goethe and science

Goethe1

The journal Janus Head dedicates an issue to Goethe’s approach to science. Here’s what the editorial has to say about it. We’ll see how the harder headed 3Quarks science readers respond.

Although Goethe is often portrayed in opposition to science, he viewed his efforts as a further refinement of scientific method. What has made this Goethe-inspired evolution of science both enticing and forbidding is that it involves, in Frederick Amrine’s words, “the metamorphosis of the scientist.” Goethe knew that his delicate empiricism entailed “an enhancement of our mental powers” and for that very reason it still remains in its infancy. It entails becoming aware of the “object” view of the world that so strongly informs both our everyday and scientific thinking. When we leave this “natural attitude” (Husserl) behind, we can begin to see how we participate within the world and then work to gain new bearings for our thinking and perceiving. This is the path—both arduous and exhilarating—that Goethe trod.

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Metcalf/Kimmelman

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A discussion at Slate.com between Stephen Metcalf and New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman around his new book The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa.

Along the way, you treat a wide variety of artists, from Bonnard, in his own time the démodé impressionist, to Matthew Barney, now an à la mode multimedia superstar. But you seem (correct me if I’m wrong) most attuned to that artist whose life is an intense and often self-consciously unworldly devotion to his or her own tightly circumscribed routine; so that when the signature of that artist finally emerges, it doesn’t appear as something sudden, cheap, and public, as the commanding gesture of naughty self-branding that many people now associate with modern and postmodern art, but as something worthy of a similarly intense devotion on our part. Unschooled as I am, we seem to share a taste for: Bonnard, Charlotte Salomon, and Ray Johnson. Not coincidentally, these were my favorite chapters in the book. The essay on Bonnard is simply narcotic, as it lovingly describes Bonnard’s marriage to Marthe as the tender prisonhouse that became his universe. I won’t spoil it for the reader, but that last sentence, and that last image, are—well, what is the word when pathos is completely earned?

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Michael Krebber

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Michael Krebber’s failures have turned out to be his greatest strength. First he failed as an art student, then he failed as an artist. He turned to acting and fell short. Returning again to art, he managed to transform failure, if that’s still the correct term, into his own distinctive and undoubtedly attractive modus operandi. We are all surrounded by people we don’t quite understand. But Krebber, my eccentric colleague since 2002 at Frankfurt’s Städelschule, is a special case: a painter who, as he says, is “fundamentally” no painter, and a teacher who, he maintains, has nothing much to teach. And yet shows of his open around the globe where there are things on display that look like paintings to me. And his teaching—a peculiar mix of screenings, informal meetings, and inscrutable gatherings around carefully selected books, magazines, catalogues, etc.—has become legendary enough to attract aspiring young artists from all over the world. It’s strange. Has Krebber suddenly turned out a success?

more from Artforum here.

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Optics Research Garners Nobel in Physics

From Scientific American:

Nobel This year’s Nobel Prize in physics is split between three scientists in the field of optics. They are Roy Glauber of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., John Hall of the University of Colorado and National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colo., and Theodor Hänsch of the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and the Max Planck Institute for Quantum Optics in Garching, Germany. Glauber received the award for his theoretical description of the behavior of light particles; Hall and Hänsch used that theory to develop a precision laser than can measure the color of the light of atoms and molecules, which can help identify the composition of materials.

More here.

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Visions of Order in an Anxious Universe

From The Village Voice:

Order Blankness makes us uneasy. Confronted with silence or an empty sheet of paper, we feel the urge to fill it. For a few, this is a defining compulsion, known in frightening Latin as horror vacui and usually associated with messy drawings by the mentally ill, most famously the work of art brut exemplars Adolf W Madge Gill, and Edmund Monsiel.

In this small exhibit of that compulsion, W et al. make an obligatory appearance, but refreshingly, curator Brooke Anderson’s selections concentrate on five relative unknowns, all of whom draw visions of order to cope with various anxieties. Martin Thompson, a homeless man believed to be autistic, employs strict logic. From a formula, he inks a flawless geometric pattern on graph paper using a single color, then re-creates the work in its negative to make a diptych. The result can be mesmerizing, as if you’re glimpsing an object through separate blizzards.

More here.

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October 4, 2005

Several Hundred m/s Closer to a Quantum Computer

From Wired News:

Crystal_fPhysicists in Australia have slowed a speeding laser pulse and captured it in a crystal, a feat that could be instrumental in creating quantum computers.

The scientists slowed the laser light pulse from 300,000 kilometers per second to just several hundred meters per second, allowing them to capture the pulse for about a second.

The accomplishment marks a new world record, but the scientists are more thrilled that they were able to store and recall light, an important step toward quantum computing.

“What we’ve done here is create a quantum memory,” said Dr. Matthew Sellars of the Laser Physics Centre at the Australian National University in Canberra, Australia.

Slowing down light allows scientists to map information onto it. The information is then transferred from the light to the crystal, Sellars said. Then when the scientists release the light, the information is transferred back onto the beam.

More here.

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Help Majikthise to cover the trial of Tom Delay

For those of you who followed Lindsay Beyerstein’s posts from New Orleans over at Majikthise, she is raising money to cover the trial of Tom Delay. (Those of you didn’t read her New Orleans pieces should do so.)

In addition to supporting a talented writer on this project, by donating you can help to start a new model of journalism that has been emerging in the last year or so. Until recently, the standard refrain from many has been that bloggers are dependent on the mainstream media for stories, which is usually true. And many complain that they merely comment, which need not be true, and is increasingly less and less true. “Blogging” stories, as Lindsay did in New Orleans, or Joichi Ito did from Madrid, seems a next step in the evolution of how we get information. And it seems a sphere where popular funding can exist and check a bias toward corporate or other special interest funding.

If any of you have ever complained that the MSM is biased, is biased toward their supporters, owners, etc., and yet have gotten annoyed that they never ever admit it, here’s a model of news in which you know where the reporter stands and know what you think of their writing and their insight, which in Lindsay’s case is remarkable. So, if you like Lindsay’s stuff, find the story interesting and important, consider supporting her trip.

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didion again

03didion1

Pieces on Joan Didion have sprung up like wild flowers in the past week or so and since the publication of The Year of Magical Thinking. The best of them so far is from John Leonard at The New York Review of Books.

It’s not just that the momentum she worries so much about has taken Didion in surprising directions. It’s that we should not perhaps have been surprised. How lazy to have labeled her the poster girl for anomie, wearing a migraine and a bikini to every volcanic eruption of the postwar zeitgeist; a desert lioness of the style pages, part sibylline icon and part Stanford seismograph, alert on the fault lines of the culture to every tremble of tectonic fashion plate. Yes, the Sixties seemed so much to hurt her feelings that her prose at times suggested Valéry’s frémissements d’une feuille effacée— shiverings of an effaced leaf—as if her next trick might be evaporation.

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Wally Berman and friends

Sm45art31

Derived jointly from the Semina roster and a mother lode of never-before-seen photographic portraits culled from the thousands of unprinted negatives in the artist’s estate — Berman was killed by a drunk driver on the eve of his 50th birthday in 1976 — “Semina Culture” provides a rich and detailed historical cross section of a fascinating layer of American culture and a superabundance of cool art. Co-curated by Michael Duncan and Kristine McKenna (both occasional Weekly contributors), “Semina Culture” casts a wide net and serves up a smorgasbord of old rubber boots and ripe red herrings — beautiful if you have eyes to see, and deeply compelling if you’re looking for a few good stories.

Take Cameron, for example, a.k.a. Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, cover girl for Semina 1 and author of the specific line drawing (a peyote vision in the doggy style) that sent the LAPD into such a tizzy. Cameron is known to aficionados of arcane Angeleno lore as the elemental vessel for Jet Propulsion Lab founder Jack Parsons and pre-Scientology L. Ron Hubbard’s “Babalon Working” — an attempt to spawn a “moonchild” or apocalyptic “Scarlet Woman” to usher in a global empire based on the magickal principles of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. You know. After Ron fucked off with Parsons’ wife, Betty, and 10 large of his petty cash, Jack married Cameron before dying in a mysterious chemical explosion in his garage in 1952.

more from Doug Harvey at the LA Weekly here.

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A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom

From The New York Times:

04happy_1 What is happiness? In the United States and in many other industrialized countries, it is often equated with money. Economists measure consumer confidence on the assumption that the resulting figure says something about progress and public welfare. The gross domestic product, or G.D.P., is routinely used as shorthand for the well-being of a nation. But the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been trying out a different idea. In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan’s newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation’s priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness.

Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. The king, now 49, has been instituting policies aimed at accomplishing these goals. Now Bhutan’s example, while still a work in progress, is serving as a catalyst for far broader discussions of national well-being.

More here.

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Benazir and Zardari: Is it the end game?

From Despardes:

Benazir_zardari200 NEW YORK, OCT 3: Is it the end game for the leader of Pakistan Peoples Party, Ms. Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari? Many PPP supporters ( jialas ) from New York to Karachi have expressed grave concern at Mr. Zardari’s continued presence in New York, ostensibly to undergo aggressive cardiac rehabilitation therapy while his wife the former Prime Minister shuttles between London, Geneva and Dubai without visiting her spouse.

Mr. Zardari underwent a simple procedure in a Dubai hospital to place a stent to unclog his blocked artery but apparently it was not enough. After intensive tests, procedures and experts’ advices, he had another stent placed. Now they say he is undergoing cardiac rehabilitation. But Ms Bhutto’s total absence from the scene is more foreboding. Many political pundits here speculate that things have really gone bad in the Bhutto/Zardari household. Have the couple moved on? Is the relationship over?

More here.

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Nobel Prize: Australians win for linking bug to ulcers

Andy Coghlan in New Scientist:

Two Australians have won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for establishing that bacteria cause stomach ulcers, it was announced on Monday.

Working at the Royal Perth Hospital, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren established beyond all doubt in the 1980s that Helicobacter pylori causes stomach ulcers by infecting and aggravating the gut lining.

Moreover, they showed that ulcers could be cured altogether by killing the bacteria with antibiotics. Hitherto, ulcers had been considered uncurable. Instead, patients’ symptoms were treated with a lifetime of drugs to reduce the acidity of the gut.

The pair’s claims provoked a fierce backlash from the medical establishment, which held to the dogma that ulcers were brought on by stress and lifestyle, and could not be cured. By revealing a simple cure, the researchers also threatened to destroy huge and lucrative global markets for the existing anti-ulcer drugs, which simply eased symptoms.

More here.

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Complexity and Intelligent Design

John Allen Paulos in his consistently good Who’s Counting column at ABC News:

The theory of intelligent design, the purportedly more scientific descendant of creation science, rejects Darwin’s theory of evolution as being unable to explain the complexity of life. How, ask supporters of intelligent design, can biological phenomena like the clotting of blood have arisen just by chance?

A key supporter of intelligent design likens what he terms the “irreducible complexity” of such phenomena to the irreducible complexity of a mousetrap. If just one of the trap’s pieces is missing — whether it be the spring, the metal platform, or the board — the trap is useless. The implicit suggestion is that all the parts of a mousetrap would have had to come into being at once, an impossibility unless there were an intelligent designer.

Design proponents argue that what’s true for the mousetrap is all the more true for vastly more complex biological phenomena. If any of the 20 or so proteins involved in blood clotting is absent, clotting doesn’t occur, and so, the creationist argument goes, these proteins must have all been brought into being at once by a designer.

But the theory of evolution does explain the evolution of complex biological organisms and phenomena, and the above argument from design, which dates from the 18th century, has been decisively refuted. Rehashing the latter explanation and refutation is not my goal, however. Those who reject evolution are usually immune to such arguments anyway.

More here.

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Crime and Punishment

Mark M. Anderson in The Nation:

Dresden_1Are the former Allied nations willing to acknowledge German suffering and loss during World War II? Are they willing to question the morality of the means by which they won the war, even the firebombing that laid waste to 131 German cities and towns, and killed more than half a million people (most of them women, children and the elderly)? Or was the extremity of Nazi aggression so great, the urgency to defeat Hitler so compelling, that the Allies have effectively been shielded from the kind of moral scrutiny that has been focused on the use of atomic weapons against Japan? However one might answer those questions today, for much of the postwar period the occupying nations on both sides of the Berlin wall felt little reason to justify their actions. Germans grumbled mightily among themselves, but any public airing of their grievances was subject to severe constraints and cold war manipulation. And when the German children born during or shortly after the war came of age in the heady years of the late 1960s, they demanded that Germany view the war through the lens of non-German victims, not that of its own losses. German victimhood became politically incorrect.

More here.

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Sex and the brain

“Are men more likely than women to be born with the potential for abstract brilliance in science, mathematics, the arts or music? Los Angeles correspondent Robert Lusetich reports on new research claims from the author of The Bell Curve.”

From The Australian:

The idea is as simple as its implications are seismic: women, as a group, lack the evolutionary genetic intelligence to master the highest strata of mathematics and the hard sciences. This is the central tenet of a contentious theory forwarded by famed US social scientist Charles Murray, who a decade ago made similarly explosive claims about the inferior genetic intelligence of blacks in his best-selling book The Bell Curve.

“It’s quite satisfying to see that I didn’t get nearly the hostile reaction I was expecting this time,” Murray says from his home near Washington. “After The Bell Curve, I was the Antichrist, so perhaps we have moved on and we can start looking at this data in an un-hysterical way.”

Perhaps. Another explanation may be that Murray has used up his 15 minutes of fame. Lisa Randall, an eminent Harvard theoretical physicist and cosmologist, had agreed to dissect Murray’s work, which appeared in the September issue of Commentary magazine in the US, for Inquirer but on reflection declined to respond. “The reason is that this just isn’t news and it’s not worthy of being covered,” she says. “If it really gets to the point where people accept it, I can explain the many logical fallacies in his piece.”

Murray counters with the shrug of a man who has heard it all before; he is fully prepared to take it on the chin from the “women’s studies crowd”.

“Universities are supposed to be places where we talk about these things, not run from them,” he says. “These are, in the end, questions of data, not my opinion.”

More here.

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The social logic of Ivy League admissions

Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker:

IvyAt Princeton, emissaries were sent to the major boarding schools, with instructions to rate potential candidates on a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 was “very desirable and apparently exceptional material from every point of view” and 4 was “undesirable from the point of view of character, and, therefore, to be excluded no matter what the results of the entrance examinations might be.” The personal interview became a key component of admissions in order, Karabel writes, “to ensure that ‘undesirables’ were identified and to assess important but subtle indicators of background and breeding such as speech, dress, deportment and physical appearance.” By 1933, the end of Lowell’s term, the percentage of Jews at Harvard was back down to fifteen per cent.

If this new admissions system seems familiar, that’s because it is essentially the same system that the Ivy League uses to this day. According to Karabel, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton didn’t abandon the elevation of character once the Jewish crisis passed. They institutionalized it.

More here.

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High Metal Tower

Katharine Logan in Architecture Week:

12823_image_9A crisp, subtly articulated new form has risen among the towers of New York. The Helena, a 580-unit apartment building designed by FXFOWLE ARCHITECTS, formerly Fox & Fowle Architects, brings elegant design and sustainable technologies to a building type often underserved in both these regards.

As the first voluntarily sustainable highrise residential building in New York City, the Helena has won the AIA 2005 Green Affordable Housing Award from the American Institute of Architects. “It is a source of pride that the AIA has recognized the Helena as a new model of what a New York sustainable apartment building can and should be,” says Dan Kaplan, AIA, senior principal of FXFOWLE.

The Helena’s envelope of floor-to-ceiling glass, wrap-around windows, and metal panels weaves a shimmering pattern of opacity and reflection. With floor bands seeming from below to stretch on a bias across the building’s facets, the building looks taut and smart. Its understated formal composition, accented with a twist of the balcony and a tilt of the photovoltaics, balances verve with restraint: a welcome achievement in a building type that, as a supporting actor on the urban stage, often tries either too hard or not hard enough.

More here.

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October 3, 2005

From the Tail: Betting on Uncertainty

I think I know where you stand on the ongoing federal court case in Pennsylvania, where parents have sued to block the teaching of intelligent design in their schools. Your position notwithstanding, only 13% of the respondents to a November 2004 Gallup poll believed that God has no part to play in the evolution or creation of human beings. Fully 45% said they believe that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago!

What’s going on here? Many (perhaps even a majority) of these respondents were taught evolution in school. Did they choose to disregard it merely because it contradicted their religion? They do seem to accept a whole host of other things during the course of their education which may contradict it as well. For example, there appears to be far less skepticism about the assertion that humans occupy a vanishingly small fraction of the universe. I’ll throw out three other explanations that are often advanced, but which I believe to be inadequate as well:

  1. Natural selection is not a good enough explanation for the facts: Clearly, it is.
  2. Natural selection has not been properly explained to the general public: Sure there are common misconceptions, but proponents have had enough school time, air time and book sales mindshare to make their points many times over.
  3. Religious zealots have successfully mounted a campaign based on lies, that has distorted the true meaning of natural selection: This has conspiracy theory overtones.  There are too many people who do not believe in natural selection — have they all been brainwashed?

My explanation is simply this: Human beings have a strong visceral reaction to disbelieve any theory which injects uncertainty or chance into their world view. They will cling to some other “explanation” of the facts which does not depend on chance until provided with absolutely incontrovertible proof to the contrary.

Part of the problem is that we all deal with uncertainty in our daily lives, but it is, at best an uncomfortable co-existence. Think of all the stress we go through because of uncertainty. Or how it destabilizes us and makes us miserable (what fraction of the time are you worrying about things that are certain?). In addition to hating it, we confuse uncertainty with ignorance (which is just a special case), and believe that eliminating uncertainty is merely a matter of knowing more. Given this view, most people have no room for chance in the basic laws of nature. My hunch is that that is what many proponents of Intelligent Design dislike about natural selection. Actually, it’s more than a hunch. The Discovery Institute, a think tank whose mission is to make “a positive vision of the future practical”, (but which appears to devote a bulk of its resources to promoting intelligent design) has gotten 400 scientists to sign up to the following “Scientific Dissent from Darwinism“:   

We are skeptical of the claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

In this world of sophisticated polling and sound bites, I think that the folks at the Discovery Institute have gotten their message down pat. To be sure, natural selection is not a theory of mere chance. But without uncertainty it cannot proceed. In other words, Natural Selection is a theory that is not of chance, but one that requires it.  The advocates of Intelligent Design are objecting to the “purposeless” nature of natural selection and replacing it with the will of a creator. It doesn’t really help matters for Darwinians to claim that chance plays a marginal role, and that the appeal to chance is a proxy for some other insidious agenda. Chance is the true bone of contention. In fact, as Jacques Monod put it over thirty years ago:

Even today a good many distinguished minds seem unable to accept or even to understand that from a source of noise, natural selection could quite unaided have drawn all music of the biosphere. Indeed, natural selection operates upon the products of chance and knows no other nourishment; but it operates in a domain of very demanding conditions, from which chance is banned. It is not to chance but to these conditions that evolution owes its generally progressive course.

The inability of otherwise reasonable people to accept a fundamental role for randomness is not restricted to religious people — scientists are hardly immune to it. We know that even Einstein had issues with God and dice in the context of Quantum Mechanics. Earlier, in 1857, when Ludwig Boltzmann explained the Second Law of Thermodynamics by introducing, for the first time, probability in a fundamental law, he was met with extreme skepticism and hostility. He had broken with the classical Newtonian imperative of determinism, and so could not be right. After much heartache over answering his many critics, Boltzmann (who had been struggling with other problems as well) hanged himself while on holiday.

Of course one reason we hate to deal with uncertainty is that we are so ill equipped to do so. Even when the facts are clearly laid out, the cleverest people (probabalists included) make mistakes. I can’t resist providing the following example:

William is a short, shy man. He has a passion for poetry and lives strolling through art museums. As a child he was often bullied by his classmates. Do you suppose that Williams is (a) a farmer, (b) a classics scholar?

Everyone I ask this question chooses (b). But that isn’t right. There are vastly more farmers than classics scholars, and even if a small fraction of farmers match William’s characteristics, that number is likely to be larger than the entire set of classics scholars. (Did you just get burned by your meager probabilistic reasoning faculties?) The psychologists Kahneman and Tversky pioneered the field of behavioral economics, which establishes among other things that our heuristics for reasoning about uncertainty are quite bad. You can probably think of many patently dumb things that people have done with their money and with their lives when a simple evaluation of the uncertainties would have resulted in better outcomes.

So back to getting people to accept uncertainty as an inherent part of the world. As you can probably tell, I am not holding my breath. On evolution, the timescales are too long to be able to provide the incontrovertible proof to change most people’s minds. Maybe a better approach is to reason by analogy. There is an absolutely staggering amount of purposeless evolution unfolding at breakneck speed before our very eyes. I am talking about the Web, the very medium through which you are reading this. In only about ten years a significant portion of the world’s knowledge has become available, is almost instantaneously accessible, and it’s free. Consider these figures from a recent article by Kevin Kelly. The thing we call the Web has

  • more than 600 billion web pages available, which are accessible by about 1 billion people.
  • 50 million simultaneous auctions going on on Ebay,  adding up to  1.5 billion a year.
  • 2 billion searches a month being done on  Google alone.

Think back to what you were doing ten years ago. Did you ever really think that any of this would happen? The scale at which the internet operates was envisioned by none of the engineers and computer scientists who collaboratively attempted to design the basic substrate of protocols upon which it runs. In truth, the innovations and designs of the web come from the collective energies of its users, and not according to an intelligent design or a blueprint. Here the purposeless of evolution is much easier to see. One day in the future some theory will reveal as a simple consequence, why all of a sudden in the years 2004-05, there sprung up 50 million blogs, with a new one coming on line every 2 seconds. This theory of evolution will be framed by a Law and this law will have at its core an indelible, irreducible kernel of chance. And chances are, most people will have a hard time believing it.

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Monday Musing: Enchantment and pluralism, some thoughts while reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Throughout much of the writings of the German sociologist Max Weber, you can find the claim that modernity and its rational control over the natural demanded the disenchantment of the world; that is, the exit of the sacramental in material things and the end of sacrament as a means (or rather appeal to the world) to fulfill our roles and ends. The role of the religious and the spiritual dwindle. Science and technology displace magic. But specifically, it displaces magic in the realm of means.

Weber saw this mostly in the rise of capitalism and the modern bureaucracy and in the Protestantism that has, or had, an “elective affinity” to modernity itself.

Only ascetic Protestantism completely eliminated magic and the supernatural quest for salvation, of which the highest form was intellectualist, contemplative illumination. It alone created the religious motivations for seeking salvation primarily through immersion in one’s worldly vocation. . . For the various popular religions of Asia, in contrast to ascetic Protestantism, the world remained a great enchanted garden, in which the practical way to orient oneself, or to find security in this world or the next, was to revere or coerce the spirits and seek salvation through ritualistic, idolatrous, or sacramental procedures. No path led from the magical religiosity of the non-intellectual strata of Asia to a rational, methodical control of life. (The Great Religions of the World)

And that pinnacle expression of and institution for methodical control of the world, the bureaucracy, was notable, according to Weber, precisely for its irreligion.

A bureaucracy is usually characterized by a profound disesteem of all irrational religion . . .(Religious Groups)

Reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which admittedly I’m only half-way through, I was reminded of Weber (which is not so uncommon). The novel, set in the early 19th century, concerns the reappearance of magic in the modern world. In the novel, magic existed once upon a time, but had disappeared three centuries earlier, at the end of the Middle Ages. Against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, two practicing magicians appear in England—a re-enchantment, of sorts.

Prior to the appearance of the two practical magicians, magic is purely theoretical, the occupation of historians and scholars, but not practitioners. Interestingly enough, these historians and scholars in the novel are also called “magicians.” The magic societies resemble philosophy circles and salons. And the idea of magic in the novel as a metaphor for philosophy is an obvious one, if only because the line between magic and philosophy seems so blurry in the Middle Ages. Merlin certainly appears a philosopher magician, a sage.

The two, Jonathan Strange and his teacher Mr. Norrell, lend their services to the war effort, and we are given an image of magic interacting with the specialized, but also distant and abstract, knowledge of bureaucracy. And it’s a funny image: two separate relationships to means in conflict, with neither depicted in a flattering way.

Enchanted (or mysterious) means don’t seem any more sensible or effective than dis-enchanted (rational, methodical) ones. (At least so far.)

(And I was also disappointed to learn that the connection between “wizard” and “vizier” is accidental.)

I was thinking of these issues in the context of a larger one: namely, why does so much fantasy appear to be conservative. The Lord of the Rings seems clearly to be conservative in its politics, not just Tolkien. And by conservative, I don’t mean that it simplifies politics but rather it harkens back to a time before a monistic conception of the good—as given by religion, usually—collapsed in favor of the pluralism of ends that we enjoy and which defines the freedom of the moderns. To follow John Holbo and invoke Isaiah Berlin, people disagree with the ends of life and not just the means. And the modern world has been set up to allow people to disagree and live their lives in the way they like without too much conflict, at least ideally.

There are exceptions to my claim that fantasy seems to go with conservatism, to be sure: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for one. But it does seem that the practical representation of magic often takes place against the backdrop of, at least, a locally all-embracing purpose, most commonly war. It’s almost as if the absence of a methodical control of life and the world requires that the ends of life are controlled thoroughly. Conversely, the rationalization of the world appears to go part and parcel with the pluralism of ends. (Of course, Weber, and some of those he inspired including the Marxist Frankfurt School, was terrified that values—monistic or plural—would exit altogether from the modern world under its rationalization, and means would become ends in themselves. Although, it seems that no one can give an example other than the accumulation of money or commodities.)

At least so far, Clarke seems to avoid the conundrum, or appears to make fun of the genre’s political naiveté. (It apparently gets even better, in terms of political richness.)  And it seems to me that to the extent that the backdrop of fantasy can shift from the Wagnerian saga into the quotidian, magic can find a place in the modern world.

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Lives of the Cannibals: Redemption

On May 29, 1983, Steve Howe, a 25 year-old relief pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, checked himself into a drug rehabilitation center to treat an addiction to cocaine. Howe was a promising young star, 1980’s rookie of the year, and endowed with the hyperactive, pugnacious demeanor of a natural-born “closer,” the pitcher charged with saving tight games in treacherous late-inning situations. He completed his rehab in late June, but was sent away again in September after missing a team flight and refusing to submit to urinalysis. He tested positive for cocaine three times that November, and was suspended from baseball for the 1984 season, one of several players caught up in the decade’s snorty zeitgeist. Howe returned to the mound in ’85 and over the next 6 years pitched sporadically for the Dodgers, the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers, as well as a Mexican League team and a couple of independent minor-league level clubs in the States. But June of ’92 found Howe busted again, and Fay Vincent, then the commissioner of baseball, banned him for life. An arbitrator later vacated Vincent’s decision, reinstating Howe, and the New York Yankees signed him to pitch in the Bronx. After Yankee relievers suffered a mid-season collapse in 1994, Howe stepped into the breach and, notwithstanding his caged pacing and myriad facial tics, recorded 15 clutch saves and a 1.80 earned run average, winning the enduring affection and respect of Yankee fans, who have a proud history of adopting the troubled and eccentric, just so long as they win.

Welcome to New York, perhaps the most prolifically redemptive island in human history. Granted, islands are built for redemption. Their isolation and exclusivity require new beginnings from their inhabitants, and they tend in general (and New York’s islands tend in particular) to transact life on terms different from other places. In the City, where the hybrid system runs on aggression, aplomb and sex appeal, fatuous Wall Street wizards and Upper-East Side tastemakers serve prison sentences and emerge hotter than ever, redeemed not by God or humanism but by the very fact of their fall from grace. It’s exotica, a matter of salacious interest and a perfect bluff for the social scene, where a big rep is all it takes, and the smart ones ride theirs all the way to a clubby write-up in Talk of the Town. Sure, a prison term is a nuisance, but it’s also useful (if bush-league) preparation for the more exigent realities of life in Manhattan. So it’s no surprise that we should admire the same things in our more middle-class heroes–our athletes and actors, and our politicians too. We want contrition, of course, and we must remember the children, but a little imperfection makes for a compelling character, and we won’t have that sacrificed.

The New York Yankees opened their 2005 season 11-19. It was the worst start anyone could remember, and it came on the heels of the greatest collapse (or comeback, depending on your regional perspective) in baseball history, when, in the second round of the 2004 playoffs, the Yankees were eliminated by the Red Sox despite winning the first three games of a best-of-seven series. In every one of the last nine years, they had made it to the playoffs, and in every one of the last seven, they had won the American League’s Eastern Division title, but 2005 seemed different. They were paying 15, ten and seven million dollars to three starting pitchers of dubious value–Brown, Wright and Pavano–and they had purchased the super-rich contract of Randy Johnson, once inarguably the finest pitcher in the major leagues, but now, at 41, a cranky and unreliable prima donna, whose 6’7 frame and acne-scarred face looked pained and out of place in Yankee pinstripes. Their beloved veteran center fielder Bernie Williams couldn’t throw anymore, and their traditionally solid bullpen hemorrhaged runs nightly. It was a difficult reality for fans who had been treated to a decade of near-constant success, but it was manna for the millions of Yankee haters, whose unfailing passion evinces the team’s historical greatness and cultural significance. In the wake of their ignominious 2004 defeat at the hands of the Red Sox, and finding themselves in last place in the American League East, the Yankees and their fans despaired. It was over.

Enter Jason Gilbert Giambi and Aaron James Small, high school classmates from California and unlikely Yankee teammates, whose personal redemptions spurred the 2005 Yankees to their eighth consecutive division title on Saturday. Giambi, a longtime star slugger, is one of the few known quantities in the recent steroid controversy (and Capitol Hill comedy, where the workout regimens of professional athletes have curiously attained massive political profile), whose leaked congressional testimony marks him as a confirmed (though not explicitly stated) user. Giambi spent most of 2004 on the Yankees’ disabled list, recovering from mysterious fatigue and a suspicious tumor, both of which, it seemed likely to pretty much everyone who gave it any thought, might just be the rightful wages of sticking a hypodermic needle in your ass and suffering nascent breast development, in exchange for increased strength and the ability to heal faster (a superhero’s tradeoff). But if nothing else came clear in 2005, at least Jason Giambi wasn’t on the juice. Never did a hitter look more helpless at the plate than poor Jason. He flailed and whiffed, and the earnest cheerfulness that once endeared him to fans and teammates curdled into delusive optimism. He was done.

But he wasn’t. Through the first two months of the season, Giambi claimed to be on the right track. He still had his good eye, he pointed out, referring to all the walks he earned, and it was just a matter of timing and bat speed after that. Fans and the media were indulgent but skeptical. The Yankees are a known rest-home for aging, overpriced talent, and Giambi’s story, though more dramatic than the trajectory of your average baseball player’s decline, did fit the profile. But, much to everyone’s surprise, he started hitting again, and what he started hitting were home runs–tall flies that took ages to land, and missiles that slammed into the bleachers moments after cracking off his bat. Giambi began driving in runs at a faster pace than anyone else on a team full of standout run-producers, and he continued reaching base on the walks that served as his crutch in those first miserable months, all of which amounted to league-leading slugging and on-base percentages. Jason was redeemed, and his legend is assured now as the star who wanted more, who lost everything to greed and arrogance, and who recovered his glory, which is now vastly more appealing for the fact that it’s tarnished. It’s a real New York kind of story.

As for Aaron Small, his is a story of redemption too, but one more suitable for middle America, which might not take so kindly to the resurrected likes of Steve Howe and Jason Giambi. Like Giambi, Small is a 34 year-old baseball veteran, but a veteran of the minor-leagues, whose only pro success has been the several “cups of coffee” (as baseball cant has it) he’s enjoyed in the majors in 16 years of playing–short stints in the bigs, followed by interminable bus rides back to the minors. This year, Small was called up to plug the holes left by the Yankees’ multimillion-dollar washouts, Brown, Wright and Pavano. Small, it should be noted, is the type of guy who thanks God for minor successes, a tendency not uncommon in local basketball and football players, but one that seems exceedingly peculiar in a glamorous Bronx Bomber. Nevertheless, he has been embraced by New York fans, and their acceptance has everything to do with the ten victories he compiled (against no defeats) in his partial 2005 season. This modest, Southern country boy outpitched every high-priced arm the Yankee millions could buy, and after every game he shucksed his way through interviews, praising his patient wife, praising his remarkably attentive savior, and just generally expressing his shock and pleasure at finding himself in the heat of a big-league pennant race after more than a decade-and-a-half of slogging his way from minor-league town to minor-league town. Small’s story is relevant here because his time is short. His 16-year patience, his redemption, will not remain in the minds of New Yorkers very long, not unless he does something colossally self-destructive–and he better do it quick. We like a little dirt on our heroes, a little vulgarity, because otherwise it’s all hearts and flowers and straight-laced (and -faced) fortitude, and what could be more dull? New York takes pride in its corruptions, and a hero isn’t a New York hero until he’s been dragged down and beaten (preferably by his own hand).

And this is why the 2005 Yankees have a shot at being the most memorable team to come out of the City in years. They’ve seized every opportunity to make things hard this season. Every potential run-scoring at bat, every pitching change and every difficult fielding chance has come with the sour taste of unavoidable failure, the sense that we’re almost out of gas now after a decade at the top. Our trusty veterans have lost their vigor and our big-name stars are compromised–by their egos, their paychecks and their tendency to choke. The obstreperous owner is lapsing into dementia, and even Yankee Stadium itself has entered its dotage. Indeed, what we’re confronted with is the last, limping formation of a great baseball team, occasionally disgraced by its swollen personalities and bottomless, ignorant pockets, trying to fashion for itself a true New York-kind of glory–one that climbs out of the depths, battered and ugly. This is our redemption.

Lives of the Cannibals: The Spell of the Sexual
Lives of the Cannibals: Rage

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