Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Professionalization Forces Another Blogger Offline

I might have to let this blog float away into the aether pretty soon; apologies to loyal readers, but trying to write a blog that's accountable in a professional way sort of defeats the point of having a blog at all (for me, at least).

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

A Thinly Disguised Prophecy

Those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it.
--George Santayana


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.

So Necessary the Con of Man

I've been waiting to hear it phrased this way--although, I suppose one might argue that global warming isn't quite the greatest scam in history. Not yet. For the moment, that honor still goes to some guys in sandals bringing down the Roman Empire (or the institutionalizers of the sandal-wearing movement) in the first and second century A.D. Ahem--depending on your perspective, I suppose. But if the global warming (sandal-wearing) advocates continue to gain converts, they just might earn that honor...

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

An Epigraph is Worth 12,000 Words?

As I'm working on academic papers, I like to write under a few tentative epigraphs--sometimes I leave them in or replace them after I have written the chapter, sometimes I just take them out in the revision process. I'm currently about a dozen pages into the last chapter of my dissertation, which I will very loosely describe as "about Hawthorne's ethics," and these are the four tentative epigraphs at the top of my paper:
  1. "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")
  2. "Silence is the only voice of our God." (Melville, Pierre)
  3. "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)
  4. "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

"I met a traveler from an antique land..."

Went for a walk today with my camera. The "big bugs" are still around, even as we get ready to turn the calendars to November. This praying mantis had a certain majesty to him that made me recall a mostly-forgotten admonition from (I think) Emerson: in the lines I'm recalling, Emerson said that he would love to meet and befriend whoever could simply appreciate the beauty of nature without wanting to make it his own--that is, who could walk past the rosebush without plucking a stem, or past a praying mantis without taking its picture. Or maybe I felt like Hamlet, who can never bring himself to kill the praying Claudius.


Bonus points if you can name the source for this post's title (without using Google!). Here are a couple more pictures snapped during my walk today:

Google Page Rank -- Update

Yes! -- we're officially back on the map. Google was ranking Q-Majin? at 0/10 until this morning. Now we're working with a more respectable 3/10. My last blog made it up to 5/10... let's hope that doesn't happen again. That made me feel like I had to be responsible and accountable.

Friday, October 26, 2007

One More Ride on the Questionable-Science Bus

"Scientists" are at it again, now claiming that human beings will split into two races in the future -- read about it here. And yes, H.G. Wells did predict this prediction 110 years ago in his The Time Machine, as the article notes, so we're back to the same question: what is the difference between science and science-fiction these days?

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

Parallel Universes Exist! -- Parallel Scientists, However, Disagree

Read this quickly. Remember when "Science" was distinct from "Science-fiction?" My recent post on the need for science to undergo its own reformation, to discover its own Martin Luther, seems more and more vindicated by the minute.

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

What Was Right About the Republican Party

This might not interest my readers all that much, but I thought I'd link to a really great article at Salon.com about how George W. Bush has ruined conservatism. Here's an excerpt:

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.

Fate and Responsibility

Fate (or "destiny") has never been a very popular concept in America. Indeed, willful action is one of a few foundational axioms of Western culture--we like to say "make it or break it," and something about making your bed and lying in it.

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

Executive Power: Bush, Lincoln, Captain Ahab

There was an incredibly interesting (and mostly frightening) Frontline tonight on PBS concerning executive power called Cheney's Law. It raises what I think is an overwhelming and difficult question: how powerful do we want our president to be, and what restrictions should be put on his power? If you think it's an easy question, recall that Lincoln used executive power to keep these States "United." Then again, Stalin used it to starve ten million people.

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?
Pluralism?------------Monomania?
Diversity?------------------Unity?
Faction?------------------- Union?
Freedom?-----------------Order?
Economic Freedom?-----Equality?


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?

Cioran on the Poverty of Philosophy

Found a great epigraph for this blog--will update design accordingly in near future:

We do not argue the universe; we express it. And Philosophy does not express it. --E.M. Cioran, A Short History of Decay

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Skeptical Scientist? Isn't that an Oxymoron?

No, actually--it's not. In fact, it used to be a commonplace. But this article from The Sydney Morning Herald quotes skeptical scientist Dr. William Gray saying, of Al Gore and his disciples:

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.

...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?

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?

Jasmine Green Tea and Used Furniture

...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

iPod Rundown, or, What's my Culture Rating?

I'm still a little excited about that post below, but I'm willing to move on. My e-friend Richard over at The Existence Machine occasionally gives readers his "iPod rundown," and I like the genre. Here's my personal list--and I'd like to note, all of this stuff is free!:
  1. "Philosophy and Religion in the Classical Greek World," a lecture by Isabel Pafford from UC Berkeley's History 4A class.
  2. "Daily Life in the Classical Greek World: Economy and Society," Isabel Pafford.
  3. "Democracy and Empire in Classical Athens," Isabel Pafford.
  4. "The Devil and Tom Walker," a short story by Washington Irving (The Classic Tales Podcast).
  5. "Rappacini's Daughter," a story by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  6. "The Ambitious Guest," another by Hawthorne
  7. Beethoven's Sonata Appassionata
  8. Matt Haimovitz plays Bach, WGBH classical performance
  9. Colin Carr plays Bach, WGBH
  10. 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

Q-Majin? is an Idea Buffet

Apparently (see below) nobody likes to comment on amazing symphony-like blog posts anymore. No problem. My latest symphonic masterpiece appears as a comment over at Insignificant Wranglings. Pick your poison.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

A Sick Philosopher is Incurable

Today, I left my office having put in a decent day's work at school, and started heading home to do some more work--the kind that can be done at a computer. But on my way, I remembered that my wife said she'd be hanging out at a local coffee shop, so I took the long detour. I didn't even get a drink. Just stopped to smile and make sure she was feeling good.

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:

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.

"Herbs."

"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."

"How?"

"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."

"Why?"

"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."

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.

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

On Pseudo-Dialogue

Here are some things I've wanted to write about but think it best to avoid because I'm going on the job market and, despite clamourous rhetoric to the contrary, academia doesn't always welcome certain perspectives as much as others:
  • 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

Sports: Metaphor for Metaphor for Tr-th

I don't have much to say in response (or maybe I do but I'm not willing to admit it), but this article is one awesome piece of sports journalism. It's superficially about Michael Vick and about killing dogs, but it's really about American history and "race." Er.... race. Well?--which is it?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Another Little Dose of Tr-th

By kindergarten, I knew them as cold pricklies and warm fuzzies. This webpage made me laugh, though, because it's true.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Supermodel Comments on Racialist Ideology; Dissents

One of the serious problems of institutional education is that students are often more capable of learning how to get by than they are of learning a principle. In most cases, this dynamic is illustrated in those moments where students say "the right thing" but without investing much thought in the principle that ought-to-have prompted the otherwise good answer.

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

Movie Recommendation

I take great pleasure in recommending an Icelandic film titled Nói albínói, because I genuinely loved it -- and (here's the most pleasurable part for me) I know that some people won't. If you rent it, make sure to watch the "Making of Noi" thingy after the film -- it's one of the best explanations I've ever heard of the Romantic aesthetic, though the director never calls it that.

Watch it.

Sexuality and Rhetorically-Suspect-Knee-Jerk-ism

Thesis: Aging hippies talk a better game than they play.

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

For Discussion: Is there Wisdom?

Brian's recent post at The Truth Cave has precipitated a great dialogue, and I'm struck by the "simplicity" of the prompt. My post below on Captain Ahab makes a woeful contrast, I'm afraid.

So instead, I'm attempting to mimic Brian's success with this -- for discussion:

Is there wisdom?

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Concerning Ahab

After Captain Ahab gives his famous "Quarter-Deck" speech in Moby-Dick, which convinces most of the crew to join him in the vengeful quest to kill the white whale, Ahab encounters a little resistance in the character of Starbuck, who proclaims, "Vengeance on a dumb brute... that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous."

Ahab pauses and feels compelled to reframe his argument for Christian Starbuck: "But come closer, Starbuck; thou requirest a little lower layer." Ahab explains to Starbuck, who represents the last bit of resistance, that all things, "all visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks." It's one of those lines that is quoted again and again by critics, but I doubt whether most of these critics have considered the possibility that Ahab includes the whale among the group of "all visible objects." And yet, that seems to be precisely what Ahab suggests to Starbuck at the "little lower layer":
...in each event--in the living act, the undoubted deed--there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask!

This exclamation implies that it is not the whale, nor, in turn, Ahab's revenge, that underlies the hunt -- instead, it is the unknown thing that comes from behind the thing itself. Ahab is not after the whale except as a "practically assailable" representation of the "thing itself" that Ahab cannot tolerate. But further on, Ahab calms down (as he sees Starbuck's resistance cool):
So, so; thou reddenest and palest; my heat has melted thee to anger-glow. But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat, that thing unsays itself. There are men from whom warm words are small indignity. I meant not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn--living, breathing pictures painted by the sun. The Pagan leopards--the unrecking and unworshipping things, that live; and seek, and give no reasons for the torrid life they feel! The crew, man, the crew! Are they not one and all with Ahab, in this matter of the whale? See Stubb! he laughs! See yonder Chilian! he snorts to think of it. Stand up amid the general hurricane, thy one tost sapling cannot, Starbuck! And what is it? Reckon it. 'Tis but to help strike a fin; no wondrous feat for Starbuck.

Doesn't this suggest, as I think it does, that "striking a fin" is at most a secondary concern for Ahab? In the next chapter, Ahab, alone on deck, soliloquizes, "Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting!" -- which seems to point to the unification of "the crew, the crew" as an end in itself. In this view, it could be almost anything (slaying the white whale will do) that serves as the motivator; unity is the whole point.

Earlier in chapter 37, Ahab says to himself:

Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. Yet it is bright with many a gem; I, the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. 'Tis iron--that I know--not gold. 'Tis split, too--that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight.

I really want to read this, especially in light of the reference to the Crown of Lombardy and the Biblical Ahab, as concerning the problem of authority. Who will lead us, and by what right, if not the "designated by G-d" justification? Ahab seems to think that he will, even if it means the end of him ("To fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting!").

There is a kind of majestic lie beneath all of this, but it seems clear to me that Ahab's ultimate goal is "to fire others," perhaps to unify them -- and he will say anything to that end. Plotinus, at least, sees this kind of single-vision (the critics call it "monomania") as a virtue:

Those that refuse to place the Proficient aloft in the Intellectual Realm but drag him down to the accidental, dreading accident for him, have substituted for the Proficient we have in mind another person altogether; they offer us a tolerable sort of man and they assign to him a life of mingled good and ill, a case, after all, not easy to conceive. But admitting the possibility of such a mixed state, it could not be deserved to be called a life of happiness; it misses the Great, both in the dignity of Wisdom and in the integrity of Good. The life of true happiness is not a thing of mixture. And Plato rightly taught that he who is to be wise and to possess happiness draws his good from the Supreme, fixing his gaze on That, becoming like to That, living by That… He can care for no other Term than That: all else he will attend to only as he might change his residence, not in expectation of any increase to his settled felicity, but simply in a reasonable attention to the differing conditions surrounding him as he lives here or there.

This "tolerable sort of man" is the Representative Man for postmodernism, and Plotinus found him deficient. Hmm...

Phantom Blog from the Past

When I disassembled my first blog, which was an experiment in thinking named after Herman Melville's novel, Mardi, or, A Voyage Thither, it had a Google Page Rank of 5/10 and was getting something like 60 visits a day. Now, it turns out, some traffic-hungry sychophant (i.e., enterprising entrepreneur) has slid into my former slot without so much as a tip of the cap in my direction! And as if that weren't enough, he or she has had the gall to attemp to retain some of my former readers (note the links in the left column: "Web Pages Referring to This Page"). Worst of all, this remainder blog has silly posts that are presumably unworthy of the traffic that my writing initially attracted to that web address.

Anyway, to check out this suspicious phantom blog, still titled A Voyage Thither, click here.

Oh well, "voyaging thither" is so last year.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

On Criticism, Literature, and Forgiveness

I've been thinking lately about the seeming absence of any scholarly treatment of the subject of guilt. More directly, I am disappointed about the apparent unwillingness of academics to turn the lens of judgment back upon themselves. To be sure, academics love to fault "academics" in general, even for petty ethical offenses, but it is a very rare case where a reputable scholar confronts the problem of personal culpability.

I have a theory about why this fundamental element of psychology is generally avoided scholars that goes like this: we have developed plenty of suggestions for judgment (moral, ethical, aesthetic), but none (or few) on forgiveness. Consequently, admission of personal culpability seems to be an irremediable action.

So the indignant academic goes around pointing his bony, accusatory index finger at everything and everyone under the sun without ever faulting himself.

Part of this is philosophy's fault. Philosophy has always been ill-equipped to deal with time in relation to ethics. That is, the philosopher makes thoroughly informed judgment about the moment of (un)ethical action, but has little to say about the causes or consequences that frame the scene. This is where the narrative comes in, and why I will defend fiction as a necessary mode of thinking. The almost inhuman judgment of philosophy declares, "Thou art unjust," and marches onward toward the tr-th (or whatever philosophy is doing these days). On the other hand, fiction often witnesses the unjust act early in a sequence of events, and does not fail to follow the unjust actor, even if he recognizes and regrets the injustice of his action.

Here's a philosophical example:
Scene: One person beats another person up.
Judgment: Unjust.

Now consider an alternative example, made literary:
Scene: When I was 10-years old, I used to beat my 7-year old brother up when my mom left us alone. Now, at age 29, I realize that that was immoral, and I have sincerely apologized to my brother. He has told me that I am forgiven, but sometimes, I still feel bad about it.
Judgment: Somewhere between unjust and "that's life."

Is this an important difference? Does philosophy address this difference--can it? There are other things I could confess, but I don't want to spend all my nickels in one store. Let it be understood, though: I, the author of Q-Majin?, have been unjust. Unfortunately, I suppose I don't yet qualify as a "reputable scholar."

(P.S. -- reading Hawthorne might have something to do with all of this. More later.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Dissertation in a Nutshell

Below you can read the latest version of my "dissertation paragraph" from the most recent draft of my cover letter. I certainly am a genius, but it sure is difficult to prove it in 300 words or less! Many of you have unwittingly helped me compose major chunks of this, so I thought there might be enough interest to warrant a little sharing:

...my first chapter demonstrates the ways that Poe’s theory of Perversity undermined a popular trust in the principle of rational self-interest by making explicit the processes of ratiocination that can precede unethical human action. In a study of “The Cask of Amontillado,” I connect the impulse to confess with Perverse psychology, rather than with guilt, to show that, for Poe, there existed a substantial gap between thought and action. My chapter on Harriet Jacobs, original for its extensive treatment of Jacobs’ literary style, explores the issue of historical veracity and the dynamics of the literary truth-claim. By stylizing her narrative, interposing a partially fictionalized narrator, and reporting seemingly clear incidents through a lens of mystery, Jacobs discovers her most effective voice of resistance. I argue that “Linda Brent’s” perception of the mysterious in natural objects and experience is thoroughly romantic and that it is this thinking that allows her to integrate and accept her traumatic past without accepting the same in the present. My chapter on Herman Melville focuses on Moby-Dick, and continues to develop the concept of ethical perception—what I call “the ethics of seeing.” By undermining Ishmael’s narrative authority and extending a sympathetic reading to characters like Captain Ahab and Pip, I further refine the idea that an action as “natural” or instinctive as perception may ultimately fall under the power of will. Influenced by the recent work of critics like Jay Grossman and W.C. Harris, I argue that the scope of Melville’s metaphysical vision is the result of a particularly keen sensitivity to changes in culture and law, and that Melville’s seemingly abstract interest in the ancient problem of “the One” and “the Many” (Unity and Plurality) is directly relevant to the American political landscape. My chapter on Hawthorne, which is currently being drafted, offers the narrative structures of The Marble Faun as necessary for examining the nature of dynamic ethical obligation and traces the psychological, spiritual and social consequences of unjust action. Although my project is informed by the cultural and historical criticism that precedes it, I have reintroduced a distinctly romantic sense of timelessness into my study by focusing on interpersonal obligation and individual psychology. Inspired by the methods of the writers I study, I have consciously focused on aspects of the human condition that do not change, even while tracing the dynamism of legal and social institutions.

It's hard to believe that this and is what will determine the rest of my life. Maybe it's not that cosmic, though. In fact, I'm going to buy a lottery ticket on the way to work today: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42... right?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Global Warming as New Age Apocalypse?

Pollution and smog are bad, and nobody should leave their lights on when they leave the house because it's wasteful, and we shouldn't destroy the rainforest, and polar bears sure are cute... but still. Again, I really think.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

More on The Ethics of Seeing (?)

Someone have an interpretation of this for me? (from Matthew 6:22-23):
The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

See also, Luke 11: 34-36. Does Jesus mean that those of us with good eyesight are better off, more likely to be saved, enlightened--something like that? Or is this suggestive of some deeper insight not related to literal vision?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Total Solar Eclipse

Lately, I've seen the image of a solar eclipse a little too frequently -- I'm sure this has something to do with my personal transition into "adulthood," whatever that is. And although it might make me a little bit like Captain Ahab, reading meaning where none exists, I think I might not just be "noticing" it more frequently -- I suspect the image is making its appearance a little more often lately than it typically does (typical by pop-culture standards, of course; it's extremely rare in nature). See also, my post on the Ethics of Seeing.

As a symbol, it is wonderfully suggestive, and works at the cultural level as well as it does at a personal level; I cannot imagine a more perfect representation than the image of a solar eclipse for any major, radical change in dominant culture or personal psychology. Mel Gibson used it in Apocalypto, and Ellen Bryant Voigt made it the cover of her semi-recent book of poems, Kyrie. And I've seen it in a few recent dreams, so...

Here's an awesome video of a 2006 total eclipse somewhere near Turkey, I think:






Click here to see a chart of where and when to view a total solar eclipse. Looks like Aug. 21st, 2017 will be the next good chance for most of us, as a total solar eclipse will be visible on a line cutting across the U.S. Be there or miss the official dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

P.S. -- has anyone else ever noticed the correspondence between the image of a solar eclipse and the image of the pupil and cornea of an eyeball? Some "coincidence," huh "Brian"?:

Thursday, September 6, 2007

S. Divinorum

They didn't have this when we were in high school, and I'm glad: salvia divinorum. Believe it or not, despite voluminous testimony like this--"I have tried virtually every illegal drug known to man, and have never felt more out of control or uncomfortable as I felt on Salvia" (source)--salvia is legal in more than 40 American states. Read about its legal status here, or click here to see dozens of teenagers "tripping" on the substance and, with no fear of the law, posting their experience on You Tube.

I've always leaned libertarian, I suppose, so I won't make a Nancy Reagan argument; but two things about this strike me as really wrong.

1) The fact that this drug is legal means that You Tube allows videos of people doing it, which wouldn't be so horrifying if...

2) ...Salvia didn't cause "ego death" and "union with the divine godhead" and "breaking through to the other side." This stuff is not on the casual/light side of drugs, according to the extensive testimony available at Erowid.org. Here, for example, is a description of something that I don't want my 16-year old son or daughter to have to think about "trying" with some of their buddies:

This is the difficult part of the account where I attempt, as many others have before me, to describe the end of life and identity, the ego-death. There nothing but a sensation at first, not of being ripped apart but of having been ripped apart. I couldn't say that I had been ripped apart, as in a million pieces—there were no pieces because there was nothing the pieces would consist of... I had no physical body. The sensation now gave way to awareness, and I had a sense that I HAD BEEN something with a physical body which was suddenly extinguished by a strong force pulling to the right. There was a sort of two-dimensional plane which I was pushed through rightward, and as I went through I lost all perceptions, memories, and sensations of my life in human form on this earth. There was no pain, it was instantaneous. But still, I was only conscious in the most basic sense... aware, not consciously thinking these thoughts, but perceiving them. It is not unlike the state of waking up from a dream with the memory of it still very present as the body adjusts to the state of waking life... except my life was the dream, and as I was suddenly 'awakened' all sense of that life was gone.

Read the rest of that experience--click here. The paranoia that follows is unsettling:

" It was as if by taking this drug I had become aware of some huge cosmic dark secret, one that was truly horrible and yet totally ironic... The joke was in being forced back into this reality after having it stripped completely from you... Forced back into nothing but limited human perception, and the delusion which it is. I was completely in shock at this point, and I looked at my friends expressing something like, “Why did you show me that?... I didn't want to see that.”

And of course, this leads me to my final, philosophical, objection: either salvia induces enlightenment or enlightenment is just some similar firing of chemicals in the brain, because the rhetoric of both, adjusting for the salvia-user's typically 10th-grade education, is identical. I don't like to think that serious meditators and spiritual seekers spend whole lifetimes longing for union with the divinity only to discover that any idiot highschooler who inhales this smoke can have it whenever he wants.

Convince me I'm wrong about this, that the "ego-death" of salvia is different from the ego-death of many spiritual paths.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Second Great Disappointment

Lately, when I talk to technophiles, I detect a strain of optimistically-apocalyptic thinking just beneath the surface of our conversation. It's as if they are too embarrassed to actually say what they're thinking: "Soon, computers will make everything different! We may live forever by uploading our brains!" Some very smart people have actually taken the leap and begun talking about the possibilities of total technological revolution -- phrases like "when humans transcend biology" are gathering attention.

Ray Kurzweil is the brain behind all of this hopefulness, and he certainly has done his share of innovation. As the argument goes, the time is approaching when technological advancement begins to outstrip the pace of evolution -- and possibly even the pace of aging. Kurzweil and his followers call this "the Singularity." Imagine tiny mini-machines cruising through your blood stream cleaning out all of the toxins!

But I read an interesting article here called "What if the Singularity Does NOT Happen?" And I was reminded (attention, Wishydig) me of the history of the Great Disappointment that took place in America in 1844 when the Second Coming did not occur.

So here we go again: eternal life dangled before us and then snatched away! Ach! The injustice! I guess I'm going to start preparing myself in case the Singularity doesn't come.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Toward an Ethics of Seeing, or, Against Underlining

I'm down to about eleven visitors per day at Q-Majin?, which is just about right. Now we can get serious.

At one time or another, most people have read a book closely enough to feel the impulse to underline -- I've even managed to concoct a little system for myself of underlines, double-underlines, check marks, and exaggeratedly huge exclamation points in the margin. Our marginalia is evidence of a process of selection and reveals our personal interests and biases quite intimately (after all, you don't let just anybody read your personal copy of Leaves of Grass). If you've been underlining long enough to revisit an old favorite, you may be surprised to find out just how immature, silly, romantic, or naive your earlier markings seem to be. On a second reading, you might even use a different color pen to denote "second reading," and find yourself underscoring passages that you had missed altogether on a first reading. I've even had occasion to write meta-marginalia, where I comment on my own earlier commentary.

Now consider why we underline. If I remember my first forays into underlining semi-accurately, my intention was to record what I believed to be a special insight so that, in case I revisited the text, I would not miss that special insight. Our underlinings are broken branches or bread crumbs left behind in the woods on the outside chance that we may discover ourselves going round in circles.

But here is my literary turn: underlining is to reading as perception is to life. That is: this process of selection that weaves itself into our reading habits is almost perfectly symmetrical to those habits and preferences that make up our precious personalities--even our identities.

When I am forced (by vocation!) to re-read a single narrative more than a few times, I find that my underlinings become impediments to understanding, rather than helping me to recall special insight. Indeed, my most recent re-read of Moby-Dick effectively involved reading all that I had not previously underlined.

When I first moved to Indiana from Michigan six years ago, I spent a whole weekend driving around my new hometown. Within a month, I knew where all the potholes were on my route to work, and within a year, I had a map of the city laid out with functional accuracy in my memory -- in other words, I had read my town, and underlined my special insights.

But as time goes by I begin to feel a (GRE word alert!) torpor, a general malaise, some pangs of apathy, bouts of ennui. Inevitably, I declare, "This town sucks."

I hope my moral is clear by now, and I will leave the conclusion to the gods of Et cetera. I have wanted to explain the idea of an "ethics of seeing," where "noticing" comes under force of the will. I hope this little essay lays some groundwork. More in the future.

So: stop underlining so much -- or, re-read what you haven't underlined! An example:

Incredibly, I had read Emerson's essay "Circles" at least twice and not underlined this part until just now:
Valor consists in the power of self-recovery, so that a man cannot have his flank turned, cannot be out-generalled, but put him where you will, he stands. This can only be by his preferring truth to his past apprehension of truth; and his alert acceptance of it, from whatever quarter; the intrepid conviction that his laws, his relations to society, his Christianity, his world, may at any time be superseded and decease.
And, hmm... come to think of it, maybe I won't underline it just now.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

2012 Nears

I quite like this, despite its horrendously disappointing web address (http://www.postmoderntimes.com/):




If it seems like I'm talking a wee British, it's because the season finale of Derren Brown's Mind Control was on Sci-Fi tonight. Look it up for yourself.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sayings and Aphorisms, #8

Suspension of disbelief is the foundation of ethics.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Doctrine of Correspondence

After recently reading Barbara Packer's new paperback version of her 1995 The Transcendentalists, and after reading even more recently Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay on Emmanuel Swedenborg (or, "The Mystic"), I find myself very interested in the doctrine of correspondence and the questions raised in seriously considering its consequences. The concept will be familiar to most people with a liberal arts degree, though the terminology varies very much depending on who is presenting the idea. In short, correspondence, as defined by Swedenborg and interpreted by Emerson, describes the relationship between physical data and "higher" truths.

The flower that blooms again every spring, for example, may correspond to the soul that is born again and again into the world after death, or the father who son has a son who has a son. Or, the psychological wound opened with the loss of a loved one may heal with time, like the scrape on your knee that heals slowly and then leaves a subtle scar. Even the most secular and unimaginative among us have participated in this kind of thinking: "That cloud looks like a crocodile!" Etc., etc.

In the case of the mystic, these correspondences may be understood as manifestations of the divine mind. The secrets of the universe may be discovered by studying the structure of an apple intensely, and vice versa--each thing contains all.

My question is: can this cognitive process go too far? I think first of Captain Ahab, who insisted on reading all things under the sign of himself (see chapter 99, "The Doubloon"). For Emerson, Swedenborg's genius was in suggesting the overall scheme of things; Swedenborg's failure was only in clinging too closely to the manifestations of the eternal truths that Swedenborg (almost) recognized. Emerson says in Representative Men:

Swedenborg and Behmen both failed by attaching themselves to the Christian symbol, instead of to the moral sentiment, which carries innumerable christianities, humanities, divinities, in its bosom.

Emerson understands easily what has been so difficult for me to understand at different times in my life: "These books should be used with caution. It is dangerous to sculpture these evanescing images of thought. True in transition, they become false if fixed." In other words, the correspondence between a passing cloud and a crocodile is true only as long as the cloud retains its shape.

But back to my question: assuming a person understands that the forms are always changing, that everything is "on fire," as the Buddha said, is there no limit to the power of correspondence? I think there is no danger in someone taking a shooting star to be a sign of good luck, and there could be little harm in avoiding the cracks in the sidewalk, and perhaps the popping out of a light bulb in your living room while you're in deep contemplation may be taken as a friendly hint from the universe to give it a rest--.

I believe in this doctrine of correspondence, as Plato did, as Plotinus did, as Swedenborg did, as Emerson did. There does seem to be some easy relation between those eternal things such as beauty and goodness and the temporary physical forms that we deal with every day. But when does gratefulness slide into superstitiousness, and when does that slide into mania, and when does mania become dangerously single-minded religious fervor?

In short: when does a thing correspond; when is a thing meaningless?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Little Dose of Tr-th

What Should We Do about that Moon ?

A wine bottle fell from a wagon
And broke open in a field.

That night a hundred beetles and all their cousins
Gathered

And did some serious binge drinking.

They even found some seed husks nearby
And began to play them like drums and whirl.
This made God very happy.

Then the 'night candle' rose into the sky
And one drunk creature, laying down his instrument
Said to his friend - for no apparent
Reason,

"What should we do about that moon?"

Seems to Hafiz
Most everyone has laid aside the music

Tackling such profoundly useless
Questions.

From: 'The Gift - Poems by Hafiz the Great Sufi Master'
translations by Daniel Ladinsky

Monday, August 13, 2007

Into the Gloaming

Well, I'm back from my honeymoon. Not sure that Q-Majin? is going to pick up any steam, though -- not for a while, at least. I'm entering the red-zone with this dissertation now, and this semester is going to be a whirlwind. My mystic-ethos is probably going to be a little damaged as I make apparent concessions to the demands of institutional deadlines, but consider this.

Anyway, here is my favorite picture from my recent vacation to Zihuatanejo, Mexico:

Saturday, August 4, 2007

On Simultaneous Org-- ...er, On Communication

If you're a genuinely curious person, you will have the patience to first watch this video:



That's awesome in itself. That kind of bewildering hypnotism is possible. For another example of bewildering hypnotic kidnapping, click here. But now imagine this--it is a kind of forbidden experiment involving real human subjects, and so it must be imagined, must be only theoretical:

You are caught by surprise and hypnotized, and you awake to find yourself in a 12 ft. X 10 ft. room with white padded flooring and a white ceiling. There is a toilet, and twice a day someone opens a small tile in the wall and pushes food through. There is another person, incidentally of the same sex as you. Both of you are wearing white shorts and a white t-shirt.

You say "Hello." And then, "Where are we," and the other person mutters something in a language that sounds utterly different from your own. It seems you have never heard it before.

Days pass, and you have gone through the customary "first-encounter" rituals of pointing to your own chest and pronouncing your name. You have shaken hands, though your roommate did not see the handshake as something familiar. You both eat your food. Weeks pass.

Then months. It seems that eventually you will want to begin genuinely communicating with your roommate. Fastforward in time to that moment, the moment when it becomes clear to you that you must either learn to communicate with your roommate or go mad.

It seems to me that there are four options: 1) You will teach him your language. 2) He will teach you his language. 3) You will invent a mixed-language. 4) You will learn each others' languages and speak them both occasionally.

Assuming there are no directly overlapping linguistic histories between the two languages (other than a general "universal grammar" underlying both), I think it is probably unlikely that it would occur to most people, consciously, to choose option number 3. And yet (here's my thesis) I think option #3 may ultimately be the only lasting and mutually satisfying outcome assuming "escape" is not an option.

To myself, I wonder if this is really just a Puritan's way of discussing sex.

Sensing Tr-th-Resurgency in Indiana, Dalai Lama set to Visit Purdue

I'd like to personally invite all of my tr-th-seeking friends to join me in attendance this fall when the Dalai Lama comes to visit Purdue. He's only coming to three American universities this year, so we have "lucked out." Of course, sotapanna that I am, I know this has very little to do with "luck," but we'll leave that point aside for now. Tickets go on sale at Ticketmaster on August 11th and will sell out quite quickly. Twenty bucks for students... please go. I understand that Buddhism is a little '90s-ish in America, and that Hinduism or something is probably more chic these days, but at this bargain rate...

Which leads me to my point -- well, sort of. First just read this headline and rapidly skim the article.

Seriously, though -- the Dalai Lama's forthcoming visit provides the perfect subject for a blog post and a subsequently healthy comments page. The question is, if you had one question, what would you ask the D.L.? I have a few ideas:

1. Do we talk because we don't love?
2. If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
3. Is focused, institutional learning superior to organic, unconscious learning toward the end of achieving Enlightenment?
4. Is the attitude of faith always superior to the attitude of doubt?
5. Does the fear of death serve a purpose; is it natural?
6. Who was your favorite Beatle?
7. Ontolo-metaphysically, what are unfertilized eggs and the sperm that lose the race?

Monday, July 30, 2007

What... the... ?

This "P.S.A" is one of the most mind-blowing things I've ever seen, and I personally saw it air on BET television about three days ago. I certainly don't have any commentary to offer--the video speaks for itself. No wait; I will say this: I can not believe this was on television in 2007.

Check out this video: Read A Book



Add to My Profile More Videos

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Cloudscape

...and I'm back. Married. Better off.

Monday after a Saturday wedding. We were flying out of Providence on our way back to Indianapolis by way of Philadelphia, I was in that brain-haze that follows intense and sustained human interaction--I assume everyone must feel something like this: you love your family and friends, but 85 of them at once, for hours at a time, can be exhausting. The wedding went perfectly excellent, but there's a kind of stupor that follows. It was raining outside. The airport was... well, an airport.

Then Gretchen pointed over my shoulder and said, "Look!, there's Stephen Wright!" Sure enough, sauntering along in a Boston Red Sox hat and a jean jacket, one of my favorite comedians of all-time. And just like that the cloudy brain-haze lifted.

But it was still raining outside. Gloomy. Hmm...

We waited on the tarmac for 45 minutes--happy about the wedding going so well, but unhappy about travelling so tediously. Then it happened. We took off in the rain, I got that "aren't-we-climbing-too-steeply?" feeling in my stomach, entered the clouds, Gretchen clutched my hand, and minutes later we emerged to see this:


The sunniest image I had ever seen, and a lesson, somehow... something about perspective, I think. When you're... weary, feelin' small...

Anyway, here's to my new wife!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Follow-Up on Universe-Talk

Finally something interesting. Somebody qualified is proposing that the data has been poorly interpreted: the universe may actually be contracting, not expanding. This is a wonderful inversion, and it makes some sense -- if you admit (as astronomers will) that there is no non-relative point in the universe, then it seems perfectly reasonable to interpret the apparent widening gap between us and the next nearest galaxy cluster as evidence that we are hurtling inward a little faster than they are (thus increasing the gap).

The problem that anyone with a dab of intuition will raise is that the gap appears to be increasing uniformly in all directions. Interesting problem. But it is not more or less problematic in the scenario of a collapsing universe or a contracting universe than it is in the customary view, the expanding universe. I had a hard time figuring out on "the internet" whether scientists think galaxies are expanding or contracting, but this picture makes me think "contracting":


Looks like water down a drain to me; and if happens at the galactic level, I don't see any reason that it couldn't happen with the entire universe. Further, why do we tend to believe our observations at the fringes of our technological capability more than those we are sure about? It is certain that our solar system is not expanding. Nor is our galaxy. Nor, even, is our "galaxy cluster." It's at the level of between-galaxy-clusters that the expansion is supposed to be occurring. Really? I don't know about red-shifts that much, but is it possible there's some kind of distortion happening?

Here's my best guess: the number of black holes increases (naturally) with distance... as light passes a black hole and curves, it decreases in speed. Thus, cosmic objects observed farther away will not arrive at the speed of light, but slower. The effect decreases as we observe closer objects. A weak pictorial representation:


If nothing nearby is observed to be expanding, is it really probable that something that isn't happening here is happening way out there? Umm... sorry about that last sentence. My post below on heresy and blasphemy is better.

Heresy as sophomoric attempt at Blasphemy

I found a pretty intriguing phenomenon on YouTube, based on the words in Mark 3:28-29:
I tell you the truth, all the sins and blasphemies of men will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.

The deal is, The Rational Response Squad posted a video on YouTube challenging skeptical people to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. I found this when I discovered that one of my favorite bloggers posted his own video blasphemies in the spirit of rationality. The seemingly hip/liberal "Father Matthew" even posted a response video, in which he tries to understand how contemporary religious rhetoric can be alienating to atheists... very empathetic, Father Matthew.

Since reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Ethan Brand" for the first time a decade ago, I've had an abiding interest in the idea of "the unforgivable sin," and I've certainly thought about these verses in Matthew before. I think I have a novel take on it, which seems to be confirmed after watching these videos...

My thesis: Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is nowhere near as easy as declaring, with words, something like "I do not accept the Holy Spirit." Further, saying something even more scathing like, "F*ck the Holy Spirit" would not remotely qualify in my view as a violation of the Holy Spirit. I will go so far as to say that I have never known anyone personally (though I believe there are some) to successfully blaspheme against the Holy Spirit. In fact, having spent a decade of my life declaring similar blasphemies whenever I could, I am convinced that the words "I do not accept the Holy Spirit" may, at the right time, be precisely the most holy words one could utter. See Ralph Waldo Emerson's maxim, "The doctrine of hatred must be preached, as the counteraction of the doctrine of love, when that pules and whines…"

In my view, blaspheming against the Holy Spirit would involve something like premeditated murder or (somewhat more debatably) suicide. That is, real blasphemy against this thing that has been called "the Holy Spirit" does not happen in the arena of language. In the old, old days (as anyone knows who has seen The Life of Brian), people could be stoned to death for uttering the name of God. Yet today most of us do not see it as a great affront to use the word God. Real, consequential blasphemy against God, against the Holy Spirit--indeed, any real blasphemy--can never be committed with a smile and a clean conscience.

It seems to me that these YouTubers are trying to get a rise out of committing heresy, and are not even approaching blasphemy. Definitions may be minimally helpful (?):

Heresy: opinion or doctrine at variance with the orthodox or accepted doctrine, esp. of a church or religious system.

Blaphemy: impious utterance or action concerning God or sacred things.

I'm not sure that helps. Still, I suspect that trying to prove one's eminent rationality by uttering a few phrases that would've landed a person on the rack five centuries ago would hardly upset the most orthodox religious institutions these days--and, if I'm right, wouldn't even be a blip on the real Holy Spirit's radar.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Nietzsche was Right, Dude!

I'm perfectly content with scientists' conclusions on two points of fact:

  • the location of the earth in the solar system
  • the location of the solar system in the Milky Way
But, given these straightforward answers, I wouldn't think I would be alone in asking the next question: "Where is the Milky Way in the universe?" However, that search on Google yielded ZERO hits. So I changed my phraseology slightly: "Where is our galaxy in the universe?"

5 hits, two of which are redundant. And there is one little straightforward answer on the whole internet regarding this seemingly obvious next-step question for cosmology:
It is difficult to answer directly, because of the way that you phrase it. Basically, you need to understand that the universe does not have a "middle," and it doesn't have "edges" either. Therefore, the Milky Way is not in either of those regions, because those "regions" don't really exist.The universe does not really have a "middle" or "edges." This is similar to asking another question, which some people have asked me. That question is "In what direction was the Big Bang?" People want to know if they are looking in the direction of the Big Bang if they look toward Orion, or the Big Dipper, or whatever. You need to understand that the Big Bang happened EVERYWHERE. At that time, the word "everywhere" was only a tiny, tiny, tiny dot, but it was literally ALL of space. That dot WAS everywhere. Today, the universe itself is expanding, as it has been doing for 13.7 billion years, since the Big Bang.

I can't imagine I will be alone in considering this a kind of side-step answer. The answerer, apparently an "expert" in astronomy, blames his difficulty answering the question on the inquirer's phrasing... but surprise!, does not suggest a better way to phrase it. Then he unfairly compares it to a bad question that the inquirer did not ask. In fact, however, a dot (as he describes it) does have edges -- where there is "dot," there is "not-dot," and regardless of the relative size of the dot, if there are sub-particles within the dot (called galaxies!), it is reasonable to ask where in that dot (the universe) our sub-particle (the Milky Way) is located.

Yep, I've read A Brief History of Time, and I've read Bill Bryson's Short History of Nearly Everything -- I know what the scientists propose. But the Big Bang model, seemingly "scientific" as it is, simply doesn't satisfy me, especially when I cannot find anywhere on the entire internet a straight answer for where the edge is from here. This site makes the problem quite clear... you can zoom out far, but not all the way.

If I'm wrong, if my conception of the universe as an expanding bubble-sphere that's 14.7 billion years old -- if the universe is a kind of Mobius strip, someone please let me know! Is it possible that the 14.7 billion number is just an estimation of our ability to observe? But if it is, why do we think we need a theory of its beginning? I'm going to start working on a cosmology of an infinite universe, which "scientists" will no doubt be able to cherry-pick apart by selectively considering data that confirms their assumptions. Somehow I'll have to avoid repeating Nietzsche's claims about eternal return. See also.

Ten bonus points to anyone who can settle me down by answering a very simple question: where is the Milky Way? What does observability have to do with this?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

8 Questions, 9 Answers. Prophet Rating: 100%

A wise man, Michael at Wishydig, tagged me to fill out a sort of questionnaire. Click here to read the annoyingly-extensive rules; all you need to know are, these are 8 facts about me that I want to share:

1. I broke both bones in my left wrist trying to catch up with a girl at a roller rink in 5th grade.

2. I visited AutoWorld with my family in 1985, when I was 7 (Michael Moore was 33 then).

3. I used to dream that I was being bombarded by letters and numbers, letters and numbers that sort of bounced off my face (it was not painful) and coalesced into a large, orange object that rolled, rolled, rolled. I had the dream many times when I was young, and usually awoke terrified--mostly terrified because my perspective of the large rolling orange ball was sort of a "mouse-eye-view."

4. I once sprayed a whole bottle of Binaca mouth spray under my tongue on a dare.

5. I ran across my college campus in a jock strap and swam across one of the campus ponds as part of a "hazing" ritual.

6. The most profound spiritual experience of my life happened in a bowling alley parking lot.

7. I don't enjoy drinking alcohol, but do it sometimes because of peer pressure.

8. I love America and feel guilty about loving America.


Wow--this has been very refreshing. I love it when people ask me questions about me! Thanks, Mike!

#9. The "label" for this post may or may not be intended as ironic.

Hypothetical Conditions in a Universe Totally unlike our own...

When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly. --Lao Tzu

This is of course a totally hypothetical question--I would never suggest that the universe is structured in such a way as to involve person-specific karma of any sort. But imagine: If we lived in a universe where every moment of happiness was cosmically predestined to be counterbalanced by equally substantial sadness, how would you behave?

Assume a few things: you exist naturally in a neutral state, and you can quite consciously avoid happiness (and therefore, also, sadness). Also, assume that 10 hours of 10% happiness could be counterbalanced by one hour of the most extraordinary, intense, 100% sorrow.

The question, obviously: would you elect to abandon the middle way to experience the manic and depressive states?--or would you try to find psychological satisfaction in the natural, neutral state?

Sunday, July 8, 2007

"You're not your f---ing khakis..." (Or your legs, for that matter)

Everyone's heard of phantom limbs; you know, where you get an arm amputated and still "feel" it from time to time. But consider phantom itches, and even phantom pain. Apparently, after a while, the brain is able to recognize that the limb isn't really there, and may seek to reclaim the usable brain matter. Sometimes crosswiring happens, and an amputee may learn that the nerves in (say) his face have rewired in the brain so that, to scratch a phantom itch on his amputated thumb, he may scratch his cheek where it meets his nose (or wherever). The missing limb may occasionally feel shorter or mangled or stuck in an uncomfortable position--troubling.

So, we're much more "brain" than we are "body." But if we aren't our bodies, and if our brains are as plastic and dynamic as they seem to be, how much crosswiring could our brains really do? How much are we our brains? Wallace Stevens once said, "The real is only the base; but it is the base." I'm starting to wonder.

I have a phantom ball of wisdom that walks with me everywhere I go, about six steps behind and slightly off to the right.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Global Warming is not a Religion! Leo DiCaprio told me it was a Fact!

"We may have as little as ten years to solve the climate crisis, lest we lose the chance to do so..." --Al Gore, tonight on the Live Earth special on NBC

Yeah... I'm still on the record as skeptical, even after hearing Rosario Dawson tell me to unplug my cellphone charger every time I leave the house (or whatever). And after hearing Kelly Clarkson perform "Since You Been Gone" (that performance almost persuaded me, though--so much duende!). If we really are ten years away from destruction, democracy is proving a ridiculously ineffective means of governing. I mean, counting on a Kelly Clarkson performance to persuade voters to save their own lives?--really? Plato might've been right to scorn democracy.

Anyway, on a bigger scale: Neutron stars exist. Think of them as collapsed stars (the collapse takes way less than one second). A teaspoon of neutron-star-matter would weigh as much matter as a mountain on earth. The density is so great and the gravity is so intense that the largest "mountains" on neutron stars are at most two inches tall. Look at Rene Magritte's painting "The Voice of Space":


Without the "mouths," obviously. But perfectly round, and ~10 km in diameter. Can you imagine seeing one of these things? And if this weren't spectacular enough, they are rotating--really fast... at their equators, as fast as 1/7th the speed of light. That's some serious rotation.

And if these things collect enough mass, they may collapse into black holes. I don't have a picture to show you of a black hole because the gravity there is so intense that (you've heard this before?) even light can't escape. A finite (large) amount of matter collected into an infinitely small "point."

Sometimes I think I am a black hole, receiving impressions constantly, collapsing them into my consciousness, my infinitely small "point." I don't always know what to make of the incoming data, but I do feel confident that there is something outside of my infinitely small core sending stuff at me--something else exists, or has existed.

The universe is so huge, and quarks and atoms and electrons are so small... it seems a kind of size-prejudice to consider ourselves "medium." An infinite regress and progress in the directions of small and large from our position seems more probable to me. Which means that our whole universe may be hanging around the collar of some cosmically huge-huge being, or that there existed a dozen intelligent civilizations in my eyeballs over the past 24 hours.

We are inclined to take "science" seriously, and to treat speculation with a sense of detachment or irony. But these movements toward the infinite seem very serious to me now, and global warming seems frivolous, despite Ann Curry's warnings of flood, drought, blizzards, hurricanes, etc. And despite Kanye West's very persuasive performance of "Gold Digger."

I hope "they" keep a giant record of everything ever published on the internet, and some far advanced civilization 5,000 years from now can read this post -- maybe they will be able to decide whether my interest in the cosmos was detrimental to human survival, was somehow irresponsible.

-------

Tomorrow: on intellectual honesty and the dissertation.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

One Way of Looking at the World

Everybody likes Wallace Stevens' poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The poem is divided into 13 mini-stanzas; the first section looks like this:

I.
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

To understand why these are the best three lines of poetry ever, really do your best to see the entire image--maybe this will help:



Then zoom in with your imagination, and place a single blackbird into the desolate landscape. There are no trees, no clouds--nothing but the bird and the landscape. Two great questions of perspective arise: 1) Who is the speaker?--who observes the lone observing bird? And, 2) Why is the bird's eye moving? What does it see?

In answer to the first question, the speaker must be unembodied. The perspective of the poem necessitates a non-physical presence, an unmoving presence. Pretty grand.

But it's the second question that really does the trick for me: the bird's eye is moving--why? I picture myself as the lone being in a desolate landscape, and I quiet my mind, and think about the moment my eye shifts its focus. The movement of my eye would not be instinctual, would not be an automatic response to a physical stimulus (nothing else is moving); instead, the shifting eye evinces a kind of aesthetic response. Stevens' blackbird moves its eye from one mountaintop to another because it is contemplative, because it wonders.

Is it possible that the blackbird wonders whether it is being observed, wonders if there is an unembodied presence?

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Creation and Evolution: Ethically Neutral?

Before I stopped believing in Santa Claus, I started feeling fairly confident about the theory of evolution. I don't know if this makes me a bad mystic-spiritualist, but geology and stuff, fossils, whatever--it just makes sense. And for the record, I don't feel like arguing about it.

But, I have this trigger mechanism in my brain that trips a circuit whenever I hear someone using an "or else" argument--e.g.: God must exist, or else everything is meaningless. Things like that. So when I heard some guy on some panel about some topic arguing that the apparent increase in conservative forms of religiosity (fundamentalism) will probably be really bad for scientific understanding--in fact, he cited a "scary" statistic that only 51% of high school biology teachers believe in evolution--I felt my brain jerk.

Again: If I taught high school biology, and someone called me up and said, "Do you accept the theory of evolution," I would say yes. However, I don't exactly see what the great disaster would be. There have always been creationists among us, running around believing that they and all those around them are only about 200 or 300 generations removed from Adam and Eve. It seems fairly harmless to me. In fact, in one view, people are special-case animals, and in another, they are all children of god and one big family. The second view seems at least as likely to produce the outcomes we all want: love and comaraderie, etc.

Evolution has been big news since the early part of the 20th century, and dates back to the mid-19th. Is the world better? Are people nicer? Has "believing in evolution" helped our species?

I'm genuinely asking these questions: it may very well be that scientists would not have discovered all these fancy things that make us live longer if they went home at night and believed in God or creation or whatever. I'm just not trained in science enough to know. From my perspective, believing in creation may make you less-well-educated than me, or more stubborn, or fundamentalist, or whatever -- but I'm not going to avoid moving into a house one day because the neighborhood is creationist-friendly.

Am I wrong here? -- someone list the consequences of the creationist outlook (though keep in mind, I might counter with the benefits of the creationist outlook, just for argument's sake).