This fall we are on a roll and making various improvements at 3QD. As we proceed with some planned changes, it would be nice if we knew a little more about our current readers. Will you help us by taking a 5-minute survey?
As you all know, not that long ago Steven Pinker wrote a piece defending “scientism” as a general approach to intellectual matters, including those usually thought to be beyond the scope of science (e.g. the humanities). Leon Wieseltier responded, restating the standard view that the humanities are indeed beyond the scope of science, except around the edges, so to speak, and reaffirming the common use of “scientism” as a term of abuse, referring for example to a tendency to regard the method of the natural sciences as setting the standard for human inquiry generally, a view Wieseltier considers arrogant.
I'm going to try not to get into the back and forth of this today, as my interest is in Daniel Dennett's brief, testy defense of Pinker against Wieseltier in HuffPo a few weeks ago (and besides, I'm still reading the same book of Dennett's I wrote about last time). Dennett is usually secure enough in his views to avoid the scorched-earth rhetoric of (for example) the other “new atheists”, but Wieseltier seems to have gotten his goat this time. I myself didn't see that much wrong with Wieseltier's essay. Most of the sentences were true, for example, but on the other hand a bunch of true sentences need not a good essay make. After all, there were a lot of true sentences in Pinker's essay too.
Dennett takes offense at what he sees as Wieseltier's blunt, ignorant rejection of Pinker's sincere offer of a friendly hand across the disciplinary divide. Thus he tells us that “Name-calling and sarcasm are typically the last refuge of somebody who can't think of anything else to say to fend off a challenge he doesn't understand and can't abide.” Indeed, in Intuition Pumps Dennett lists and endorses (psychologist Anatol) Rapoport's Rules of successful criticism. I really like Dennett's version:
1) You should attempt to re-express your target's position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says “Thanks, I wish I'd thought of putting it that way”.
2) You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3) You should mention anything you learned from your target.
4) Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Dennett admits to some difficulty in following these rules himself, even as in his piece he scolds Wieseltier for his lamentable lack of charity. Nor will I follow them here, as I wouldn't be able to finish (2) or (3), let alone (1) in this short space. But I certainly was struck by Dennett's claim, a mere seven sentences after the bit about “name-calling,” that
Postmodernism, the school of “thought” that proclaimed “There are no truths, only interpretations” has largely played itself out in absurdity, but it has left behind a generation of academics in the humanities disabled by their distrust of the very idea of truth and their disrespect for evidence, settling for “conversations” in which nobody is wrong and nothing can be confirmed, only asserted with whatever style you can muster.
Rachel Laudan is the prize-winning author ofThe Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage,and a co-editor of theOxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. In this interview, Rachel and I talk about her new book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, and her transition from historian and philosopher of science to historian of food.
Elatia Harris: I can remember when there was no such academic discipline as food history, Rachel. What was involved in getting there from being a historian of science and technology?
Rachel Laudan: I can remember when there was no such discipline as history of science! In fact, moving to history of food was a breeze. After all, the making of food from plant and animal raw materials is one of our oldest technologies, quite likely the oldest, and it continues to be one of the most important. The astonishing transformations that occur when, for example, a grain becomes bread or beer, or (later) perishable sugar cane juice becomes seemingly-eternal sugar have always intrigued thinkers from the earliest philosophers to the alchemists to modern chemists. And the making of cuisines is shaped by philosophical ideas about the state, about virtue, and about growth, life, and death.
A lot of food writing is about how we feel about food, particularly about the good feelings that food induces. I'm more interested in how we think about food. In fact, I put culinary philosophy at the center of my book. Our culinary philosophy is the bridge between food and culture, between what we eat and how we relate to the natural world, including our bodies, to the social world, and to the gods, or to morality.
Is German humor an oxymoron? Someone said that it was. It might have been Jay Leno, it might have been someone else. It could have been many people, all clutching a cliché as worn out as an old shoe, and one that never really corresponded to reality. That Germans have humor also interferes with our other clichés, most of them emanating from our own World War II movies, which indoctrinated us to the ‘Achtung‘ school of German intransigence.
The cliché that refuses to die was reinforced by a 2011 poll, which voted Germany the most unfunny country in the world. (With the British coming in 4th place and US in 5th, one has to wonder who was voting.)
Maybe it’s time to take another look. The video of a spontaneous combustion of laughter on a subway in Berlin went viral in 2011, racking up 3 million viewers who simply had to see it to believe it.
Germans like to laugh. They like to laugh so much that humor, a Kleinkunst (minor art) once dubbed the Tenth Muse, is more than just a cottage industry. Contrary to the accepted wisdom, their humor did not emigrate in 1933 even though many of its better exemplars did leave the country or were later arrested and murdered by the Nazis. One of those who stayed behind was the legendary Karl Valentin, a Bavarian comic whose nightly show began with music by Mendelssohn. One night during the Third Reich, he was visited by the SS, who told him he would have to stop playing that music because Mendelssohn was Jewish. Valentin answered: ‘Then you’ll have to turn off the lights, Edison was Jewish.’ So much for Achtung.
My introduction to Valentin was fortuitous. I wanted to hear Walter Schmidinger reading from the works of Thomas Bernhard at the Salzburg Festival. Sometime after I bought the ticket, Thomas Bernhard died. In his will he forbade the public performance of his works in his native Austria. A letter informed me that Schmidinger would be unable to read Bernhard but would read from the works of Karl Valentin. Karl who? I fully intended to return the ticket, but didn’t. On the evening in question, I debated whether or not to attend. My comprehension of German was nascent at the time, and although I knew Bernhard’s works in translation, I would probably not be able to understand much of this other guy.
So Vladimir Putin takes Obama to task for referring to America as the exceptional nation.
Well, he's wrong. We ARE exceptional. Here are the ways in which we are more exceptional than any other nation on earth:
1. We like to kill people. Especially helpless women and children. Since the end of WW2, we've slaughtered more folks in more wars than any other nation on earth. Not by the hundreds. Not by the thousands. But by the millions. No nation comes close to America when it comes to mass murder. No other nation is more evil than we are. And then we call our troops heroes, when they're nothing but hired killers.
2. Our former leaders — George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld et al — can't leave the country to travel overseas because they will get arrested as war criminals. How's that for exceptional?
3. We don't just specialize in killing foreigners. We like killing ourselves as well. Americans kill more Americans than any other nation on earth kill each other. It's like a continuation of the Civil War.
4. We are more cruel to animals than any other nation on earth. On our factory farms, we raise cattle and hogs and chickens so caged in, they can't move. Unlike an advanced country like Sweden, where they have laws protecting animal rights, we are the world's biggest sadists in our treatment of animals. (BTW, if you want to find some nations that are truly exceptional in a good sense, look no further than the Nordic nations of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland: they have the most generous and robust social welfare safety nets, with high taxes, yet they are the most economically competitive nations on earth, with successful world-wide brands like Ikea, Lego, Volvo, Nokia, Absolut Vodka, etc. The tiny nation of Denmark leads the world in wind power technology, generating 20% of its energy from wind. And these three countries spend proportionately more on foreign aid and helping other nations than any other. When it comes to exceptionalism, America is at least a century behind Scandinavia.)
5. With 5% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners — more than Russia proportionately had under Communism, or South Africa under apartheid. We also spy on our citizens more than any other country. We're a complete police state. Witness our police suppression of the Black Panthers and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Here, down in the valley, when the news broke, people were, as was to be expected, up in arms. A contract had been awarded to XNexst. It was for a system for monitoring citizens and to create a unified registry system for the identification and targeting of deviants: threats to society—those who do not belong to civil groups –those who refuse to belong to communities–those-who refuse to get jobs like the rest of us—those who refuse to play by the norms that were so clearly laid out for our collective good—you know— groups representing low proclivity to consume. These deviants, of course, are also those who do not belong to the clearly defined civil groups and minorities defined around allergies and who do not perform well on our happiness indexes—The system was meant to identify these deviants and dispose of them. Everyone must belong to a minority. And everyone must demonstrate that they are happy. Otherwise, the system cannot assign a value to them.
We were outraged. The proposal was to monitor all internet activity, perform a deviant survey based on deviant activities score card and then based on the score— link each of the eyes on screen or EoS and the deviant score to a national identification card for easy targeting and for initiating logging out and cancelation. Disposal was to be done through mobile disposal units—much like the garbage trucks that prowl through cities every night. In this case—after the deviating EoSs log out—yes—die as a result of a deep sensation of depression which would cause either a stroke or a hemorrhage—or both, after this, disposal teams would move in—unlock the codes on the computerized lock systems on buildings apartment doors, and houses—since now every single home conforms to code and this building standard —the disposal teams would pick up the bodies and throw them into the garbage truck to be taken to a disposal site for instant incineration.
Our people were horrified when this news broke. No attention to detail at all! In comparison, our entire proposal was so much better! Much more effective and cost efficient. Of course it was. We were the ones who had designed and implemented the happiness index monitoring system. Hello! An efficient measure of success as linked to each bank account: Happiness. So of course just as elegantly and relevantly, for this, for our proposal for XNexst we had proposed a much more sure fire way of logging out—without any risk of failure—It had a two-step approach if step one which resembled XNexst's approach failed, step two would kick in—in this phase an added doze of subliminal messaging would persuade the EoS to click on the fire arm and body bag facsimile option and then walk out of their dwellings to a point of pick up, PoP. Then on the sighting of the approaching disposal truck the EoS would get into the body bag and shoot himself.
Plus our proposal used garbage trucks which had built in functions for separating bones, blood and flesh. We had pilot tested the process in several locations when the opportunity had presented itself. And another one was coming up. Soft drinks are not the only product testing that follow our troops! In our proposal our system not only took the waste product and immediately disposed of it by incineration, creating fuel for heating while the rest of the waste product was turned to compost for organic farms. In addition to contributing to a green economy we had also noted in our proposal that our firm was one hundred percent minority owned and minority run. Our happiness index was well off the charts: in the top one percent of the top quintile. It was an air tight case. So for this to have gone to someone else—was a travesty. We are planning a strong protest. Such injustice has to be resisted.
I live surrounded by retirees in rural Oklahoma. They are spry. They own arsenals of gardening equipment: lawnmower-tractor hybrids that grind through the fibrous local flora with cruel efficiency; they wield wicked contraptions, whirling motorized blades that allow withered men to sculpt hedges into forms of sublime and delectable complexity. Their lawns are soft to touch and inviting and deep emerald green. They host garden parties. They know the mysteries of mulch and sod, their vegetables bulge with vitality and nutritious color, their compost heaps are not heaps at all, they are tarry and primordial, oozing and glowing with health. Their flowers glow. Their insects are harmless flutterers, not the stinging biting buzzing slithering demonic horde that inhabits my yard.
In the spring I chose a manual mower to help maintain my garden. I am no environmentalist nut, but as an ostensible elite urbanite, I wrinkled my nose at the fumes belched by my neighbors’ devices. This was a grave error. My man-powered motor leaves bald patches when I hoist the thing through a rough patch uphill and it accidentally sheers too close, and leaves miniature Mohawks when the sturdier weeds simply dip beneath my blades and spring up behind me unscathed. But I cannot blame the device. This is an operator error. I chose the thing, and I vowed to live with the consequences.
For months I huffed and puffed, hauling the bright orange plastic and metal contraption through the thickets in my yard. I felt close to the land. Its contours became familiar to me: the mysterious dead patch, which I fantasized came from natural gas seeping up from the Cherokee Shelf, five fathoms below; or the pits dug by the previous tenants where I once found a black snake tangled in my spinning blades (coward that I am, I let him crawl away instead of dispatching a merciful death: and lo the next afternoon my elderly neighbor came over to apologize for the shriek I might have heard because the poor thing had taken shelter in her kitchen before her husband—an octogenarian—beheaded it with a rake) and the plunging predator birds and the mysterious mushrooms and the owl feathers and squawking fledglings and tiny tragedies: the robin’s nest spilled on the ground after a titanic storm, her pale blue eggs still intact, the nest like a spun basket, and the mother’s frayed carcass a few feet away. I watched it slowly decay.
Sarah Waheed in the Asian American Writers' Workshop:
This past April, in an op-ed for the New York Times, Salman Rushdie pondered over the ways in which public respect for moral courage has diminished, noting how strange it is that we have become increasingly “suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma.” Rushdie provided several examples of moral courage, ranging from South African activist Nelson Mandela, to Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari, to the Russian band Pussy Riot. The one that caught my eye was the late cultural critic and scholar of comparative literature, Edward Said (1935-2003). Rushdie, in the op-ed, described Said as an “out of step intellectual,” noting that he was “dismissed, absurdly, as an apologist for Palestinian terrorism.” Said had been one of Rushdie’s greatest admirers, and was particularly enamored of the way Rushdie wove the complexity of cultural differences into his early literature, essays and critiques. One wonders what route the friendship between Said and Rushdie would have taken, since such complexity no longer informs Rushdie’s political stances.
One of the nastiest aspects of modern culture wars is the controversy raging over the place of Islam and Muslims in Western society. Too many Americans say things about Islam and Muslims that would horrify and offend them if they heard such things said about Christianity or Judaism, Christians or Jews. Unfortunately, those people won’t open Denise A. Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. This enlightening book might cause them to rethink what they’re saying.
Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an examines the intersection during the nation’s founding era of two contentious themes in the culture wars—the relationship of Islam to America, and the proper relationship between church and state. The story that it tells ought to be familiar to most Americans, and is familiar to historians of the nation’s founding. And yet, by using Islam as her book’s touchstone, Spellberg brings illuminating freshness to an oft-told tale.
Spellberg, associate professor of history and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, seeks to understand the role of Islam in the American struggle to protect religious liberty. She asks how Muslims and their religion fit into eighteenth-century Americans’ models of religious freedom. While conceding that many Americans in that era viewed Islam with suspicion, classifying Muslims as dangerous and unworthy of inclusion within the American experiment, she also shows that such leading figures as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Washington spurned exclusionary arguments, arguing that America should be open to Muslim citizens, office-holders, and even presidents. Spellberg’s point is that, contrary to those today who would dismiss Islam and Muslims as essentially and irretrievably alien to the American experiment and its religious mix, key figures in the era of the nation’s founding argued that that American church-state calculus both could and should make room for Islam and for believing Muslims.
In his commentary on my essay “Science is Not your Enemy,” Leon Wieseltier writes, “It is not for science to say whether science belongs in morality and politics and art.” I reply: It is not for Leon Wieseltier to say where science belongs. Good ideas can come from any source, and they must be evaluated on their cogency, not on the occupational clique of the people who originated them.
Wieseltier’s insistence that science should stay inside a box he has built for it and leave the weighty questions to philosophy is based on a fallacy. Yes, certain propositions are empirical, others logical or conceptual or normative; they should not be confused. But propositions are not academic disciplines. Science is not a listing of empirical facts, nor has philosophy ever confined itself to the non-empirical.
Why should either discipline stay inside Wieseltier’s sterile rooms? Does morality have nothing to do with the facts of human well-being, or with the source of human moral intuitions? Does political theory have nothing to learn from a better understanding of people’s inclinations to cooperate, aggress, hoard, share, work, empathize, or submit to authority? Is art really independent of language, perception, memory, emotion? If not, and if scientists have made discoveries about these faculties which go beyond received wisdom, why isn’t it for them to say that these ideas belong in any sophisticated discussion of these topics?
And Leon Wieseltier on the other:
What Pinker cannot bring himself to accept is that his beloved sciences, even when they do shed some light on aspects of art and literature, may shed little light and—for the purpose of understanding meaning (Pinker’s scare quotes around “meaning” may indicate a scare)—unexciting or inconsequential light. I gave the examples of the chemical analysis of a Chardin painting and the linguistic analysis of a Baudelaire poem. Many other examples could be given. “The theory of parent-offspring conflict”—I hope the grants for that particular breakthrough were not too large—is quite superfluous for the explication of Turgenev or Gosse. Nothing in the physical world, in the world of the senses, in the world of experience, can be immune from or indifferent to the categories of the sciences; but there are contexts in which scientific analysis may be trivial. That is not to say that science is trivial, obviously. But the belief that science is supreme in all the contexts, or that it has the last word on all the contexts, or that all the contexts await the attentions of science to be properly understood—that is an idolatry of science, or scientism. Pinker is wrong: I am not censoring scientists. They can say anything they want. But everything they say may not be met with grateful jubilation. So let the scientists in—they are already swarming in—to the humanities, but not as saviors or as superiors. And those swaggering scientists about whose intentions Pinker wants humanists to “relax”: they had better prepare themselves for a mixed reception over here, because over here the gold they bring may be dross.
More here. (Also see Daniel Dennett's comments on the earlier round of Pinker v. Wieseltier over at Edge.)
Melville remains one of the best American examples of how every important writer is foremost an indefatigable reader of golden books, someone who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods.
How might Melville react to today's writers' conferences and creative writing workshops in which so many have no usable knowledge of literary tradition and are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books? An untold number of Americans will finish a book manuscript this year, and the mind-numbing majority of them will be confected by nonreaders. How can a nonreader imagine himself an author, the creator of an artifact that he himself admittedly would have no interest in? Can you fathom an architect who's not fond of impressive buildings, or a violinist who has never listened to music? The erroneous assumption among the multitude is that writing doesn't demand specialized skills. In The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis offers this explanation why so many wish to “join in” the game of literature: “Because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence.”
The Austrian journalist Karl Kraus, an aphorist as scathingly accurate as Oscar Wilde and H.L. Mencken, once quipped: “So many people write because they lack the character not to.” By “character” Kraus meant the good sense to know that not every story is worth telling; not everyone can muster the intellectual, emotional, and narrative equipment needed to succeed as a novelist. But the abracadabra of the internet has transformed us into a society of berserk scribblers; now anyone can have a public voice and spew his middling stories and thoughts at will. Forget that blog is just one letter away from bog, or that the passel of burgeoning “literary” websites is largely a harvest of inanity with only the most tenuous hold on actual literature. Our capacity for untamed, ceaseless communication has convinced us that we have something priceless to say.
Oh, no, I thought when I heard that the Museum of Modern Art’s big fall show was a René Magritte survey. Dozens of undersung modernist painters, many of them women, on at least five continents, have never had a New York moment, and here we’re getting an artist we practically can’t avoid. The pipe; the giant eye; the choo-choo in the fireplace. As it turns out, “Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938,” which opens at MoMA on Saturday, is good solid fun, because Magritte is solid and fun. There’s no mystery about why he’s so popular. His paint-by-numbers illustrational mode reads loud and clear from across a room — a good thing, as the exhibition galleries are sure to be jammed — and reproduces faultlessly, even on a cellphone screen. And he had ideas. He was a sophisticated trickster, a bourgeois gentilhomme with a geek inside, hacking into everyday life and planting little weirdness bugs: legs sprouting from shirt collars, rain falling upward, words having lives of their own. He was an attention-grabber with one gift, but a crucial one: for puzzle-making. You may not get, at first glance, what’s going on in his paintings, but you get that there’s something to get. So you look again. And again. Which is, of course, a marketer’s dream.
One thing’s for sure: We’re unlikely ever to see Magritte look better than he does in the MoMA show. Its organizers, Anne Umland, a curator of painting and drawing at the museum, and Danielle Johnson, a curatorial assistant, have zeroed in on a single — and I would say the only — consistently fresh and interesting decade in his long career, when he was inventing the artist he wanted to be and when his art was all over the place in a good way: witty, nasty, brilliant and bad at the same time.
More here. (Note: Saw the show. Loved it. Recommend highly.)
Plural marriage is as old as the Bible. Abraham and Jacob each had more than one wife. King David had six. King Solomon had 700 (not to mention 300 concubines). Solomon lost God's favor when he married women who did not give up idolatry, David when he sent a woman's husband to the front lines so he could marry her. Whether ancient or modern, polygamous or monogamous, marriage has rules. There may be ages and genders to consider. In early America, there were races to consider. Often, those considerations draw on religious beliefs: The Quran allows a man to take up to four wives. In Fundamentalist Mormonism, there is no set limit to the number of wives in one marriage. Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet who first delivered God's directive that Mormons practice plural marriage, ultimately took dozens of wives.