February 12, 2005

But what about the antiquarians?

Posted by Curt at 07:44 AM | permalink | 1 comment

"Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them." This is good advice, especially for democracies, which tend (as even Plato and Thucydides noted) to have short-term attention spans. But we shouldn't forget an equally important lesson, articulated most forcefully by Nietzsche: The health of a person and a people also depends vitally on the capacity to forget. Forgetting is necessary to free ourselves from imperfectly understood "lessons of history," so that we can see the challenges ahead clearly, without preconceptions or prejudice. Forgetting is also the better part of forgiving, and there are whole domains of political controversy -- indeed, whole regions of the world -- where a little less history could be of service in this respect.
--Eliot Noyes, Getting Past the Past

January 06, 2005

Philosophical Investigations

Posted by shonk at 07:47 PM | permalink | 3 comments

As promised, quotations from Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations are now available. Again, both German and English versions of each are reproduced, though the task was made considerably easier than in other cases by the fact that the edition I used was a dual-language edition.

I (like, I suspect, many others) find Wittgenstein simultaneously fascinating and annoying. On the one hand, he makes interesting and insightful observations on all sorts of phenomena; on the other, he never really synthesizes those observations into a single, coherent argument. For example, when he says that “Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination” (I§6) or that “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language” (I§109) or that “The fluctuation of scientific definitions: what to-day counts as an observed concomitant of a phenomenon will to-morrow be used to define it” (I§79) I find myself saying “Right on!”; but I also find myself frustrated by the fact that he can’t even decide on what, exactly, his purpose in writing this all down is. For example, at one point Wittgenstein claims that his “aim in philosophy” is “To shew the fly the way out of the fly-bottle” (I§309), while elsewhere he says: “My aim is: to teach you to pass from a piece of disguised nonsense to something that is patent nonsense” (I§464) and still elsewhere he suggests that he’s merely making obvious remarks that presumably everybody already knows:

What we are supplying are really remarks on the natural history of human beings; we are not contributing curiosities, however, but observations which no one has doubted, but which have escaped remark only because they are always before our eyes. (I§415)

As I say, this can be frustrating, but, in a way, is also understandable. In one sense, Wittgenstein isn’t trying to provide answers, but rather to show that there aren’t really any problems (as he says in Philosophical Grammar: “While thinking philosophically we see problems in places where there are none. It is for philosophy to show that there are no problems.”). And why aren’t there any problems? Because “philosophical problems arise when language goes on holiday” (I§38); our problems derive from an inability to properly express ourselves.

(INTERPOLATION: This isn’t stated very well, so I want to expand just a bit. The idea, as I understand it, is that we ask too much of language; that is, we ignore the fact that “Explanations come to an end somewhere” (I§1), that, as quoted below, “language itself cannot be explained”, but, rather, that it can only be understood by its use. In failing to recognize this, we find ourselves unable to express the explanations we seek.)

Within this context, I think Wittgenstein’s thesis (to the extent that he even has one) boils down to the following:

What we have rather to do is to accept the everyday language-game, and to note false accounts of the matter as false. The primitive language-game which children are taught needs no justification; attempts at justification need to be rejected. (II.xi)

Or, from a different direction:

“So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true and what is false?”—It is what human beings say that is true and false; and they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in form of life. (I§241)

Viewed from this perspective, then, it is, perhaps, not so surprising that Wittgenstein has a tendency to be frustratingly vague at times; after all, as he himself says, “What is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words” (II.xi). Personally, I find his perspective compelling, but I can understand why some might find it rather superficial, especially since it can lead to seemingly-trivial statements like: “One wants to say: a significant sentence is one which one can not merely say, but also think” (I§511).

All this aside, though, there are two other things I really like about Wittgenstein. First, the fact that he has a real sense of humor and isn’t afraid to deploy it. For example, I couldn’t help laughing aloud at reading this:

Think of a picture of a landscape, an imaginary landscape with a house in it.—Someone asks “Whose house is that?”—The answer, by the way, might be “It belongs to the farmer who is sitting on the bench in front of it”. But then he cannot for example enter his house. (I§398)

Of course, it probably helps that his sense of humor has that bone-dry, literalistic bent that is characteristic of mathematicians (if you don’t see the humor in the above, re-read the last two sentences like a died-in-the-wool literalist). Which brings me to the second appeal Wittgenstein has for me: he has at least some understanding and awareness of mathematics. And, of course, I can’t help but be excited when someone seems to agree with my own quasi-Intuitionist perspective:

Of course, in one sense mathematics is a branch of knowledge,—but still it is also an activity. And ‘false moves’ can only exist as the exception. For if what we now call by that name became the rule, the game in which they were false moves would have been abrogated. (II.xi)

And, though it doesn’t explicitly refer to mathematics, Wittgenstein’s initial (or final, depending on how you look at it) conclusion has a distinctly mathematical feel to it (especially within the context of Russell’s paradox):

What is spoken can only be explained in language, and so in this sense language itself cannot be explained.

Language must speak for itself.

(Actually from Philosophical Grammar, but echoed throughout Philosophical Investigations)

Okay, enough book-reviewing; check out the quotations.

January 05, 2005

Beach reading

Posted by shonk at 02:25 AM | permalink | 2 comments

I’ve just returned from the beach (okay, I actually got back yesterday), which, at least partially, explains why there have been no updates in the last week.

Anyway, as anyone who knows me at all well would expect, I spent far more time at the beach reading than doing anything else (though I did do a few other things). And let’s just say my choice of reading material didn’t exactly fit the stereotype of what one is supposed to read at the beach. Instead, I finally decided that it was time for me to read Proust’s Swann’s Way and Goethe’s Faust. For those that haven’t read them, I highly recommend both (though I have to admit that Proust is a little hard to get into).

To encourage those that, like myself up to last week, have been putting these books off, I’ve compiled a couple of lists of my favorite quotations. In deference to those who actually speak French and/or German, I’ve also managed to track down the original, untranslated version of each (and yes, this took a really long-ass time, but it was sort of fun). Thus:

Selections from Swann’s Way

Selections from Faust


(Coming soon, selections from my third beach-read, Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations)

November 22, 2004

Blame Physics!

Posted by shonk at 05:01 PM | permalink | 1 comment

A t-shirt I just saw:

Guns don’t kill people
Physics kills people

Needless to say, worn by a physics grad student.

November 19, 2004

Old-world angst

Posted by Curt at 02:20 PM | permalink | comment

In the end, however, Europeans have not sought to counter U.S. hegemony in the usual, power-oriented fashion, because they do not find U.S. hegemony threatening in the traditional power-oriented way. Not all global hegemons are equally frightening. U.S. power, as Europeans well know, does not imperil Europe 's security or even its autonomy. Europeans do not fear that the United States will seek to control them; they fear that they have lost control over the United States and, by extension, over the direction of world affairs.

If the United States is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, then, it is in large part because Europe wants to regain some measure of control over Washington 's behavior. The vast majority of Europeans objected to the U.S. invasion of Iraq not simply because they opposed the war. They objected also because U.S. willingness to go to war without the Security Council's approval -- that is, without Europe's approval -- challenged both Europe's world view and its ability to exercise even a modicum of influence in the new unipolar system.
--Robert Kagan, from The Crisis of Legitimacy: America and the World

Vivevo in una simulazione di attività. Un'attività noiosissima (I was living in a similation of activity. An extremely tedious activity).
--Italo Svevo, Zeno's Conscience (La conscienza di Zeno)

September 21, 2004

Cooking à la française

Posted by Curt at 08:07 AM | permalink | comment

The professor of my expression course (who is French, by the way) gave me this (with my own translation):

Recette de la nation française

Séparez les sourires de toutes les autres expressions. Jetez les sourires mais gardez les autres. Ajoutez les froncements de sourcils et beaucoup de mauvaise humeur. Remuez jusqu'à obtenir un mélange froid.
Mettez une cigarette entre les lèvres, ajoutez une écharpe et versez dans une manifestation. Pour un goût piquant, ajoutez M. Le Pen. Placez dans un four chaud et faites bouillir. Ça prendra 5 minutes peut-être.
Attendez samedi, puis prenez une équipe de rugby. Ajoutez un stade, une grande foule et une équipe anglaise. Battez l'équipe française pendant 80 minutes. Vous obtiendrez une nation très triste. Versez alors du vin rouge pour oublier la défaite.

Recipe for the French nation

Separate the smiles from all the other expressions. Throw away the smiles but keep the others. Add frowns and lots of bad temper. Stir until you have a chilly mixture.
Put a cigarette between the lips, add a scarf and place in a demonstration. For a sharper taste, add M. Le Pen. Place in a hot oven and boil. This will take maybe 5 minutes.
Wait for Saturday, then take a rugby team. Add a stadium, a large crowd and an English team. Batter the French team for 80 minutes. You will obtain a very sad nation. Therefore, pour some red wine to forget the defeat.

June 16, 2004

Happy Bloomsday!

Posted by shonk at 01:52 AM | permalink | comment

Today is the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses supposedly took place. Celebrations are no doubt already underway in Dublin; as my own small tribute, I reproduce here a few Joyce quotations that seem tangentially relevant to the usual stuff I write about. These are not necessarily my favorite examples of Joyce’s writing, since most of those are pretty much meaningless without context (for example, this brought a huge smile of appreciation to my face when I first read it, but is almost meaningless in its own right: “Tap. Tap. A stripling, blind, with a tapping cane came taptaptapping by Daly’s window where a mermaid hair all streaming (but he couldn’t see) blew whiffs of a mermaid (blind couldn’t), mermaid, coolest whiff of all.”), but rather, I think, display something of his political and social criticism as well as his characteristic ambiguity:

The workmen’s discussions, he said, were too timorous; the interest they took in the question of wages was inordinate. He felt that they were hard-featured realists and that they resented an exactitude which was the product of a leisure not within their reach. No social revolution, he told her, would be likely to strike Dublin for some centuries.

She asked him why did he not write out his thoughts. For what, he asked her, with careful scorn. To compete with phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds? To submit himself to the criticisms of an obtuse middle class which entrusted its morality to policemen and its fine arts to impresarios?

— “A Painful Case”, Dubliners, pg. 111 in the Viking Critical Edition.

For a swift season of merrymaking the money of his prizes ran through Stephen’s fingers. Great parcels of groceries and delicacies and dried fruits arrived from the city. Every day he drew up a bill of fare for the family and every night led a party of three or four to the theatre to see Ingomar or The Lady of Lyons. In his coat pockets he carried squares of Vienna chocolate for his guests while his trousers’ pockets bulged with masses of silver and copper coins. He bought presents for everyone, overhauled his room, wrote out resolutions, marshalled his books up and down their shelves, pored upon all kinds of price lists, drew up a form of commonwealth for the household by which every member of it held some office, opened a loan bank for his family and pressed loans on willing borrowers so that he might have the pleasure of making out receipts and reckoning the interests on the sums lent. When he could do no more he drove up and down the city in trams. Then the season of pleasure came to an end. The pot of pink enamel paint gave out and the wainscot of his bedroom remained with its unfinished and illplastered coat.

HIs household returned to its usual way of life. HIs mother had no further occasion to upbraid him for squandering his money. He too returned to his old life at school and all his novel enterprises fell to pieces. The commonwealth fell, the loan bank closed its coffers and its books on a sensible loss, the rules of life which he had drawn about himself fell into desuetude.

How foolish his aim had been! He had tried to build a breakwater of order and elegance against the sordid tide of life without him and to dam up, by rules of conduct and active interests and new filial relations, the powerful recurrence of the tides within him. Useless. From without as from within the water had flowed over his barriers: their tides began once more to jostle fiercely above the crumbles mole.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, pgs. 97-8 in the Viking Critical Edition.

It is hard to lay down any hard and fast rules as to right and wrong but room for improvement all round there certainly is though every country, they say, our own distressful included, has the government it deserves. But with a little goodwill all round. It’s all very fine to boast of mutual superiority but what about mutual equality. I resent violence and intolerance in any shape or form. It never reaches anything or stops anything. A revolution must come on the due instalments plan.

Ulysses, lines 16.1095-1101 in the Gabler Edition

Finally, on the jump, I’ll close with something I wrote last year when I was taking a class on Joyce. As you may know, each chapter of Ulysses is written in a different style, and the final project for the class was to retell a familiar story in two of those styles. I really enjoyed writing my version of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in the style of Chapter 17, “Ithaca” (the penultimate chapter in which Joyce brings tensions to a head in a pompously stylized cross-examination style which simultaneously frustrates the reader’s sensibilities and underscores the ambiguous nature of those tensions) and I think it even turned out half-decent, so I reproduce it here, in the hopes it will inspire some to try reading this difficult but ultimately rewarding book. If you do choose to do so, I highly recommend Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated for all your annotation needs.

Particularly, this pastiche is a re-telling the very end of “Pyramus and Thisbe”, of which I quote Edith Hamilton’s version:

Thisbe, although terrified of the lioness, was still more afraid to fail her lover. She ventured to go back to the tree of the tryst, the mulberry with the shining white fruit. She could not find it. A tree was there, but not one gleam of white was on the branches. As she stared at it, something moved on the ground beneath. She started back shuddering. But in a moment, peering through the shadows, she saw what was there. It was Pyramus, bathed in blood and dying. She flew to him and threw her arms around him. She kissed his cold lips and begged him to look at her. “It is I, your Thisbe, your dearest,” she cried to him. At the sound of her name he opened his heavy eyes for one look. Then death closed them.

She saw his sword fallen form his hand and beside it her cloak stained and torn. She understood all. “Your own hand killed you,” she said, “and your love for me. I too can be brave. I too can love. Only death would have had the power to separate us. It shall not have that power now.” She plunged into her heart the sword that was still wet with his life’s blood.

* What course did Thisbe take returning to the mulberry tree?

Proceeding cautiously from the shrubs, she proceeded past elderberry, elm and birch in turn: then, relaxing a bit, circled towards the clearing by way of an old deer-track: then, at a slower pace, occasionally halting, bearing left over a tree stump, under low-lying fir branches, as far as the edge of the woods.

What did she ponder during this excursion?

Love, music, man, foolish romanticism, small springs, phase changes, the tensile strength of both skin and plaster, the more pertinent aspects of feline anatomy, adrenaline, chlorophyll factories, metabolism, torn tissue, prophylactics, the menstrual cycle, Pyramus’ tardiness.

Had she ever before engaged in similar ambulatory nocturnal thought?

Once, two years prior.

What further reflection did this connection inspire in her mind just before reaching the clearing?

She reflected that experience was an aid to learning only so long as emotional attachment did not interfere with rational discourse.

What act did Thisbe perform upon arriving at her destination?

Standing beneath three elms arranged in an equilateral triangle, head turned to look for pallid whitefruit of mulberry.

To what effect?

Little. Though smooth, rough, triangular, rectangular, circular, pyramidal, parabolic, elongated, shrunken and imaginary forms were visible, none below the tops of the trees were white.

Did the lack of white within the visual spectrum distress her?

It did.

Where was the mulberry tree?

Where it had been since proto-trunk exited seed and penetrated soil in search of light and warmth 8 years, 6 months and 13 days since: in the middle of the clearing.

Describe it.

Its roots (invisible) spread like tentacles throughout the surrounding ground, supporting a slender trunk, which, though light-brown in color, appeared black due to lack of sufficient candlepower, itself explained by the nocturnal hour and the shady circumference of branches, twigs, leaves and berries supported against the 32 f/s/s exerted upon all bodies native to the superficiality of the globe. Branches forked smaller recursively, the inductive result being rounded, pointed, serrated leaves and clustered, cylindrical, crimson fruit.

What drew Thisbe’s attention to the mulberry tree?

Slight movement near its base, accompanied by faint but distinctly human sounds, easily amenable to onomatopoeiatic treatment.

Produced by what?

Pyramus, expiring in stop-action.

What action did Thisbe’s apprehension of this fact provoke?

The placement of left foot forward, followed by right. This sequence of actions then re-iterated more times in rapid succession, resulting in arrival below the crimson mulberry fringe.

Producing what physiological manifestations?

Shortness of breath, increased pulse and blood pressure, heightened adrenaline and testosterone production, effusion of water saturated by sodium chloride over the expanse of the epidermal layer, displacement of various keratin strands.

Did this displacement evoke any involuntary action?

It did: the passage of right hand through hair, with the aim of removing visual obstruction.

What proclamations, following a kiss to cold lips, caused the recumbent figure to briefly part closed eyelids before expiring?

Of identity, of name, of affection, of possession.

What contrapositive fears succeeded in the feminine mind?

Of false accusations of manipulation, moral inferiority, covetousness, fornication and murder made by recumbent’s paternity; of parental disapproval and misunderstanding; of social ostracism; of economic independence and insufficiency; of miscalculation in assignation of amour.

What did Thisbe perceive next to the limp, bloodsoaked hand of Pyramus?

A sword, finely balanced, lacking the notched imperfections of regular use, with rounded pommel superceded by recently re-wrapped hilt, quillion reminiscent of demonic horns, artificial crimson rivulet progressing slowly down the fuller.

Perceived as a tool for what new aim by the imaginative mind?

Literary immortality spawned by perception of unswerving loyalty and love, transcending pervious paradigms of separation and death.

How achieved?

By passage of carbonized not-stainless steel between 4th and 5th ribs, slightly left of centerline defined by vaginal, umbilical and oral cavities, resulting in perforation of left ventricle.

In what position did dead and dying lie?

Dead: on back, legs extended, neck cocked, right arm bent at the elbow away from hips, left arm tracing straight line from armpit to thigh, stiff oratory posture. Dying: on sinister side, legs and arms curled toward torso, head resting on right knee of dead.


Of pot rot ought and not, of read head on the linen of fir and beech, nightcrawler.


June 08, 2004

Body-snatching Lorenz equations

Posted by shonk at 04:47 AM | permalink | 13 comments

First off, a bookkeeping note: Curt will be traveling around Europe for the next month, so he likely won’t be posting much, if at all.

Now, I promised last week, in my review of Strogatz’ Sync, that I would devote an entire post to an extended quotation from the book that I found very interesting. Reading the comment thread associated with John Sabotta’s post denouncing evolutionary psychology at No Treason, I was reminded of that promise, so this is that post. In the pertinent passage, Strogatz is discussing a chaos-based encryption system first envisioned by Lou Pecora. Pecora was trying to figure out a way to devise an encryption system based on Lorenz equations, wherein three variables are related to each other in a particular way (specifically, by way of a system of differential equations).

(As a side note, I would point out, apropos my earlier comments on Strogatz book, that this passage serves as an excellent example of both the strengths and weaknesses of the book. The primary strength, aside from Strogatz’ obvious depth of knowledge of the material, is his ability to describe complicated technical mathematics by way of metaphors that make it highly accessible to a lay reader. The primary weakness, at least in my view, is that he doesn’t ever give any of the technical details. Admittedly, systems of differential equations are a bit intimidating, but the fact that the entire book, basically, is written in metaphor is a bit grating)

Anyway, on to the quotation, followed by one or two of my own thoughts:

In technical terms his scheme can be described as follows: Take two copies of a chaotic system. Treat one as the driver; in applications to communications, it will function as the transmitter. The other system receives signals from the driver, but does not send any back. The communication is one-way. (Think of a military command center sending encrypted orders to its soldiers in the field or to sailors at sea.) To synchronize the systems, send the ever-changing numerical value of one of the driver variables to the receiver, and use it to replace the corresponding receiver variable, moment by moment. Under certain circumstances, Pecora found that all the other variables—the ones not replaced—would automatically snap into sync with their counterparts in the driver. Having done so, all the variables are now matched. The two systems are completely synchronized.

This description, though technically correct mathematically, does not begin to convey the marvel of synchronized chaos. To appreciate how strange this phenomenon is, picture the variables of a chaotic system as modern dancers. By analogy with the Lorenz equations, their names are x, y, and z. Every night they perform onstage, playing off one another, each responding to the slightest cues of the other two. Though their turns and gestures seem choreographed, they are not. On the other hand, they are certainly not improvising, at least not in the usual sense of the word. Given where the others are at any moment, the third reacts according to strict rules. The genius is in the artfulness of the rules themselves. They ensure that the resulting performance is always elegant but never monotonous, with motifs that remind but never repeat. The performance is different from minute to minute (because of aperiodicity) and from night to night (because of the butterfly effect), yet it is always essentially the same, because it always follows the same strange attractor.

So far, this is a metaphor for a single Lorenz system, playing the role of the receiver in Pecora’s communication scheme. Now suppose that time stands still for a moment. The laws of the universe are suspended. In that terrifying instant, x vanishes without a trace. In its place stands a new variable, called x’. It looks like x but is programmed to be oblivious to the local y and z. Instead, its behavior is determined remotely by its interplay with y’ and z’, variables in a transmitter far away in another Lorenz system, all part of an unseen driver.

It’s almost like the classic horror movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers. From the point of view of the receiver system, this new x would seem inscrutable. “We’re trying to dance with x but suddenly it’s ignoring all of our signals,” think y and z. “I’ve never seen x behave like that before,” says one of them. “Hey, x,” the other whispers, “is it really you?” But x wears a glazed expression on its face. Just as in the movie, x has been taken over by a pod. It’s no longer dancing with the y and z in front of it—its partners are y’ and z’, unseen doppelgängers of y and z, remote ones in the parallel universe of the driver. In that faraway setting, everything about x’ looks normal. But when teleported to the receiver, it seems oddly unresponsive. And that’s because the receiver’s x has been hijacked, impersonated by this strange x’ coming from out of nowhere. Sensitive souls that they are, y and z make adjustments and modify their footwork. Soon, all becomes right again. The x, y, z trio glides in an utterly natural way, flowing through state space on the Lorenz attractor, the picture of chaotic grace.

But what is so sinister here, and so eerie, is that y and z have now been turned into pods themselves. Unwittingly, they are now dancing in perfect sync with their own doppelgängers, y’ and z’, variables they have never encountered. Somehow, though the sole influence of the teleported x’, subtle information has been conveyed about the remote y’ and z’ as well, enough to lock the receiver to the driver. Now all three variables x, y, and z have been commandeered. The unseen driver is calling the tune.

— pp. 196-7


So far, chaos-based methods have proved disappointingly weak. Kevin Short, a mathematician at the University of New Hampshire, has shown how to break nearly every chaotic code proposed to date. When he unmasked the Lorenzian chaos of Cuomo and Oppenheim, his results set off a mini-arms race among nonlinear scientists, as researchers tried to develop ever more sophisticated schemes. But so far the codebreakers are winning.

— pg. 204

The obvious conclusion is that each variable in these specialized systems in fact encodes the entirety of the system. From a mathematical perspective, I admire the ingenuity required to come up with this sort of scheme. From a metaphysical perspective, though, it’s hard not to find this whole thing vaguely unsettling. After all, people usually respond in fairly predictable ways to outside stimuli. The point I guess I’m stumbling towards is this: the idea that a chaotic system in which the actors respond in predictable ways to the other actors could lead to the sort of lockstep mirroring described above seems, at least to me, to say something very pertinent to the whole determinism/free will debate. Admittedly, the eerieness is largely due to Strogatz’ metaphor, but the fact that the y and z variables, thinking themselves to be operating independently of the y’ and z’ variables, would ultimately end up mirroring those same variables simply because they followed the same rules in reacting to the x/x’ variable is pretty fascinating.

What I’m not trying to do is say that this sort of thing settles the determinism/free will debate. Rather, I’m just pointing out that these new mathematics give new insight into ways in which seemingly independent activity can yield identical results. And, although these are admittedly specialized cases, it’s somewhat surprising (at least on an intuitive level) that there are any circumstances in which variables seemingly reacting to another variable’s independent activities would, in fact, end up exactly duplicating the variables to which that wild variable was itself reacting. The result, of course, being a system in which all three seemed to be mutually reacting, while in fact one was paying no attention at all to the other two. In other words, one has to wonder, at least a little bit, in what direction causality points, exactly.

June 04, 2004

Regrettably necessary

Posted by shonk at 04:38 AM | permalink | comment

First off, I want to apologize again for the lack of content around here recently. Being on vacation for the last few weeks has made regular updating difficult, but during the last eight days I’ve endured multiple migraines on all but two of the days. Which makes it sort of hard to think very clearly or write very effectively. Anyway, I got some new drugs from my doctor today, so hopefully the migraines will soon recede.

Okay, what was I going to talk about? Oh, yeah, politics. Somehow, despite the fact that I hate politics, especially party politics and especially this year’s version, I seem to be uncontrollably drawn to some sort of weird punditry every couple of weeks. This round’s inspiration are the dual pillars of madness and genius embodied by The Onion and Hunter S. Thompson, Doctor of Journalism. Reversing the order of discussion and thereby causing no end of anguish to my tenth-grade English teacher (if she’s reading this, anyway), those who pay any attention to the Books page have no doubt noticed that I’m currently reading Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ‘72, which is, more or less, a collection of the biweekly articles he wrote on the ‘72 presidential campaign for Rolling Stone.

Needless to say, those looking for “objective” journalism should look somewhere elsewhere than Thompson. In fact, in his own words:

So much for Objective Journalism. Don’t bother to look for it here—not under any byline of mine; or anyone else I can think of. With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.

Anyway, the point of that little tangent is to say that Thompson, as should surprise nobody familiar with his work, has no qualms about projecting himself into his articles on the campaign, no problem with stating his opinions directly and pursuing his biases openly. Though I haven’t even reached the Democratic Convention yet, one of the main themes of the book is obviously the problem that, in 1972, a lot of people cared more about defeating Nixon than about any particular opposition candidate. Which was the primary reason the apparently Ibogaine-dependent Ed Muskie was crowned in 1971 as the Democratic front-runner solely on the basis of the opinion that he was “the only man who can defeat Nixon”. Needless to say, one sees some immediate parallels to the current election.

In fact, the parallels are quite overt. The situation in Iraq is small potatoes compared to what was going on in Vietnam in 1972, but the fact remains that in both cases America was involved in a military conflict in southern Asia. In both cases, the incumbent is a Republican who had succeeded a southern Democratic predecessor, but in neither case had the incumbent defeated his predecessor in an election. Cynics can, no doubt, fill in their own table of similarities between George W. Bush and Richard M. Nixon.

Early in the book, when it appears obvious that Thompson’s favored candidate (McGovern) will be an also-ran in the Democratic primaries, he has this to say on the whole process:

How many more of these goddamn elections are we going to have to write off as lame but “regrettably necessary” holding actions? And how many more of these stinking, double-downer sideshows will we have to go through before we can get ourselves straight enough to put together some kind of national election that will give me and the at least 20 million people I tend to agree with a chance to vote for something, instead of always being faced with that old familiar choice between the lesser of two evils?

Hmm…sound familiar? As it turned out, in ‘72, the choices actually ended up being fairly disparate, with the anti-war and semi-radical McGovern getting stomped by tricky Dick. In ‘04, on the other hand, it looks like we will face down exactly what Thompson was most horrified by, the necessity of choosing the lesser of two evils, of choosing which rich, white, middle-aged member of Skull & Bones will be the president for the next four years (or at least until the winner is impeached, which somehow strikes me as likely and fits in nicely with my 1972 parallels).

In fact, that’s precisely what caught my eye in The Onion this week. After I got done chuckling at the caption “Shotgun Blast To Abdomen Just Pisses Wilfred Brimley Off More”, I had to admit that the article “Many Americans Still Unsure Whom to Vote Against” (archived) pretty much hits the nail on the head:

According to the poll, 46 percent of the registered voters surveyed would vote against Bush if the election were held tomorrow, while 45 percent said they were ready to vote against Kerry. Factoring in the 2 percent margin of error, the two candidates are essentially deadlocked in the race to determine which candidate America doesn’t support.

Of course, I find it all deliciously ironic. People who claim to care about social justice, egalitarianism and pacifism will be voting for John Kerry, who in addition to being a part of the elite of the elite for his entire life is notoriously difficult to pin down on just what, exactly, he thinks ought to be done in Iraq (pretty much the same thing Bush thinks, as it turns out). On the other hand, people who came to care about free markets, freedom and smaller government will probably cast their votes for Bush, who is not only a mercantilist of the old school, but passed into law the USA PATRIOT Act (which Kerry, and the rest of the chumps in Congress, voted for but now hypocritically denounces, by the way) and has increased federal spending like it was going out of fashion (which is ironic, because it never seems to).

Anyway, the point is that nobody, but nobody, who votes in this year’s election is going to be voting for a candidate with which they agree with on more than half the issues. Actually, let me re-phrase that: Nobody with half a brain who votes, etc. In other words, the president, whoever it ends up being, does not accurately represent the citizenry.

And yes, I’m well aware that this isn’t exactly a startling insight. But it still needs to be said, as plainly and as often as possible. Oh yeah, and one more thing: voting is a sucker’s bet. You’re about as likely to get run over by a car on the way to the polling booth as to cast the deciding ballot in the upcoming election (pdf file) and, let’s be honest, the difference between life and death is orders of magnitude larger than the difference between Bush and Kerry in the White House.

To complete the cycle, a couple more relevant quotes from the book:

But this is stone bullshit. There are only two ways to make it in big-time politics today: One is to come on like a mean dinosaur, with a high-powered machine that scares the shit out of your entrenched opposition (like Daley or Nixon)…and the other is to tap the massive, frustrated energies of a mainly young, disillusioned electorate that has long since abandoned the idea that we all have a duty to vote. This is like being told that you have a duty to buy a new car, but you have to choose immediately between a Ford and a Chevy.

— pg. 73

The latest craze on the local [Washington, D.C.] high-life front is mixing up six or eight aspirins in a fresh Coca-Cola and doing it all at once. Far more government people are into this stuff than will ever admit to it. What seems like mass paranoia in Washington is really just a sprawling, hyper-tense boredom—and the people who actually live and thrive here in the great web of Government are the first ones to tell you, on the basis of long experience, that the name or even the Party Affiliation of the next President won’t make any difference at all, except on the surface.

The leaves change, they say, but the roots stay the same.

— pg. 90

May 25, 2004

Why television is like politics -- bad adaptations of cultural theories

Posted by shonk at 06:19 AM | permalink | comment

TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all of these things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor Audience is faultable for quality.

(Excerpted from David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. fiction”, from the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments and first published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993)

Though I wouldn’t claim to know how original the above argument is, I would venture to say that it’s probably the most coherent and reasoned explanation I’ve read of why television has never, shall we say, lived up to its cultural and educational promise. The standard critique of television is simply that it’s vacuous, vulgar, etc. or, perhaps, downright evil, but little thought is usually given to exactly why this is the case. Or, if an explanation is given, it usually falls exactly along the lines that Wallace rejects, namely that the audience is vacuous, vulgar, etc. as well. But that does little to explain why many intelligent, cultured people are almost inexplicably drawn to even the most blatantly hackneyed crap available on the idiot box. Wallace’s explanation, on the other hand, explains much of this in a single deft maneuver.

And, more importantly, his explanation rings true. Which of even the most jaded aesthetes among us can help bobbing their heads and singing along to 50 Cent’s “In the Club” or Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”, even after the twentieth repetition in the last week? (Okay, that’s something of a dated example, but my spring-break memories from a year ago are still quite vivid; two years before that it was the supremely obnoxious “Who Let the Dogs Out?”) Who hasn’t been drawn in at least once by one of those godawful professional wrestling shows, which are simultaneously fascinating and unbelievably dreadful? Finally, how many people haven’t, at some time in their lives, stayed up much too late reading a formulaic thriller in the Grisham/Crichton/Clancy/Brown mold? Extrapolating from my own experience, I would speculate that most of us who know better are, at least occasionally, drawn to these forms of entertainment because they rather directly appeal to our “Low” tastes.

And let’s be honest, there isn’t a particularly large variety of “Low” themes out there. Sex, violence and melodrama pretty much cover that particular genre and there are only so many ways that sex, violence and melodrama can be combined without ascending to a realm where they require at least a moderate investment of intellectual effort.

Okay, so far I haven’t exactly added anything to DFW’s initial point, so let me perhaps apply the same theory to other sorts of socio-entertainment outlets. As alluded to above, the same explanation serves for the cases of, for example, pop music, summer blockbusters, thriller novels, etc., all of which are considerably more popular and revenue-producing than their higher-concept cousins (a fact which should have been the first clue that the vacuity/vulgarity of television isn’t exactly unique to the medium and, therefore, that explanations on the basis that television is just evil or whatever are overly reductionist). The same holds for most other varieties of art I can think of off the top of my head (suburban cookie-cutter architecture vs. Frank Lloyd Wright (or even the detestable Frank Gehry), Penthouse photography vs. Jan Saudek, etc.)

Another area where I think this sort of framework is applicable is in the sordid realm of politics (you just knew I had to tie it into politics somehow, didn’t you?). There’s a myth these days that politics is more superficial than it ever has been, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing but a myth, in the same psychic space as various other nostalgic myths. Until very recently, historically speaking, the majority of politics (at least in the choosing-a-leader sense which today draws the majority of our cynical scorn) was almost unimaginably superficial, being based solely on who fucked (and, thereby, presumably impregnated) who. The baroque machinations of the Founding Fathers in doing everything in their power to prevent the common man from actually having any influence on important elections demonstrates pretty clearly that they knew damn well that representative democracy would be no less superficial; the fact that “mudslinging” is a 19th century term bears out the hypothesis that the devolution isn’t entirely a late 20th century phenomenon.

In politics as in television, there are wildly divergent disagreements on the “important” issues, whereas there is much more homogeneity in the realm of superficial concerns like what the candidate looks like and how empathetic he seems. The big one, of course, is “consensus-building”, which seems more important than actually having any beliefs or goals to build a consensus around.

So but like (dear God, I’m picking up DFW mannerisms now) the point is this: as in the case of television, the blame for politics’ superficiality cannot rightly be laid either on the populace or on the candidates themselves per se, but rather must be viewed as a sort of necessary consequence of the very process itself. Just as television necessarily tries to engender as much watching and to gather as many viewers as possible, politics is all about gathering maximum votes. In both cases, the most efficient tactic is to appeal to the areas with the broadest appeal, which almost of necessity are in the most superficial areas. Again, this isn’t necessarily because the populace is itself superficial, but rather because “higher” interests and tastes are so much more varied than the “lower” or superficial ones. And GW doesn’t get extra points for votes based “important” issues.

Okay, some more quotes from the book for you to think about (or just laugh at):

Despite the unquestioned assumption on the part of pop-culture critics that television’s poor old Audience, deep down, “craves novelty,” all available evidence suggests, rather, that the Audience really craves sameness but thinks, deep down, that it ought to crave novelty.

— “E Unibus Pluram”

The fact is that TV’s re-use of postmodern cool has actually evolved as an inspired solution to the keep-Joe-at-once-alienated-from-and-part-of-the-million-eyed-problem. The solution entailed a gradual shift from oversincerity to a kind of bad-boy irreverence for the Big Face that TV shows us. This is turn reflected a wider shift in U.S. perceptions of how art was supposed to work, a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values.

— “E Unibus Pluram”

“This is potentially key,” I’m saying. “This may be just the sort of regional politico-sexual contrast the swanky East-Coast magazine is keen for. The core value informing a kind of willed politico-sexual stoicism on your part is your prototypically Midwestern appreciation of fun —”

“Buy me some pork skins, you dipshit.”

“— whereas on the East Coast, politico-sexual indignation is the fun. In New York, a woman who’d been hung upside down and ogled would go get a whole lot of other women together and there’d be this frenzy of politico-sexual indignation. They’d confront the ogler. File an injunction. Management’d find itself litigating expensively — violation of a woman’s right to nonharassed fun. I’m telling you. Personal and political fun merge somewhere just east of Cleveland, for women.”

— “Getting away from already pretty much being away from it all”

[David] Lynch’s movies, for all their unsubtle archetypes and symbols and intertextual references and c., have about them the remarkable unself-consciousness that’s kind of the hallmark of Expressionist art — nobody in Lynch’s movies analyzes or metacriticizes or hermeneuticizes or anything, including Lynch himself. This set of restrictions makes Lynch’s movies fundamentally unironic, and I submit that Lynch’s lack of irony is the real reason some cinéastes — in this age when ironic self-consciousness is the one and only universally recognized badge of sophistication — see him as a naïf or a buffoon.

— “David Lynch keeps his head”

[Tennis Canada] is Canada’s version of the U.S.T.A., and its logo — which obtrudes into your visual field as often as is possible here at the du Maurier Omnium — consists of the good old Canadian maple leaf with a tennis racket for a stem. It’s stuff like Tennis Canada’s logo you want to point to when Canadians protest that they don’t understand why Americans make fun of them.

— “Tennis player Michael Joyce’s professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, limitation, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness”

April 19, 2004

If you want to send a message...

Posted by shonk at 01:42 AM | permalink | 1 comment

Curt’s fisking of Voltaire and Chomsky reminded me of that old Samuel Goldwyn remark: “If I want to send a message I’ll call Western Union” (yeah, that’s right, Samuel Goldwyn, not David Lynch, who recently and badly paraphrased it). Which is good advice for any artist, especially in these “the personal is the political” times.

Incidentally, googling that phrase is an interesting experience, one I’d recommend. Of course, there’s the odd writer commentary, but I was surprised to see two different articles on the Drug War pop up. The first, by Vicki Rosenzweig, is really more of a rant than a proper article, but it makes a good point:

I’d like to remind the US government of that principle. Or, if Western Union seems too old-fashioned, call a press conference. Create a Web page. Buy full-page ads in the newspaper, or hire someone to do flashy television ads you can run during ballgames.

Don’t write your message on the dead bodies of the American people.

This in regards to the Clinton administration deciding, circa 1998, not to support needle exchange programs because it might “send the wrong message”. Now I’m against federal funding for needle exchange programs, but that’s because I’m opposed to federal funding of pretty much anything, not because of the message it sends. As Rosenzweig says,

The message from the administration is “If you use drugs, you will die, and we won’t try to save you, because then someone else might use drugs too.” Do they really think people try heroin because they see someone, thin and pale, and think “well, he’s not dead yet”?

On the other hand, drug warrior Lamar Alexander uses the “Western Union” quote in quite a different context:

The political scientist James Q. Wilson has pointed out that when it comes to making policy, a common attitude is “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Yet when it comes to illegal drugs, sending a message may be the most important thing we do. If we have learned anything about drug use over the last twenty years, it is that drug use is closely linked to the attitudes toward drug use that prevail at any time.

Which is true, but then Alexander immediately starts fleeing anything approaching reason:

What worries me most about the debate over drug legalization, and the successful efforts to decriminalize marijuana in California and Arizona is the message that is sent. How can we expect our children to harden their resistance to drugs when all around there are voices telling them that, under some circumstances, mood and mind-altering substances are permissible?

That’s not quite the decriminalization message there, buddy. Rather, the message, if any, is that maybe bureaucratic busybodies oughtn’t be able to decree what we can and can’t do with our own bodies. Something Alexander, as someone who thinks that the risk of more people hurting themselves is “too high a price to pay” for freedom. Mind you, that’s not more people getting hurt by others, either through aggression or some other means, that’s more people hurting themselves (okay, admittedly he tosses in some stuff about crack babies and drugged-up drivers, but if that were a major concern he’d be leading the push for the re-instatement of Prohibition, seeing as there are orders of magnitude more FAS babies and drunk drivers than crack babies and stoned drivers).

The healthier attitude, in my book, is Billy Beck’s (wow, two Beck references in an hour; this must be a sign of…something):

And when I see a person “consigning” hundreds of millions of people to all the legal and institutional predations of the war on drugs on behalf of insinuated concerns for dopers — which I don’t believe for a split-second — it’s the most natural thing in the world for me to completely dismiss him as a serious person, because his concern is so obviously misplaced that the very next question goes to his mental competence.

Preach on, brother man.

April 10, 2004

Standing in the kitchen, feeling stupid

Posted by shonk at 11:37 PM | permalink | 44 comments

In reading through Douglas Adams’ sadly posthumous Salmon of Doubt, I came across this little gem about the creation of The Meaning of Liff:

So, the vaguely uncomfortable feeling you got from sitting on a seat which is warm from somebody else’s bottom is just as real a feeling as the one you get when a rogue giant elephant charges out of the bush at you, but hitherto only the latter actually had a word for it. Now they both have words. The first one is “shoeburyness,” and the second, of course, is “fear.”

We started to collect more and more of these words and concepts, and began to realize what an arbitrarily selective work the Oxford English Dictionary is. It simply doesn’t recognize huge wodges of human experience. Like, for instance, standing in the kitchen wondering what you went in there fore. Everybody does it, but because there isn’t—or wasn’t—a word for it, everyone thinks it’s something that only they do and that they are therefore more stupid than other people. It is reassuring to realize that everybody is as stupid as you are and that all we are doing when we are standing in the kitchen wondering what we came in here for is “woking.” (pgs. 11-12)

Now, admittedly, this is a sort of thin premise on which to base much of anything, but bear with me. I think what Adams is talking about is actually rather a deep phenomenon. Not that it’s a new one, or anything, but Adams puts it a hell of a lot better than most linguists and social commentators. The idea, of course, is that language defines, in many ways, our reality and that it does so through omission every bit as much as it does by inclusion.

When concepts, feelings, etc. are unnameable, they are, in a very real sense, less, well, real. And so when we experience these unnamed and therefore less real feelings or thoughts, we naturally think that we must be weird, unusual, or even unique. Which is why everybody can so immediately identify with the cliché “Normal is what everybody else is and you’re not”. Because normal people would never even have unnamed, unreal feelings and experiences, let alone spend so much time thinking about them. After all, if normal people had these feelings, they’d give them a name and talk about them.

Well, okay, that sounds good, but who cares? I mean, standing confused in the kitchen isn’t exactly a life-changing even (well, not usually, anyway). But we don’t just not have names for these sorts of crises of memory, we don’t have names for all kinds of basic concepts. For example, Adams was a self-proclaimed “radical atheist” and had a keen interest in evolution, but there’s no good word for the whole spontaneous-generation-of-complex-structures-from-simpler- building-blocks-with-no-intervention-from-higher-powers concept that lies at the very heart of the basic idea of evolution. Sure there are terms like “spontaneous order” or “emergent phenomena” or whatever, but these are all artificial phrases, vaguely technical and unnatural.

Why are there no simple words to describe the spontaneous order/emergent phenomena concept? Because, as Adams brilliantly points out by way of an analogy with a puddle of water in “Is there an Artificial God?” such things simply don’t jibe with how we perceive reality. On the other hand, there is a very simple, very concrete, almost tangible word for an equally daunting and directly imperceptible concept; I’m speaking, of course, of “God”. Now we could argue until the cows come home about why this concept has such a definitive name (for example, Adams the radical atheist says its because we created God in our image, others would argue exactly the opposite), but the why is sort of beside the point. The point is that the one concept has no good name while the other does and the fact that the concept which is, to some extent, actually verifiable is the one without a name is what makes this phenomenon all the more interesting.

To tie this in with another main theme of this site, I would point out that another major area which manifests the spontaneous order/emergent phenomena paradigm is the market. One might be inclined to argue that part of the reason most people are leery of the free market as a political or economic ideal is that the closest anybody’s come to concisely expressing the basic concept is Adam Smith’s lame “Invisible Hand” metaphor. That’s right, lame. The metaphor is lame because it stimulates exactly the sorts of fears and delusions it was intended to dispel: bring up an “invisible hand” in the context of greedy businessmen and most people hear “conspiracy” and “collusion” (the whole Black Hand thing didn’t help, either).

Of course, things get even worse when institutions, intentionally or not, start appropriating perfectly reasonable and useful words. Nowadays, “cooperation” is something you do sullenly, because your first-grade teacher made you. People hear the word “cooperative” and immediately start thinking of government, which is ironic because government is anything but.

And now, for those that just wanted to read Adams quotes, here’s a few from The Salmon of Doubt, each worthy of its own entry:

A few years ago—well, I can tell you exactly, in fact, it was early 1994—I had a little run-in with the police. I was driving along Westway into central London with my wife, who was six months pregnant, and I overtook on the inside lane. Not a piece of wild and reckless driving in the circumstances, honestly, it was just the way traffic was flowing; but anyway I suddenly found myself being flagged down by a police car. The policemen signalled me to follow them down off the motorway and—astonishingly— to stop behind them on a bend in the slip road, where we could all get out and have a little chat about my heinous crime. I was aghast. Cars, trucks, and, worst of all, white vans were careering down the slip road, none of them, I’m sure, expecting to find a couple of cars actually parked there, right on the bend. Any one of them could easily have rear-ended my care—with my pregnant wife inside. The situation was frightening and insane. I made this point to the police officer, who, as is so often the case with the police, took a different view.

The officer’s point was that overtaking on an inside lane was inherently dangerous. Why? Because the law said it was. But being parked on a blind bend on a slip road was not dangerous because I was there on police instructions, which made it legal and hence (and this is the tricky bit to follow) safe.

My point was that I accepted I had (quite safely) made a manoeuvre that was illegal under the laws of England, but that our current situation, parked on a blind bend in the path of fast-moving traffic, was life-threatening by reason of the actual physical laws of the universe.

The officer’s next point was that I wasn’t in the universe, I was in England, a point that has been made to me before. I gave up trying to win an argument and agreed to everything so that we could just get out of there.

—pg. 22. I, personally, think this ties in nicely with my article “Legality is not Morality”, but I may be biased.

That is also why it’s impossible to divorce pure science from technology: they feed and stimulate each other. So the latest software gizmo for transferring an mp3 sound file from one computer to another across continents is, when you peer into its innards and at the infrastructure that has given rise to it and that it, in turn, becomes part of, is, in its way, every bit as interesting as the way in which a cell replicates, an idea is formed within a brain, or a beetle deep in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest digests its prey. It’s all part of the same underlying process that we in turn are part of, it’s where our creative energies are being poured, and I’ll happily take it over comedians, television, and football any day.

—pg. 125

“Kate, you think I’m talking nonsense, but I’m not. Listen. In the past, people would stare into the fire for hours when they wanted to think. Or stare at the sea. The endless dancing shapes and patterns would reach far deeper into our minds than we could manage by reason and logic. You see, logic can only proceed from the premises and assumptions we already make, so we just drive round and round in little circles like little clockwork cars. We need dancing shapes to lift us and carry us, but they’re harder to find these days. You can’t stare into a radiator. You can’t stare into the sea. Well, you can, but it’s covered with plastic bottles and used condoms, so you just sit there getting cross. All we have to stare into is the white noise. The stuff we sometimes call information, but which is really just a babble rising in the air.”

“But without logic…”

“Logic comes afterwards. It’s how we retrace our steps. It’s being wise after the event. Before the event you have to be very silly.”

—pgs. 244-5 (Dirk Gently and Kate discussing Dirk’s investigative method). I’m amazed by how many people don’t realize that this is exactly how logic works.

April 07, 2004

Vamps & Tramps

Posted by shonk at 12:12 AM | permalink | 2 comments

As is my wont when I can’t think of anything to write about, I’ll let someone else do the talking. As such, some quotes from Camille Paglia’s Vamps & Tramps (for those that don’t know, Paglia is a lesbian, a feminist and a civil libertarian as well as being a harsh critic of the “feminist establishment”):

When the office—by which I mean the whole complex of word-based, smoothly cooperative white-collar work, in business or academe—becomes the primary paradigm of new female achievement, women have cut themselves off from the risk-taking, rough-and-tumble experiences that have always toughened men. Women will never succeed at the level or in the numbers they deserve until they get over their genteel reluctance to take abuse in the attack and counterattack of territorial warfare. The recent trend in feminism, notably in sexual harassment policy, has been to overrely on regulation and legislation rather than to promote personal responsibility. Women must not become wards and suppliants of authority figures. Freedom means rejecting dependency.

—Introduction, pg. xii

Fundamentalist reading of the Bible is far from passé. On the contrary, religious faith, in particular evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, is spreading around the world. The goals and reputation of progressive politics have been harmed by the juvenile arrogance of the liberal establishment toward institutional religion, which may oppress by rules but which is also a repository of spiritual experience, as well as fold wisdom about life, far more truthful than anything in French poststructuralism.

—pg. 21

There is such a thing as seduction, and it needs encouragement rather than discouragement in our puritanical Anglo-American world. The fantastic fetishism of rape by mainstream and anti-porn feminists has in the end trivialized rape, impugned women’s credibility, and reduce the sympathy we should feel for legitimate victims of violent sexual assault.

What I call Betty Crocker feminism—a naively optimistic Pollyannaish or Panglossian view of reality—is behind much of this. Even the most morbid of the rape ranters have a childlike faith in the perfectibility of the universe, which they see as blighted solely by nasty men. They simplistically project outward onto a mythical “patriarchy” their own inner conflicts and moral ambiguities. In Sexual Personae, I critiqued the sunny Rousseauism running through the last two hundred years of liberal thinking and offered the dark tradition of Sade, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud as more truthful about human perversity. It is more accurate to see primitive egotism and animality ever-simmering behind social controls—cruel energies contained and redirected for the greater good—than to predicate purity and innocence ravaged by corrupt society. Nor does the Foucault view of numb, shapeless sensoriums tyrannically impinged on by faceless systems of language-based power make any more sense, in view of daily reports of concretely applied and concretely suffered random beatings, mutilations, murders, arson, massacres, and ethnic extermination around the world.

— pgs. 25-6

I envision two spheres: one is social, the other sexual and emotional. Perhaps one-third of each sphere overlaps the other; this is the area where feminism has correctly said, “The personal is political.” But there is vastly more to the human story. Man has traditionally ruled the social sphere; feminism tells him to move over and share his power. But woman rules the sexual and emotional sphere, and there she has no rival. Victim ideology, a caricature of social history, blocks women from recognition of their dominance in the deepest, most important realm.

—pgs. 30-1

Until recently, most societies had a clear idea of what constitutes “uncivilized” or “ungodly” behavior and punished it accordingly. Today, in contrast, there is a tendency to redefine the victimizer as himself a victim—of a broken home or abusive parents—and then, ironically, to broaden criminality to areas of consensual activities where women are equally responsible for their behavior. When feminist discourse is unable to discriminate the drunken fraternity brother from the homicidal maniac, women are in trouble.

—pg. 33

The dishonesty and speciousness of the feminist rape analysis are demonstrated by its failure to explore, or even mention, man-on-man sex crimes. If rape were really just a process of political intimidation of women by men, why do men rape and kill other males?

—pg. 33

April 04, 2004


Posted by shonk at 01:41 AM | permalink | 8 comments

Some weird coincidences today: I finished reading The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and kept stumbling across various web pages related to the book in some way during the course of my daily web browsing. Which itself ties into one of the book’s main themes, that of synchronicity.

Anyway, over at Wikipedia, the featured article of the day is that on Emperor Norton I, a thoroughly interesting, though most likely quite insane, San Franciscan from the 19th century who declared himself Emperor of the United States and even issued his own currency. Norton gets a bit of play in Illuminatus! as a sort of Discordian hero and he seems to keep popping up in my reading. Of course, his most famous connection to literature is that he was supposedly the model for the King in Twain’s Huck Finn.

Speaking of Twain, while fooling around with MathWorld, I came across an interesting entry on the beast number, 666, which couldn’t help but remind me of The Number of the Beast, an excellent book by Heinlein, an inveterate admirer of Twain’s. In The Number of the Beast, Heinlein posits a “multiverse” with 66^6 different universes contained within it, many of them (perhaps all of them) created by novelists and storytellers. Which is a conceit mentioned briefly in Illuminatus! and central to another Wilson trilogy, the Schrödinger’s Cat Trilogy.

In fact, I’m a bit surprised, given the numerological bent of much of Illuminatus!, that Shea and Wilson don’t devote any attention to some of the interesting properties of the beast number. For example, 666 is equal to the sum of the squares of the first seven primes, the sum of the numbers from 1 to 6 * 6 (i.e. the sum of the numbers from 1 to 36) and

phi function

where phi denotes the Euler phi, or totient, function

Of course, I think my favorite beast number property is that, writing the parameters of Coxeter’s notation side-by-side, the bimonster can be denoted by 666. Which is interesting because the bimonster is the wreathed product of the monster group by Z2. For those that have no idea what I’m talking about, just take it on faith that the monster group, as one might guess from its name, has a sort of mythical cachet among (certain types of) mathematicians.

Anyway, back to something resembling the English language. Another big theme in Illuminatus! is that of immanentizing the Eschaton, a concept somewhat badly explained in the book as “to cause the end of days”. Now, those hip to the blogosphere scene may recognize “Eschaton” as the name of the name of the blog run by Democratic cheerleader and fellow Philadelphia-dweller atrios. However, I was somewhat surprised to note that the name of the blog is a David Foster Wallace reference; though I can’t stand the blog, I have to give atrios serious props for naming it after the tennis-academy bombardment game from Wallace’s brilliant Infinite Jest (to tie this in further with the math-speak above, I should also mention that Wallace has a pretty good math book called Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity, which would be, I think, challenging but comprehensible for an interested layman).

And now, in a desperate attempt to salvage some semblance of thematic integrity from this post, here are some interesting quotes from Illuminatus!

“We’re anarchists and outlaws, goddam it. Didn’t you understand that much? We’ve got nothing to do with right-wing, left-wing or any other half-assed political category. If you work within the system, you come to one of the either/or choices that were implicit in the system fro the beginning. You’re talking like a medieval serf, asking the first agnostic whether he worships God or the Devil. We’re outside the system’s categories. You’ll never get the hang of our game if you keep thinking in flat-earth imagery of right and left, good and evil, up and down. If you need a group label for us, we’re political non-Euclideans. But even that’s not true. Sink me, nobody of this tub agrees with anybody else about anything, except maybe what the fellow with the horns told the old man in the clouds: Non serviam.”

— Hagbard Celine, pg. 86

“Just remember: it’s not true unless it makes you laugh. This is the one and sole and infallible test of all ideas that will ever be presented to you.”

— Hagbard Celine, pg. 250

(And Semper Cuni Linctus, the very night that he reamed his subaltern for taking native superstitions seriously, passed an olive garden and saw the Seventeen…and with them was the Eighteenth, the one they had crucified the Friday before. Magna Mater, he swore, creeping closer, am I losing my mind? The Eighteenth, whatshisname, the preacher, had set up a wheel and was distributing cards to them. Now, he turned the wheel and called out the number at which it stopped. The centurion watched, in growing amazement, as the process was repeated several times, and the cards were marked each time the wheel stopped. Finally, the big one, Simon, shouted “Bingo!” The scion of the noble Linctus family turned and fled…Behind him, the luminous figure said, “Do this in commemoration of me.”

“I thought we were supposed to do the bread and wine bit in commemoration of you?” Simon objected.

“Do both,” the ghostly one said. “The bread and wine is too symbolic and arcane for some folks. This one is what will bring in the mob. You see, fellows, if you want to bring the Movement to the people, you have to start from where the people are at. You, Luke, don’t write that down. This is part of the secret teachings.”)

— pg. 324

The most thoroughly and relentlessly Damned, banned, excluded, condemned, forbidden, ostracized, ignored, suppressed, repressed, robbed, brutalized and defamed of all Damned Things is the individual human being. The social engineers, statisticians, psychologists, sociologists, market researchers, landlords, bureaucrats, captains of industry, bankers, governors, commissars, kings and presidents are perpetually forcing this Damned Thing into carefully prepared blueprints and perpetually irritated that the Damned Thing will not fit into the slot assigned to it. The theologians call it a sinner and try to reform it. The governor calls it a criminal and tries to punish it. The psychotherapist calls it neurotic and tries to cure it. Still, the Damned thing will not fit into their slots.

— Hagbard Celine, from Never Whistle While You’re Pissing, pg. 385

It was the chains of communication, not the means of production, that determined a social process; Marx had been wrong, lacking cybernetics to enlighten him.

— pg. 388

“Everybody was lying to the FBI and CIA, sir. They were all afraid of punishment for various activities forbidden by our laws. No variation or permutation on their stories will hang together reasonably. Each witness lied about something, and usually about several things. The truth is other than it appeared. In short, the government, being an agency of punishment, acted as a distorting factor from the beginning, and I had to use information-theory equations to determine the degree of distortion present. I would say that what I finally discovered may have universal application: no governing body can ever obtain an accurate account of reality from those over whom it holds power. From the perspective of communication analysis, government is not an instrument of law and order, but of law and disorder. I’m sorry to have to say this so bluntly, but it needs to be kept in mind when similar situations arise in the future.”

— Fred Filiarisus, pgs. 423-4


FREE MARKET: That condition of society in which all economic transactions result from voluntary choice without coercion.

THE STATE: That institution which interferes with the Free Market through the direct exercise of coercion or the granting of privileges (backed by coercion).

TAX: That form of coercion or interference with the Free Market in which the State collects tribute (the tax), allowing it to hire armed forces to practice coercion in defense of privilege, and also to engage in such wars, adventures, experiments, “reforms,” etc., as it pleases, not at its own cost, but at the cost of “its” subjects.

PRIVILEGE: From the latin privi, private, and lege, law. An advantage granted by the State and protected by its powers of coercion. A law for private benefit.

USURY: That form of privilege or interference with the Free Market in which one State-supported group monopolizes the coinage and thereby takes tribute (interest), direct or indirect, on all or most economic transactions.

LANDLORDISM: That form of privilege or interference in the Free Market in which one State-supported group “owns” the land and thereby takes tribute (rent) from those who live, work, or produce on the land.

TARIFF: That form of privilege or interference in the Free Market in which commodities produced outside the State are not allowed to compete equally with those produced inside the State.

CAPITALISM: That organization of society, incorporating elements of tax, usury, landlordism, and tariff, which thus denies the Free Market while pretending to exemplify it.

CONSERVATISM: That school of capitalist philosophy which claims allegiance to the Free Market while actually supporting usury, landlordism, tariff, and sometimes taxation.

LIBERALISM: That school of capitalist philosophy which attempts to correct the injustices of capitalism by adding new laws to the existing laws. EAch time conservatives pass a law creating privilege, liberals pass another law modifying privilege, leading conservatives to pass a more subtle law recreating privilege, etc., until “everything not forbidden is compulsory” and “everything not compulsory is forbidden.”

SOCIALISM: The attempted abolition of all privilege by restoring power entirely to the coercive agent behind privilege, the State, thereby converting capitalist oligarchy into Statist monopoly. Whitewashing a wall by painting it black.

ANARCHISM: That organization of society in which the Free Market operates freely, without taxes, usury, landlordism, tariffs, or other forms of coercion or privilege. RIGHT ANARCHISTS predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to compete more often than to cooperate. LEFT ANARCHISTS predict that in the Free Market people would voluntarily choose to cooperate more often than to compete.

— Hagbard Celine, from Never Whistle While You’re Pissing, pgs. 622-4

February 04, 2004

Diapers and Politicians

Posted by shonk at 12:21 AM | permalink | 4 comments

Today I saw a bumper sticker I really liked:

Both diapers and politicians ought to be changed

Often for the same reason.

Now, I know that sounds like a stereotypically vacuous-but-pretending-to-be-deep bumper sticker slogan, but bear with me for a moment; there’s actually something to this one.

First, and obviously, the comparison is fitting because, just like politicians, all diapers get soiled. Not just some. All. At this stage, the equation between politicians and dishonesty is as close a we’re ever likely to come to a cultural tautology.

Less superficially, I think the comparison between diapers and politicians is apt (unwittingly, no doubt) because one of the first steps a person makes towards maturity is when he leaves the Pampers behind. Uncomfortable, ungainly and unattractive though they may be, diapers are fundamentally degrading to any sort of developed consciousness, an indicator that the person wearing them is so helpless that the only way he can be prevented from spreading filth and disease is by literally wallowing in his own shit.

So yes, politicians, like diapers, ought to be changed, and usually for the same reason. But remember, only the most helpless and self-loathing of people wears diapers for his whole life.

A Parliament of Whores

Posted by shonk at 12:15 AM | permalink | comment

From Parliament of Whores by P.J. O‘Rourke:

I’m not sure I learned anything [about government] except that giving money and power to government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys.

— pg. xxiv

Many reporters, when they go to work in the nation’s capital, begin thinking of themselves as participants in the political process instead of glorified stenographers.

— pg. 34

So what if I don’t agree with the Democrats? What’s to disagree with? They believe everything. And what they don’t believe, the Republicans do. Neither of them stands for anything they believe in, anyway.

— pg. 26

On that note, you can now send in your campaign contributions via Amazon. Good luck trying to figure out which to support.

January 30, 2004

Quant à moi...

Posted by Curt at 05:50 PM | permalink | 1 comment

Nos vertus ne sont, le plus souvent, que des vices déguisés.
—La Rochefoucauld

(Our virtues are usually nothing but concealed vices.)

La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir, mais les maux présents triomphent d’elle.
—aussi de la Rochefoucauld

(Philosophy easily triumphs over the evils of the past and the evils yet to come, but the evils of the present triumph over it.)

Journalistic Objectivity

Posted by shonk at 12:30 AM | permalink | 3 comments

I know that when I post quotes from whatever book I’m currently reading, the results aren’t exactly topical in many cases. This one, however, addresses pretty exactly the point Curt made in his last post when he talks about “the great failing of the journalistic philosophy of superficial objectivity” :

It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence, that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles. Busy editors cannot be expected to put on their posters, “Mr. Wilkinson Still Safe,” or “Mr. Jones, of Worthing, Not Dead Yet.” They cannot announce the happiness of mankind at all. They cannot describe all the forks that are not stolen, or all the marriages that are not judiciously dissolved. Hence the complex picture they give of life is of necessity fallacious; they can only represent what is unusual. However democratic they may be, they are only concerned with the minority.

G.K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

This is precisely the reason why journalism simply cannot be objective. Even were the newspapers written by computers totally deprogrammed of dogmatic bias, the simple fact of the matter is that what is “newsworthy” is not very reflective of life. Bill Hicks, as usual, is much funnier than I:

I don’t understand anything so there you go…you know what my problem is? I watch too much news, man, that’s my problem, that’s why I’m so depressed all the time, I figured it out. I watch too much CNN, man. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat around and watched CNN more than, I don’t know, 20 hours in one day…I don’t recommend that.

Watch CNN Headline News for 1 hour, it’s the most depressing thing you’ll ever fucking do: WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS, RECESSION, DEPRESSION. WAR, FAMINE, DEATH, AIDS, HOMELESS…

Then, you look out your window……..“Where’s all this shit happening? Ted Turner’s making this shit up! Jane Fonda won’t sleep with him, he runs to a typewriter. ‘By 1992, we will all die of AIDS; read that on the air. I don’t get laid, no one gets laid!’ I’m writin’ Jane Fonda: ‘Will you fuck this guy so we can get some good news, please?’ “

I want to see a well-laid Ted Turner newscast: “Hey, it’s all going to work out. Here’s sports.”

The point is, what we call “the news” is both real and not real. It’s real in that, most of the time, whatever is on the news really did happen, or at least something relatively similar happened. It’s not real in that what makes the news is by definition unusual, out-of-the-ordinary, likely not reflective of what is happening or will happen in my life. The evening news is the most highly-rated reality show in history, all the more ingenious because of its subtlety. Shows like “Survivor” are just poor approximations, polynomial interpolations of the subtle genius of the evening news. Of course, the genius and naïve are often virtually indistinguishable, and the same holds true in this case. The evening news is genius because it convinces the viewing public that it is important and relevant, but naïve in that those who produce the news often don’t even recognize that what they make is, in a way, no more real than “Survivor”.

The final point I’d like to make on this issue is the following: what I’ve discussed above is, I think, a big reason why everybody thinks the media is biased against their political views. And I do mean everybody. I don’t think very many people recognize this fact. I’m not particularly enamored of the liberal/conservative dichotomy (especially because I quite simply don’t fit into either category), but virtually every “liberal” I know believes fervently that the media is pushing a conservative agenda and virtually every “conservative” I know is convinced of exactly the opposite. One of the reasons, I think, is precisely because the news simply does not cohere to reality very well. I’m convinced that if we could invent a perfectly objective news-gathering and -publishing computer, the majority of politically aware people would still be convinced there was a media bias against their position.

So what’s the solution? Well, to be honest, I’m not sure there is one, but it might be a good start to acknowledge that “journalistic objectivity” is not merely an unattainable goal, but actually a very harmful and oxymoronic conceit.

UPDATE: John Venlet comments with In the News

January 17, 2004

When you dance...

Posted by shonk at 12:42 AM | permalink | comment

Overheard in a DIA bar while waiting on a delayed flight, Dec. 28, 2003:

When you dance, you look like a kid trying to step on the head of his own shadow.

December 29, 2003

Rules for Radicals

Posted by shonk at 03:32 AM | permalink | comment

From Saul Alinsky’s book:

Tactics mean doing what you can with what you have. Tactics are those conscious deliberate acts by which human beings live with each other and deal with the world around them. In the world of give and take, tactics is the art of how to take and how to give. Here our concern is with the tactic of taking; how the Have-Nots can take power away from the Haves.

For an elementary illustration of tactics, take parts of your face as the point of reference; your eyes, your ears, and your nose. First the eyes; if you have organized a vast, mass-based people’s organization, you can parade it visibly before the enemy and openly show your power. Second the ears; if your organization is small in numbers, then…conceal the members in the dark but raise a din and clamor that will make the listener believe that your organization numbers many more than it does. Third, the nose; if your organization is too tiny even for noise, stink up the place.

Always remember the first rule of power tactics:

Power is not only what you have but what the enemy thinks you have.

The second rule is: Never go outside the experience of your people. When an action is outside the experience of the people, the result is confusion, fear, and retreat.

The third rule is: Wherever possible go outside of the experience of the enemy. Here you want to cause confusion, fear, and retreat.

The fourth rule is: Make the enemy live up to their own book of rules. You can kill them with this, for they can no more obey their own rules than the Christian church can live up to Christianity.

The fourth rule carries within it the fifth rule: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon. It is almost impossible to counterattack ridicule. Also it infuriates the opposition, who then react to your advantage.

The sixth rule is: A good tactic is one that your people enjoy. If your people are not having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong with the tactic.

The seventh rule is: A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag. man can sustain militant interest in any issue for only a limited time, after which it becomes a ritualistic commitment…

The eighth rule: Keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions, and utilize all events of the period for your purpose.

The ninth rule: The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself.

The tenth rule: The major premise for tactics is the development of operations that will maintain a constant pressure upon the opposition.

The eleventh rule is: If you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative…

The twelfth rule: The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative. you cannot risk being trapped by the enemy in his sudden agreement with your demand and saying “You’re right—we don’t know what to do about this issue. Now you tell us.”

The thirteenth rule: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

In conflict tactics there are certain rules that the organizer should always regard as universalities. One is that the opposition must be singled out as the target and “frozen.” By this I mean that in a complex, interrelated, urban society, it becomes increasingly difficult to single out who is to blame for any particular evil. There is a constant, and somewhat legitimate, passing of the buck….

It should be borne in mind that the target is always trying to shift responsibility to get out of being the target….

One of the criteria in picking your target is the target’s vulnerability—where do you have the power to start? Furthermore, the target can always say, “Why do you center on me when there are others to blame as well?” When you “freeze the target,” you disregard these arguments and, for the moment, all others to blame.

Then, as you zero in and freeze your target and carry out your attack, all of the “others” come out of the woodwork very soon. They become visible by their support of the target.

The other important point in the choosing of a target is that it must be a personification, not something general and abstract such as a community’s segregated practices or a major corporation or City Hall. It is not possible to develop the necessary hostility against, say, City Hall, which after all is a concrete, physical, inanimate structure, or against a corporation, which has no soul or identity, or a public school administration, which again is an inanimate system.

A good example of the last rule is what activists did to John Poindexter last year.

December 25, 2003

The Meaning of it All

Posted by shonk at 02:38 AM | permalink | comment

No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literacy or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.

—Richard P. Feynman, The Meaning of it All, “The Uncertainty of Values”.

Death, when all is said and done, is something only for higher mathematicians.

—Thomas Bernhard, Amras.

In logic it is (precisely) the connections that lead to nothing(ness).

—Thomas Bernhard, Amras.

November 22, 2003

Feeling Stupid

Posted by shonk at 04:18 AM | permalink | comment

Pearls of wisdom from the professoriat:

In research, 90% of the time you're being stupid, 2% of the time you're being smart, and the other 8% of the time you're wondering how you could be so stupid 90% of the time.
In other words, if you're confused, don't be alarmed. It's normal.

Of course, blogging isn't exactly cutting-edge research, but I've still been feeling stupid a lot lately. Nothing has really caught my writing fancy in the last couple of days and even when I do try to write, I feel like the kid being criticized in the top-right panel. Lots of text deleted from the "New Entry" box this week. Hopefully going home for Thanksgiving (and skiing!) will rejuvenate my spirits.

November 19, 2003

Radio Free Philly

Posted by shonk at 12:28 PM | permalink | comment

Just heard on the radio, a humorous rant on beer commercials:

What's with these beer companies? Trying to convince us that all the people that drink their beer are young and beautiful. They're all 25, the women are hot, the guys are in shape. They're all at some resort in the mountains are in the Caribbean.

Well I know a thing or two about the young people they're trying to portray...they're all drinking water and taking ecstasy. I mean, who are we kidding? It's middle-aged guys like you and me that are drinking beer. The kids are at a warehouse in the middle of somewhere in the middle of the night.

I almost said "Brilliant!" but then remembered that stupid Guinness commercial. Dammit!

If you're taking ecstasy, beware of JTK.

November 16, 2003

Baroque Quantum Mechanics

Posted by shonk at 02:24 AM | permalink | comment
If with the eye of Argus I could penetrate the polygons of this coral and the filaments that spread inside it, and inside each filament that which makes up the filament, I could go seeking the atom unto infinity. But an atom divisible to infinity, producing parts ever smaller and every more divisible, would lead me to a moment where matter would be nothing but infinite divisibility, and all its hardness and its fullness would be sustained by this simple balancing among voids. Matter, rather than feeling a horror of the Void, would then worship it, and would be composed of it, would be void-in-itself, absolute vacuity. Absolute vacuity would be at the very heart of the unthinkable geometrical point, and this point would be only the island of Utopia we dream of, in an ocean made always and only of water.

Hypothesizing a material extension made of atoms, then, we arrive at having no atoms. What remains? Vortices. Except that the vortices would not pull the suns and planets, true matter that feels the influence of their wind, because the suns and planets would themselves be vortices, drawing minor vortices into their spiral. Then the maximum vortex, which makes the galaxies spin, would have in its center other vortices, and these would be vortices of vortices, whirlpools made of other whirlpools, and the abyss of the great whirlpool of whirlpools would sink into the infinite, supported by Nothingness.

And we, inhabitants of the great coral of the Cosmos, believe the atom (which still we cannot see) to be full matter, whereas it too, like everything else, is but an embroidery of voids in the Void, and we give the name of being, dense and even eternal, to that dance of inconsistencies, that infinite extension that is identified with absolute Nothingness and that spins from its own non-being the illusion of everything.

(Umberto Eco, The Island of the Day Before, pgs. 472-3)

Words of Wisdom

Posted by shonk at 02:07 AM | permalink | comment

...from Bill Cholenski at Catallarchy:

In short, you don't pass a law because someone is behaving badly. You raise the price of anti-social behavior. You demand better behaviour from anyone you associate with, and distance yourself from those whose actions you can't condone.

November 13, 2003

The Metaphysics of Evil

Posted by Curt at 11:13 PM | permalink | comment

"The caress of the eye over the skin is so utterly, so extraordinarily gentle, and the sensation is so bizarre that it has something of a rooster's horrible crowing."
--Georges Bataille

November 10, 2003

Readings from Murakami and Eco

Posted by shonk at 01:52 AM | permalink | comment

A few nuggets from Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and Eco's The Island of the Day Before:

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, pgs. 284-5:

"No, it isn't. There's no time to tautologies. That's the difference between tautologies and dreams. Tautologies are instantaneous, everything is revealed at once. Eternity can actually be experienced. Once you set up a closed circuit, you just keep spinnin' 'round and 'round in there. That's the nature of tautologies. No interruptions like with dreams. It's like the encyclopedia wand."

"The encyclopedia wand?" I was evolving into an echo.

"The encyclopedia wand's a theoretical puzzle, like Zeno's paradox. The idea is t'engrave the entire encyclopedia onto a single toothpick. Know how you do it?"

"You tell me."

"You take your information, your encyclopedia text, and you transpose it into numerics. You assign everything a two-digit number, periods and commas included. 00 is a blank, A is 01, B is 02, and so on. Then after you've lined them all up, you put a decimal point before the whole lot. So now you've got a very long sub-decimal fraction. 0.173000631... Next, you engrave a mark at exactly that point along the toothpick. If 0.50000's your exact middle on the toothpick, then 0.3333's got t'be a third of the way from the tip. You follow?"


"That's how you can fit data of any length in a single point on a toothpick. Only theoretically, of course. No existin' technology can actually engrave so fine a point. But this should give you a perspective on what tautologies are like. Say time's the length of your toothpick. The amount of information you can pack into it doesn't have anything t'do with the length. Make the fraction as long as you want. It'll be finite, but pretty near eternal. Though if you make it a repeatin' decimal, why, then it is eternal. You understand what that means? The problem's the software, no relation to the hardware. It could be a toothpick or a two-hundred-meter timber or the equator - doesn't matter. Your body dies, your consciousness passes away, but your thought is caught in the one tautological point an instant before, subdividin' for an eternity. Think about the koan: An arrow is stopped in flight. Well, the death of the body is the flight of the arrow. It's makin' a straight line for the brain. No dodgin' it, not for anyone. People have t'die, the body has t'fall. Time is hurlin' that arrow forward. And yet, like I was sayin', thought goes on subdividin' that time for ever and ever. The paradox becomes real. The arrow never hits."

"In other words," I said, "immortality."

"There you are. Humans are immortal in their thought. Though strictly speakin', not immortal, but endlessly, asymptotically close to immortal. That's eternal life."

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, pg. 345:

"I can tell Bob Dylan in an instant," she said.

"Because his harmonica's worse than Stevie Wonder?"

She laughed again. Nice to know I could still make someone laugh.

"No, I really like his voice," she said. "It's like a kid standing at the window watching the rain."

The Island of the Day Before, pg. 60:

"Sir," Saint-Savin replied, "the first quality of an honest man is contempt for religion, which would have us afraid of the most natural thing in the world, which is death; and would have us hate the one beautiful thing destiny has given us, which is life. We should rather aspire to heaven where only the planets have eternal bliss, receiving neither rewards nor condemnations, but enjoying merely their own eternal motion in the arms of the void. Be strong like the sages of ancient Greece and look at death with steady eye and no fear. Jesus sweated too much, awaiting it. Why should he have been afraid, for that matter, since he was going to rise again?"

The Island of the Day Before, pgs. 83-4:

"You cannot believe what you are saying."

"Well no. Hardly ever. But the philosopher is like the poet. The latter composes ideal letters for an ideal nymph, only to plumb with his words the depths of passion. The philosopher tests the coldness of his gaze, to see how far he can undermine the fortress of bigotry."

November 07, 2003


Posted by shonk at 02:57 AM | permalink | comment

I've been spending most of my free time the last couple days reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum and I thought I'd share an interesting passage on symbols. To give some context, the main character has been spending a lot of time reading occultist manuscripts and is discussing some of the themes with his girlfriend, Lia, as they lie in bed. Lia's analysis seems to me to be very perceptive, though it is probably more that of Eco the professor of semiotics than of Lia the character.

"Pow, archetypes don't exist; the body exists. The belly inside is beautiful, because the baby grows there, because your sweet cock, all bright and jolly, thrusts there, and good, tasty food descends there, and for this reason the cavern, the grotto, the tunnel are beautiful and important, it has to come from there, because you also came from there the day you were born, because fertility always comes from inside a cavity, where first something rots and then, lo and behold, there's a little man, a date, a baobab.

"And high is better than low, because if you have your head down, the blood goes to your brain, because feet stink and hair doesn't stink as much, because it's better to climb a tree and pick fruit than end up underground, food for worms, and because you rarely hurt yourself hitting something above - you really have to be in an attic - while you often hurt yourself falling. That's why up is angelic and down devilish.

"But because what I said before, about my belly, is also true, both things are true, down and inside are beautiful, and up and outside are beautiful, and the spirit of Mercury and Manicheanism have nothing to do with it. Fire keeps you warm and cold gives you bronchial pneumonia, especially if you're a scholar four thousand years ago, and therefore fire has mysterious virtues besides its ability to cook your chicken. But cold preserves that same chicken, and fire, if you touch it, gives you a blister this big; therefore, if you think of something preserved for millennia, like wisdom, you have to think of it on a mountain, up, high (and high is good), but also in a cavern (which is good, too) and in the eternal cold of the Tibetan snows (best of all). And if you then want to know why wisdom comes from the Orient and not from the Swiss Alps, it's because the body of your ancestors in the morning, when it woke and there was still darkness, looked to the east hoping the sun would rise and there wouldn't be rain."

"Yes, Mama."

"Yes indeed, my child. The sun is good because it does the body good, and because it has the sense to reappear every day; therefore, whatever returns is good, not what passes and is done with. The easiest way to return from where you've been without retracing your steps is to walk in a circle. The animal that coils in a circle is the serpent; that's why so many cults and myths of the serpent exist, because it's hard to represent the return of the sun by the coiling of the hippopotamus. Furthermore, if you have to make a ceremony to invoke the sun, it's best to move in a circle, because if you go in a straight line, you move away from home, which means the ceremony will have to be kept short. The circle is the most convenient arrangement for any rite, even the fire-eaters in the marketplace know this, because in a circle everybody can see the one who's in the center, whereas if a whole tribe formed a straight line, like a squad of soldiers, the people at the ends wouldn't see. And that's why the circle and rotary motion and cyclic return are fundamental to every cult and every rite."

"Yes, Mama."

"We move on to the magic numbers your authors are so fond of. You are one and not two, your cock is one and my cunt is one, and we have one nose and one heart; so you see how many important things come in ones. But we have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, my breasts, your balls, legs, arms, buttocks. Three is the most magical of all, because our body doesn't know that number; we don't have three of anything, and it should be a very mysterious number that we attribute to God, wherever we live. But if you think about it, I have one cunt and you have one cock - shut up and don't joke - and if we put these two together, a new thing is made, and we become three. So you don't have to be a university professor or use a computer to discover that all cultures on earth have ternary structures, trinities.

"But two arms and two legs make four, and four is a beautiful number when you consider that animals have four legs and little children go on all fours, as the Sphinx knew. We hardly have to discuss five, the fingers of the hand, and then with both hands you get that other sacred number, ten. There have to be ten commandments because, if there were twelve, when the priest counts one, two, three, holding up his fingers, and comes to the last two, he'd have to borrow a hand from the sacristan.

"Now, if you take the body and count all the things that grow from the trunk, arms, legs, head, and cock, you get six; but for women it's seven. For this reason, it seems to me that among your authors six is never taken seriously, except as the double of three, because it's familiar to the males, who don't have any seven. So when the males rule, they prefer to see seven as the mysterious sacred number, forgetting about women's tits, but what the hell.

"Eight ... Eight ... give me a minute. ... If arms and legs don't count as one apiece but two, because of elbows and knees, you have eight parts that move; add the torso and you have nine, add the head and you have ten. Just sticking with the body, you can get all the numbers you want. The orifices, for example."

"The orifices?"

"Yes. How many holes does the body have?"

I counted: "Eyes, nostrils, ears, mouth, ass: eight."

"You see? Another reason eight is a beautiful number. But I have nine! And with that ninth I bring you into the world, therefore nine is holier than eight! Or, if you like, take the anatomy of your menhir, which your authors are always talking about. Standing up during the day, lying down at night - your thing, too. No, don't tell me what it does at night. The fact is that erect it works and prone it rests. So the vertical position is life, pointing sunward, and obelisks stand as trees stand, while the horizontal position and night are sleep, death. Al cultures worship menhirs, monoliths, pyramids, columns, but nobody bows down to balconies and railings. Did you ever hear of an archaic cult of the sacred bannister? You see? And another point: if you worship a vertical stone, even if there are a lot of you, you can all see it; but if you worship, instead, a horizontal stone, only those in the front row can see it, and the others start pushing, me too, me too, which is not a fitting sight for a magical ceremony. ..."

"But rivers..."

"Rivers are worshipped not because they're horizontal, but because there's water in them, and you don't need me to explain to you the relation between water and the body. ... Anyway, that's how we're put together, all of us, and that's why we work out the same symbols millions of kilometers apart, and naturally they all resemble eachother. Thus you see that people with a brain in their head, if they're shown an alchemist's oven, all shut up and warm inside, think of the belly of the mama making a baby, and only your Diabolicals think that the Madonna about to have the Child is a reference to the alchemist's oven. They spent thousands of years looking for a message, and it was there all the time: they just had to look at themselves in the mirror."

"You always tell me the truth. You are my Mirrored Me, my Self seen by You. I want to discover all the secret archetypes of the body." That evening we inaugurated the expression "discovering archetypes" to indicate our moments of greatest intimacy.

I was half-asleep when Lia touched my shoulder. "I almost forgot," she said. "I'm pregnant."

(Foucault's Pendulum, pp. 362-5)

October 24, 2003

The heart of things

Posted by Curt at 07:00 PM | permalink | comment

By the way, there is a new assessment of Kafka by Zadie Smith in The New Republic this week. By itself this is a pretty unremarkable thing, but it is a lovely little reflection in its own way, and particularly remarkable I think is the perspective from which it operates. Smith has, obviously, a considerable parochial interest in the art of the novel, but, with no little amount of humility, instead of evaluating Kafka's achievements in relation to some pre-conceived ideal of the novel she suggests that Kafka's writing was actually too tremendous for the structure of the novel to support, and hence instead she measures the achievements of the novel in relation to Kafka's ideal of literature. She is clearly pretty indebted to Walter Benjamin, evidenced by frequent citations of him, but on the other hand I think of this rather as a strength, as Benjamin is commonly acknowledged as one of the supreme interpreters of Kafka. Her repeated insistence on the solitude and insularity of Kafka's worldview reminds me of my Kierkegaard professor's remark when we used talk together, which he repeated often enough as to make me think that he was gently and indirectly giving me advice, that "Kierkegaard's problem was that he needed friends," which despite its facile-seemingness is actually, in my view, about the final thing one can say about either Kafka or Kierkegaard.

October 20, 2003

Quote of the Day

Posted by shonk at 05:06 PM | permalink | comment

Quote of the day from Jason Ditz:

[We] don't want to "privatize the voting system so Republicans can win", we want to eliminate the voting system so everybody wins.

October 10, 2003

The final word

Posted by Curt at 10:30 PM | permalink | comment

As usual, I think we should let Bill Hicks have the final word on this subject. "I'll show you politics in America. Here it is, right here. 'I think the puppet on the right shares my beliefs. I think the puppet on the left is more to my liking. Hey, wait a minute, there's one guy holding out both puppets!'"

August 20, 2003


Posted by shonk at 05:08 PM | permalink | comment

Okay, enough studying for one day. Now, sadly, I didn't actually write any blog entries during my long absence. Instead of writing one now, I'll go to an old standby and list a few quotes from books I've read recently:

" 'Bread and Circuses' " is the cancer of democracy, the fatal disease for which there is no cure. Democracy often works beautifully at first. But once a state extends the franchise to every warm body, be he producer or parasite, that day marks the beginning of the end of the state. For when the plebs discover that they can vote themselves bread and circuses without limit and that the productive members of the body politic cannot stop them, they will do so, until the state bleeds to death, or in its weakened condition the state succumbs, to an invader - the barbarians enter Rome."

- Jubal Harshaw, from
To Sail Beyond the Sunset, by Robert A. Heinlein, pg. 227

"Widows are far better than brides. They don't tell, they won't yell, they don't swell, they rarely smell, and they're grateful as hell."

- Ira Johnson, from
To Sail Beyond the Sunset, by Robert A. Heinlein, pg. 305

"There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute nor common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to com into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back."

- The judge, from "Life-Line", by Robert A. Heinlein

"Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived. Clutter is wonderfully fertile ground - you can still discover new treasures under all those piles, clean things up, edit things out, fix things, get a grip. Tidiness suggests that something is as good as it's going to get. Tidiness makes me think of held breath, suspended animation, while writing needs to breathe and move."

- Anne Lamott, from
Bird by Bird, pgs. 28-9

And this, which I came across on IRCQuotes.Com (here) still remains, to me, one of the funniest things I've ever read:

*** _Codex (terop@c156a.w2.ton.tut.fi) has joined #C++

_Codex: How would you create a god class?

CyBBe: god class?

bealtine: amen

ZorbaBeta: class God { public void smite( Mortal *target ) const; };

ZorbaBeta: Mortal *gates = new BillGates(); God god; god.smite( gates ); // gates implicitly destroyed

ZorbaBeta: C:\CODE\WorldSim\killgates.cpp(5): Error C2813: Cast from BillGates* to Mortal* invalid. BillGates only derives from God.

ZorbaBeta: (stupid microsoft compiler!)

Which just goes to show what a huge geek I am.

August 04, 2003

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About

Posted by shonk at 12:06 PM | permalink | comment

Read the book on Saturday and, though I think I prefer the website (linked at right), I found these bits amusing:

There's a thin line that divides the man you were from the person shuffling around Ikea with a stupid big yellow bag and dead eyes. - pg. 35

'Why do your feminist principles always vaporize when one of us needs to get out of a warm bed and clomp downstairs at three o' clock in the morning?' - pg. 47

There's nothing so heartbreaking as a look of misery on a man with a mustache - as if his face hasn't got enough troubles. - pgs. 59-60

'There is no place for laughter in sex. Sex can survive almost anything else: guilt, the bleak specter of our own mortality, odd noises, imperfect weather conditions, ill-placed components of car interiors. Massive doses of alcohol and drugs which render you utterly unable to perform even the most basic procedures are not only no hindrance to sex but, in fact, increase its likelihood no end. The one thing guaranteed to stop sex dead in its tracks is a laugh. Everything nowadays tries to be a bit of a lark - "The Fun Way to Learn," "The Fun Way to Diet," "The Fun Way to Bank." Well, arse to that. Most stuff isn't fun; the world is eighty percent misery, suffering, injustice and gnawing existential bleakness. A further seventeen percent is sheer, suffocating boredom. That leaves us with a couple minutes of stolen "fun" a week, tops. Far better we spend that fun, I gently suggest, somewhere other than ruining a potentially serviceable bout of sex by guffawing the erotic frisson away. If you want a head-spinning whirlpool of desire, hunger, madness and ecstasy, then let's have sex - if you want a bit of fun, play bleeding Pictionary or something.' - pg. 208

Perceptive chap, eh?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Posted by shonk at 03:40 AM | permalink | comment

I'm sure you've all heard of Hunter S. Thompson's book. I'd seen the movie, obviously, and read some of his columns over at Page 2 but had never read the book until today. Enjoyable stuff, despite his crazy reputation. Some highlights:

When you bring an act into this town, you want to bring it heavy. Don't waste any time with cheap shucks and misdemeanors. Go straight for the jugular. Get right into felonies. - pg. 173

What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped to create ... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody - or at least some force - is tending that Light at the end of the tunnel. - pgs. 178-9

Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? Agnew was right. The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits - a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage. - pg. 200

Not so crazy after all.

August 03, 2003

Sex Quotes

Posted by shonk at 09:55 PM | permalink | comment

Just learned of this massive list. A sampling:

"I've never understood why women love cats. Cats are independent, they don't listen, they don't come in when you call, they like to stay out all night, and when they're home they like to be left alone and sleep. In other words, every quality that women hate in a man, they love in a cat."

"Of all sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest." - Jacques Anatole Thibault.

"When authorities warn you of the sinfulness of sex, there is an important lesson to be learned. Do not have sex with the authorities." - Matt Groening, from "Basic Sex Facts For Today's Youngfolk" in Life In Hell.

"Le mariage est la seule guerre pendant laquelle on dort avec l'ennemi." (my translation: Marriage is the only war in which you sleep with the enemy).