Here's something interesting from Melville, the statutes of whalers:
I. A Fast-Fish belongs to the party fast to it.
II. A Loose-Fish is fair game for anybody who can soonest catch it.
There is some discussion of how these vague rules are to be interpreted as they pertain to whales in particular, but Melville characteristically broadens the scope of the concept to a profounder level:
"...these two laws touching Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish, I say, will, on reflection, be found the fundamentals of all human jurisprudence; for notwithstanding its complicated tracery of sculpture, the Temple of the Law, like the Temple of the Philistines, has but two props to stand on.
"Is it not a saying in every one's mouth, Possession is half the law: that is, regardless of how the thing came into possession? But often possession is the whole of the law. What are the sinews and souls of Russian serfs and Republican slaves but Fast-Fish, whereof possession is the whole of the law? What to the rapacious landlord is the widow's last mite but a Fast-Fish? What is yonder undetected villain's marble mansion with a door-plate for a waif; what is that but a Fast-Fish? What is the ruinous discount which Mordecai, the broker, gets from poor Woebegone, the bankrupt, on a loan to keep Woebegone's family from starvation; what is that ruinous discount but a Fast-Fish? What is the Archbishop of Savesoul's income of £100,000 seized from the scant bread and cheese of hundreds of thousands of broken-back laborers (all sure of heaven without any of Savesoul's help) what is that globular 100,000 but a Fast-Fish? What are the Duke of Dunder's hereditary towns and hamlets but Fast-Fish? What to that redoubted harpooner, John Bull, is poor Ireland but a Fast-Fish? What to that apostolic lancer, Brother Jonathan, is Texas but a Fast-Fish? And concerning all these, is not Possession the whole of the law?
"But if the doctrine of Fast-Fish be pretty generally applicable, the kindred doctrine of Loose-Fish is still more widely so. That is internationally and universally applicable.
"What was America in 1492 but a Loose-Fish, in which Columbus struck the Spanish standard by way of waifing it for his royal master and mistress? What was Poland to the Czar? What Greece to the Turk? What India to England? What at last will Mexico be to the United States? All Loose-Fish.
"What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men's minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?"
Melville, of course, leaves the payoff for the last paragraph, which I find the most penetrating and curiously applicable to today's situation. In fact, I felt haunted by this voice from the past as I read it for the first time, haunted because amidst Moby-Dick's overwrought archaisms this note rang strangely familiar. Wasn't Iraq a Loose-Fish? Are we going to behead it, like a whale, drain it of its oil, and then burn or dump the remainder overboard?
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Here's something interesting from Melville, the statutes of whalers:
Friday, June 1, 2007
And on a more humorous tip, here are a couple of funny jargon generators. First, dack.com's "bullshit" generator, which is oriented toward web design and business types. I submitted "Let's sell some donuts." The response: "Integrate virtual communities." I'm not sure, but this may be tied to those "empty calories" served up in a gooey Krispy Kreme.
Or here's an oldie but goodie -- a postmodern (pomo) paper generator. Hit refresh and it'll keep spitting out new papers. One of my favorites is that it prefixes "de" and "post" to any available -ism. Interestingly, the first line of many sections begins with a mash-up of a Marx quote and a later theorist -- Foucault, Sartre, Wittgenstein, etc. I particularly liked this iteration, a collaborative piece by a professor from MIT's English department (which does exist) and "Miskatonic University" in Arkham, Mass. Fans of H. P. Lovecraft will recognize the school.
This kind of composition reached its peak in the Sokal hoax a decade ago -- when NYU physicist Alan Sokal succesfully submitted a gobbledy-gook paper of postmodern quotes to the journal Social Text. In fairness to the editors of Social Text (which is published at my school, Rutgers) I doubt Sokal's paper would have gotten in if he hadn't been an accomplished physicist, at a neighboring institution, writing on physics (whatever the jargon).
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a professor was to single out popular keywords or phrases which had become ubiquitous and avoid them like the plague. Her example was 'paradox,' which achieved such wide academic currency in the late 1970's that it threatened to devalue the specie of literary criticism. As she put it: "everything was 'paradox.' But if everything was paradox, so what?"
From time to time, I've decided to share a few of my pet pariahs of phraseology. A wealth of such phrases abounds in business; recently a friend of mine from an energy company told me that everyone was talking about 'drilling the onion' -- whatever the hell that means. But I'm an academic, not a businessman, so I'm going to focus on the terms of my trade.
Today's word is 'overdetermined.' It's a term originally drawn from mathematics -- and it is invoked when you have more information than is sufficient to solve an equation. The extra information allows you to solve the equation in more than one way, each reaching the exact same answer. Hence, "overdetermined."
As far as I can tell, this word moved definitively into deeper academic waters through Freud, who used to argue that the dreams of the unconscious were like a code, and like any code, could be "solved." Freud speculated, moreover, that you could often take several different paths to decoding a dream, but that they would all reach the same core meaning -- hence, dreams were "overdetermined" much like some equations. Whether or not you believe that dreams are in code, I think you'll agree that at the least, dreams and dream interpretation are quite a bit fuzzier than algebra. Which is why this algebra metaphor seems stretched -- real interpretive problems don't have multiple crisp avenues to a fixed and certain solution.
But from the writings of Freud, this use of "overdetermined" metastasized, spreading to deconstructive critics like Lacan, and thence, into academic jargon generally. The term has come so far that it can now be found in some (high-fallutin') journalism. As an example, Josh Marshall at TalkingPointsMemo used the term yesterday with regard to the question of why we're in Iraq. He begins by quoting reader "BH":
At present, your logic seems to be: There are only two possible purposes of maintain a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq: nefarious (i.e., securing the world's oil supply), and virtuous (i.e., ensuring democracy for Iraq). Bush is nefarious. Therefore, the purpose of Bush's desire to maintain a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq is to secure the world's oil supply.
[Marshall responds] I don't find any of this persuasive. In fact, I find the whole bit of reasoning needlessly over-determined. I myself wrote a long article just before the war started, explaining how the grand neo-con plan was to institute an outward unfolding cycle of democratizing and chaos in the region that would ultimately topple almost all the governments in the region.
Thursday, May 31, 2007
It appears the French are going all rubbery over their new conservative president, Nicolas Sarkozy, what with his bluejeans-blazer-and-RayBan sporting ways and his Prada-clad wife. The current fad in French coverage (duly mimicked by the NYT) is to compare the Sarkozys to Kennedy and company ca. Camelot. Elle ran a page comparing Cecilia Sarkozy's style with Jackie's (at right). But my favorite bit come at the end of the article, in an interview with Jean-Marie le Pen, the jingoist uber-conservative who's voting block was co-opted by Sarkozy in the elections:
Wow. I wondered where they'd gone.
Mr. Le Pen accused Mr. Sarkozy of stealing his right-wing message and using "American advisers who know how to work the great popular masses." (emph. added)
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
From News of the Weird:
Last year, a BBC News correspondent in Sudan reported that village elders in the Upper Nile state had punished Charles Tombe, who had been caught being amorous with a goat, by requiring him to pay a dowry to the goat's owner, to endure a "wedding" to the goat, and to treat the goat as his "wife" to embarrass him. The dispatch ran worldwide and was the most popular story on the BBC News' Web site for 2006. BBC News reported in May 2007 that the goat, "Rose," which had given birth to one kid in the interim (clearly, not fathered by Tombe), had recently passed away after choking on a plastic bag.Just think of the opportunities. (Bush/Blair marriage, anyone? I'm sure the U.K. would appreciate a hefty dowry.) And here's to BBC news. Not only to they report on a -- quirky -- story like this, they follow up on it.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
I'm studying some logic right now and it occurred to me last night (around 3) that much of the public debate over Iraq can be distilled into a single fallacy called "affirming the consequent."
To explain. If I were to tell you, "If it rains tomorrow, I'm going to get wet" and the next day I walked into a coffee shop sopping, would that mean it rained? The answer is no; it's conceivable that I got splashed by a car, or ran through a sprinkler, etc. In any of these cases, my prediction is not false, because it only applies if the antecedent (if it rains tomorrow) is true. This is called "affirming the consequent" because the fallacy pretends that by verifying the second, "then" part of the statement, the "if" part is proven true. Any of us could come up with a hundred examples which make this point clear. (I.e. if I'm abducted by aliens, I'll be surprised. You find me surprised -- does that mean I was abducted by aliens?)
But the main arguments for the war in Iraq present the clearest examples of this fallacy, arguments which have been used (ridiculously) to prove a variety of "ifs" about Iraq.
For instance, it was argued that if Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, we must invade. And for quite a while, people believed that there must be such weapons, because we had, in fact, invaded.
It was also argued that if Iraq had ties to Al Qaeda, we should attack them. And because we attacked, many believed for years that Iraq did have ties to Al Qaeda. Of course, this brew is muddied by the further argument that if we fought Al Qaeda "over there" we wouldn't have to fight them elsewhere. Now that we're fighting Al Qaeda forces in Iraq, it's been argued that the war is protecting us from Al Qaeda's expansion. But of course, recent articles -- based on the analysis of our intelligence services -- have shown that the opposite is the case. Iraq is serving a as a recruitment center and huge revenue drive for Al Qaeda-in-Iraq, which is now exporting expertise and money around the globe.
But this basic fallacy can also illustrate the central misbelief of our Iraq policy: If we are to stabilize Iraq and prevent a military failure, we must not withdraw our troops. Conservative and administration officials, despite all the contrary evidence, continue to affirm the consequent -- arguing that continued presence in Iraq will stabilize the country and prevent failure. The fallacy lies in the failure of the consequent -- maintaining troop levels -- to secure the antecedent -- peace and political success in Iraq.
To put this differently, affirming the consequent illustrates that there is a huge difference between necessary and sufficient conditions. It may be necessary that I pick up a bat in order to hit a home run in the World Series. But it is completely insufficient -- no matter how many times you put a Louisville slugger in my hands and send me in against Andy Pettit, I still suck at baseball. And no matter how long our military stays in Iraq, there's nothing they can do to solve a civil war driven by forces that predate our presence by a hundred years.
Monday, May 28, 2007
But a good day for writing.
Friday, May 25, 2007
I've been studying French lately and I'm getting ready to head off to a French camp in a month (like nerd camp, but croissants at breakfast). In the meantime, I've been meeting with a weekly conversation group, and I'm afraid that my dissertation description came out much as above. Over at Language Log they have an analysis of how this happened. Of course, English teachers experience this daily, in harrowing experiences detailed in the Adventure Channel series, "When Undergraduates Pick Up the Thesaurus."
File under "All your tree are belong to us all."
Thursday, May 24, 2007
Right down the street there is a cute little bakery, situated in a house within an unzoned neighborhood, complete with little baskets of flowers below the second story window. Each time I pass it, I either laugh or cringe. Why? The sign:
Who Made the Cake!
If only they'd allowed themselves to settle for that lowly interrogative they were reaching for ("Who Made the Cake?"). If what they needed was more pop, they could have grinned and bourn the double punctuation by adding the exclamation after the question mark ("Who Made the Cake?!"). Hey, it's good enough for bloggers.
But instead, they've launched into a radically different sentence structure -- now we are left with an orphaned appositive. At times, I amuse myself as I'm driving by providing the long-lost noun clause. As always, it started prosaically ("He must have failed grammar, that rube, Who Made the Cake!"), but I've been reaching for more fantastic formulations.
"It was Mr. T., Who Made the Cake!"
"The Klingon, Who Made the Cake!, was reciting Hamlet (in the original Klingon, of course)."
"I dreamt I was eaten by flannels, Who Made the Cake!"
Perhaps the noun clause was on Oceanic flight 815, and is now marooned somewhere within the script of Lost.
My most elaborate scenario involves the Commander Adama of Battlestar Galactica, who, upon learning that the mess cook (known for his pastry skills) is actually a Cylon, comments, slowly, acerbically, and with increasing volume, "Who. Made. The. Cake!" At which point, all eyes turn immediately to the threatening Dutch chocolate concoction sitting on the table.
But the world is full of lost noun clauses which will never be realized (perhaps what is missing is the transcendent referent itself). Confections never tasted so Derridean.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
I have a strong feeling that the hybrid-driving set are either delusional or self-satisfied that choosing a "more environmentally friendly" car is a meaningful political choice. John Nichols points out in this article from The Nation that Rudy Giuliani is the only major Presidential candidate who doesn't drive at all. Of course, this only means he takes limos from one thousand-dollar-a-plate dinner to the next. Still, as a non-driving person myself (except in Japan, where I was tricked into a free car for the year), I strongly believe that a totally car-free society is the only kind of society worth living in. I doubt Rudy is that radical, but from a field of hardly differentiated political candidates, I might as well choose one using personal, if only somewhat less arbitrary, criteria.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Bill Moyers -- winner of more than thirty Emmys and lifetime achievement awards for his extensive and principled career in documentary journalism -- has a new show on PBS: the Bill Moyers Journal. Or rather, it's a very old show; it's also the title of his first show with PBS, which ran in the seventies (largely before I was born). I am a *huge* fan of his work, ever since watching a rerun of one of his pieces on the Iran Contra scandal.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
Do you remember the godfather scene where Michael Corleone shows up to visit his just-shot dad to find out the guards have been dismissed and there are hitmen on the way to finish the job? Well it turns out that's almost exactly what went down four years ago when a hospitalized John Ashcroft refused to recertify Bush's illegal wiretapping program. Watch Comey's testimony, as he struggles to describe what happened:
Comey had to get F.B.I director Mueller to instruct his agents to prevent him from being ejected from the hospital room. And after facing down Gonzalez and Andrew Card, Comey didn't think it was safe to visit Card at the whitehouse without bringing a witness. For a written account of his testimony, check Glen Greenwald's analysis here. Basically, everyone knew the program was flagrantly illegal. And when Ashcroft refused to renew it, the White House tried to strong-arm him while nearly incapacitated. It's the Plumbers all over again (except, of course, that Gonzo isn't nearly as striking to watch as G. Gordon Liddy).
Tipplometer: Take two bourbons to salve burning eyeballs.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Jerry Falwell is dead. Long live the Falwell in waiting. With the fall of Mark Foley, I wonder who will be the next Avatar of Holy Bloviation. Whoever it may be, they'll have some shoes to fill. Remember when he outed Tinky Winky? Those were the good ole days.
NOTE: I thought I'd skip over the obligatory comments upon sympathy for his family, etc. I'm sure that their house is buried under flowers and deafened by prayer by now, even as Liberty University is flooded with an avalanche of donations. Yea, even unto the highest of the high goals for their capital drive.
According to an article cited over at Pandagon, it's illegal to sell sex toys in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas. Well I'll be hog-swallered. I'm living in Houston right now (save commiserations), and about five minutes from my house is a string of half a dozen sex toy shops within sight of Montrose (our Sunset Strip). A "friend" reports that vibrator sales at the nearest store are trading a three-month high right now. This salutary measure pales in comparison to the current run on a line of anatomical moulds of various pornstars' nether parts. I understand the Jenna Jameson torso is delicious, if'n you're into blonds.
Monday, May 14, 2007
In the spirit of Paul J. McNulty's resignation as Deputy Attorney General in order to, among other things, begin saving for his kids' college tuition, I thought I'd tender the resignation letter I would have penned.
Dear Attorney General Gonzales:
This is to advise you of my intention to step down from my position as Deputy Attorney General on a date to be determined in the late summer.
The financial realities of college-age children and two decades of public service lead me to a long overdue transition in my career.
Moreover, it has recently come to my attention that there are needlepoint classes now available at my local community college. I have often discussed learning needlepoint with great grandma Bee. When she passed away last year, I was attempting to deal with the sh*tstorm firing those USAs has caused. Now seems like a good time to learn basket-weave stitching and work on that monogrammed doily.
And I don't need to tell you the mountain of household chores I've recused myself from. That leaky faucet in the guest bathroom and the grout in our kitchen can be ignored no longer. I envision many happy hours at my neighborhood Home Depot discussing the ins and outs of silicone versus putty.
I greatly appreciate the opportunity and privilege I have enjoyed for the past seven years to serve my country at the Department of Justice as both a United States Attorney and malarchy-shoveller pro-temp. The history of the Department will record the extraordinary challenge we faced after your appointment as Attorney General, and in particular, how those of us who served as United States Attorneys embraced the new cruelty.
I am grateful for your friendship and support, an experience which will come in handy should I ever respond to a Craig's list BDSM ad soliciting ultra-subs. I look forward to working with you to ensure a smooth transition in my office.
With deepest respect,
Paul J. McNulty
EDIT: I'm guessing that McNulty's at a party somewhere slamming Ritas while the iPod cycles through a smart list of fiesta-themed tunes. Tipplometer: Herradura Time!
Friday, May 11, 2007
There is a serious problem with violence in America. How do I know this? Not because of random shootings at shopping malls and university campuses. At the moment, I live in Japan, a land of barely contained aggression if ever there were one. But incidents of violence, except against oneself, are extremely rare here. OK, the mayor of Nagasaki (Nagasaki!) was assassinated by a yakuza member recently, but what an aberration. Can you imagine someone putting a hit out on "Mike" Bloomberg? And yet the Japanese love violence. If you can wade through all the cutesy Hello Kitty/Pokemon crap, you'll find in the popular culture here an absolute obsession with all forms of destruction and mutilation. With the lack of Judeo-Christian morals (and I didn't say those were good things!), hardly anything is considered taboo, at least for personal, private consumption. I found a very nice pornography emporium recently that I stumbled into because it looked like a Walmart (and was basically on the top floor of its Japanese equivalent). Oops, well, I'm here so I might as well do some "research".
Later, a Japanese friend, after more drinks than necessary--and this guy, a nuclear chemist or something, went to the MIT of Japan--told me he finds The Simpsons, his only source of English practice, too violent. "What?" I blurted in my inebriation. Well, of course it's violent, that's what's funny about it... Hmm... Actually, it's the Itchy and Scratchy toon-within-a-toon that he finds most disturbing. "But, Taku," I explained, "it's not funny because it's violent, it's funny because it's a parody of all those other violent cartoons from, you know, the '50s. We're not laughing because Itchy repeatedly beheads and dismembers Scratchy in increasingly gruesome and inappropriate ways. We're laughing at the irony..." So that's about where the conversation stalled. Am I naive enough to believe that the general viewer of The Simpsons operates at such a high intellectual level? Do I operate at such a high intellectual level? When I pointed out to my friend the aforementioned violence of Japanese popular culture, he said, yes, it's there, but we don't think violence is funny.
Slavoj Zizek wrote about the Abu Ghraib photos that they were not evidence of the chain of command gone horribly wrong. He suggested that, in fact, they were a normal product of American culture, that if you'd shown them to people out of context, they might have thought them some sort of experimental theater. Consider the hazing rituals of the military and college fraternities, the popularity of violent sports, and, finally, Itchy and Scratchy. Remember that, in the photos, the soldiers are smiling. That's what was most shocking of all--not only were these young brats defiling the sacred name of America, they were having a good time, too! We should remember, while we're chuckling with exasperation at Itchy and Scratchy or shaking our heads with shame at Abu Ghraib, that they're of a piece, that the lampooning of Tom and Jerry can take divergent forms, isn't always just lampooning, and that the original article is suspiciously close to less deracinated forms of popular entertainment, e.g. blackface performance and lynching.
That's all a long, perhaps facile introduction to what will be a very short point. Recently, members of Congress and potential Presidential candidates have been falling all over themselves to denounce the continuation of the Iraq War. Even the Republicans have joined in on the race to out-dove the next guy. But the reasons for this sudden shift in sentiment have nothing to do with the morality, shall we say, of the war. The politicians are angry because we didn't find weapons of mass destruction; because the country didn't stabilize immediately after we liberated it; and because it's costing us too much in money, lives, and "political capital." The problem is America only likes to fight wars we can win, and we're not winning this one. That's no fun! And that's the ultimate sin of the Bush administration. I doubt the anti-war rallying cries, really anti-Bush rallying cries (like cursing out the quarterback of your favorite sports franchise), would be so vociferous if Iraq were today a stable, liberal, oil-exporting democracy. The fact that this Hail Mary scenario was even attempted and believed possible to begin with points up the delusions of victory with which Americans are obsessed, contrary evidence and sober commentary notwithstanding. So the war itself is OK, really, but not winning it is not OK. All those politicians who rubber-stamped it back in '02, only to recant now? They're not hypocrites? They only thought we were actually going to war for a good reason? Or, barring that, that at least we could win it pretty easily? Garrison Keillor was eloquent on this topic in a recent New York Times editorial: shame on them.
A person of conviction would have had to maintain a consistent stance against the war from the beginning, not because it would be too difficult to win, but because it is wrong to fight wars. In America, though, this is a rather unpopular position. You won't hear any politicians stating their objection to the Iraq situation in this way. They will only tell you that the administration deceived us (into doing something that is wrong no matter what the circumstances?) and is now mishandling things (which someone else can surely handle better?). Let me repeat more affirmatively: war is always wrong. You can't say we went to war for the wrong reasons without presupposing that right reasons exist. "What about World War II?" you might say. Good point. But that very popular war was a resounding victory for the United States, to the extent that it forms the terminus a quo of much contemporary folklore, from apple pie to the X-men. Our victory then may be the reason we continue to love a good war, and the violence, and the fun of winning it. To bring things back to Japan, it is much different here. Their loss haunts them, and it is a loss we cannot begin to imagine--thousands upon thousands dead, all their cities destroyed, their nation subjugated, their emperor embarrassed. Not so funny! There was even a fistfight in the Diet when it was proposed that the Japanese defense forces be upgraded to full ministry status (sadly, this has now occurred). We Americans may not have Japanese decorum, but our politicians would never do that (want to see McCain and Kerry go a few rounds?). And not surprisingly, most Japanese are anti-war as a matter of principle, not of contingency. As difficult as it usually is to get an opinion out of them, many are also quite upfront that they don't like George W. Bush. Many Americans don't either. But in the upcoming Presidential election, we'll probably vote for someone who argues not that war is morally wrong, even if we generally say this privately, but that the Bushies have deprived us of what we Stars and Stripes-worshipping, violence-crazed Yanks love best: victory.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
Hamlet: Do you see the cloud over there that's almost the shape of a camel?
Polonius: By golly, it is like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: I think it looks like a weasel.
Polonius: It is shaped like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: It's totally like a whale.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
According to this story, nefarious and conspiratorial forces are working to bring down the Internet and replace with something scrubbed, sanitized, and in all ways denuded. If any anthropologists are reading this, I suggest you get those grant proposals in now before the greatest repository of humanity's symbolic unconscious is laid waste by the evil agents of decency, responsibility, and profit. The rest of you should torrent as much porn, illegally copied music, and Family Guy episodes as you can before the filth circus leaves town and all of us in tears.
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Gonzalez just told Charles Schumer that the "burden of proof" doesn't lie with him, it lies with those who make accusations. I think this was a big mistake. Not only did it risk stirring the ire of a senator from New York who calls himself "Chuck", but, for a putatively neutral government official, it's a statement made in bad faith. Gonzalez was obviously being evasive during the hearing, and that was bad enough. This sort of petty defensiveness, however, just reinforces the childish, clubhouse exclusivity that has long poisoned relations between the White House and its allies and the rest of the government. I mean, shouldn't these people be cooperating in a transparent manner? And Alberto has the gall to sit there and basically say "I'm not telling you anything! You think I did something wrong? Prove it!" Schumer, of course, was having none of it. "Sorry, buddy, but I don't have to prove anything. This isn't a trial. You may be a lawyer, but I'm a senator."
Gonzalez is testifying on CSPAN right now -- looks like all of those cramming sessions worked out. My favorite: apparently, no one actually put names on the list of attorneys to be fired. It was a collective process without any direct assignments and no one responsible. Especially the AG.
UPDATE: Wow. Orrin Hatch gives great hea--committee. He gives meeting like a Bangkok councilman: enthusiastic, with lots of slobbering. Someone must have put the word out to close ranks.
Update 2: Gonzalez makes the mistake of interrupting Arlen Specter. And Specter breaks out the cane.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
I recently bought a copy of the new Penguin edition of James Joyce's seminal work A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Now, you can say much about a work of literature both by the epigraphs the author prefaces it with and the blurbs tacked onto the back cover by the publisher. In the former case, Joyce aligns himself squarely with tradition, however untraditional his writing may be, opening his narrative with a quote from Ovid: Et ignotas animum dimittit in artes (“And he brought forth his spirit into the unknown arts”). An almost Nietzschean line about the artist's creative potential (Ovid and Joyce both refer to a Daedalus)--this is hardly iconoclasm, though I suppose it captures that eternal jouissance we experience in youthful revolt.
The blurb, on the hand, really floored me:
"A truly extraordinary novel." -- Ewan McGregor
On the front cover. Now, we surely do not need Ewan McGregor to tell us that Joyce's work (novel?) is truly extraordinary. The informed reader knows this. At best, the blurb simply informs us that McGregor has read the book. But why is this such a powerful endorsement? Is it because McGregor still has youthful rebel cred leftover from Trainspotting, a film that embraces, if anything, more the spirit of creative nihilism than the transformative power of the artist (does its closing tagline, "choose life" get it off the hook)? Is it because the later McGregor sold his soul to the most banal cultural franchise in human history in order to extend his youth market shelflife? Do the publishers think fans of the Star Wars novelizations will be looking for something a bit meatier after downing all those hackneyed plots that float superficially around a vaguely Eastern, somewhat-Scientologist metaphysics? Finally, isn't it at least slightly noteworthy that Ewan McGregor isn't even Irish? And that if we're supposed to think he is (or is close enough), we'd also have to forget that Joyce spent most of his life in exile from Ireland and that much of his writing castigates his native society? So why a recommendation from an almost-authentically Irish person when Joyce was so critical of the authentically Irish? I think the real answer, as always, lies with one man: Sean Connery. Fans of McGregor, the same ones who pick up Joyce in the bookstore, will remember his repudiation of his fellow Scotsman as a narrow-minded, nationalistic hypocrite. Like Joyce, McGregor is able to be a scathing commentator on his own culture while at the same time being one of its most prominent symbols. The connection will not be lost on a generation raised by the odd combination of stylized violence/glamorized drug addiction and treacly fantasy-adventure stories that comprise contemporary entertainment. And, after all, the guy still does full frontal nudity (like Harry Potter!), and that's bound to shock at least a few people yet, quite in the tradition of softporn Ulysses. McGregor has also taught us that you can be a tool of the mainstream media-culture syndicate and still retain a marginal identity--this, after all, is the true dream of the modern subject: being different, misunderstood, and the focus of everybody else's obsessive attention. Rather like Joyce, and Portrait, now available from Penguin, a truly extraordinary novel.
Monday, April 16, 2007
It may be that Monday has the highest average rate of heartattacks, but the weekends are slow news and blog days. Now that the work week is back, we return to the gripping "he said ... she said" stories that constitute political coverage: "Republicans are sounding down in the dumps ... Dems say bring it on." I'm just waiting for "Republicans advise caution ... Dems say Get 'er done."
File this under novel reasons for losing an election (News of the Wierd):
A federal appeals court in March turned down Ruth Parks' challenge to her re-election loss in 2001 as the recorder-treasurer of Horseshoe Bend, Ark., which she blamed on a conspiracy by the mayor and police chief. The court concluded that voters, not a conspiracy, had defeated her, perhaps because of the prominence of her belief in UFOs and the conflicting views of her and her husband as to whether she personally had ever been abducted by aliens: She said she hadn't, but her husband said she had, many times, and that the aliens had left scars. [WMC-TV (Memphis)-AP, 3-15-07]
For the lawyers out there: would that be grounds for divorce?
Jessa Crispin, over at "Bookslut," puts her finger on my failure to jump on the Vonnegut for canonization train [correction -- Crispin links this back to an Op-ed by Verlyn Klinkenborg at the NYTimes. But do visit Bookslut.]:
If you read Kurt Vonnegut when you were young — read all there was of him, book after book as fast as you could the way so many of us did — you probably set him aside long ago. That’s the way it goes with writers we love when we’re young. It’s almost as though their books absorbed some part of our DNA while we were reading them, and rereading them means revisiting a version of ourselves we may no longer remember or trust.
For me, the writer that epitomizes this would be Ayn Rand. People who were exposed to Rand early enough are able to continue growing up; but those who fall for Rand too late in life (read college) end up permanently stunted. Rand is a bit like The Transformers. Awesome when you're young, and fun to look back on nostalgically (remember the movie version w/ Orson Welles and Judd Nelson? Rad.). But if you're still carrying the lunchbox or wearing the underwear, you've got problems.
Steve (who posted below) is our philosophe résidant and foreign correspondent. Right now he's living in Japan and making arrangements (hiring shirpas, storing canned meats, using the stair climber) for his round the world trip, which starts in August. Besides keeping up the intellectual tone of our discussions, Steve will serving up reflections on the natural genius of the places he visits. Domo.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
We're going to assume that Pennsylvania Ave. is strictly observing the sabbath -- the Tipplometer plunged today to a one. (Only godless heathens such as myself would be sipping their Jameson's right now.) Don't worry, with Congress back in session and its leaders heading to the Oval Office this week, I'm expecting a surge around happy hour tomorrow.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
Those who still derive amusement from examples of history repeating itself will be delighted by a story published today in Le Monde under the heading "Opération kamikaze à Casablanca et nouvelles arrestations." You do not even have to read the story. The headline alone, with its combination of French, Japanese, and classic Hollywood elements, evokes a certain sentimentality, proving that history is rather like a food processor: surely, its mechanical action is repetitive, but you can never predict what unassimilated lumps its churnings will toss up as the multitudinous ingredients are puréed.
Isn't it fascinating that "suicide bomber" is rendered here in French with "kamikaze"? Of course, the English expression is as new as the French adoption from Japanese. Suicide, already a disturbing act against oneself, is combined with an external, devastating attack on others. This surrendering to the negativity of self-destruction by means of a positive assault on the environment that produced it might be considered postmodern. "I recognize my subject position abstractly, but I reject it, and further, I seek to destroy the enforcers of subject positions themselves." There were martyrs in the past who sacrificed themselves for a higher cause, but weren't they somehow different? The word "martyr" literally means witness, and it was the positive fact of the victim's individual, witnessing identity that lent significance, gravitas even, to his or her death, the positive result of which is the martyr's inscription into history. Perhaps we can respect this. A suicide bombing, however, seems an extreme self-abnegation. The perpetrators, in their willingness to be erased from history, commit not only physical violence against us, but even more inexcusably, they offend our reverence for the priority of the individual. It is, after all, on behalf of individual rights and freedoms that the West always claims to fight. From this perspective, anyone who makes such a pointless sacrifice, who becomes the anonymous instrument of others, must perforce be evil.
But this is where French wisdom shows itself. The word "kamikaze", meaning "divine wind", actually preserves the dignity of the erstwhile "bomber". Many of our ideas about the limits of human malice derive from World War II, and the kamikaze, the insane agent of a relentless and unfathomable Asian enemy, is one of the most profound. The niggling cultural differences that seem an almost aesthetic concern today remain at the heart of human fear. If we certainly recognize in one another a common humanity, what do we make of fellow humans who do things we would never consider, who go farther than we would? Is our fear for our own destruction at the hands of such enemies or for the more terrifying possibility that "we" are not so unlike "them"? The original divine wind was the one that sent the Monguls packing after repeated attempts to invade Japan. This grace, almost exclusive to Japan in the era of the Khans, may explain the feeling that famously developed among Japanese that they are an exceptional people, unconquered and (as a result) unmixed. This divine election also meant they felt destined to lead the other nations of Asia (they were already trying to conquer Korea in the 16th century). But a nationalistic superiority complex is not just a peculiarity of imperial island nations. Our own adventures in the Middle East, if they really are predicated on a democracy-building program, reflect an American superiority complex just as devastating as Japan's. The idea of a Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere is surely no more farcical than a Coalition of the Willing. And however cruel was Japan's imperial embrace in practice, you can hardly fault their motives: against an overbearing and exploitative West, Japan intended to rise up and loose the shackles Europe had placed on the nations of Asia. When you actually believe your way of life is the best one there is, how can you morally prevent others from enjoying it? Why wouldn't you force them to conform to it, for their own good? And thus you had the incongruous image of Javanese women practicing karate at dawn. And, ultimately, fighter pilots who were willing to die, not just on behalf of an emperor they never met, but however tenuously, for the greater good of humanity.
Except we won that one. And so today the greater good of humanity seems to mean the greater good of the United States and its allies. We were an isolationist nation before World War II. Did we achieve victory then only to adopt the aspirations of our enemies? We are again confronted by an enemy who exposes to us our own dark side. They consider themselves the favored of God, their very bodies the instrument of a divine wind. That wind is not the product of an esoteric evil but the necessity of a conviction that would spread its benevolence to all of humanity. What divine wind is at our backs, driving us? If there isn't one, by what right do we storm across the world and what claim can we possibly have on its sympathy? By relegating suicide bombers, the kamikaze of today, to the amorphous realm of evil, we fail to understand that their mission is quite similar to our own. The difference lies in the means to carry it out. The French surely have little nostalgia for their own colonial adventures, though we have it on their behalf for all those Casablancas that somebody else controlled, where somebody else did the dirty work, while we pretended to be everybody's heroes. In the future, we may have a nostalgia of a different sort: for a time when we could more easily draw moral boundaries, when we at least had the luxury of knowing where our enemy lived before he moved closer to home.
[Links fixed] Over at "Adventures in Ethics and Science," Janet Stemwedel has a post on the slippery concept of "framing" and how students understand their education. She links back to a larger discussion about framing -- including Coturnix's remarks on what it is, how it works, etc., over at "A blog around the clock."
This raises a big issue for me: the relationship between particular expressions and truth. When Lakoff starting making big noise in democratic circles during the run up to the 2004 elections (if I recall correctly) it was because he offered a neat way to explain the unity of the republican message machine versus the confusion of the democratic, as well as a "so easy, even a child could do it" method for fixing this problem: framing. Republicans, apparently, were good at it, Democrats were not -- but they could learn.
But if you read Lakoff's work, it's hard to tell what the difference is between Lakoff's framing and rhetorical tropes. There's little in his analysis that improves upon any solid 18th-C work on rhetoric, for instance, George Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric, or Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres. In fact, Campbell and Blair, it seems to me, are more sophisticated, insofar as they give significant attention to immediate context and expression. Allow me to explain.
For Lakoff, the context and expression are not important -- it doesn't matter how the "frame" is expressed, or exactly where it occurs in a passage/speech. I'm sure he pays lip-service to at least the latter somewhere, but if you read his analysis, it is completely ignored. In my favorite examples from Metaphors we Live By (as I recall), Lakoff breaks down a joke which was apparently prevalent in the late nineties after the Lewinski/impeachment thing: "If Clinton were the titanic, the iceberg would sink." Lakoff breaks this down into a "frame" -- the Titanic and its crash with the iceberg, and its content, the Clinton scandal, with the impeachment process and associated events. He then maps the substitution between various terms; Clinton, obviously, fulfills the place of the titanic in the frame, the impeachment, the iceberg. But the pressure of the Clinton situation -- in which the impeachment failed -- makes the "iceberg/impeachment" sink within the Titanic frame. (As usual, there's nothing that kills a good joke like breaking it down.)
What I love about Lakoff's example, is that it ignores the necessary dependence of the joke on its humor, and the dependence of humor upon the particular expression. For instance, it's much less funny to put the punch line first: "The iceberg would sink, if Clinton were the titanic," or an even more tortuous, "The iceberg that sunk the titanic would sink if the titanic were Clinton and represented the impeachment." According to Lakoff's analysis, these all say the same thing, because they have the same content. But I think you'll agree that they don't work the same way. Moreover, it would make a huge difference what the larger context of the joke was. Is it a Democratic rally, in which it (presumably) inspires us with confidence in a manifest destiny of the Democratic party? Or is it a Republican fundraiser, calculated to inspire donors with the gravity of the challenge to be overcome through an equally deep digging into their pockets? Or is it a discussion between businessmen in Hong Kong, in which it might entail reference to his huge global stature, as well, perhaps, as an implicit commentary on the impending end of British rule? The last might be a stretch, but I think the significance of context should be clear here.
And that's why I think Blair and Campbell are more sophisticated in their thinking. They discuss metaphor, analogy, and simile, but balance this focused discussion of tropes with a heavy emphasis upon context -- how the tropes relates to what came before or after, when to use one, how to adjust it to the context of a specific speech or audience.
Lakoff's popularity is due, I think, to its translation into a pseudo-cognitive science vocabulary, our old rhetorical friend the trope. Whereas someone might off-hand dismiss tropes as "mere rhetoric," they are less likely to dismiss this totally new idea of "framing" that a professor of linguistics at Berkley developed. For one, I'd love to hear how "framing" is different from the vehicle/tenor distinction employed by earlier theorizers of metaphor. Of course, Lakoff does put far more emphasis upon metaphor than characterizes earlier rhetorical thinkers -- he sees thought itself as inherently metaphorical. (Although, again, I'm not sure how this is different from the analogical/associative underpinnings of thought in much enlightenment philosophy, from Hume on.) But Lakoff, it seems to me, misses the big picture insofar as he turns us away from looking at actual, particular language use.
The discomfort of many with the idea of "framing" is not, as some have suggested, that it gives us a sense of being forced into thinking a certain way ("framed"). It is rather the way in which Lakoff's framing invokes all of our deeply-held anxieties about rhetoric in language, anxieties rooted in (1) the belief that there is a division between "ideas" that are language independent and the language we use to "express" them, and (2) that this divorce between language and ideas equals a divorce between language and truth, and (3) that the divorce between language and truth means that some bad people might manipulate language to convince us of things that are not true. Regardless of the validity of these beliefs, all of them are the product of rhetorical models of language as they developed from the classical period through the present day (though that's an argument I can't make right now). And that means that Lakoff, by "framing" rhetorical tropes in a way that doesn't seem rhetorical, has brought us to revisit the conflicts between persuading, convincing, and communicating that led us to drop rhetoric in the first place. To analogize to Pepe le Pieu (for whom, btw, I have a fondness), you can repaint a skunk so it looks like a cat -- but it's still a skunk. [Correction: It's Pepe le Pew, and it was a cat who kept getting painted as a skunk, not the other way around.]
Friday, April 13, 2007
Not everyone's a huge fan of Jon Corzine. I only met him once (at a rally, while going door-to-door for him during his last campaign), but he's always struck me as an honest and hugely sincere politician. And he's respected on both sides of the isle in New Jersey; I had a long conversation with an aide to one of the former governors last November, who was excited about the future. He said Corzine was able to galvanize enough support to fix some of New Jersey's looming problems (in particular a huge budget deficit generated by a series of tax-slashing republican governors -- see post below on "Reaganomics"). And he handled the previous budget standoff with aplomb. I'm watching anxiously, hoping that he'll pull through. I don't know if there's any secular "power of hope," but in case there is, send some hope-juju his way, too.
The Tipplometer is a Swiss-calibrated ethyl alcohol sensor that accurately assesses the approximate magnitude of the bender its current subject is on. For now and the foreseeable future, this Tipplometer will be tied into the wet bar behind the leather-bound "Great Books" collection in the Oval Office. The majesty of the device is its elegant summation of the current standoff between the White House and Congress over the Defense Appropriations Bill (which has all of the impetus of the tractor-mounted game of "chicken" in Footloose). Tipplometer's reading: One bourbon, one shot, and five beers.
I've always wondered: if you assembled a hundred respected economists in a room, and asked them whether trickle-down economics worked, what would they say? Unsurprisingly, this turns out to be a silly question. Brad DeLong (who likes to do the economics at Berkeley) weighs in. Briefly, Bruce Bartlett recently wrote a piece on the subject for the NYTimes, and it's sparked a debate about how supply-side economics was taught in the 70's and 80's. The occasion for this discussion, I suspect, has less to do with the current political climate, than with a general re-evaluation following Milton Friedman's death last year. But the punch is that most economists, of any stripe, seem to agree that some supply side adjustments are valuable, like lowering high marginal tax rates. But apparently, this limited, if hard-fought discussion within economics has metastasized, so that conservatives now believe any reduction in tax rates of any kind will spur economic growth.
The other side of the coin is fiscal policy -- the belief that monetary adjustments (read the Fed's interest-rate jiggering) could affect factors from pricing to employment. As with the supply-side school of thought, this policy could be taken too far, and is often credited with the "stagflation" of the 1970's, when attempts to adjust production through fiscal policy resulted in an increase in inflation without an increase in economic growth. In reading DeLong's post, along with the comments posted by various economists, it seems that the consensus is both policies should be applied, in moderation. Supply-side adjustments are useful in spurring growth when inflation seems to be looming, but it takes a long time to kick in and should be targeted to specific taxes; monetary adjustments are faster-acting but cannot stem inflation on their own. Believe it or not, the solution seems to be careful adjustment of policy to the economic climate. Shocker.
I guess it's no surprise that these discussions don't appear on Meet the Press, but it sure is nice when the experts collect to hash something out.
Welcome to a poorly-conceived pet project. I'm under the gun right now, trying to scribble out the rest of my dissertation in delusive hope of landing a (cough) job. Which means it's a perfect time to indulge in a long-held desire: launching a blog in which to bloviate on whatever topic catches my eye, in a manner both less-practiced and less original than others squeezing their way through this tubular environment. Because I've had some contact with journalism, politics, and science, as well as the literature which I now study, this blog is liable to range. I'm also likely to invite others to post once in a while; I hope to assemble a broad buffet of over-cooked tidbits for your consumption. Enjoy.