Stanley Cavell on his life, philosophy, movies, and writing

Via Politica Theory Daily Review, an interview with Stanley Cavell.

[Institute of International Studies] Was it a matter of some controversy when you, a professor of philosophy at Harvard, started writing about films?

[Stanley Cavell] It’s caused me a certain amount of grief, that’s true. Harvard’s rather a proud place, as Berkeley is. At Berkeley, they figure if you’re there, you probably know what you’re doing. But there was quite a lot of curiosity about it, and I like that.

I think film may have been a motive that got me continuing to write. I’ve written much more about film than I had ever expected to. You point to three books of mine. I’m amazed by that. That’s probably a quarter of what I’ve written. I hadn’t expected that. But what’s kept me going was the sense that it was not a question of why I was interested in film, but a question of why, since everyone is interested in film (one supposes throughout the world), why don’t philosophers write about it? That was the question that, perhaps, more than anything, puzzled, bothered, even provoked me.

I don’t say there aren’t any others, but, really, terribly few. In all traditions, in both traditions of philosophy, either on the continent of Europe or by us, terribly few, who take it really seriously. There are, in the Frankfurt School of Philosophy, exceptions to this, but even Walter Benjamin, whom one always mentions, almost obligatory to mention in the study of film, never wrote a critical account of film. He regarded himself as having an aspiration to become the greatest critic of German literature, but he didn’t have any aspiration to become the greatest critic of film. He wrote some remarkable things about it, but not that. Why not that?

So I wanted it to become a normal part of what philosophers did in their work in aesthetics, for example. That hasn’t happened (there are exceptions — it’s happened more).

The utopian fantasy of “Deep Throat”

Laura Kipnis in Slate:

Enter Deep Throat, the goofy 1972 porn classic devoted to the problematics of the female clitoris. And, now from producer Brian Grazer, we have Inside Deep Throat, a documentary on the making of what turns out to be—believe it or not—the most profitable movie in film history. Cultural luminaries from Norman Mailer to Erica Jong are trotted out to explain the film’s social significance; a pantheon of geriatrics and geezers recount their porno glory days shooting the film, none of which actually begins to explain the enduring success of this amateurishly made, frequently silly (bubbling noises on the soundtrack accompany most orgasms), occasionally weird (complicated sex acts involving Coca-Cola sipped through long plastic tubes), 62-minute sexual relic.

More here.

Bush, Iran & the Bomb

Christopher de Bellaigue reviews The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America by Kenneth M. Pollack, in the New York Review of Books:

In 2002, Kenneth Pollack’s book The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq helped to persuade some Americans that, sooner or later (preferably sooner), the US would have to unseat Saddam Hussein in order to safeguard its own security. Pollack put his case more cautiously, and more adroitly, than many Republican proponents of “regime change” in Iraq, but he turned out, like them, to be wrong about the threat that Saddam Hussein posed to the United States. He also failed, like them, to predict the grave repercussions of an invasion. In contrast to many hawkish members of the Bush administration, and a great many newspaper columnists and editors, Pollack had the grace to apologize for his errors. Now that the Bush administration is trying to decide how it should respond to a second hostile Middle Eastern state, Iran, which it suspects of seeking nuclear weapons, Pollack has written another long book, The Persian Puzzle: The Conflict Between Iran and America, advising what should be done.

More here.

Truth, Incompleteness and the Gödelian Way

Edward Rothstein on Rebecca Goldstein’s new book, Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel, in the New York Times:

Relativity. Incompleteness. Uncertainty.

Is there a more powerful modern Trinity? These reigning deities proclaim humanity’s inability to thoroughly explain the world. They have been the touchstones of modernity, their presence an unwelcome burden at first, and later, in the name of postmodernism, welcome company.

Their rule has also been affirmed by their once-sworn enemy: science. Three major discoveries in the 20th century even took on their names. Albert Einstein’s famous Theory (Relativity), Kurt Gödel’s famous Theorem (Incompleteness) and Werner Heisenberg’s famous Principle (Uncertainty) declared that, henceforth, even science would be postmodern.

Or so it has seemed. But as Rebecca Goldstein points out in her elegant new book, “Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel” (Atlas Books; Norton), of these three figures, only Heisenberg might have agreed with this characterization.

More here.

Testing Darwin: Artificial Life

Carl Zimmer in Discover Magazine:

These are digital organisms-strings of commands-akin to computer viruses. Each organism can produce tens of thousands of copies of itself within a matter of minutes. Unlike computer viruses, however, they are made up of digital bits that can mutate in much the same way DNA mutates. A software program called Avida allows researchers to track the birth, life, and death of generation after generation of the digital organisms by scanning columns of numbers that pour down a computer screen like waterfalls.

After more than a decade of development, Avida’s digital organisms are now getting close to fulfilling the definition of biological life. “More and more of the features that biologists have said were necessary for life we can check off,” says Robert Pennock, a philosopher at Michigan State and a member of the Avida team. “Does this, does that, does this. Metabolism? Maybe not quite yet, but getting pretty close.”

One thing the digital organisms do particularly well is evolve.“ Avida is not a simulation of evolution; it is an instance of it,” Pennock says. “All the core parts of the Darwinian process are there. These things replicate, they mutate, they are competing with one another. The very process of natural selection is happening there. If that’s central to the definition of life, then these things count.”

More here. (Thanks to Atiya Khan for pointing this out.)

Origami Mathematics

Margaret Wertheim in the New York Times:

OrigamiDr. Demaine, an assistant professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the leading theoretician in the emerging field of origami mathematics, the formal study of what can be done with a folded sheet of paper. He believes the form he is holding is a hyperbolic parabaloid, a shape well known to mathematicians – or something very close to that – but he wants to be able to prove this conjecture. “It’s not easy to do,” he says.

Dr. Demaine is not a man to be easily defeated by a piece of paper. Over the past few years he has published a series of landmark results about the theory of folded structures, including solutions to the longstanding “single-cut” problem and the “carpenter’s rule” problem. These days he is applying insights he has gleaned from his studies of wrinkling and crinkling and hinging to questions in architecture, robotics and molecular biology.

Origami may seem an unusual route to a prestigious university job, but most things about Dr. Demaine defy academic norms.

More here.

Uganda: The Horror

Paul Rafaelle in Smithsonian Magazine:

Uganda_schoolNight after night, children in northern Uganda hide from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a murderous cult that has been fighting the Ugandan government and terrorizing civilians for nearly two decades. Led by Joseph Kony, a self-styled Christian prophet believed to be in his 40s, the LRA has captured and enslaved more than 20,000 children, most under age 13, U.N. officials say. Kony and his foot soldiers have raped many of the girls—Kony has said he is trying to create a “pure” tribal nation—and brutally forced the boys to serve as guerrilla soldiers. The LRA has killed or tortured children caught trying to escape.

More here. (Thanks to Atiya Khan for bringing this to my attention.)

See also our earlier post about this issue here.

‘A Sense of the Mysterious’: A Lab of One’s Own

Sophie Harrison reviews Alan Lightman’s new collection of essays, A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit, in the New York Times:

LightmanLike Oliver Sacks, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins and countless others, Lightman is that phenomenon mistakenly believed to be rare: a scientist in love with words, one who can write clearly and appealingly about his subject for a lay readership. Science happens to be excellent training for literature; it calls for both narrative ability and a grasp of style, and it sometimes seems as though the ”arts-science divide” simply reflects the humanities’ refusal to believe that anything that originates in a lab could possibly be attractive. But if the gap between the practices has been exaggerated, there does tend to be a divide between the practitioners. In Lightman’s case the divide is more like a canyon: he is both a former astrophysicist and a novelist. About his extraordinary twin career he is modest. ”I was fortunate to make a life in both,” he says, as though he had divided his time between landscape gardening and professional Rollerblading, rather than spending two decades as a research scientist and publishing four well-regarded novels.

In this book’s first and most substantial piece, an autobiographical essay originally published in Daedalus in 2003, Lightman tries to give a sense of how he ended up with a foot in each camp. His discussion tends to description rather than explanation: possibly it hasn’t occurred to him that most people don’t automatically reach for a pencil and start calculating angles when they notice the wake from a boat. He’s too unassuming to realize he’s unusual, and so he never really accounts for his impressive talents. But if he fails to interrogate the why, he is charming on the how.

More here.

Santiago Calatrava Wins Gold

Benjamin Forgey in the Washington Post:

CalatravaIn other words, the 53-year-old Spaniard compellingly deserves the award he received yesterday at the National Building Museum from the American Institute of Architects. Calatrava is the 61st recipient of the institution’s highest honor, its Gold Medal.

Even at his age, Calatrava still deserves to be called a phenom. After all, at 53 most architects with strong personal visions are just beginning to make their presence felt. But Calatrava has accomplished so much in so short a period of time it is hard to comprehend.

He has designed opera houses, museums, stadiums, civic centers, train stations, airports and other types of buildings throughout Europe and in the United States. And bridges. With Calatrava, you cannot forget bridges.

More here.

16 Years Later, Rushdie Fatwa Still Stands

From the BBC News:

_40822239_rushdie203okokIran’s hard-line Revolutionary Guards have declared the death sentence on British author Salman Rushdie is still valid – 16 years after it was issued.

The military organisation, loyal to Iran’s supreme leader, said the order was “irrevocable”, on the eve of the anniversary of the 1989 fatwa.

The order was issued after publication of Mr Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses”, condemned as blasphemous.

More here.

On a happier note, Rushdie’s new book Shalimar the Clown will be published later this year. This is from The Times:

IT IS hard to argue against the idea that, in the public mind, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, issued after the publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988, has overshadowed his work.

What is remarkable about Rushdie, and a testament to the power of art, is that he has never appeared to stand in the darkness of that shadow. By the time of the publication of The Satanic Verses, he had already won the Booker Prize for Midnight’s Children (1981), which in 1993 was judged “the Booker of Bookers” — the best book to have won the prize in its 25-year history.

More here.

Compete last, finish first

“From song contests to figure-skating, the order of contestants biases decisions.”

Emma Marris in Nature:

Wändi Bruine de Bruin, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, noticed that most experiments in decision science (a relatively new, interdisciplinary field that probes the mysteries of how humans make choices) present all of the options to their subjects simultaneously. But in the real world, when choosing an apartment or meeting a stream of suitors, for example, one often sees the alternatives in sequence…

Bruine de Bruin found that scores climbed as the competitions went on, with late-appearing singers and skaters getting higher marks on average.

More here.

Freedom, From Want

James Traub in the New York Times Magazine:

At a panel in Davos, someone asked former President Bill Clinton why Washington seemed so impervious to demands to increase aid. ”Because nobody will ever get beat for Congress or president for not doing it,” Clinton shot back. That may have sounded too deflating, for Clinton quickly added that in the U.S., too, ”an effective political constituency” over aid had begun to form. Conservative church groups, for example, backed President Bush’s decision in 2003 to spend $15 billion on international AIDS programs over three years. Nevertheless, Americans appear disengaged on the development agenda, just as Europeans appear to us to be disengaged on the terrorism agenda. Each side seems governed by a reciprocal parochialism.

More here.

Complicated Iran

My friend and colleague J.M. Tyree has posted a nice reference to an essay by Steven Levine and myself a few years ago about the neo-cons. (I’m getting to Iran I promise). Since then, I’ve been amazed by two things. One is the extent to which the neo-cons have shown that their commitment to American Exceptionalism subverts and destroys essentially every platitude about freedom or democracy they utter (The CPA, Abu Graib, The ICC, etc.). The second is the extent to which the traditional Left has become almost completely irrelevant to discussions about freedom and democracy around the world (The Orange Revolution, The Iraqi Purple Finger, etc.). Into that gap a new political matrix will spring, I think, and the coming years will begin to show us what it looks like.

And here’s where Iran comes in. Steven and I posited in the afore-mentioned piece that the geo-strategic vision of most neo-cons has long seen Iran as the true linchpin of all things Middle Eastern (which is probably true). Thus, it was troubling to read Seymour Hersh’s recent article about just how ham-fisted the neo-cons continue to be in imagining (fantasizing) about how American interest and virtue are supposed to coincide with respect to Iran.

All the better, then, that we continue to get smarter, richer, and more complicated pictures of what is happening inside Iran these days (which is not to apologize for or appease what continues to be a despicable and repressive regime). Christopher de Bellaigue’s new book “In the Rose Garden of Martyrs,” seems like quite a good read, especially as it is described in Pico Ayer’s review.

In the prosperous northern Tehran suburb of Elahiyeh, ladies who lunch visit a French-trained psychologist downtown (to talk of their adulteries, no doubt), while their teenage daughters (”matchsticks marinated in Chanel,” in Christopher de Bellaigue’s pungent words) get nose jobs, hang around the pizza parlor and perform oral sex on their boyfriends so they’ll still technically be virgins when married off to their first cousins. Occasionally the ”morals police” stop by in Land Cruisers to check handbags for condoms, but Elahiyeh honors the age-old Iranian principle of veiled surfaces and highly embroidered interiors. Indeed, when de Bellaigue and his Iranian wife invite one of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s former hoodlums to lunch — an Indian meal — the man and his wife marvel over the apartment’s interior design.

This is the Iran of only a very, very few, of course, and de Bellaigue devotes only two dashing pages to it in his impenitently stylish and arresting debut book, ”In the Rose Garden of the Martyrs.” Yet it speaks for his method of pitching us into the very heart and streets of the Iranian revolution today, its troubled consciences, and giving us so jolting a sense of ordinary lives and human losses that we can no longer see the country in simplistic, public-policy terms of ”conservatives versus reformists.” A young British journalist who writes for The Economist, de Bellaigue aims to complicate from within a world that too many of us associate only with turbaned ayatollahs and slogans of ”Death to America.” That former hoodlum, for example, introduced to us as Mr. Zarif, laid mines in the war against Iraq at 15, joined a seminary at 17 and now, playing around with screenwriting, can barely recognize the places where he sent people to their deaths. Civil wars, de Bellaigue is agile enough to see, often take place invisibly.

Forgotten Prophet of Genetics

Robert Olby reviews The Man Who Invented the Chromosome: A Life of Cyril Darlington by Oren S. Harman, in American Scientist:

Cyril Darlington was an impressive figure: Well over six feet tall with a frame to match his height, handsome and debonair, a fresh rose in his jacket lapel, Oxford’s Sherardian Professor of Botany looked the part. Although he was, in his day, one of the foremost cytologists in the world, he was also an enthusiastic student of history and a devoted gardener. He learned to garden as a child and subsequently expressed this enthusiasm in the genetic garden he created at the University of Oxford and in the historic Botanic Garden there; he also planned two arboreta (both achieved). His passion to account for history in genetic terms led him to write a mammoth book, The Evolution of Man and Society (1969).

The son of a Lancashire schoolmaster, Darlington graduated from Wye College with a London University degree and found unpaid work at the John Innes Horticultural Institute, which was directed at that time by William Bateson, an “apostle” of Mendelism. Sixteen years later Darlington became director. By the time he left in 1953 (after 30 years) to assume the chair of botany at Oxford, he had built for himself and the institute an international reputation.

More here.

Healthier in lungs, poorer in spirit

George Blecher in Spiked:

BurmasmokingpeopleBut cigarette smoking wasn’t only about good and bad; it was also about the awareness of death. (Clean-air fanatics might go much further and insist that smoking isn’t about death but murder and suicide. That feels a little overwrought to me.) Though I gave it up years ago, I still miss it, and certainly don’t hate those who continue to smoke. Partly thumbing one’s nose at death, partly flirting with it, part defiance, part acceptance – each breath of smoke was all of these, and when we smoked together in bars and clubs, at parties or at home, the consciousness of our mortality may even have coaxed us into making the most of the limited time that we knew we had.

More here.