Archive for June, 2005

A condensed opinion

Seeing something about that now-infamous phrase “activist judges” made me think about the general concept of loyalty and obedience. It seems to me that loyalty and obedience to a person or institution is a notion which leads to continual embarassment, simply because it is constantly superceded by the necessity of obedience to general principles, from which no one is exempt. Therefore loyalty to an individual or group is at best justified by its concurrence with just such a universal.

Comrade Stalin would be proud

I’m no architecture critic, but as I was looking at photos of the Stiftung Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe) in Berlin, I felt that I was seeing something of the apotheosis, perhaps the climax of the grey concrete curtain wall style of architecture which just at the moment of its seeming expulsion from Eastern Europe has begun incubating with renewed frenzy in the rest of the world. Perhaps that is because the ostensible purpose of such a style finally becomes entirely explicit with its politicization.

I have lodged before my criticisms of the whole notion of Holocaust art, which generally takes its tone from Adorno’s admonition that after Auschwitz all poetry is barbaric. Holocaust art for the most part shares with the avant-garde a total contempt for bourgeois taste and comfortable aesthetic illusions, but in this case the criticism is more substantial than a mere matter of anxiety of influence. It goes something like this: accepted societal art and morality has proven callously indifferent to, if not directly responsible for, the Holocaust, as well as the slightly lesser crimes of imperialism, etc. Therefore, the role of Holocaust art is to shred the illusions and to present the naked truth to the viewer without any mediation. This tendency couldn’t be more obvious at the Berlin memorial, which consists simply of a bunch of blank, impassive concrete blocks. At least one critic has applauded this approach as evading the “facile symbolism” of, for example, the proposed 1776 ft. Freedom Tower. And yet as has been noted elsewhere, the memorial looks like nothing so much as a strip of Soviet apartment blocks. One would have thought that the resemblance of totalitarian architecture to designs which are supposed to comemorate the victims of totalitarianism would have perturbed even the designers, but one may have underestimated the passive-aggressive intellectual totalitarianism inherent in the nature of the project.

Ultimately such a memorial does not serve to comemorate unique individuals living separate distinct existences, but it rather preserves the idea of sheer number and volume, the sheer dead-weight of countless tons of flesh, just like the heaps of bodies photographed upon the opening of the concentration camps. Nobody here is any more than the number and weight they contribute to the total. That’s not to say that the opposite idea, such as the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief, which tried to present some little element of quirky individuality for every single 9/11 victim, is much better, but that is mainly because the thought process was equally superficial. The assumption that every victim was equally special, equally blandly angelic, led to an absense of real assessment, real weighing, and an ultimate moral homogenization. But those comemorated at the Berlin memorial do not even receive that little amount of recognition.

The mess of this whole thing is maybe not so surprising. Anyone totally convinced of their righteousness, in this case the special moral prerogative supposedly granted to those “bearing witness” (as if just having passively witnessed something is a heroic act of sacrifice), will eventually succumb to the temptation to tyrranize those around them. But there seems to be a particular intellectual folly in this case. It seems to be taken for granted that the boundaries and values of ordinary life were corrupted to the point that they obscured and even perpetuated the Holocaust. But was not the Holocaust itself a great rupture in society? So many today seem to assume that the Weimar Republic practically crowned Hitler itself, even that German social customs are fundamentally favorable to Nazism. Have they forgotten so quickly that Hitler ran for office in 1933 on a pledge to destroy the republic, or that his assumption of dictatorial powers in 1934 was a coup only smirkingly jutified by the “emergency” of the Reichstag fire? Germans of all ages and backgrounds who left the country in 1933, like Einstein and Thomas Mann, clearly did not perceive fundamental continuity between pre-Hitler and Nazi Germany. It was rather the signal for the beginning of barbarism, and few of the rational could mistake the difference. So while those that design Holocaust memorials may see the old concepts of truth and ethics and beauty as being discredited by their supposed complicity with Nazism, they fail to perceive the break in history that occured at that time, or that the abuses and ultimate genocide ensued precisely when the old moderate values and boundaries were discarded in favor of a conscious insanity. And so long as, and to the extent that, the memorials choose to take the legacy of those years as their tradition and foundation, I don’t see there being any hope of burying that legacy.

p.s. The new design for the Freedom Tower isn’t even curvy enough to call phallic. Suffice to say that if a truncated pharaoic obelisk (in the city with the largest Jewish population in the world!) or a kazoo symbolizes freedom, then the design is not totally meaningless.

The secret mechanism of “the eternal debate”

“It is not conflict of opinions that has made history so violent but conflict of belief in opinions, that is to say conflict of convictions.” –Friedrich Nietzsche

“But God isn’t dead!” –student at Patrick Henry College

“It is easy enough to say that man is immortal because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this.” –William Faulkner from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech

Live Hate

I haven’t really been paying attention to the whole thing, but apparently Bob Geldof is pissed that people are selling Live 8 tickets on eBay:

It is filthy money made on the back of the poorest people on the planet — stick it where it belongs.

Funny, my impression was that Geldof is trying to resurrect his career and record sales on the backs of the poorest people on the planet, but maybe that’s just me.

Of course, it’s silly to claim that eBay or anybody else is making money “on the back of the poorest people on the planet”; I don’t think anybody was planning on sticking up the Red Cross to bid on a ticket.

Now, as I understand it, the tickets were randomly allocated amongst 2 million people who sent in an SMS (at £1.50 a pop) for the opportunity, which meant Geldof & Co. picked up a cool $5 million in revenue. Which, given that the whole Live 8 thing is supposedly about poor people in Africa, you would think would be donated to some Africa-related charity, right? Wrong. Half goes to poor kids in England, and half goes to “cover the cost of staging the concerts” (read: paying the bands). So Live 8, whose “global symbol” is the white band (fittingly, as Colby Cosh points out), wasn’t planning on doing anything for poor people in Africa, other than giving a bunch of aging rockers a chance to feel like they “made a difference”. But scalping tickets on eBay is “filthy money made on the back of the poorest people on the planet”.

Like Joshua Holmes, my question is this: Why the hell didn’t Geldof sell off the Live 8 tickets in the first place (at, say, $100/ticket) rather than practically giving them away?

(150,000 tickets) x ($100/ticket) – ($5 million for various white people) = $10,000,000 surplus

(or, as stated elsewhere: “Clueless, Bob. If you don’t capture the consumer surplus, some other economic actor will.”)

Now, I know the poor Africans are way too noble to be caught up in the bourgeois petty materialism of the West, but don’t you think they’d rather have $10,000,000 than Bob Geldof bitching about “profiteering“?

Update: Be sure to check out Colby Cosh’s National Post column today.

Batman, fake existentialist

Comic-book heroes are not all portrayed at the same point in life. Spiderman was obviously an adolescent, with all the soap-opera drama that entails. Even Superman and Batman, despite seemingly sharing the smooth-faced but definitely hipness-deficient stolidness of incipient middle age, are not really at the same stage upon life’s way. Superman is an innocent, a naif (probably because of being an alien), while Batman has the morose loneliness of a much older man. Indeed, when I first started reading comic books about age 5 he had that certain world-weary authority that comes with age, and indeed he seemed to embody a higher kind of justice (even wisdom) than the craven and ineffectual police. Also there is a difference in employment. Superman uses his special abilities to fight villains when called upon, but he is almost a supernatural neighborhood volunteer, just as comfortable putting a fire out in a building or getting a cat out of a tree. It is hard, on the other hand, to imagine Batman helping someone trapped under a bus like Superman would–or Jean Valjean. He is purely on the discipline and punishment wing.

Perhaps it is only the passage of time that makes watching the new Batman movie somewhat discomfiting after all these years. Sure, I am older, but Batman seems younger, too young, especially since this movie portrays him at the very outset of his career. One sees the origins of the notion of justice that becomes solified in all the other Batman productions. It starts out as the desire for revenge, pure vigilantism. He is repelled from the notion of private justice in the face of an entirely extra-legal organization that presumes to judge and punish entirely on its own. He oscillates, not entirely convincingly, between that and subservience to the “due process” of the judicial system, and it is tempting to view the ultimate product, the character Batman, as a composite of, or compromise between, the two. But that autonomy is largely cosmetic. Sure, he works on his own and has his unorthodox style, but he is basically an adjunct of law enforcement. The police station even has their own beacon to summon him and he essentially gets sent out on patrol. He practically admits himself that he is just a mascot for the law, with his speech about the need for a symbol to rouse people from their lethargy. Granted this helps to defuse the potentially farcical nature of the comic-book scenario–the costumes, the names, the whole personae element. At the same time, this movie pretty conclusively demonstrates that the character has made a conscious decision to not set himself apart and above the courts. He seems to be his own man, but he isn’t. His actions are meant to signify, not to accomplish. Maybe his name should be “opiate of the masses.”

Thomas Szasz, Kantian

An interesting review of an anthology of Thomas Szasz and his critics, although the seeming intellectual conflict of interest of this article appearing in Reason, to which Szasz is a contributing editor, and written by a man who has received something called “the Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties,” is a bit suspect, but it nonetheless raises some interesting points. Szasz is the professor of psychiatry who became mildly famous in the ’70’s for his fervent denunciations of not just the abuse but the very concept of “mental illness.” However, from what I have read of Szasz his opposition to it seems to be essentially dogmatic, i.e. predicated on the foundational belief that the mental and the physical are inherently separate, and that therefore the application of conditions associated with the body, such as illness, can only inappropriately be applied to the mental. Sure, that debate has been carried on for hundreds of years, but with medical science having advanced as it has, it seems quite obtuse to me to reject a priori the notion of a fundamental indivisibility or even unity between the two. In other words, it seems pretty evident that a host of physical factors and chemicals have been shown to have a profound effect on personality, and so it would not be unfair to speculate that any and all personality traits are the result of some chemical condition in the brain. Granted, psychiatrists seem to be inclined to assert an absolutism diametrically opposite to Szasz’, i.e. that the mind is totally physical in nature, and the American Psychiatric Association sneering at an archaic belief in “mind/body dualism” seems almost equally presumptuous, although slightly more supported scientifically (though we should not be surprised by that since, as I have argued before, science is pretty much materialist by its very nature).

In a way, this whole discussion up to a certain point is pretty irrelevant. If one wishes to pursue medicinal solutions to one’s mental problems, no one but the bill collector will get in the way. If not so be it. But the real issue is when free choice is revoked–in other words, whenever the legal system gets involved. Now it would be too facile to insist that everyone should be able to make a choice about whether they wish to be treated for mental disorders in all cases. There is always going to be a division between relative competency and incompetency, and there is always going to be a certain number of people that are considered incapable of making their own decisions in this, although in this regard curiously it is probably precisely the diagnosis of insanity that will often result in the loss of discretionary rights. But in any case, those distinctions are not my concern to define and develop here. Suffice it to say that it all pretty much pertains to the well-being of the individual, which except in cases of true incapacity should ultimately be within their own powers to decide.

Where I diverge from this sort of libertarian attitude towards psychiatry are in those cases that touch upon the welfare of society, particularly criminal cases. Psychiatry and mental illness have obviously become institutionalized concepts in the judicial system, and Szaszians seem particularly irate about criminals being “let off the hook” via the insanity defense, and in fact the first anecdote in the article consists of Szasz giving a quasi-religious sermon about moral responsibility at a trial to which he was called as an expert witness. I have to wonder, though, what the Szaszians think the real point of the criminal justice system is. When the author makes a distinction between “deterrence” and “justice” in his evaluation of punishments of criminals it seems to give an indication, and I hope it will not be construed as an exaggeration if I take “justice” in this context to basically mean revenge. I have never understood the privileged position that revenge, under whatever euphemism it goes, continues to enjoy in our judicial system, but I think it’s almost indisputable that it plays a primary role, for example given the fact that a murderer is actually more likely to be executed if it be established that the crime was entirely rationally premeditated and directed against a specific target, on the grounds that that proves that he or she really was fully responsible for the deed, whereas the real maniacs who get some uncontainable sensual pleasure from killing are less so, because of course they are mentally ill and therefore not responsible for what they did! In my opinion the reverse should be true. The killer whose crime was entirely directed against a specific target is probably less likely to kill again simply because of the specificity of the crime, whereas the person who kills for the sheer pleasure of it is almost bound to, therefore it is that person that may need to be excised from society, due to the unlikliehood of their being re-integrated into the community without posing a constant danger to it. It is only to the extent that I doubt in the redeemability of such people that I remain open to the validity of capital punishment.

If someone steals money, the crime can be compensated by the return of the money. But the killing or injuring (and the various other crimes of this nature) cannot be reversed. To rather crudely employ an analogy from economics, they are conceptually similar to sunk costs. In this case the only thing of value that can be extracted from a prosecution of the criminal is the prevention of future crimes of a similar nature (this consideration plays a role even in crimes, like robbery, where the crime is reparable). These fall broadly into two classes evoked by the rather clichéd terms of deterrence and rehabilitation, in other words preventing the criminal from repeating their crime and discouraging anyone else from doing so. Revenge, I repeat, is absolutely to be avoided, it being an indulgence of a morally unjustifiable passion and prerogative, one rather similar to the even more repulsive envy. Now if a diagnosis of mental illness holds the promise of a treatment of the criminal that really will cure them of the motivation to commit future crimes, this would supersede morally and practically the deterrent value of punishment, and prevent a rather shameful indulgence in an orgy of vengeance. Whether this is really feasible is of course debatable, and as the example above indicates, psychiatric practice can of course be abused to lead to the opposite result, but the word “abuse” itself indicates a perversion of something with a greater underlying validity. In any case, I am rather incapable of sympathizing for this mania for “holding the guilty accountable.” You want a better world, focus on preventing future crime. You want to assume the mantle of acting as a surrogate for the Lord on Judgment Day, go ahead and have their hides. As Nietzsche wrote: “the categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”

p.s. I recall a newspaper article that got some national circulation by seemingly holding up to ridicule a study which concluded that 47% of Americans have suffered at some point from some form of mental illness. How this number was arrived at, I have no idea. But I don’t at all find it prima facie absurd, as so many others seem to. After all, if one takes as a premise that the mind is at least partly a physical system, this almost seems like a low figure. After all, I would guess that the number of people who have at one point suffered from a physical illness is near 100%, and the medical treatments available for the mind are at this point far more remedial, and the afflictions less well-understood, than those of the body

Lucky we are to have such a staunch advocate “on behalf of literature”

“I fear non-existence. When life goes on and one doesn’t experience anything anymore, one is no longer there.”

Marcel Reich-Raniki, German literary critic

And on a completely unrelated note:

”I became obsessed with the terrifying thought that these texts would expose me completely to the public at large as I really was, namely a trickster and a deceiver and nothing more, a philosopher who knew nothing about the history of philosophy or about Marx.”

–Louis Althusser, author of Pour Marx (In support of Marx)

You’re reading about books…how meta is that?

John Lopez over at No Treason took up the latest blogspam trend (wasn’t it just a year ago we were calling these “memes”?), this time about books. Despite following the chain about five links back, I couldn’t find any authoritative source of this thing, but there seems at least to be a consistent format. Of course, it also seems like the etiquette is to wait to get tagged by somebody else before engaging, but, since readership around here has dwindled pretty significantly around (through nobody’s fault but my own), I figure I might be waiting a while. Plus, it sounds like fun, so here goes:

  • Number of books I own: It’s weird: in most respects I’m one of the laziest, most disorganized people I know (of course, it’s easier to justify this by saying I “work better under pressure”), but I’m actually fairly meticulous about books; they’re generally alphabetized on my shelves (although as I say that I’m looking directly at an unsorted stack which includes Rothbard’s Man, Economy and State, Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Paz’s El laberinto de la soledad) and I actually try to keep lists of what I own and what I’ve read in the last year (which is especially weird because, so far as I can tell, these are the only lists I have ever kept; I don’t even make up a list when I go grocery shopping). Anyway, the point is, by doing a simple line count on the list of books I own and subtracting the overcount for those that take up multiple lines, I (tentatively) conclude that I have 462 books in my one-bedroom apartment (not including various English-to-X dictionaries, my Calvin and Hobbes collection, etc. and also not including the two dozen or so books saved to my hard drive), for which I am rapidly running out of shelf space. Of course, there’s also a stack of books still in my parents’ house that aren’t included in that count, but those don’t number more than 30 or 40, so I think I can safely assume I own about 500 books.
  • Last book I bought: Just this afternoon, I swung by Barnes & Noble to pick up HST’s Fear and Loathing in America: The Gonzo Papers, Vol. II, which should be fun. That having been said, I have to admit I’d actually read Lopez’s post before buying this particular book, so if I’d responded sooner, the answer would have been the French-English dictionary I picked up this morning at the university bookstore, whereas at the time Lopez actually posted, the answer would have been a tie between Valle-Inclán’s Tirano Banderas and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, two of my all-time favorite books that, for whatever reason, I’d never actually bought until last week.

    Like Lopez, tossing out a book is, apparently, entirely anathema to my aesthetic makeup; I can’t remember a single book I’ve ever thrown away. I remember being quite traumatized when, sometime in high school, my mother threw out (or maybe she gave them to the local library) some kids’ books (think the terrible later Hardy Boys books, Jack B. Quick books, etc.); not that I was ever going to read the damn things again, but it just seemed so wrong to get rid of any book, even these admittedly pretty badly written examples. I do occasionally give books away, but there’d better be a damn good reason.
  • Last book I read: The System of the World, the third volume of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, for the second time. For whatever reason, every six months or so I need a Stephenson fix, and this was the time. Fortunately, it only took one volume to satisfy that need this time around; usually it’s much worse. For example, last fall, around the time System was coming out, the Stephenson craving kicked in especially strong, and I actually ended up re-reading every book he’d ever written, along with System, in the span of about two weeks. Which, when you consider that such an endeavor requires reading about 5500 pages, is either very impressive or extremely disturbing (I just calculated that 5500 pages / 14 days = 392 pages/day, which seems absurd, but maybe not impossible, given that (a) I devoured the 1000 page System this week in two days and (b) I wasn’t working or taking classes at the time).
  • Five books that mean a lot to me: Christ, I hate these list-making questions (see, my book-related indexing [but not by preference] is a pretty bizarre aberration from my usual behavior). I can never think of just five because there are so many that come to mind. However, I also hate people that just totally ignore the upper limit on such lists, so I’m just going to put down the first five that come to mind, even though it means I’m guaranteed to do one of those theatrical head-slaps tomorrow when I realize that I actually really should have included X. Furthermore, I especially hate the whole “mean a lot to me” thing, because it’s so ambiguous; I mean, I’ve probably read/heard Goodnight Moon more than any other book on Earth, and it obviously meant a great deal to me as a little kid, since I demanded it every night for years as my bedtime story, but including it on such a list seems sort of counter-productive, since I was, after all, about four at the time. On the other hand, that many repetitions at such an impressionable age probably means it’s had a deeper psychological impact on me than any other book (I’m not sure exactly what that impact is, but I’m sure it’s so ingrained as to be entirely subconscious at this point), so excluding it would seem disingenuous as well. So, that being said, I’m just going to put down my five favorite books (within the bounds of my earlier qualifier): Don Quijote, by Cervantes, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Solzhenitsyn, Ulysses, by Joyce, The Death of Artemio Cruz, by Fuentes, and Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Wittgenstein (the weird thing about this last selection is that I actually agree much more with the later Wittgenstein of Philosophical Grammar and Philosophical Investigations, but the Tractatus is a much more beautiful work).

Hmm…that ended up being much longer (and probably more boring) than I had originally intended (although, come to think of it, that probably characterizes at least 75% of what I write around here, so it should come as no surprise). Anyway, like I said, it seems that part of the game is to “tag” some other people one wants to see engage in this little exercise, so I hereby officially tag Petya, the guys at Market Theocracy, Billy J, and Neil (assuming they’re even reading this in the first place).