Friday, August 8, 2008
Following my own moving and somewhat alarming experience with rising Kundalini energy last year, I've read more than a few articles on the physiology of the still-somewhat-new-to-the-West phenomenon. Yesterday, I read an article by Ravindra Kumar and Margaret Dempsey that was published in the Journal of Religion & Psychical Research (July 2002, Vol. 25, Issue 3) titled "Kundalini, Soul and the Right Side of the Brain."
In their abstract, they state their major claim: "Kundalini shifts consciousness from the left side of the brain to the right resulting in spiritual intuitions and insights."
We'll get back to that. Today, I made what was probably a seemingly throw-away remark on Michael's blog that would not surprise any of my four regular readers -- I suggested that rationalism is a way of thinking and knowing (call it "heady") that need not necessarily be assumed as a better alternative to something non-rational ("hearty"). **
The right brain, to remind my readers, would be associated with the non-rational or "hearty" way of knowing -- but as Kumar & Dempsey note, it is also the half of the brain that "runs" the left side of our body.
One more digression: my wife is left-handed. She claims that lefties have a kind of implicit understanding among each other. Her favorite place to visit has always been Block Island, RI, where an incredible 38% of residents are left-handed. She says it's an essential part of the culture there, but of course, when I ask her to explain what she means, she cannot rationally account for it. Not incidentally, my wife seems to me to be a quintessential example of the right-brain type.
My thesis: that the rational and non-rational thinking are co-equal (if very different) ways of encountering the world. Further, that humankind has probably had its phases where either one of these modes was dominant (perhaps the "Dark Age"?). Further, that handedness might serve as a general indicator of what kind of thinking, and in what percentage, our society values.
Currently, roughly 10% of people are left-handed. If I'm right, that means that (roughly) one in ten people are non-rational-dominant thinkers.
If there were a time an place in human history where non-rational thinking was dominant, I would expect to find a far greater percentage of inhabitants who were left-handed. Of late, the Mayans with their mystical astrological understanding and their calendar ending in 2012 have been among the most famous non-rational thinkers in history. I'd like to hire some diggers to tell me if their pottery was made for lefties.
In any case, what I really want to suggest is that there may sometimes be changes in society and human being that are so vast, slow, and subtle that they go almost undetected -- that they cannot be readily conceived because they seem stable to the lay observer. If babies born after December of 2012 start to use their left hands more often, though -- don't be totally surprised.
*What I've proposed here I've come to know because I am left-brained by nature and mostly nurture, but in the course of the Kundalini experience, I became aware of the right brain way of thinking. I'm a little ambidextrous with my head, that is.
**Since I'm linking to Michael's blog, I thought I might make an example out of his content. Michael's talking about the value difference between African American Enlish Vernacular and whatever we call what Brian Williams speaks. Michael assumes, I think rightly, that each of these languages expresses some things better, and some things worse, than the other -- in other words, that they are co-equals with widely divergent uses. I think the same mindset might be very effectively applied to the difference between Rational and Mystical (or "non-rational") thinking, for many of the same reasons Michael offers in justification of his argument: certainly the rational way has its strengths and can reveal certain truths -- possibly the mystical is just as effective (I think we live in a culture that unfairly values the rational to the exclusion of the mystical).
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Today I was reading Cosmos and Psyche on the porch, reading Tarnas' chapter on what Carl Jung called "synchronicity." Jung's word concerns those coincidences that seem a little too improbable to be entirely devoid of meaning. I was reading on the porch with my wife, sort of vaguely trying to open myself to synchronicity to see if I could "get it to happen."
Digression: since I met her, Gretchen's been telling me to read Eckhart Tolle -- "I know you'll like him," she always says. His first book was called The Power of Now, and his more recent international sensation (thanks to Oprah's Book Club) is titled A New Earth. I've put off reading Tolle because I've sort of figured I knew what was inside: a kind of new-agey metaphysic based on something-like-prayer-and-gratitude. Ho-hum. I'm too smart for that nonsense.
While I was reading Tarnas this morning I said to Gretchen, "You know, this guy is sort of suggesting a new way of thinking that is neither exclusively modern nor 'primal' in its nature -- it's almost like he's describing a third way that is a mystical combination of both."
"Like Eckhart," she said, with a glare.
I fell to reading silently, and these are the first two paragraphs I read (!!!) in Cosmos and Psyche after the exchange about Eckhart Tolle:
"Tolle, lege!?!" Okay, okay -- so I went inside and picked up Gretchen's copy of A New Earth, opened to a random page, and went down 14 lines (in honor of Petrarch). Come to think of it, I think I'll keep what I read there private, but just admit that, well... it was awesome.
On rare occasions a synchronicity proves to have an extraordinary power through its impact on an historically significant individual, so that it ultimately plays a pivotal role in the collective life of the larger culture. The famous coincidence that formed a turning point in the life of Petrarch took place at the climax of his ascent of Mont Ventoux in April 1336, an event that has long been regarded by scholars as representing the symbolic beginning of the Renaissance. For many years Petrarch had sensed a growing impulse to ascend the mountain, to see the vast panorama from its peak, though doing such a thing was virtually unheard of in his time. Finally choosing the day, with his brother for a companion, he made the long ascent, marked by intense physical exertion and inward reflection. When he at last attained the summit, with clouds below his feet and winds in his face, Petrarch found himself overwhelmed by the great sweep of the world that now opened out to him--snowcapped mountains and the sea in the distance, rivers and valleys below, the wide expanse of skies in every direction. James Hillman recounts the event:
At the top of the mountain, with the exhilarating view of French Provence, the Alps, and the Mediterranean spread before him, he had opened his tiny pocket copy of Augustine's Confessions. Turning at random to book X, 8, he read: "And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty billows of the sea, the broad tide of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, and pass themselves by..."
Petrarch was stunned at the coincidence between Augustine's words and the time and place they were read. His emotion both announced the revelation of his personal vocation and heralded the new attitude of the Renaissance... Petrarch draws this crucial conclusion from the Mont Ventoux event: "Nothing is admirable but the soul" (nihil praeter animum esse mirabile).
Petrarch was so moved by the coincidental force of Augustine's words that he remained silent for the entire descent down the mountain. He at once recognized the coincidence as part of a larger pattern of such transformative moments that had happened to others in the history of spiritual conversions. "I could not believe that it was by a mere accident that I happened upon them. What I had there read I believed to be addressed to me and to no other, remembering that Saint Augustine had once suspected the same thing in his own case." For indeed Augustine had undergone a nearly identical experience at his own momentous spiritual turning point. In the garden of Milan in 386, in a frenzy of spiritual crisis, he heard a child's voice from a nearby house mysteriously repeating the words, "Tolle, lege" ("Pick up and read").
If you think this post is "too much" (Michael, Santos, Mxrk), consult Pt. 1 of the Tarnas posts. It's much more likely.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
Tarnas' first book was published in 1991, and was called The Passion of the Western Mind. I haven't read it, but it supposedly traced the whole history of Western thought from the presocratics through postmodernism. Quoting Santayana, and in the tradition of Carl Jung and Joseph Cambell, Tarnas finds himself within that immaculately ignored tradition of powerful thinking that resists and has been resisted by academia.
Think about that again for a moment: Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect. In Tarnas' opening chapters, he suggests that we are living in a kind of intellectual sea-change of the same magnitude as that represented by the Copernican revolution. He tells the story of those early astronomical reformers, and reminds us that Copernicus and his immediate followers were not hailed as the geniuses that history revealed them to be. Instead, they "wrote letters to each other across centuries," and they argued with the twin authorities of the church (which might be expected) and the general scientific community, who regarded a heliocentric theory as betraying the most fundamental of our sensory observations.
Tarnas challenges us to imagine the same kind of new thought emerging today. It would have to be described by politicians, by scientists, by academics, and by theologians -- by all of them, it would be dismissed as ridiculous. There would not be a vast and happy transformation over the course of 18 months; instead, this transformation might take centuries.
All of this makes me think about the prejudices of academics -- the ones that I have observed in others, of course (as I am blind to my own!). What things have academics not only disagreed with, but effectively refused to consider over the past decade? A tentative list:
- The possibility that personal "identity" is illusory and unimportant
- The ennobling potential of devout spirituality
- The prospect of an eternal universe (i.e., no Big Bang)
- Conservative economics
- "Essences," Truth (sg.), and authoritarianism
- That "Progress" is a myth (note: postmodern theorists love to claim that they believe progress is a myth, but I've seen almost none of them [in academia] behave accordingly -- that is, renounce the notions of better Justice and intellectual superiority that seem to come naturally with history -- that is, most graduate students think they are more knowing than Plato because they've read Derrida, who came "after" Plato in historical terms)
- That astrology is the product of ancient wisdom rather than superstition
- That the mind is not entirely physiological -- i.e., that Prozac is/has been a con
- That sexuality is a not genetic matter
- That man-made global warming is an overall positive
Of course, this is a list composed mostly of my own observations, and probably is the result of my own biases and prejudices. Feel free to call me out: what do I refuse to consider? What about you? Have you remained chaste so long that you've forgotten how to give yourself over, making chastity itself a hollow act of dead piety? Are the words of the prophets really written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and not in Philological Quarterly? Have you scoffed at our time's Copernicus?
For good measure, here's a YouTube video of Harvard Professor Richard Tarnas speaking as the keynote at a conference on astrology (yes, astrology, not astronomy):
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Yet, when it comes to literary criticism, no stubbing can pass unremarked. It's in the nature of the game. Most of the time, I think it's right and proper that critics ask "What does that mean?" of even the smallest details. In one of Poe's more famous essays on art, he claims not to have put anything in the story but that which was absolutely necessary -- in other words, he encourages us to look that closely. If a character stubs a toe, by golly, it must be an allusion to "Achilles' Heel" or something!
But I have begun to wonder whether "looking closely" and "looking critically" are two different things: the difference between "seizing the day," "getting the most out of life," "Being present," on the one hand and, on the other, asking "What does that mean?" If you stub your toe, the gurus say "Go into that, let it be, get the full experience." But honestly, nobody (sane) asks what it means when they stub their toe.
I am thinking, again, of the correspondence (if I were a postmodernist I would definitely turn that into a renewed jargon-word and write: "correspondance.") between narrative fiction and life. My reading and my living have so far convinced me that we tend to treat these things very differently, and that it might be more interesting (both in terms of living and to our reading experience) if we did not. I'm working on finding a way to demonstrate this point without resorting to storytelling.
Comments are welcome, but this is just thinking aloud at this point, I suppose.
Monday, July 14, 2008
My concern is with the Obama supporters who think in terms of utopia and panacea: most of them from the generation of possibly-somewhat-naive optimists (and heck, what generation isn't when it's 18-27-years old?), these voters are overwhelmed with joy at the possibility that all social ills will be cured if only we elect the right man in the fall.
Of which social ills I will name poverty and racism as among the most upsetting to young voters. And while it's nice to see that another generation of humans will have consciences, I'm frightened to think that critical thinking might not come along for the ride.
I remember having one of those most excellent graduate school dialogues in Heav. 215 a couple of years ago with some of my four regular readers -- we were disagreeing about something having to do with social welfare spending. They were arguing for more, and I was saying "fine," but asking for a better delineation around the question of "how much is enough?" I used the case of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," and the conversation came to an abrupt halt -- not because I had made an airtight case, but rather, because nobody else in the room had ever heard of such a thing.
Not to make too much of a history lesson of it, but...
In Johnson's first State of the Union address, "he called for a war on poverty and the creation of a 'Great Society,' a prosperous nation that had overcome racial divisions" (source). Wikipedia reports, "New major spending programs that addressed education, medical care, urban problems, and transportation were launched during this period." The Great Society even set aside new funds for touchy-feely things like "English" and painting, enough to form the financial foundation for the National Endowment for Arts and Humanities. Oh, and, there was a big war happening overseas at the time (1965) that was getting worse by the minute. If you're planning on voting for Obama, all of this -- almost to a word -- should sound familiar. And admittedly, it sounds great.
On paper. In my judgment, however, history took a turn for the not-much-better. Whether I'm correct or just being Debbie Downer I'll leave it up to ya'll to judge... I will note, however, that racism and poverty still exist, last I checked. And might exist even after Obama takes office. Brace yourselves.
Oh, and, oil lines might exist too. See 1973, for example.
Saturday, July 12, 2008
I thought there might be three possibilities: 1) They look back on us and understand our "major" keys but sort of don't understand our daily existences... maybe they have a grip on what religion was, for example, but not on exactly how we expected it to work (or whatever). 2) They look back on us as pre-"human" or something, precisely the way we think of cro-magnon. 3) They've been so burdened by their knowledge of history that they haven't been able to "evolve" in any significant ways. They're basically bookkeepers too frightened to make the break to Ubermensch territory.
Now I don't mean to make myself out to be Stephen Daedalus or anything, but all of this took about three seconds. Interesting enough, but then I wondered about the possibility of human lineage being somehow terminated (probably global warming, no doubt!).
I decided I could handle that, but that I was very uncomfortable with the idea of "intelligence" being extinct. Could it be preserved, I wondered? Could we somehow put the basics of our collective experience in an airtight steel orb and hope that curiosity would someday prompt another intelligent species to crack it open (imagine their surpise!)?
Key to this endeavor would be a way of thinking that, I believe, does not come naturally to us. In order to preserve some of our experience for a future intelligent species that is not derived from humanity, we would have to think about how other species think. I do not believe this comes naturally to us: whenever I have heard this topic approached it has been framed in terms of human intelligence: e.g., dolphins are, relative to humans, not as smart. We have taught chimps to identify some of our words and images. But what if we ask how chimps think without assuming they think less efficiently--what if we cease comparing? What do they know? How might we encapsulate our collective experience in a way that it might be intelligible to them if they ever stumbled upon it in the future? Is intelligence anything?
If I remember correctly, something like this was represented in the Jodie Foster movie, Contact. Or some movie like it. The scientists sent a kind of time capsule out into space with contents including basic arithmetic and geometry, assuming any intelligent species would have some notion of basic mathematics. I wonder if that's a safe assumption?
One of the marks of psychological maturity is being able to think like another person. I wonder if it's possible to think like another species?
Apologies for the length, again. I'm working on it.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
Well, frankly, because five years ago it seemed like a really good point to me. Although it somehow "felt wrong," I couldn't figure out how to respond to the argument with an argument that felt better.
However! -- lately I swear that a monkey could see through to the silly assumptions of that claim. Everyone watching coverage of the 2008 election cycle should be able to see who is "in the bag" for which candidate. Partisan outlets like Fox News, Air America, and Rush Limbaugh aside, it's easy to tell that Keith Olbermann is a democrat -- and yet, when Tim Russert died, Olbermann grandstanded with a wrinkle on his earnest-looking brow with Chris Matthews: "It was amazing how Tim gave equal balance to both sides of every argument -- and isn't that what we all aspire to, as journalists?"
Well, no, Olbermann -- obviously not. You don't. Rush Limbaugh doesn't. And so on. But the question for postmodernists does not concern hacks like those. The question is, did someone like Tim Russert manage to approach objectivity in his journalistic persona?
I think he did. I think it's possible. And I'll prove it right now. But first, soften yourself up, reader. I'm not going to be able to make my case unless you admit that you're drawn to hacks like Olbermann and Limbaugh -- you find them exciting, don't you? It's good to hear simple interpretations that spare you the effort of thinking, especially when they're delivered with the tones of earnestness. If you do feel implicated, don't fret -- you're certainly not alone. Olbermann and O'Reilly and Limbaugh are popular. Apparently everybody likes one of them.
But talking politics makes your shoulders tight, doesn't it, Reader? Allow me to use an analogy instead, before returning to the direct question of whether or not it might be possible to report on history (and current events) in a way that would bewilder Foucault's disciples.
The analogy is the umpire. When I played baseball, I hated umpires. And not just when they made bad calls -- which they did all of the time in my opponents' favor. I hated them for their lack of passion. I wondered what it would take to descend to such a lamentable condition as a human being. What kind of childhood abuse would lead someone to become... an umpire.
But as I've stepped away from active participation in baseball, my respect for umpires has grown. I have come to understand that umpires value the game itself above either of the teams competing. They manage to observe without bias.
"Not so quick!" hollers the Foucalt-worshipper. "You've forgotten that the umpire assents to the overarching ideology of 'baseball' itself every time he steps onto the field. If he is an American league umpire, he reveals himself as ideologically in favor of the designated hitter just by agreeing to call a game."
But in corresponding terms, if you will grant that the umpire can call a game without harboring bias against either of the teams, won't you admit that a journalist or historian (or critic) may "call" that game without bias to partisan factions, at least?
Take the rise of Barack Obama and the 2008 election, now. Wouldn't it be possible to report on what is happening without bias? I think it would. I think an artist could do it. And so I come to what this post is really about:
Definition of Art and Artistry: Art opposes partisanship.
Is that true?
I'll start writing shorter posts again soon -- apologies. It takes practice.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Saving the planet is really big right now among 18-27-year olds, it turns out. Everywhere I turn lately I hear them saying things like, "We just gotta get the message out, you know -- spread awareness" or, sometimes more urgently, "We need to fundamentally change the way we live."
I do not mean to question their earnestness -- in fact, I'm certain that all of this is well-meaning and generated by the best intentions. I admire the optimism and even aspire to this kind of active engagement.
However, I genuinely believe that this movement has relied on the sloppy and uncritical thinking that has almost been nurtured in this generation, and I think the evidence is growing. This website carries an interesting banner/headline-thing: "There's nothing wrong with a fourth grade understanding of science. If you're a fourth grader." On this part of that site, you can watch a clip from a segment put together by Penn and Teller of "magic" fame and of HBO's series, Bullshit. In the clip -- which can be enjoyed whether you're nervous about global warming or not -- Penn and Teller lay bare the problem with critical thinking that these young people seem to share.
I have written before about my suspicion of science and my desire to see a "Scientific Reformation" in which money would be removed from the field of science (never happen, I know). Might be worth revisiting.
To this day, I've never talked to a person who believes in the man-made global warming crisis who has been able to cite any specific reliable information as the reason for their belief. Instead, they've heard it all over the place, seen Al Gore's movie and, well, that's been good enough for them. (Apparently having numbers on the X and Y axis of your graphs is superflous these days, Mr. Gore?)
Now, none of this would be a problem if "fighting global warming" was harmless -- but I am increasingly convinced that our imbalanced drive to "conserve" natural resources and to clean up our environment is beginning to cause human poverty. Gas prices are only the most obvious culprit -- food prices have risen. Taxes are heavier. While America's upper-middle-class works to ban fossil fuels and to convince us that we should worry about offsetting our carbon footprint (buying indulgences, anyone!?), the rest of us are stuck with a price tag that is becoming increasingly unmanageable. Read even a little about malaria in Africa and the way that DDT would wipe out the disease altogether if only Rachel Carson's vision were not so influential.
I've used this scenario before, but it bears repeating: imagine that "scientists" discover next week that (somehow) carbon dioxide in the atmosphere actually increases the health of the planet and its species -- after all, plants "breathe" CO2, and perhaps they could be spurred to grow better. Whatever. If that happened, and Al Gore got on the air and said, "We were wrong -- CO2 is a good thing. Keep those factories pumping. In fact, step it up a little bit!" -- If all of that happened, what do we think would happen to the contemporary environmentalist crowd? Would they agree to urge industry to Go Go Go gangbusters?
I have a suspicion they wouldn't, and it's because the global-warming crowd is fundamentally motivated by a dissatisfaction with capitalism, and they're using (more or less consciously) the "Green" movement as a means to an end (that is, to moderating or ending capitalism).
Don't misunderstand: that's a viable argument, and I'd like to talk about it -- capitalism does seem rough, and sometimes I think it only "works" for about 10% of the population. Maybe we should get another system where we can all dress up like big bird and dance more and never work for "the man." But as Penn and Teller point out, I wish that we could call a duck a duck and talk about what we're really talking about.
Oh, and because I know somebody's going to be a wise guy and tell me I don't have the facts to back all of this up and maybe I'm the one being uncritical.... well, no. I was going to provide a series of links just then questioning the "science" of global warming. But you're big kids now -- look it up yourself.
Sunday, July 6, 2008
Over the past few years I've noticed a very interesting phenomenon working in my life. I'll tell a story to explain:
Does my friend the linguist have a more variegated visual experience as a consequence of his broader vocabulary?
Forthcoming posts will likely include:
- Some less reactionary, better informed arguments concerning the dangers inherent in the political movement known as environmentalism.
- Further consideration about the person of Jesus.
- Some photoshopped self-portraits.
- Questions about pedagogy and the problems implicit in "teaching."
- Observations concerning "the South," from a newly embedded reporter.
- A review of E.L. Doctorow's City of God and some insightful critical commentary.
- Some parables (because they have ears, but do not listen--or whatever).
- Links to incredible or important news items.
- A poem or two.
- Some radical and possibly controversial interpretations of history.
- Plenty of other unnecessary 500-wordish experiments in communication.
And, I hope -- I still genuinely hope -- that all of my readers will feel welcomed and encouraged to comment or criticize or debate or, finally, to acquiesce on a semi-frequent basis.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
So, look for my future work in obscure academic journals full of platitudinous, eminently safe phrases about revolution and justice and rebellion and progress and "the new left" or whatever.
Years later, if all goes well, look for my Camille-Paglia-like inflammatory post-academia column in the N Y Times (and syndicates).
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.
Remember hearing that when you were young?--it must have been a kind of truism for our grandparents' generation. I think it is time we recognize that we don't believe Santayana anymore, that we are no longer in control of our fate, and that we are currently blindly repeating history. Of course, if we could admit this then we would not be blind; this is the essence of Fate. Admittedly, there is something thrilling about living "out of history." It occurs to me that a civilization in irreversible decline might put its hands over its eyes and simply enjoy the fall.
Occasional Thought: perhaps the central wisdom of all religion is this: that when the current world order ends (when the apocalypse is upon the world), one must understand that all is not lost. Those American citizens who would be prepared to face the fall of the American Republic, for example, are the true believers.
Question: Could civilization not be based on a con, a scam, or a lie? Maybe we need one. NBC is pushing the motto "Green is Universal" this week (wow--does nobody remember two years ago when there were "no grand narratives?"). Are we living through an eclipse of unifying ideologies, where "religion" of the old order is being replaced by "religion" of the new order? Roman citizens!--respondez!
Addendum: I'm not the only one who says so. See also. See also. See also.
Postscript: At first I thought to myself, hey, what's the big deal? Then I thought, and who reads this blog anyway? But now I think that blogs are probably being recorded somewhere in the annals of internetography, and I'd like to be on record saying that I do not think this scam is "harmless." Pascal's wager does not apply to the environment. What we have to lose by "going green" may be far greater than what we have to gain. Those who think medieval serf-style hunger and poverty can never happen again in the West have almost no understanding of the real-world data that constitutes economic reality.
Qualified Self-Rejoinder: However, this is not to say we ought not to value Nature. We should. I do very much, and I will happily participate in any voluntary beautification schemes. I like state parks, I dislike chimney stacks, I enjoy frisbee golf, and long walks in the woods, and fishing. I'm certainly not a technophile. I would encourage people to plant trees...
Wednesday, November 7, 2007
- "His state/Is kingly: thousands at his bidding speed,/And post o'er land and ocean without rest;/They also serve who only stand and wait." (Milton, "On His Blindness")
- "Silence is the only voice of our God." (Melville, Pierre)
- "It is when from the innermost depths of our being we need a sound which does mean something--when we cry out for an answer and it is not given us--it is then that we touch the silence of God." (Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace)
- "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence." (Simon and Garfunkel)
And with epigraphs like these, I'm thinking--who needs a chapter???
Sunday, October 28, 2007
Friday, October 26, 2007
Then again, this biological bifurcation does seem on the outside regions of possibility, I suppose. But is Wells' claim in 1895 any more or less authoritative than the 2007 claim by an important "scientist?"
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
I'm inventing a new tag that signifies the start of a new category on this blog: "I'm-so-sure."
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
The Bush presidency has damaged American civil society in many ways, but one of the most lasting may be its destructive effect on conservatism. Even those who do not call themselves conservatives must acknowledge the power and enduring value of core conservative beliefs: belief in individual agency and responsibility, respect for American institutions and traditions, a resolute commitment to freedom, a willingness to take principled moral stands. It is a movement that draws its inspiration from towering figures: Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke. It stands for caution in foreign adventures, fiscal sobriety and a profound respect for tradition.The writer, Gary Kamiya, goes on to say, "...Or at least it used to stand for those things." The article is a very clear assessment of the damages, and even hints at the fact that eventually, perhaps even under a different banner, those values (if not the Republican Party) will find their way into public discourse once again in a serious and un-hypocritical way.
But I have a question about Fate that I'd like to ask if I can get my readers to acknowledge its existence as even a small part of human existence--unfortunately, the question is about whether or not accepting the term (and the phenomenon it claims to describe) is unethical.
Consider: A man--a recovering alcoholic who has been sober for five years--this man's wife has been angry with him lately because the family is barely making ends meet; they do not have enough money to put any away for retirement or even for their children's college funds. Now imagine a very tense situation, one in which the man is presented with an opportunity to gain financial freedom, but that the opportunity somehow involves his participation in drinking (say he has a business meeting in Japan at a Karaoke bar, where custom dictates: thou shalt drink!). He does it, thinking it'll be no big deal. But, breaking his sober-streak, he falls of the wagon (gets the job!), and though he has plenty of money, his marriage falls apart because he's such a bumbling drunk.
Would it be unethical for this man to say, "I accept a lot of the responsibility for what happened -- but I do want to mention that Fate arranged one hell of a trap for me. The pressure from my wife, the pressure from the businessmen, all mixed up with my own personal/historical weakness... it was too much."
That's probably a very poor demonstration--but I hope you can imagine a good one. But here's the question: when do we find it acceptable for a person to disclaim responsibility by blaming circumstance? Ever?
Tuesday, October 16, 2007
It seems simple: when executive power is increased, freedom may be decreased... and when executive power is decreased, order may be decreased. But it's not simple: how--by exactly what standards--do we decide what degree of freedom and order we want?
Do we vote?-------Or do we trust?
So which side will you be on? The answer is probably "both" according to whatever circumstance presents itself. Wisdom says so. But still, if we go with that as an answer, what circumstance does justify executive power if not something like 9/11? I don't think this is as easy as "liberal" vs. "conservative." In truth, something like universal health care, which is currently a "liberal" issue, is in fact a unifying program, an ordering impulse--and though it robs us of freedom and options, some people support that move to unify. On the other hand, conservatives are rarely interested in using executive power when it comes to regulating economic activity.
I'm trying to show that everyone who ascribes to party politics these days is clinging to an untenable (or hypocritical) political philosophy. Am I succeeding?
Sunday, October 14, 2007
...And he sounds like a fringe lunatic. But hold the phone, Dr. William Gray can actually afford not to care about grants. He's 78, and he already made his reputation. If I'm wrong about global warming being an alarmist appeal to our ugliest susceptibilities, fine; Science can march on its merry, uncorrupted way. But if Dr. William Gray and I turn out to be right, I want to see a list of names in clear, sans serif font, of all the "scientists" who were so persuaded that the end was near. No one has ever been foolish enough to think that politicians were noble enough to resist the temptation of the almighty dollar, but for some reason we think scientists are exempt, above it all? I honestly believe that science is suffering a kind of meltdown, observable even in the short span of time between when I was in junior high school and now, that involves the influence of money. What is needed is, strange to say, something like a scientific reformation. Someone needs to stand up and get money out of science. If Martin Luther is reincarnated and living again today, I hope he's 22, wearing a lab coat, and about to graduate... but then, I wonder if he'll be able to resist that dangling fellowship for scholars interested in global warming?
It bothers me that my fellow scientists are not speaking out against something they know is wrong... But they also know that they'd never get any grants if they spoke out. I don't care about grants.
Again, if I'm wrong (we'll reconvene here in 2025, say?), I apologize--someone had to play the skeptic. But if I'm right, can we please not reinvent another apocalypse myth just to keep us all fretting?
...In one wing, the oxygen mask taken from the famous writer of terza rema glee while in another an infant arrives...
There's a really great post over at Heaven Tree about "fake mysteries." It's so good, there's not much left to say, but since Gawain's talking painting, I might complain about an unfortunate aesthetic approach that I've detected in some contemporary poetry (sometimes called "associative"). I guess I'll pick Dean Young as my target, but only because he's probably the best known representative of this unhappy "technique."
Gawain comments on this painting (apparently, the most famous in Venice!):
Far from being a carefully laid out puzzle, it has been assembled haphazardly and several times repainted. X-ray analysis has revealed that the armed man on the left had originally been — a naked woman, a scale of change not consistent with any conception of a thought-through, a priori worked out ideographical program. The painting’s composition was in fact an ad hoc exercise in mystification: “Let’s see, said the painter to himself, what do I put on the left? A naked woman?” He did, stepped back, and looked at it. “Nah, that don’t work. How about… how about… I know! An armed man! Let me try it… Yeah, that looks weird enough.”
Gawain calls this kind of mystification "an intellectual fake," and I strenuously agree. Read some Dean Young poetry here and here. It all certainly sounds "weird enough," but what does it mean?
I'm comfortable saying "It doesn't mean anything," and reading better poetry, but I am a little frustrated by the popular success achieved by these kinds of, ahem, artists. I've heard enough people talk about appreciating Dean Young's poetry that I can recall a few of their keywords: "It's a tone," or "The images are vivid," or "It has something to do with sound," but the justification always seems hazy like this, always non-specific, always unconvincing and unconvinced.
And yet I'm not wholly innocent of these charges. There is something about Dali... vivid images, maybe. Haha. And maybe even this guy:
Saturday, October 13, 2007
- "Philosophy and Religion in the Classical Greek World," a lecture by Isabel Pafford from UC Berkeley's History 4A class.
- "Daily Life in the Classical Greek World: Economy and Society," Isabel Pafford.
- "Democracy and Empire in Classical Athens," Isabel Pafford.
- "The Devil and Tom Walker," a short story by Washington Irving (The Classic Tales Podcast).
- "Rappacini's Daughter," a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- "The Ambitious Guest," another by Hawthorne
- Beethoven's Sonata Appassionata
- Matt Haimovitz plays Bach, WGBH classical performance
- Colin Carr plays Bach, WGBH
- The Moscow String Quartet plays Mozart, WGBH
In conclusion, I like Isabel Pafford's lectures, I'm thrilled that I can listen to stories I have only previously been able to read, and my tastes in classical music are exceptionally unexceptional.
Tuesday, October 9, 2007
Thursday, October 4, 2007
From the coffee shop, then, I walked to the parking garage where my car was parked on the sixth floor. Between the coffee shop and the garage, I started feeling pretty good, so I decided to climb all six floors rather than take the elevator. On my way up the stairs, feeling good and not thinking about anything in particular, I started singing to myself, "Don't bring me down," by (I had to look this up) Electric Light Orchestra. I sang whichever words I knew, and hummed the rest. I opened my car door, started it up, and the radio was blasting: "You got me runnin goin out of my mind / You got me thinkin that I'm wastin my time / Don't bring me down... no no no no no..."
As a follow up to my previous post, and in particular to my comments on psychiatry and metaphysics, I re-read chapter 16 from Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man. If you have any interest in this topic, I really urge you to spend ten minutes reading the chapter. I first read the book five or six years ago, and it seemed to be about naivety or gullibility or susceptibility. It seemed to be about how "con-men" can take advantage of us if we aren't on guard with skepticism.
I have a different view of the book now. These days, I tend to think that Melville meant to dramatize the difficulties of "keeping the faith," or, staying "confident" -- what I recognized at an earlier time in my life as naivety. With these two different ways of reading the story in mind, consider (if you can't read the whole chapter) the following dialogue between a "sick" (read: depressed) man and a peculiar kind of healer:
So I suppose the big question I want to pose is whether or not this "herb-doctor" is a huckster or something else. And if it's utterly clear to you that he is a huckster/con-man, don't feel bad. I've read him that way before -- in fact, I think that would be most people's reading.
The herb-doctor took a sealed paper box from his surtout pocket, and holding it towards him, said solemnly, "Turn not away. This may be the last time of health's asking. Work upon yourself; invoke confidence, though from ashes; rouse it; for your life, rouse it, and invoke it, I say."
The other trembled, was silent; and then, a little commanding himself, asked the ingredients of the medicine.
"What herbs ? And the nature of them ? And the reason for giving them ?"
"It cannot be made known."
"Then I will none of you."
Sedately observant of the juiceless, joyless form before him, the herb-doctor was mute a moment, then said: -- "I give up."
"You are sick, and a philosopher."
"No, no; -- not the last."
"But, to demand the ingredient, with the reason for giving, is the mark of a philosopher; just as the consequence is the penalty of a fool. A sick philosopher is incurable."
"Because he has no confidence."
"How does that make him incurable?"
"Because either he spurns his powder, or, if he take it, it proves a blank cartridge, though the same given to a rustic in like extremity, would act like a charm. I am no materialist; but the mind so acts upon the body, that if the one have no confidence, neither has the other."
Again, the sick man appeared not unmoved. He seemed to be thinking what in candid truth could be said to all this. At length, "You talk of confidence. How comes it that when brought low himself, the herb-doctor, who was most confident to prescribe in other cases, proves least confident to prescribe in his own; having small confidence in himself for himself?"
"But he has confidence in the brother he calls in. And that he does so, is no reproach to him, since he knows that when the body is prostrated, the mind is not erect. Yes, in this hour the herb-doctor does distrust himself, but not his art."
The sick man's knowledge did not warrant him to gainsay this. But he seemed not grieved at it; glad to be confuted in a way tending towards his wish.
"Then you give me hope ?" his sunken eye turned up.
"Hope is proportioned to confidence. How much confidence you give me, so much hope do I give you."
But what if there is something to the idea that placebo effect is majorly significant? What if what we really want is for a person with authority (in cases like these, we Westerners turn to "doctors" or "psychiatrists"; elsewhere it would be the village shaman) to tell us to take a pill or drink something, and for that authority figure to tell us it will be okay.
Especially with psychological sickness, I am inclined to believe this is almost possible: that if you are "a rustic" (caution: there are more rustics who think they aren't rustics than rustics who know they are rustics!) you will go to your doctor, describe your symptoms and trust (have confidence!) that what he prescribes will fix you. If, on the other hand, you happen to be a philosopher, you will demand to know how and why what he gives you will fix you... and if you be this latter, your chances for recovery or improvement are minimal.
Well, nobody considers himself or herself a bumpkin or a rustic -- and yet just how much faith do we put into our little pills? Into our health foods? Into other prescriptions? Shall we call this faith "confidence," or "naivety?" What if (drumroll, please!).... what if it is only the confidence, not the pill, that does the fixing? (play dramatic thunder peal)
That would be an utterly confusing and difficult thing to know. At first. But then one day you'd be walking along humming a song in your head and you'd get into your car and the song (an unlikely song, certainly!) would be playing on the radio... and you'd wonder if it might have been your confidence that triggered the whole thing. You'll wonder if you had just the pill you were looking for all along.
The wonderful thing about the Melvillian dialogue and about life in America in 2007 is that these pills give us such an undemanding opportunity to engage our faith. In this view, this herb-doctor and our contemporary psychiatrists are huge assets. When no pep-talk and no binging or purging can cure us of our mind sickness, these authority figures cannot promise us anything, but they can extend their hands with a smile and a pill, they can look confident themselves, and they give us every opportunity to demonstrate our faith. All we have to do is unscrew a child-proof cap twice a day.
See also. Question: is a mustard seed bigger or smaller than my cholesterol pills?
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
- Libertarian value theory
- Freedom of thought, culture, and the culture of "Race"
- Heroism and war
- The new (post 1980ish) disciplines in the Humanities
- Metaphysics and psychiatry
- Hypersensitivity and the word "awareness"
- E.M. Cioran, fascism, and the problems of democracy
- Ethics, hypocrisy, personal culpability
- The myth of progress and the year 1800 C.E.
- Jesus and modernism
- National funding and the corruption of science
- The threat of Russia
- "Identity addicts"
- Fear of faction in 1850, now
So -- those topics'll have to wait until after I get tenure. Unless someone wants to engage me in doublespeak in the comments section.
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Saturday, September 22, 2007
A good example for my generation remains Hitler. Before I can remember, one of my teachers constructed a very tight association between Hitler and evil, and subsequent teachers tightened the association. Of course, they were right. But being the quick and pragmatic fellow that I am and always have been, I learned to repeat what I had heard -- like Pavlov's dogs, I heard "Hitler" and responded "evil." But this is a benign example; there is no harm in calling Hitler evil. Although it does seem remotely disappointing that I gave little conscious thought to the matter before I turned about 20.
On the other hand, what happens when cultural changes outstrip pedagogical theory's ability to update itself? For example, in the 1980s, when I was growing up, the catch word for matters relating to race was "tolerance." It was a wonderful term compared to the phrase it superceded: "Separate but Equal." But eventually "tolerance" seemed to imply something undesirable -- after all, we "tolerate" things we don't particularly like. "Diversity" became the replacement term, and it does indeed seem preferable. But is there something embedded within even that term that isn't working anymore? I asked my students the other day, prompted by their aggressive apathy concerning the matter of race in America -- I urged them to talk candidly, promised I would not point at any of them and declare, "Racist!"
A consensus grew around two problems: 1) They all knew what (they thought) I wanted to hear. They (thought they) had heard it all before. "Racism is bad; diversity is good," and one even got up the nerve to mutter "blahblahblah" ironically. And 2) Diversity implies difference, and they were not willing to accept fundamental distinctions between people based on skin color.
Of course, all of this sounded suspiciously like white-privilege and avoidance to me (even when two black students agreed) -- after all, I have received my own careful training at the hands of institutional educators. But as I walked back to my office after class, it occurred to me that their resistance may not be passive aggressive racism, but rather unsophisticated consensus about something-other-than-racism. What if they were actually dealing with the principle (for once!!!)? What if they have truly experienced race-in-America differently than I and my predecessors have? Possible? Unlikely?
I'm still suspicious, and I'll probably continue to be. But now to my point (and, I honestly never thought I'd be linking to anything like this): Adrianne Curry's recent personal blog post on race is generating massive amounts of response, and I thought it worth pointing out, if only because there are so many comments in support of what she says.
I suppose we, especially those of us in the academy, could ignore this kind of thing -- that's one option. But if we don't, there are about two ways of dealing: 1) either this outburst from Curry is evidence of a gigantic and apparently growing problem; racism is (still) gaining ground as an ideology, OR 2) we might suppose that, through poorly expressed 7th-grade caps-locked phrases there are no ill-intentions, and that, untactful as these sentiments are, her call for "unity" reflects a growing ideology of utopian hopefulness and what Paul Gilroy calls post-raciological thinking. I will say: it doesn't help that Curry gets all racist-cliche by saying, "I even had a black boyfriend once!"
Honestly, I would be fully comfortable supposing this to be an example of racist ideology except for the note of sincerity that Curry manages to strike in her very last line: "now, have fun burning me at the stake." It's as if she knows that she will be attacked, which makes it no fun attacking her... Hmm.
Meanwhile. So much for utopia.
(Weird Update: Apparently Hitler is a more interesting case for some folks.)
Friday, September 21, 2007
Evidence: There was a small news item today about a reporter asking Hillary Clinton a stupid question: "How do you respond to the occasional rumor that you're a lesbian?" Our future president replied, "It's not true, but it is something that I have no control over. People will say what they want to say" (emphasis added).
First, I want to say that the source of sexuality seems to me to be an unresolved and unresolvable question; something like: Why do I like cheese more than tofu? Or brunettes more than blondes? So what follows isn't so much to claim that sexuality is a choice (I actually suspect that it's not) as it is a reiteration of the question.
Emphasizing the choicelessness of homosexuality seems to be the going line among self-proclaimed progressives, especially among baby-boomers. This is one of those questions that pops up in all kinds of bizarre corners of the internet. Google terms: "homosexuality + choice."
Now, for the record: hate groups and orthodox religionists insist that being gay is a choice, and a bad one. That works for them.
But it does not seem (to me) a very thoughtful response to say: "Being gay is not a choice."
Enlightened as I am, I tend to see a person's sexuality as morally neutral, which leads me to this question: who cares whether it's a choice or not? If homosexuality is a choice, after all, it seems a perfectly fine choice to me.
So my question to future-President Clinton and those who share the same perspective is: Doesn't the strenuous insistence on "fate" with regard to homosexuality seem to imply that it is not a co-equal behavior with heterosexuality? As I suggested above, if you believe as I do that sexuality is not a moral issue, then why so resistant to the idea that it might be a choice?
Comparative Example: Parents and teachers tend to believe that children shouldn't use swear words in elementary school, and adults feel comfortable saying things like, "Watch your language!" to the linguistic transgressors. But when the child has Tourette's, we say things like, "Well, the child isn't transgressing willfully when he screams 'sh*t-f---" every ten seconds."
If homosexuality is a kind of transgression, it makes sense to justify it by saying "it's not a choice!" If, on the other hand, it is not a transgression (as I'm claiming), then why do we feel motivated to disclaim it as a choice?
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
So instead, I'm attempting to mimic Brian's success with this -- for discussion: