Jan 31, 2011

The twisted fantastic

Students today
Debating the problems of secularism
Guillermo del Toro's quest to show the monsters
NY Times documentary a spirited defense of print media in the years of its greatest crisis
Charlie Louvin, a country and gospel music legend, dies at 83. May he rest in peace.
The great mind of Daniel Bell
Obama and Niebuhr
Reality radio
Beowulf socks
Sharia creeps
RFK's secret files
The new neurosexism
Talking to Tom Ford
The age of co-working
How artists must dress
Marshall McLuhan speaks
Alternative Kafka covers
Jack Chick is Robert Crumb
What happened to modernism?
In defense of psychoanalysis
When is it called terrorism?
Iraq and Slaughter-House Five
Assange and the New York Times
Ira Glass on religion and stories
Holden Caulfield's Goddamn War
Offering dinner with the movies
Price of Truman Capote's house slashed
Thinking through the 3/5ths compromise
Cohen Bro. on the cartography of cinema
Congressman wants to track FOIA requests
Revisiting Conrad's The Heart of Darkness
Documentary goes inside the New York Times
Hubble sees 480 million years into history
Stanley Fish's idea of how to write a sentence
Arab protest poetry: To the tyrants of the world
A very very thorough guide to the English passive
Congressmen seek to cut back birthright citizenship
A physicist explains why parallel universes may exist
Why have there been no great modern religious artists?
60 percent of science teachers afraid to teach science
Olberman's retirement and the limits of politics on TV
British critics consider: is the age of the critic over?
Immigration official's give "gay test" to asylums seekers
250 years later, still no gender neutral singular pronoun
The problem with regarding photograpy of suffering as pornography
Daniel Bell, original New York Public Intellectual, dies at 91. May he rest in piece.
Irving Kristol, his magazine and his teenage Trotskyism

Jan 28, 2011

The audacity of math

I thought this statement by physicist Brian Greene in an interview with Terry Gross was particularly lucid, stating an assumption that is too often left unarticulated:

"Underlying (physics, theories of the universe and) everything that we're talking about, in fact underlying everything I do in my entire life, pretty much, is a firm belief that mathematics is a sure-footed guide to how reality works. If that's wrong, then all bets are off."

I don't know enough math theory to argue that the math does not do what the mathematicians assume it does. I assume it's at least in parts analogous to philosophy of language, though, and there the attempts to nail down language so that we can be at least a little sure of the correspondence between our language and the world are insanely messy, at best. Maybe math is a "sure-footed guide" to reality, but the question, "why do you think so?" seems to open up a void that falls away forever.

The radicalness of this assumption, this half-submerged idea about how math isn't constructed but is, kind of takes my breath away.

Jan 27, 2011

Does Zizek want what Zizek wants?

Zizek's latest Guardian piece is probably the clearest answer I could ever likely get from him to my question about what he wants. And published only 10 days after I asked.

It's the most explicit pronouncement of a political project -- something practical, something concrete, something with solutions -- I've seen him make.

It raises two questions, though. First, does his answer make sense? Second, could it actually solve the things he wants it to?

Unfortunately: no.

Jan 26, 2011

Exceptionalism and stupefication

Barack Obama both believes and doesn't believe in American exceptionalism. It depends on what you're talking about.

He definitely doesn't believe in the American exceptionalism normally talked about in our national political discourse, as it's touted in, say, National Review and neo-conservative or tea party circles. That American exceptionalism is the equivalent of "America! Fuck yeah!" It is taken as the idea that America operates by different rules than the rest of the world, particularly in regards to foreign policy. I.e., exceptionalism is a kind of moral exception America gets. As it's posed, for example, to Republican presidential nomination hopefuls, the question is: Is America awesome, or too awesome?

Too many of Obama's policies actually do depend on this view, but he is aware or seems to be aware that there's no real justification for this idea. It's either self-evident to you as an objective truth about American identity, or it's not.

Academically, American exceptionalism cab be asked an a question, and has been used as a good question, or it can be an answer, thought it's a non-answer answer, and one that's pretty stupefying.

Jan 25, 2011

Grammar

Grammar didn’t come natural to me. The first time, when I learned there was such a thing as grammar, when we were introduced — like, “Daniel, meet grammar,” “Grammar, Daniel” — things did not go smoothly.

It was more like sliding bare-bottomed down a sandpaper hill.

I was in first grade, and we had “writing time.” The teacher was young and teaching a split, first-and-second grade class. There were too many students, and even at 6, 7, 8 and 9, we knew her control was kind of tenuous. The class was always on the edge of anarchy. As the year went on, the teacher, Miss Lane, added an increasing number of “quiet times” into her lesson plan. We had story time, where all of us were supposed to put our heads down and listen to the story. We had writing time, where you could go anywhere in the class room, sit anywhere, lay anywhere, as long as you were quiet and turned something in at the end of the hour that looked like writing.

I loved writing time. I went to the little side room where the assorted recess equipment was kept and spread out on the floor and chewed my pencil and wrote. I remember the first story was about a saber-toothed man. It was awesome. He was part superhero, part prehistoric creature, and he was walking through the woods, a saber-toothed man.

I’m pretty sure that was the whole story. My strong suit was description, not narrative arc.

I got it back about a week later. Maybe it was two weeks. Miss Lane had, in that time, very carefully murdered my story. As far as I could tell, she hadn’t paid attention to the story part of the story, which was awesome, but she had marked each and every sentence as wrong.

Read the rest of the essay, The other thing grammar is good for, @ TheThe.

Jan 24, 2011

Begger clown on a cold Sunday

Remembering Language Poetry
The invention of Oregon Trail
German racism touts itself abroad
Where the 'great American novel' idea got started
Phyllis K Robinson, early female ad writer who helped start the 'creative revolution, dies at 89. May she rest in peace.
Charles Bernstein: people outside poetry are surprised at its denseness
Is the philosophy novel really possible?
The problem with Rhodes scholars today
What would be so bad about theocracy?
The man who runs his own little CIA
Reynolds Price: Christian outlaw
Politics in a fallen world
The boundaries of our reason
Theology of Calvin and Hobbes
Reynolds Price on faith and art
You were angry about Huck Finn, but what about this?
Roberto Bolano in exile: literature is the same as exile
Nader and Paul join forces to fight the fight of the fringe
Study: no one learns anything in the first 2 years of college
Christianity Today reviews William Gibson's Zero History
Florida school -- classes without teachers
MLK and the Montgomery story: the '56 comic
Martin Luther King the left wing radical
100 best selling Christian books of 2010
Bill Kristol and the think tank fetish
Dinesh D'Souza's illiberal education
Why aren't college students learning?
The fonts of book design winners
Barthes on the writing process
Nietzsche and the angry nerds
English doesn't sit still
Daniel Johnston turns 50
Teaching grammar to dogs
Talking to Cornell West
Detroit's 'ruin porn'
Art of old men

Jan 23, 2011

Hush, baby, baby, baby, baby baby baby baby / No, no, no, no, no / don't you cry

Jan 22, 2011

Still not thinking
A 9th blog anniversary post

Martin Heidegger has a great metaphor about how thinking, in some ways, in not an act of will, not something we do because we want to or have decided to, but is something we have to do. Something we are drawn into.

Imagine, he says, a withdrawal. Imagine a great thing in the air, an airplane or something even faster, receding away at great speed. It would create a draft: behind it, sucked along after it, you would find birds and bits of litter drawn irresistibly after that draft. It's not a perfect metaphor, Heidegger says, but thinking seems to be something like that. Like that being drawn. "What withdraws from us draws us along by its very withdrawal, whether or not we become aware of it immediately, or at all," he says in his '51, '52 lecture series, Was Heist Denken?, which translates as "What is Called Thinking?" or "What Calls for Thinking?."

"We are -- albeit in a way different from migratory birds -- caught in the draft of what draws, what attracts us by its withdrawal."

I have found myself drawn, recently, to Heidegger's thoughts on thinking. I keep coming back to his statement, in that lecture, "what is most thought-provoking in our thought-provoking time is that we are still not thinking."

I'm finding that, in many of my diverse projects and my many esoteric interests, what I'm really interested in, my ultimate concern, is the ethical struggle to think.




Jan 19, 2011

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 013

ludwig17[1]

I read a review of the philosopher John Searle, recently, that praised him for his ability to write about the philosophy of mind without using words like "epiphenomenal." Now, I happen to like the word "epiphenomenal" -- it's a word that enables almost just by its existence a whole series of interesting and worthwhile thoughts that would be hard to think without it -- but I take the point. Too often, philosophical terminology sets the bar too high, and the specialized lexicon is a barrier to entry.

It's true, too, that often, in philosophy, certain words are left to do too much of the work of the argument, where the argument is really all about the words. The words are used without definition, as if the definition were agreed upon everywhere and universally known, when it's the definition, really, that's in question.

As the cop in Philip K. Dick's classic work, A Scanner Darkly, says, "Define your terms."

'You know, Fred,' the seated one said, 'if you can keep your sense of humour like you do you'll perhaps make it.'

'Make it? Fred echoed. 'Make what? The team? The chick? Make good? Make do? Make out? Make sense? Make money? Make time? Define your terms. The Latin for "make" is facere, which always reminds me of fuckere, which is Latin for "to fuck"....'

Sometimes, using words like 'epiphenominal,' with all the philosophic weight those words bear on their backs, is exactly what's needed. One word can get a whole debate and an entire philosophical question into a conversation, lodging it there where it can be unpacked, unlayered, really explored. Other times, perhaps most of the time, avoiding those words works to get the philosopher or would-be philosopher to do a better job of explaining the terms, of working out the ideas. The question is always, for me, which word will expand the conversation.

This is a wildly difficult criterion when trying to translate something as rigorously cryptic as Wittgenstein's Tractatus.

Jan 17, 2011

What the question was will be

"Turns out, although sports people throw around the phrase "go down in history" a lot, in real life, history doesn't amount to much. Jim Robinson's name appears maybe a dozen times in print. In the exhaustively well-chronicled life of Muhammad Ali, Singer has stumbled into the one hole, a man who'd shared a moment in time and space with one of the most famous humans ever, only to vanish. An old Associated Press story said Robinson was from Kansas City, which is why Singer is on the phone with the local paper's feature writer, who happens to be me. He tells me there isn't much more information to build on; nobody has ever really thought to search for the fighter before.

"In a way, Jim Robinson didn't begin to exist until someone realized he was missing."

-- Wright Thompson, Searching for Sweet Jimmy

"A hundred billion years from now, any galaxy that’s not resident in our neighborhood will have been swept away by swelling space for so long that it will be racing from us at faster than the speed of light. (Although nothing can move through space faster than the speed of light, there’s no limit on how fast space itself can expand.)

"Light emitted by such galaxies will therefore fight a losing battle to traverse the rapidly widening gulf that separates us. The light will never reach Earth and so the galaxies will slip permanently beyond our capacity to see, regardless of how powerful our telescopes may become.
"Because of this, when future astronomers look to the sky, they will no longer witness the past. The past will have drifted beyond the cliffs of space. Observations will reveal nothing but an endless stretch of inky black stillness. "

-- Brian Greene, The darkness on the edge of the universe.

How Hawthorne saved Moby-Dick
Studying American evangelicalism
Darkness on the edge of the universe
'Clarity'to ground the School of Quietude?
George Lois and the art of the magazine cover
This is what a feminist (man) poet looks like
Jan-Luc Marion: Is there a Christian philosophy
Journalists struggle with Polamalus' Christianity
Rudolf Bultman and the assumption of the secularization thesis
Can the rhetoric of the "God hates fags" church be turned into poetry?
The first thing you have to do with Tree of Codes is figure out how to read it
A grammar peeve for the ages & a verb tense you've never heard of
The evangelical-influence on first-person story telling
Wherein Robert Duncan's book saves American art
Rock was safe for rebels. Then it found Jesus.
A brief history of the 'tradition' of marriage
Michael Chabon's new novel: Telegraph Avenue
Chabon: Every novel is a license to obsess
Baracka Flacka Flame and hip hop minstrelsy
Why do people love Stieg Larsson's novels?
Roger Ebert's best documentaries of 2010
The declining art of the research paper
The cloudy logic of political killings
A Herman Melville summer vacation
The punctuation mark of pop music
An afternoon with Ray Steadman
Photographs of empty New York
Hefner is repulsive, not cute
The last speaker's dilemma
History of the US passport
Lomax recorded the world
When Galileo read Dante
Wikipedia comes of age
Teaching with Derrida
Ginsberg reading Howl
Novelists' lexicon
A decade of fear
Oh, Portlandia
The KJV at 400
The C.S. Lewis bible
Franzen the eco giant
A map of 15 years of UFO sightings
Zippy the Pinhead’s speech balloons
Reading Huck Finn for the first time
Google computers try to translate poetry
America thinks it’s more religious than it is
Should Christian gays argue scripture?
Notes on Moby-Dick, read all at once
Jared Loughner and grammar control
The most literate city in America
Melville, the biography novel
Vonnegut art at Indy museum
The recession in graphs
The other American right
Can books save your life?
Zizek must burn

Jan 15, 2011

What does Zizek want?

Slovoj Zizek is a frustrating thinker -- entertaining, always, often really interesting, but perpetually, perpetually frustrating. He's really undisciplined and always fainting and preforming, and always on the edge of collapsing into parody or shtick. He's provocative, in good ways and helpful ways, mostly, but then also sometimes you have to stop, when you're reading him, and just ask, "what?"

His recent recycling of racist remarks on the Roma is a case in point. There might be a case that could be made about how what he said shouldn't be understood as stupidly racist*, but it would be a stretch. The reality seems to be -- as pointed out by An und für sich, Lenin's Tomb, & Stalin's Mustache -- that Zizek has jumped the shark.

He kind of always is, though. And, as when, in response to a charge of anti-semitism, he blithely countered that his Jewish friends didn't think so, he has a knack for being tone deaf, and weirdly out of touch, and for turning a good or interesting point into a moment of stupidity.

I don't know if there was a good point in Zizek's defense of those who are racist against the Roma or not, but if you put aside the racist stuff and the silly arguments and stupid assumptions, and you go down to where the point would be if there was a point, Zizek does say something interesting. He says, "nobody clearly answered the local 'racists' what they should concretely do to solve the very real problems the Roma camp evidently was for them."

Zizek's point, then, bracketing off the other stuff, is that "liberal multiculturalism" condemns racism, but offers no real practical solution to the problem that, even if we wouldn't and shouldn't describe it in the same way the local racists would, is a problem. Liberal multiculturalism condemns, allows a class of people to feel better about themselves, and moves on. There are a lot of better examples about the limits, internal contradictions and false fronts of multiculturalism, so Zizek's apparently reflexive reach for this anecdote is troubling. But that point is an interesting and worthwhile: what are the concrete solutions, beyond scapegoating racists or pointing out how bad somebody is?

You know what makes it a really good point, though? How well it applies to Zizek himself.

Jan 13, 2011

On 'civility'

The problem with the idea of "civility," as we talk about it in public discourse, is that it so easily becomes a blunt weapon.

I want more civility, and better arguments, and more charitable disagreements (which I think will also mean more insightful disagreements, which is really what I'm interested in, what I want more than any particular tenor or tone). But "civility" as we talk about it seems to be exclusively about critiquing other people's rhetoric.

The critique is never a self-critique.

"Civility" becomes another way of delegitimizing others' rhetoric while excusing our own.

Jan 12, 2011

Wittgenstein on Wednesdays 012

Wittgenstein was here

There's an assumption that poets love words. Adore them. As if that's the defintion of being a poet.

I suppose that is the case, often enough, but it seems to me that poets are also often in an argument with words, struggling with words or of with language, especially common language and the assumptions of language and the limits of language. Put it another way, poets don't always trust language.

And should they?

This is a question that comes up in Wittgenstein, one he answers different ways at different times. Marjorie Perloff, the poetry critic, says that "Wittgenstein, who had no interest at all in the 'poetry' of his own time, [is] paradoxically a kind of patron saint for poets and artists." I wonder if this isn't the reason why. Wittgenstein struggled with language, and with this poet's question: Can language be trusted?


Jan 11, 2011

Thinking after Nazis

I'm playing with the idea of putting together a list of questions Americans ask about Germany, most of which are funny, horrible, or uninformed. Americans, including myself, are, of course, notoriously ignorant about other places, and, in my experience, when they go to those other places, they like to ask those questions, uninhibited, in very loud voices.

That's who we are.

At the top of this list of questions, obviously, would be the one about Nazis.

Normally it goes like this: "So ... Nazis?"

It's not really a bad question, actually, as much as it's horribly unformed and vague. Sometimes it's a bad question, which, if worked out a little more, would be something like, "So, titillate me with information about how the people here were Nazis," but normally it's actually meant more as, "So, I don't know what has happened in Germany since the end of Saving Private Ryan: how does a country move on after that?"

The answer to that question is really pretty interesting, too. Culturally, economically, politically, there has been a sustained struggle to move on, after Nazism, without either simply pretending it didn't happen, or getting stuck in endless recriminations, guilt confessions, etc. All these efforts are really complicated, and intriguing, I think, in their attempts to deal with the past but also push forward.

The effort that most interests me -- which most clearly connects with what I think my larger project is -- might be given the title, "Thinking after Nazis." Peter Gordan, at the New Republic, has a good piece out today about Jürgen Habermas, the philosopher, and his attempts to do just that, to, as it were, think up from Stunde Null.

As Gordon writes, by way of review of Habermas: An intellectual biography, Habermas is a "public intellectual who advocated for greater democracy and transparency in contemporary Germany [which] could only succeed if he also plunged deep into the philosophical tradition, in which he could discover the conceptual resources for grounding his own practice of public criticism."

I don't particularly care about Habermas, as a thinker, but it's a good piece about thinking, and trying to think, and about the entanglements with which thinking has had to cope. If you've ever asked, "So ... Nazis?", and are willing to hear how the good answer to that is complicated and actually pretty important, this is a good place to start.
Tulip on a sunny day in Winter

Jan 8, 2011

I'm a'right, I'm a'right, I'ma live, I'ma live, I'ma die, I'ma die.

Jan 4, 2011

In books, the man said, in books rowed up on the shelf you see, for the first time, your own death. You begin to measure the time this way. To come to feel the passing of life in titles. You come to look at a library the way the alchemists kept skulls on their desks, as a time check. Remember death, reads the space of every shelf, remember the limitations. I read 47 books, this last year. And 43, the year before, and 40 the year before that.

Read the rest of the essay, The Bookshelf, @ TheThe.


Books read in 2010
1. Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon
2. Blackwater, by Jeremy Scahill
3. The Twenty-Seventh City, by Jonathan Franzen
4. War and Photography, by Caroline Brothers
5. Practices of Looking, by Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright
6. The Boys on the Bus, by Timothy Crouse