its expressions.
Delon’s anthology performs a similar function, displaying the dazzling breadth and depth of the 18th-century obsession with pleasures of the flesh. In the final decades of ancien régime France, an unsentimental, frankly hedonistic brand of thrill-seeking called libertinage — an enterprise in which, according to the playwright Pierre de Marivaux, “one still said to a woman: ‘I love you,’ but this was a polite way of saying: ‘I desire you’ ” — infused every genre from fiction to poetry, theater to philosophy, memoir to popular song (all well represented in short, artfully selected excerpts).
With any luck, 2013 should mark a watershed moment for Korean literature in English translation, thanks to the ten volumes being released by Dalkey Archive. They arrive with the support of the indefatigable LTI Korea, an institution whose existence—and budget—is frequently the cause of teeth-gnashing envy on the part of translators from less well-supported languages. All told, these ten—to be followed by ten more, currently scheduled for release in spring 2014—do an admirable job of showcasing the great range of talent to be found among modern Korean literature, which, in its contemporary iteration, seems to me to be one of the world’s most exciting, dynamic, and consistently impressive. This excellence is thanks, variously, to three things: the relatively stringent gate-keeping role still played by Korean publishers; a longstanding regard for the intellectual and the highbrow; and a traditional focus on short stories that has enabled the Korean novel to develop as a far more fluid, hybrid form than the calcified monoliths that have sometimes played a stultifying role elsewhere.
These ten Dalkey translations also cover a wide range of periods, from the colonial 1930s to the hyper-technologized postmodernity of the 21st century. Though this range makes the books useful in terms of providing a broad sweep for the uninitiated, it does make it somewhat tricky to draw any meaningful connections or comparisons between the works, aside from the obvious one of their being “Korean.”
Nairn didn’t even have a script: he pottered round in his Morris Minor convertible, saw buildings he either loved or loathed, said his piece, usually looking uneasy and unsociable, and moved on. He was a hugely influential figure in alerting the populace to the disasters created by the architect/planner/government-knows-best attitude that prevailed.
The critic Deyan Sudjic sees him as one of four men who shaped the way Britain saw its architecture 30 and 40 years ago, along with the cataloguer Nikolaus Pevsner, the lyrical nostalgist John Betjeman and the Los Angeles-lover Reyner Banham. Pevsner and Betjeman have never gone out of fashion; Banham’s exuberant theories have not weathered well.
Nairn, meanwhile, was the youngest of the four but the first to die – in 1983, aged 52, of cirrhosis. The drink had already done for his career as both a broadcaster and writer. For two decades he had blazed across the scene, first in the architectural press, then in books, finally on TV and in the Sunday newspapers. The creative industries have some tolerance for wayward geniuses but it is always finite, especially when alcohol makes them intolerable, and Nairn had stretched the tolerance beyond its limits. The obeisances were muted when he died, and then he was largely forgotten.
Via Andrew Sullivan, James Hamblin in The Atlantic:
Toxo[plasmosis gondii] has been all over the news in recent years, since it became known that the parasite manipulates people’s behavior. Maybe most interestingly and notoriously, it seems to make men more introverted, suspicious, unattractive to women, and oblivious to the way others see them. Infected women, inversely, have been shown to be more outgoing, trusting, sexually adventurous, attractive to men, and image-conscious. Infected men tend to break more rules than their uninfected peers, and infected women tend to pay them more heed. Infected men and women are 2.5 times more likely to have traffic accidents, more likely to develop schizophrenia, and more likely to engage in self-directed violence.
As these stories made news, though, they lacked a logical explanation. At least 60 million Americans have it, if almost always unknown to them, so understanding this is beyond academic. Thinking about the potential scale of the parasite’s effect on civilization and history can be overwhelming, like imagining the twin brother you never had. If you do have a twin brother in real life, it’s like imagining your triplet. Already have a triplet? You get the idea.
Why, though? Why does Toxo affect human behavior? In The New York Timeslast year, Choire Sicha channeled cats in a memo (“From the desk of: Cats”) that read, “We have trained, by means of this gentle biological warfare, your women to let us into your homes, and your men to stay home and scratch us in our difficult places.”
Who are you going to believe? The cats?
Heather Havrilesky in Bookforum:
When everything fell to pieces for Didion—her husband of thirty-nine years died of a heart attack in 2003, and her daughter died of acute pancreatitis in 2005—her signature foreboding tone needed few adjustments. In The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, Didion describes these losses in the same melodramatic yet detached style that she once used to describe Los Angeles’ pristine blue skies as “the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse,” or to capture the uneasy course of a family holiday in Hawaii, taken “in lieu of filing for divorce.” Didion’s unmatched dexterity as a writer hasn’t changed, but something feels wrong for the first time. Closing her last two books, it’s hard not to implore of the book-jacket photo, “But, Joan, how do you actually feel about all of this?”
Ephron, on the other hand, tells us exactly how she feels every step of the way—whether she’s clashing with her former boss, New York Post owner Dorothy Schiff, or reflecting on cheesecake and pot roast and the futility of making egg rolls that aren’t even as good as cheap Chinese takeout. Ephron does all this in the plainest language, with the least fanfare and the greatest amount of humor she can manage. Here is how she describes, to a reporter from the New Yorker, her mother’s death by cirrhosis, which was aided by an overdose of sleeping pills administered by her father: “When that happened, I don’t know how to say this except . . . it was a moment of almost comic relief. It seemed entirely possible, in character, understandable, and I think we all filed it under Will I Ever Be Able to Use This in Anything.” Likewise, when Ephron discovered that her husband, Carl Bernstein, was cheating on her while she was pregnant with her second child, she translated that nightmare into the surprisingly giddy best-selling novel Heartburn, which subsequently became a film starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.
Jerry Adler in Smithsonian:
Twenty feet under Delancey Street in Manhattan is a trolley terminal that hasn’t been used in 65 years—a ghostly space of cobblestones, abandoned tracks and columns supporting vaulted ceilings. An ideal place for the city to store, say, old filing cabinets. Yet when the architect James Ramsey saw it, he imagined a park with paths, benches and trees. A park that could be used in any weather, because it gets no rain. That it also gets no sunlight is a handicap, but not one he couldn’t overcome. If the 20th century belonged to the skyscraper, argues Daniel Barasch, who is working with Ramsey to build New York’s—and possibly the world’s—first underground park, then the frontier of architecture in the 21st is in the basement.
There are advantages to underground construction, not all of them obvious, says Eduardo de Mulder, a Dutch geologist. Although excavation is expensive and technically challenging in places like the Netherlands with a high water table, underground space is cheaper to maintain—there are no windows to wash, no roof or facade exposed to weather. The energy cost of lighting is more than offset by savings on heating and cooling in the relatively constant below-ground temperature. Cities with harsh winters or blazing summers have been at the forefront of the building-down trend. Underground real estate in crowded Shanghai and Beijing, expanding at around 10 percent a year since the turn of the century, is projected to reach 34 square miles in the capital by 2020. Helsinki’s master plan calls for significantly expanding its tunnels and more than 400 underground facilities, which includes a seawater-cooled data center.
Of course, you give something up to relocate underground, namely, windows. Even de Mulder thinks below-ground living (as distinct from working and shopping) has a large obstacle to overcome in human psychology.
Meeting the Mountains
He crawls to the edge of the foaming creek
He backs up the slab ledge
He puts a finger in the water
He turn to a trapped pool
He puts both hands in the water
Puts one foot in the pool
Drops pebbles in the pool
He slaps the water surface with both hands
He cries out, rises up and stands
Facing toward the torent and the mountains
Raises up both hands and shouts three times!
....................................VI69, Kai at Sawmill Lake
by Gary Snyder
from No Nature
Pantheon Books, 1992
Friday, December 06, 2013
Isaac Chotiner in The Nation:
When Justice Antonin Scalia dissented from the majority opinion in Lawrence v. Texas(2003), the case that struck down the Lone Star State’s anti-sodomy law, he wrote, “If moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct is ‘no legitimate state interest’ for purposes of proscribing that conduct…what justification could there possibly be for denying the benefits of marriage to homosexual couples exercising ‘[t]he liberty protected by the Constitution?’” The more recent decision in United States v. Windsor—which did not legalize gay marriage in all fifty states—allowed Scalia to make another slippery-slope prediction: “By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency, the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.” Scalia’s views are odious, but it’s hard to look at the history of the issue and doubt that he is right: gay marriage is coming to all fifty states, and he can’t do a thing about it.
To John Gray, the British philosopher, political theorist and wide-ranging cultural critic, the optimistic narrative I have sketched is another example of fanciful, misguided optimism. According to Gray, human flourishing is cyclical, and does not inevitably increase over time. Advances are followed by setbacks, and eras of peace by horrific wars. Unprecedented developments in medicine, science and women’s rights in the first half of the twentieth century were succeeded by the worst conflict in human history. Jim Crow came after Reconstruction. And revolutions that initially seemed to offer the promise of more freedom—whether in France or Iran or Egypt today—have led to violence and depravity, if not chaos. One imagines Gray arguing that of course the Western world could see a further entrenchment of gay rights; at the same time, an unknown series of events might lead to the reverse scenario. All we know is that we don’t know.
Daniel Mahoney in The American Conservative:
Much of [Pierre] Manent’s previous work centered on making sense of modernity as a self-conscious “project” for liberating humankind from the West’s dual classical and Christian heritages. This theme finds elegant expression in Metamorphoses of the City. As Manent puts it in a particularly notable passage,
the modern State … rests on the repression, in any case the frustration, of the two most powerful human affects: on the one hand the passionate interest in this world as expressed in active participation in the common thing, and on the other the passionate interest in the eternal and the infinite as expressed in the postulation of another world and participation in a community of faith.
Modernity represses or frustrates “two fundamental movements of the soul” and creates a human order that is both post-civic and post-Christian. Manent is one of the rare thinkers to appreciate that the de-Christianization of the West is part and parcel of the same process as its de-politicization. As he writes near the beginning of his book, “In Europe today, the civic operation is feeble and the religious Word almost inaudible. The two poles between which the Western arc was bent for so long have lost their force.” Manent’s work as a whole is in large part an explanation of how Europeans arrived at this remarkable depletion of civic and religious energies.
Yet paradoxically, the modern project first came to light as a political project, a great endeavor of human thought and human action. One of the tasks of Manent’s book is to locate the project of collective action that is modernity “in the history of European and Western political development.” To understand our late modern condition with its “dearth of political forms,” its utopian quest to leave politics behind altogether, one must return to the pre-modern period, when a great variety of political forms—the city, the empire, and the Church—competed for the loyalties of men.
I am indeed truly humbled to be standing here today to receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. I extend my heartfelt thanks to the Norwegian Nobel Committee for elevating us to the status of a Nobel Peace Prize winner. I would also like to take this opportunity to congratulate my compatriot and fellow laureate, State President F.W. de Klerk, on his receipt of this high honor. Together, we join two distinguished South Africans, the late Chief Albert Luthuli and His Grace Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to whose seminal contributions to the peaceful struggle against the evil system of apartheid you paid well-deserved tribute by awarding them the Nobel Peace Prize.
It will not be presumptuous of us if we also add, among our predecessors, the name of another outstanding Nobel Peace Prize winner, the late African-American statesman and internationalist, the Rev Martin Luther King Jr. He, too, grappled with and died in the effort to make a contribution to the just solution of the same great issues of the day which we have had to face as South Africans. We speak here of the challenge of the dichotomies of war and peace, violence and non-violence, racism and human dignity, oppression and repression and liberty and human rights, poverty and freedom from want. We stand here today as nothing more than a representative of the millions of our people who dared to rise up against a social system whose very essence is war, violence, racism, oppression, repression and the impoverishment of an entire people.
Leopardi regards paganism’s lapses as purer than Christianity’s because at least pagans who act unethically are acting naturally, not contradictorily. At least the Greek and Roman gods were humane, he maintains, in that they felt human passions, even to the point of meddling in our affairs; they patronized, and were influenced by, our art. If you died as a Greek or Roman you took your memories and emotions with you into a sort of exile. This was infinitely preferable to the Christian heaven, which cast life on earth as the exile, from which redemption was a calculation, or a transaction. In the Roman Catholic rite Hell became avoidable via a formalized penance, the sacrament of confession. Each dead person’s soul, however, had to be judged for assignation — this suggested a Purgatory: an amorphous transitional state, until the Medieval Church deemed it a locatable space or place because the fate of dead unbaptized newborns required the accommodation of a Limbo, located adjacent. The next logical provision was time, and though each sin earned its sinner a designated wait, the popes offered swifter passage for a price: indulgences. To Leopardi, each innovation merely distanced humanity farther from the true religion, which wasn’t the one Constantine adopted, or the one Jesus bled for, or even Olympus’s — but “certainty,” “negligence,” unicity.
On the subject of death I’m inclined to turn to my two favourite writers. Vladimir Nabokov beginsSpeak Memory, an autobiography of sorts, with the kind of banality any reader of his knows better than to get cosy with: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’ Given how much respect he had for common sense we shouldn’t be anything but wary. Before the end of the paragraph the old ‘chronophobiac’ (though he claimed it to be ‘a young chronophobiac of his acquaintance’) is trembling at the memory of a home movie of his mother waving from a window just weeks before he was born (‘some mysterious farewell’), and most frightening, ‘the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin’. Then: ‘I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature’. Quite right, and common sense go hang, I say.
Mailer’s novels—there are twelve of them—resist easy groupings. No logic connects them, only the circumstances of their author’s working life. There were four books he conceived of as the first parts of epic series he never got around to completing. There were two he was able to dash off in the course of a summer, Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967) and Tough Guys Don’t Dance (1984)—he considered them “gifts.” Another resulted from a commission from Esquire to write a novel for serialization. And one, Of Women and Their Elegance, indeed amounted to “a quick turn for his creditors,” or in this case the swift fulfillment of an outstanding British publishing contract. His fame allowed him to be something of a literary hustler, writing his first drafts in public, promising interviewers books that would never be written. Novelists are cannier than that today, but few of them are as well paid. Starting in the 1990s, Mailer received $30,000 a month from Random House. With more than a dozen dependents, he still needed another $300,000 yearly on the side (speaking engagements, teleplays, consulting on films) to keep the Mailer machine in motion.
It’s easy to think of Mailer’s career as a case of overcompensation for a youth in Brooklyn as a diligent student and “physical coward.” When he was a freshman at Harvard, he read the books that gave him “the desire to be a major writer”: Studs Lonigan, U.S.A., The Grapes of Wrath. He majored in engineering, but wrote constantly.
I Dreamed I Got A Letter From Ezra Pound
Oh I got jammed among the bodies as
they yelled away the air, enclosed. I slept
naked between to living pains. My chin-
bone plowed the floorboards as my talk,
all teeth, chewed at the salt ankle of
a raving man. I have been sent here
to commit the psychopaths to violence
and have succeeded. I have my disciples.
by Alan Dugan
from New and Selected Poems 1961-1983
Ecco Press, 1983