The man of the hour

by Katalin Balog

"As he died to make man holy, let us die to make things cheap." –Leonard Cohen, "Steer your way"

In this article I use a distinction borrowed from philosophy, between objectivity and subjectivity, to look at the nature of the Trump presidency. I explicated that distinction in more detail in some earlier posts here, here and here.

Kierkegaard (1)For all the ridiculousness of our president there is a whiff of the devil about him – by monumental bad luck, America has managed to elect a person embodying the worst of human nature. He combines thoughtlessness and utter disregard for standards of objectivity and reason with the soullessness and banality of reality TV run amok. Despite real parallels with 1930s Europe and more recent autocratic regimes across the world, the Trump era also offers novelty; it is its own, unique brand of awfulness, made in America.

In trying to grasp Trump's uniqueness, many commentators resort to psychology. In this essay, I want to propose a more philosophical perspective, a sort of psycho-philosophical approach that, in my view, allows one to appreciate better the psychic vortex that sucks up and annihilates anything of value around Trump. He is the inverse Midas: everything he touches turns immediately into junk. Business, entertainment, social media and now our national politics – very little is safe from his seeping menace. Kierkegaard's philosophy offers some clues to understanding this situation.

Kierkegaard suggested that the mind oscillates between two primary perspectives on the world: objective and subjective – and that the relationship between these approaches determines what kind of a person we are going to be. Objectivity is an orientation towards reality based on abstracting away, in various degrees, from subjective experience, and from individual points of view. An objective approach is based on concepts and modes of thinking about the world that is accessible from many different points of view. A subjective orientation, on the other hand, is based on an attunement and direct reflection on the inner experience of feeling, sensing, thinking and valuing that unfolds in our day-to-day living. It is the difference between an abstract, objective conception of water as a potable liquid that is also found in lakes, rivers and oceans, and the subjective concept of it based on what it is like to drink it or swim in it on this particular day in this particular place. Objective and subjective, of course, comes in degrees. Scientific concepts are the most objective but many of our everyday concepts are also of the more objective variety. The most subjective conceptions are those that arise in direct reflection on experience.

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Apelles’ Lost Paintings and How to Tell a Great Work of Art

by Amanda Beth Peery

Birth of VenusIn Pliny the Elder's Natural History, he describes a fourth-century BC painter, Apelles of Kos, as superior to all other painters. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Apelles "continues to be regarded as the greatest painter of antiquity even though none of his work survives." How is it possible that the artist seen as the greatest painter of all of antiquity is one who left no surviving works? One possibility is that his fame has been expanded by myth and time, and with no works left to show the truth, his skills have been inflated beyond their due. That's probably true, but I believe there's another, more legitimate reason for Apelles' reputation. Apelles' art—often conveyed through the descriptions of ancient writers like Pliny—has engendered other art. One way of measuring the greatness of a work of art is to ask whether it gives rise to other works, or to say it differently, whether or not it inspires.

Apelles of Kos was the court painter of Macedon under Alexander the Great. Pliny recounts various stories about him, many of them gems. In one, Apelles comes to Egypt, then ruled by one of the Ptolemies (the first Ptolemy, I think) whom Apelles once knew. A court jester invites Apelles to a feast at the royal palace, but unbeknownst to Apelles, Ptolemy has long harbored a hatred for the artist and the pharaoh is enraged to see him at the feast. Ptolemy commands Apelles to tell him who invited him. Apelles, who never knew or doesn't remember the jester's name, picks up a piece of charcoal from the cold hearth and begins to draw the jester's face on the palace wall. Within just a stroke (or two), Ptolemy recognizes his jester. Apelles has captured the jester with just a single line.

Apelles is famed not only for his superior skill but also for his dedication to his art. Pliny attributes to Apelles the phrase "nulla dies sine linea," or "not a day without a line," because the artist worked every day. Apelles exemplified the artist's lifestyle and was so respectable and respected that he could speak out against Alexander the Great himself. In one story, Alexander is sitting for a portrait expounding his theories on art, going on at length, until the artist quietly begs him to stop because the boys grinding the colors will laugh at him. We don't know what Alexander was saying, but by stopping him, Apelles—in his innocence—asserted the artist's superior knowledge of the craft and maybe even the way of seeing and ways of creating that artists are able to access. Alexander, who had been tutored by Aristotle (who was tutored in turn by Plato, who was tutored by Socrates) cannot rival Apelles'—or the color-grinding boys'—intimate knowledge and experience of art. In this story Apelles rejects the very sources of knowledge in the West. He is insisting that there is another type of knowledge. Or he is insisting, at least, that there are other things to know.

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The Concussion Year

by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

UnnamedThe ghost that lurks around the old Bombay Company bookshelf is the ghost of an elliptical future, trailing the past like a spectacular, burning, comet-tail. It is the wispy energy of my own half-dreamed, half-written book that hovers over the rows of books I use for research, mostly works of history and poetry. After a night of writing, I have finally met my deadline. The life-size mirror leaning in the corner shows a pale face, preoccupied with time; my work is to not forget the past, and to call to poetry what may be forgotten. I am now searching for a book for remembrance, a book by the American Sufi poet Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore. I want to honor this poet whose work I consider a beacon and who is now saying his goodbyes, dying of cancer. I am flailing for time, mine, his, and ours as poets, especially as Muslim poets living through times of brutal daily deaths. Weeks from now, earthly time will stop for him, moments from now, time will slow down for me, indefinitely.

The bookshelf phantom is poised to make projectiles of treasured objects— a miniature Chinese cabinet and framed Turkish calligraphic art on an easel— heavy objects that will slide down and cause multiple concussions and head/neck trauma. I am stunned but remain conscious, not bleeding but suddenly fatigued. It is ironic that one of the objects is Turkish— I had met Daniel Abdal-Hayy Moore and his wife Malika at the Nazim Hikmet Poetry Festival where he and I were both awarded the Hikmet Poetry Prize, where I recognized kindred souls in both Daniel and Malika and found a reservoir of inspiration and made lifelong friends at the Turkish House in Cary, NC. Despite the shock of the accident, I feel the surge of a promise, a kind of reassurance.

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Mixed Metaphors

by Misha Lepetic

Digger2There's a certain kind of conversation in which I find myself every so often, which can roughly be summarized as "What's the big deal about DJing"? As someone who was a quasi-professional DJ in a former life, and is currently what one friend terms a 'monastic DJ', I've sensed a substantial gap in lay understanding of not just what a DJ does while engaged in the act of mixing, but also the place occupied by DJs in the contemporary musical ecosystem. This attitude — not unlike looking at a Jackson Pollock while muttering to yourself that you could do just as well — has received further support from the rise and fall of the spectacularly excessive (and, to my ears, creatively bankrupt) EDM scene; the unholy marriage of superstar DJs, casino-based clubs and overpriced bottle service; and the fact that watching someone DJ is fundamentally uninteresting.

Is there any value in mixing other people's music? When viewed from the most reductive position, the answer is clearly not. As critic David Hepworth noted in a now-deleted blog post, "You must surely realise that you make your living by putting on records, which is only a tiny bit removed in degree of difficulty from switching on the radio." If that's all that DJs are good for, then I suppose it's a relief that streaming services and software-driven playlists have come along to put this particular horse-and-buggy paradigm out of its misery.

Instead, it's more helpful to look at the larger role that DJs play in parsing the ocean of music in which we swim in these post-Napster days. Just as we turn to critics in other fields to understand what we should be reading or watching, we also turn to DJs for clarity on what to listen to. In this sense, the appropriate metaphor is one of the DJ as tastemaker.

In order to talk about how a DJ guides others' taste in music, we have to address the DJ's own, internal process. Over time, a DJ is a collector, a curator and an editor. Of course, being a DJ involves inhabiting all three of these roles at the same time, all the time, but there is also a progression here. I'll go over each of these and then return to what it means to be a tastemaker at the end of this post.

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Is Consciousness an Illusion?

Thomas Nagel in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2608 Feb. 26 20.52For fifty years the philosopher Daniel Dennett has been engaged in a grand project of disenchantment of the human world, using science to free us from what he deems illusions—illusions that are difficult to dislodge because they are so natural. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his eighteenth book (thirteenth as sole author), Dennett presents a valuable and typically lucid synthesis of his worldview. Though it is supported by reams of scientific data, he acknowledges that much of what he says is conjectural rather than proven, either empirically or philosophically.

Dennett is always good company. He has a gargantuan appetite for scientific knowledge, and is one of the best people I know at transmitting it and explaining its significance, clearly and without superficiality. He writes with wit and elegance; and in this book especially, though it is frankly partisan, he tries hard to grasp and defuse the sources of resistance to his point of view. He recognizes that some of what he asks us to believe is strongly counterintuitive. I shall explain eventually why I think the overall project cannot succeed, but first let me set out the argument, which contains much that is true and insightful.

More here.

Against Willpower


Carl Erik Fisher in Nautilus:

Thomas was a highly successful and mild-mannered lawyer who was worried about his drinking. When he came to see me at my psychotherapy practice, his wine intake had crept up to six or seven glasses a night, and he was starting to hide it from his family and to feel the effects at work. We discussed treatment strategies and made an appointment to meet again. But when he returned two weeks later, he was despondent: His drinking was totally unchanged.

“I just couldn’t cut back. I guess I just don’t have the willpower.”

Another patient of mine, John, also initially came to me for help with drinking. At our first meeting, we talked about moderation-based approaches and setting a healthier limit. But one month later, he came back to my office declaring that he had changed his mind and made peace with his drinking habits. Sure, his wife wasn’t always thrilled with how much he drank, he told me, and occasionally the hangovers were pretty bad, but his relationship was still fairly solid and drinking didn’t cause any truly significant problems in his life.

In the abstract, John and Thomas are similar: They both succumbed to short-term temptations, and both didn’t keep their long-term goals. But while Thomas attributed that outcome to problems with willpower, John came to reframe his behavior from a perspective that sidestepped the concept of willpower altogether. Both John and Thomas would resolve their issues, but in very different ways.

Most people feel more comfortable with Thomas’ narrative. They would agree with his self-diagnosis (that he lacked willpower), and might even call it clear-eyed and courageous. Many people might also suspect that John’s reframing of his problem was an act of self-deception, serving to hide a real problem. But Thomas’ approach deserves just as much skepticism as John’s. It’s entirely possible that Thomas was seduced by the near-mystical status that modern culture has assigned to the idea of willpower itself—an idea that, ultimately, was working against him.

The Future of Not Working


Annie Lowery in the NYT Magazine:

The basic or guaranteed income is a curious piece of intellectual flotsam that has washed ashore several times in the past half-millennium, often during periods of great economic upheaval. In “Utopia,” published in 1516, Thomas More suggests it as a way to help feudal farmers hurt by the conversion of common land for public use into private land for commercial use. In “Agrarian Justice,” published in 1797, Thomas Paine supports it for similar reasons, as compensation for the “loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.” It reappears in the writings of French radicals, of Bertrand Russell, of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Silicon Valley has recently become obsessed with basic income for reasons simultaneously generous and self-interested, as a palliative for the societal turbulence its inventions might unleash. Many technologists believe we are living at the precipice of an artificial-intelligence revolution that could vault humanity into a postwork future. In the past few years, artificially intelligent systems have become proficient at a startling number of tasks, from reading cancer scans to piloting a car to summarizing a sports game to translating prose. Any job that can be broken down into discrete, repeatable tasks — financial analytics, marketing, legal work — could be automated out of existence.

In this vision of the future, our economy could turn into a funhouse-mirror version of itself: extreme income and wealth inequality, rising poverty, mass unemployment, a shrinking prime-age labor force. It would be more George Saunders than George Jetson. But what does this all have to do with a small village in Kenya?

A universal basic income has thus far lacked what tech folks might call a proof of concept. There have been a handful of experiments, including ones in Canada, India and Namibia. Finland is sending money to unemployed people, and the Dutch city Utrecht is doing a trial run, too. But no experiment has been truly complete, studying what happens when you give a whole community money for an extended period of time — when nobody has to worry where his or her next meal is coming from or fear the loss of a job or the birth of a child.

And so, the tech industry is getting behind GiveDirectly and other organizations testing the idea out.

More here.


Jenny C. Mann in Avidly:

Gettyimages-56710525-e1486576471911I study the history of rhetoric, something that has made me intimately, painfully aware of the long history of hysteria around the idea of a woman speaking in public. The stubborn persistence of this hostility towards female speech is everywhere in evidence—as just one example, take the online and print harassment of the classicist Mary Beard, who ably responded in the London Review of Books by tracing the long history of men telling women to shut up all the way back to the Odyssey. And here we are again with Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans denying Elizabeth Warren the right to take to the Senate Floor and read aloud a letter from Coretta Scott King in opposition to the Cabinet appointment of Senator Jeff Sessions.

In justifying the collective Republican censure of their peer in the Senate Chamber, McConnell explained: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless she persisted.” Already this “nevertheless” has become a rallying cry on social media for those who are horrified by the silencing of Scott King’s letter and Warren’s speech. When I awoke this morning to the many #nevertheless hashtags, I was overwhelmed with that giddy-nauseous feeling of possibility that you get when something in popular culture twangs a string that resonates with your own scholarly obsessions. For in his malice, McConnell has fastened on precisely the best word to describe the disorderly intrusions of female speech in a public forum.

More here.

The Reaction to the Dred Scott Decision

Alix Oswald Voces Novae:

DredScottOn March 6, 1857, Dred Scott's eleven-year struggle for freedom had finally come to an end. The Supreme Court of the United States rendered its decision, ruling that Dred Scott was still a slave. Even more controversially, the Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional; that all blacks, free or enslaved, could never be United States citizens, and that Congress did not have the right to decide the slavery question in the territories. This loaded decision, which was supposed to solve the slavery question once and for all and more importantly mitigate the nation's growing sectional crisis, ended up creating more tension in the country between the North and South. The reaction to the decision varied by region and political party, with it being criticized by northerners and Republicans, and praised by southerners and Democrats. The nation's intense reaction to the Dred Scott decision not only had an effect on politics in the late 1850s, but would also serve as one of several precipitates for the ultimate breakdown in American politics, the southern secession and Civil War.

…The Dred Scott decision had far reaching effects even long after it seemed like it had lost its influence. On February 23, 1865, Illinois Senator Lyman Turnbull proposed to Congress, House bill No. 748, which would have provided for a bust of Chief Justice Taney to be made and placed inside the Supreme Court Room.[136]To this proposition, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts retorted, "I object to that; that now an emancipated country should make a bust to the author of the Dred Scott decision."[137]Senator Wilson also vehemently opposed this bill, and responded with an impassioned speech. He began by declaring, "We, the chosen representatives of a people who have reversed that unrighteous decree, trampled it beneath our feet with loathing and scorn unutterable," had ended up "sitting here in the closing hours of the Thirty-Eighth Congress with an empty Treasury."[138]He expressed that Congress had more important matters to attend to, like the "$130,000 due to the heroes of the Republic who are fighting, bleeding, dying to defend their country," which was "menaced by armed treason born of the Dred Scott decision."[139]Senator Wilson then condemned Congress for "consuming precious time and giving our voices and votes to take $1,000 out of the pockets of the people, to keep out of the hands of our soldiers," which were "outstretched to receive them."[140]He concluded by again denouncing the proposal to allocate "$1,000 to set up a bust to the memory of the man," who Wilson described as doing "more than all other men that ever breathed the air or trod the soil of the North American continent to plunge the nation into this bloody revolution."

More here. (Note: At least one post throughout February will be in honor of Black History Month)

Sunday Poem

Visiting the Oracle

It’s dark on purpose
so just listen.

Maybe I inhabit a jar, maybe a pot,
maybe nothing. Only this
loose end of a voice
rising to meet you.
It sounds like water.
Don’t think about that.

Let your servants climb back down the mountain
by themselves. I’ll listen.
I’ll tell you everything
I discover, but I can’t
say what it means.

Someone will always
assure you of the best of fortunes,
but you know better.

And keep this in mind: The answer
reveals itself in time
like the clue that fits
perfectly and explains everything
after the crime has been solved.

Then you will say: I should have known.
It was there all along
and never even concealed,
like the story of the letter
overlooked by the thief because
it had not been hidden.
That’s the trick, of course.

You don’t need me.

by Lawrence Raab
from The Collector of Cold Weather
Ecco Press, NY, 1976


Splat goes the theory


Louise O. Fresco in Aeon:

The tomato is one of our lovelier foods; juicy icon of the good life. There’s almost nothing better than buying fresh tomatoes on a Saturday morning, bringing them home to your kitchen, washing them carefully, slicing them, admiring their shiny interiors with the miraculous seeds inside, adding a few drops of green, virgin olive oil, and perhaps a leaf or two from the basil plant on the windowsill. Just paradise.

Few people are indifferent to the sun-drenched cherry tomatoes served up in every picturesque Italian village trattoria; or a well-tended vegetable garden where the branches of each tomato plant are carefully tied by hand with a green ribbon – these fruits are harvested with loving care. Most likely you feel that such tomatoes should be organically grown, on small fields, reflecting tradition and history. You might think that, this way, they accrue authenticity, honesty and truth, that their production will be small-scale, and preferably local.

But how ‘good’ are they really? And what does ‘good’ mean in this context? Are the organic hand-picked tomatoes sold at farmers’ markets really better, in a technical sense, or do they just make us feel like better consumers – perhaps even better human beings? If the organic tomato is just a vehicle for romantic fallacy, then we have to look dispassionately at how they are grown from the perspective of sustainability.

More here.