John Allen Paulos in his excellent Who’s Counting column at ABC News:
Thinking about the genesis and consequences of the Iraq War and the recently passed Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that authorizes wholesale wiretapping, I recalled a relevant party game I once wrote about. The game, described by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in his book “Consciousness Explained,” is a variant of the familiar childhood game requiring that one try to determine by means of Yes or No questions a secretly chosen number between one and one million.
In Dennett’s more interesting and suggestive game, one person, the subject, is selected from a group of people at a party and asked to leave the room. He is told that in his absence one of the other partygoers will relate a recent dream to the other party attendees. The person selected then returns to the party and, through a sequence of Yes or No questions about the dream, attempts to accomplish two things: reconstruct the dream and identify whose dream it was.
The punch line is that no one has related any dream. The individual partygoers are instructed to respond either Yes or No to the subject’s questions according to some completely arbitrary rule. Any rule will do, however, and may be supplemented by a non-contradiction clause so that no answer directly contradicts an earlier one. The Yes or No requirement can be loosened as well to allow for vagueness and evasion.
The result is that the subject, impelled by his own obsessions, often constructs an outlandish and obscene dream in response to the random answers he elicits.
And there’s Abbas Südtirol raking grass
hanging between cumulus
with a stupendous mountain at his back
smiling, windblown hair, as if
it can’t get no better
He’ll get no argument from
From Philosophy Now, reprinted over at richarddawkins.net:
It came as a pleasant surprise to me when I learned – around age twelve or thirteen – that not all the delicious and unspeakable thoughts of my childhood had to be kept private. Some of them were called ‘philosophy’, and there were legitimate, smart people who discussed these fascinating topics in public. While less immediately exciting than some of the other, still unspeakable, topics of my private musings, they were attention-riveting, and they had an aura of secret knowledge. Maybe I was a philosopher. That’s what the counselors at Camp Mowglis in New Hampshire suggested, and it seemed that I might be good at it.
My family didn’t discourage the idea. My mother and father were both the children of doctors, and both had chosen the humanities. My mother, an English major at Carleton College in Minnesota, went on for a Masters in English from the University of Minnesota, before deciding that she simply had to get out of Minnesota and see the world. Never having been out the Midwest, and bereft of any foreign languages, she took a job teaching English at the American Community School in Beirut. There she met my father, Daniel C. Dennett Jr, working on his PhD in Islamic history at Harvard while teaching at the American University of Beirut. His father, the first Daniel C. Dennett, was a classic small town general practitioner in Winchester, Massachusetts, the suburb of Boston where I spent most of my childhood. So yes, I am Daniel C. Dennett III; but since childhood I’ve disliked the Roman numerals, and so I chose to court confusion among librarians (how can DCD Jr be the father of DCD?) instead of acquiescing in my qualifier.
My father’s academic career got off to a fine start, with an oft-reprinted essay, ‘Pirenne and Muhammed’, which I was thrilled to find on the syllabus of a history course I took as an undergraduate. His first job was at Clark University. When World War II came along, he put his intimate knowledge of the Middle East to use as a secret agent in the OSS, stationed in Beirut. He was killed on a mission, in an airplane crash in Ethiopia in 1947, when I was five. So my mother and two sisters and I moved from Beirut to Winchester, where I grew up in the shadow of everybody’s memories of a quite legendary father. In my youth some of my friends were the sons of eminent or even famous professors at Harvard or MIT, and I saw the toll it took on them as they strove to be worthy of their fathers’ attention.
Peter Marcuse in In These Times:
The protests of 1968 — symbolically, the occupation of the Columbia University buildings, the student uprisings in Paris and the street protests in Berlin — are now in danger of being denigrated as the actions of spoiled, confused, if not neurotic, students and rebellious youth who were “finding” themselves in making trivial demands of their uncomprehending and benevolent societies.
An April 23 op-ed by Paul Auster in the New York Times calls 1968 “the year of the crazies.” Another op-ed, by Jean-Claude Guillebaud, on May 24, calls the protesters “useful idiots,” and the current attention on them a “frenzy of nostalgia.”
In the process, the serious changes brought about by the events of ‘68, the substance of the protests, the reasons for the discontent, and the desire for change, are either ignored or superciliously dismissed as childish daydreams.
Even Slavoj Žižek, in the July issue of In These Times, quotes with approval French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s comment about the students of ‘68: “As revolutionaries, you are hysterics who demand a new master. You will get one.”
That that much was, in fact, achieved is beyond doubt.
The Columbia protests stopped both military research at the university and the construction of a gym in a park that was seen by Harlem and its black residents as an insult by a rich, dominant institution.
Internationally, the ‘68 protests changed the character of post-war politics, helped end the Vietnam War, and legitimized concerns about peace, welfare and democracy beyond the prevailing mainstream consensus.
Evgeny Morozov in openDemocracy (or openDemokratia):
One of the first cartoons to travel across the Russian blogosphere on the day of Solzhenitsyn’s death depicts the famed writer swirling in a dirty Soviet toilet. Next to him hangs a roll of toilet paper made of US dollars. [I’m not putting in the cartoon–RV.] “The first circle” reads the caption, alluding to his eponymous novel.
Anti-Solzhenitsyn comments accompany posts featuring the cartoon, click here for Russian: “Thanks all! We’ve done it: almost all the time our opinion’s been getting more clicks than the chorus of tearful praise-mongering for Solzhenitsyn organised by the remaining liberals and hard-core Putinists..When a vicious dog dies, the whole street rejoices – isn’t that what you’d expect?)”
The cartoon and the Solzhenitsyn-bashing that followed it easily became one of the most discussed posts on the Russian Internet that day; pro-Solzhenitsyn bloggers launched their own campaign to clear his name of accusations. Thousands of comments followed, in what may seem like a great exercise in online deliberation.
Under closer scrutiny, however, most of those comments reveal a nation that is still at pains to define itself. As Russians ponder the complex fate of their controversial writer-and their long history of authoritarianism, they still prefer to oversimplify their past rather than acknowledge it in full.
Did Solzhenitsyn collaborate with the authorities? Did he spy on his camp-mates? Was he on CIA’s payroll? Did he sympathize with the Nazis? Is he to blame for the fall of the Soviet system? Did he have any moral right to tell the country what to do, given his own possibly tainted experience in the camps?
Those are all complex questions in need of well-researched and well-considered answers; the thousands of comments on Russian blogs produced very few satisfactory candidates. But not because the commentators haven’t tried – they did – but simply because online polemics rarely produce new factual evidence.
In the Economist (via bookforum):
Corey Fincher, of the University of New Mexico, has a different hypothesis for the origin of religious diversity. He thinks not that religions are like disease but that they are responses to disease—or, rather, to the threat of disease. If he is right, then people who believe that their religion protects them from harm may be correct, although the protection is of a different sort from the supernatural one they perceive.
Mr Fincher is not arguing that disease-protection is religion’s main function. Biologists have different hypotheses for that. Not all follow Dr Dawkins in thinking it pathological. Some see it either as a way of promoting group solidarity in a hostile world, or as an accidental consequence of the predisposition to such solidarity. This solidarity-promotion is one of Mr Fincher’s starting points. The other is that bacteria, viruses and other parasites are powerful drivers of evolution. Many biologists think that sex, for example, is a response to parasitism. The continual mixing of genes that it promotes means that at least some offspring of any pair of parents are likely to be immune to a given disease.
Mr Fincher and his colleague Randy Thornhill wondered if disease might be driving important aspects of human social behaviour, too. Their hypothesis is that in places where disease is rampant, it behoves groups not to mix with one another more than is strictly necessary, in order to reduce the risk of contagion. They therefore predict that patterns of behaviour which promote group exclusivity will be stronger in disease-ridden areas. Since religious differences are certainly in that category, they specifically predict that the number of different religions in a place will vary with the disease load. Which is, as they report in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, the case.
If Tom Stoppard were to update his Russian trilogy to take in the sweep of the 20th century, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn would have to take centre stage. Soldier, physicist, dissident, religious thinker, historian, novelist, playwright, poet, gulag prisoner and unwilling exile, Solzhenitsyn experienced the whole Russian gamut. His lifespan alone—December 1918 to August 2008—seems to define a Russian century, a rough hundred years of agony and muddle, defeat and hope. The Russian intellectual scene of which Solzhenitsyn was the iconic figure during his lifetime is defined by an arrogant hope for a grand Russian future. It never goes away: you can force it underground, harness it to party discipline, even banish it abroad, and still it reappears, holding on to the view that Russian history, people and destiny are like some special field of philosophy in which the hardest problems are still not solved, but will be one day—and then the world will see.
more from Prospect Magazine here.
Clearly we’re not dancing the way we did even five years ago. What happened?
It’s not that dancing is vanishing. In one sense, it is more popular than ever. On television, this year there have been no fewer than four dance shows: “Dancing with the Stars,” “So You Think You Can Dance,” “America’s Best Dance Crew,” and “Step It Up & Dance.” On the Internet, YouTube’s No. 1 “top favorite” video of all time is the goofy “Evolution of Dance.”
But it’s no coincidence that as dancing explodes in popularity on TV, it’s harder to find at bars and the average party. What’s popular on these shows and clips isn’t dancing – it’s second-hand dancing. These people are dancing so we don’t have to.
more from The Boston Globe here.
From First Principles:
Solzhenitsyn’s June 8, 1978, commencement address at Harvard was the most controversial and commented upon public speech he delivered during his twenty-year exile in the West. His remarks on that occasion challenged many of the pieties that were dear to the contemporary intellectual clerisy. Like Tocqueville, Solzhenitsyn insisted that he spoke as a “friend, not as an adversary,” of American democracy. He defended liberty under God and the law even as he criticized soulless legalism and lamented the growing “tilt of freedom toward evil” in the contemporary world. Far from defending political authoritarianism, as his critics sometimes claimed, Solzhenitsyn recommended “freely accepted and serene self-restraint” as the wisest and most prudent course for both individuals and societies. At the conclusion of his searching diagnosis of the modern crisis, Solzhenitsyn announced that the world had reached a “major watershed in history,” one that required nothing less than an ascent to a new “anthropological stage” that would reconcile the legitimate claims of the human soul and the physical nature of man.
Solzhenitsyn’s first tentative effort to sketch a morally serious and politically responsible “postmodernism” obviously has nothing in common with the nihilist currents that typically claim that name. In fact, Solzhenitsyn pointed out how vulnerable liberal humanism is to cooptation by more consistent and radical currents of modern thought. Moderate liberalism gave way to radicalism, radicalism to socialism, and socialism soon found itself powerless before communism’s claim to embody the “full logic of materialistic development.” For Solzhenitsyn, the inherent vulnerability of humanism to “the current which is farthest to the Left” goes some way toward explaining the shameful indulgence of many intellectuals to communism in the twentieth century.
The full text of this remarkable address which my dear friend Sara Suleri and I discussed at length only a week ago is here.
Natalie Angier in The New York Times:
Here is a fun and easy experiment that Rachel Herz of Brown University suggests you try at home, but only if you promise to eat your vegetables first, floss afterward, and are not at risk of a diabetic coma. Buy a bag of assorted jelly beans of sufficiently high quality to qualify, however oxymoronically, as “gourmet.” Then, sample all the flavors in the bag systematically until you are sure you appreciate just how distinctive each one is, because expertise is important and you may never get another excuse this good. Now for the meat of our matter: pinch your nostrils shut and do the sampling routine again. Notice the differences? That’s right — now there are none. Every bean still tastes sweet, but absent a sense of smell you might as well be eating sugared pencil erasers. And if in midchew you unbind your nose, what then? At once the candy’s candid charms return, and you can tell your orange sherbet from a buttered popcorn.
We’ve all heard about the mysterious powers of smell and its importance in love, friendship and food. Yet a simple game like What’s My Bean, and our consistent surprise at the impact of shutting down our smell circuits, shows that we don’t really grasp just how deep the nose goes. At the International Symposium on Olfaction and Taste held in San Francisco late last month, Dr. Herz and other researchers discussed the many ways our sense of smell stands alone. Olfaction is an ancient sense, the key by which our earliest forebears learned to approach or slink off. Yet the right aroma can evoke such vivid, whole body sensations that we feel life’s permanent newness, the grounding of now.
3QD columnists are taking a break this week. We’ll be back next week. I myself have been making hay at the Seiser Alm in the Südtirol at an altitude of eight thousand feet to help a farmer friend out. (And to tell the full truth, also to escape the Pope who is also taking a break in my small town of Brixen, where he is staying for two weeks, creating all kinds of chaos.) The surroundings are gorgeous to the point of being a bit surreal.
The grass on the alm is cut by a big mower and then allowed to dry into hay for a few days, which is then raked by people into rows (there is a machine for that also, but it was broken and the hay needed to be collected), which are picked up by a contraption towed by a tractor:
This contraption presses the hay into something like 800 lb bales, wraps them in a plastic net, and lays them like eggs onto the alm:
The local workers:
And the imported brown worker:
Have a great week!
Michael Rippens. Seven Seconds in Central Park. 2003.
Spray enamel on plexiglass.
More here and here.
Morris Dickstein in bookforum:
The political novel has always been an odd hybrid of fact and fiction. One of the genre’s originators, Benjamin Disraeli, the author of Coningsby (1844), was also one of the few writers who had genuine inside knowledge of the political world. But political novels usually deal with more than the intrigues of cabinet ministers and young men on the make. The boundaries of this genre are very hard to delimit. For some critics, the political novel is precisely the kind of book Disraeli, Trollope, and Henry Adams passed on to a few modern writers like Gore Vidal in Washington, D.C., Burr, Lincoln, and 1876: a novel focused, often satirically, sometimes historically, on the machinations of the political class—the men, usually men, with their hands on the levers of power. At the other extreme, postmodern theorists like Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious (1981) insist that the genre has no meaning, since “everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.” To suggest that some works are political while others are not, Jameson says, is “a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life.”
Jameson’s point raises but also evades the issue that matters most to political fiction, the relation between private and public experience. The credo of many social and political novels was laid down by George Eliot in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), when she remarked that “there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life.” Exploring that link is the sine qua non of good social and political fiction, a mission at once desirable and hard to bring off. American writers have found the challenge particularly elusive, at times almost insuperable. For novelists from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa, politics is part of the air they breathe, but the climate in North America must be very different. Scarcely any of our writers made the cut in Irving Howe’s seminal 1957 study Politics and the Novel, still the best book on the subject. Perhaps the blankets of oppression that smothered the political life of Czarist Russia, Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, and South and Central America sharpened the political imagination of their writers, whether they lived in hope or in exile. But political fiction has also flourished in England, from Trollope’s great Palliser novels and Conrad’s near-hallucinatory tales of terrorism to the postwar novels of C. P. Snow and the multicultural flowering of literature by migrants from far-flung corners of the former empire.
If American novelists have rarely gone down this road with real success, it has certainly not been for want of trying or want of wanting.
Spengler in the Asia Times:
Why do nations and peoples exist, and why do particular nations exist in particular forms? Under the principle of national self-determination, more sovereign nations raised their flags during the past century than at any time in history. Many of them will not survive the next century. The old national states defined by language and ethnicity are in steep decline. Each of the world’s three most populous countries, China, India, and the United States, defies conventional definition in its own way.
Cookie-cutter political science has failed ignominiously, for example, the American conceit that what works in Baltimore or Buffalo also should work in Basra or Beijing. Political science needs a new start, and that is what the distinguished philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain offers in her latest book.
Our concept of the state, as well as the self, begins with our understanding of God, she contends. Absolutism and tyranny emulate a tyrannical God who rules by whim, subject to no law of nature save his own caprice. The constitutional state of self-imposed limits, by contrast, arose from the theology of love and reason taught by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas. Others, notably Michael Novak, have made similar arguments, but Elsthain hacks much deeper at the root of the problem, namely the troubled notion of natural sovereignty. Her research surprises and disturbs, pointing to conclusions more radical than she is willing to draw.
Sovereignty, the one political idea the modern world takes for granted, was not the brainchild of the Enlightenment, but the conceptual bastard of medieval apologists for absolute papal power, Elsthain argues.
An interview with Gao Xingjian in the Guardian:
Aged 68, Gao lives in Paris’s 2nd arrondissement with Céline Yang, a novelist who left China after 1989. Gao, who also writes in French, has translated and directed plays in his adopted language, and was awarded the Légion d’honneur in 2000. He sees himself as a “fragile man who has managed not to be crushed by authority and to speak to the world in his own voice”. As he pointed out recently at Warwick University, on a rare visit to Britain, most of his life’s work has been done since leaving China. While the Swedish academy saw him as a “perspicacious sceptic” possessed of “bitter insights”, for Ma, Gao is a “tranquil yet engaged presence; a very composed, mild-mannered man, but a passionate reader and artist”. Speaking in French, smiling readily though he seems frail, Gao recalls the Nobel prize as a “whirlwind. I was carried away, and it was difficult to organise my life. Very soon after, I fell ill, and had two big heart operations one after the other. It was because of the fatigue and pressure. I became an ornament on the political scene.”
The official Chinese reaction to the Nobel was predictably hostile. The head of the Chinese Writers’ Association said the prize had been “used for political purposes and thus has lost its authority”. According to Ma, that body had “campaigned for years for the Nobel prize to be awarded to one of their state-sanctioned writers, so they were furious when it went to a political exile”. Yet Gao has also been attacked by dissidents – notably for his play Escape (1989), written within months of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the ostensible trigger for all his work being banned in China. Its three characters take refuge from the army crackdown in a warehouse, amid sexual tensions and cynicism about self-proclaimed heroes. “Exiled writers said my play blackened the democracy movement,” Gao says. “Even today, those attacks continue.” In Ma’s view, “It was criticised by the pro-democracy activists because it failed to show the students in a heroic light.”
According to Gao, a writer’s only responsibility is “to the language he writes in”. Determined to rid himself of others’ ideologies, to live, as he says, “without isms”, he advocates a “cold literature”, detached from both political agendas and consumerist pressures, whose purpose is to bear witness.