Feb 23, 2011

Art in the wild

I want art to surprise me. I want it to put the world off kilter, and to make me think, and to make me think about what it is to be human.

Sometimes, I know, this idea of art works out to odd ends. For instance, I think the world’s largest ball of twine is really interesting. I know why it wouldn’t normally be considered art, but I don’t really know how not to take it as art. It’s not like I disagree with any of the points one might make in dismissing it as ridiculous, but I look at it in its ridiculousness and think, this is us, this is human. This is what it’s like to be alive. On the other hand, I find a lot of poetry readings unbearable. The stilted, self-serious, breathless and constipated style of reading so common among contemporary poets has, I find, almost nothing to do with world I know. If anything, that imbued seriousness insulates the listener from any serious thoughts: rather than surprising us out our normal torpor, it confirms in us our own sense of being serious.

Too much poetry is designed as a kind of hush, meant to evoke self-satisfied feelings of being poetic, and that’s all.

I’ve learned to really love the kind of art that thrives outside formality, though. The stuff that will never be and can never be enshrouded in the hush of officialness. I love the extra crazy art that exists outside of art environments, the art that’s “out there,” in the wild, so to speak, ready to surprise. There’s something liberating and wonderful about the junk sculptures at the airport in Atlanta, something liberating and wonderful about the skittery strandbeasts on the beaches of Holland.

Read the rest of the essay, In praise of crazy sculptures, @ TheThe.

Feb 21, 2011

Problem of pluralism

The story is, Descartes was drunk on a summer afternoon and was watching a fly on a wall. It would land, and then fly around, and then land, and then fly around and land. Descartes, being a genius, wondered to his drunk self how he would express the various points where the fly had landed mathematically.

Thus, Cartesian coordinates.

If you think about it, the plurality of possible positions is also the problem that gets Descartes started on epistemology.

Feb 18, 2011

Ancestors

James Coats family

More here, including one of my great grandmother, my father's mother's mother, with her siblings in the back of the house where he grew up, a photo taken the month he was born.
What happened to AI?

I don't know when it happened, but it feels like at some point AI researchers gave up. At some point they gave up on the idea or the goal of Artificial Intelligence, looking to break past that barrier between computation and something more: intelligence, consciousness, self-awareness.

They stopped being AI researchers, and just worked on computers.

Computers like Watson.

Feb 17, 2011

Candle pinch

Singing Wittgenstein
How to be a philosopher
Looking for the longest word
Werner Herzog among the chickens
Wanted: 500 Asian-American writers
Pete Eckert, the blind photographer
Some notes on translations of Horace
The political hope for civil liberties
Anthology of African American preaching
Susan Sontag was wrong about cineaphilia
William Carlos Williams on Wallace Stevens
Wendell Berry protests for Kentucky mountain tops
Teaching and blogging Charles Taylor's A Secular Age
NASA worker claims he was fired for Intelligent Design
Power negotions in photographers' portraits of their families
Hitler's last surviving body guard to stop answering fan mail
Pregnant prisoners will still be shackled in labor in Virginia
How did exceptionalism become a conservative shibboleth?
A poem is like a girl at a party who gets to kiss everybody.
Or where is poetry going?

Art and the culture war
Mormonism: the brand
Atlas Shrugged: the movie
Why you should learn Latin
T.C. Boyle's West Coast delusions
The problem with writing about yoga
Sinking boat in the harbor sculpture
Clarence Thomas' supereme court silence
Official protocal for contacting aliens
Strandbeasts sculpture on Dutches beaches
Facebook and the decline of church attendance
Pinker: Language is a window into social relations
Cut govt in theory, but not in practice
Kant among the homophobes
Talking about crime
Obama the realist
Pareidolia
My Zizek problem
Bringing Cormac McCarthy to the screen

Where the crime happens

This new breed of cop show -- Southland, Chicago Code, Detroit 187 -- is interesting in how it uses cities. Or how it tries to use them.

All of them are aspiring to do something different and more, to be a new kind of cop show. This is all in the wake of HBO's successes and part of the revolution of "TV for adults," and there are a number of identifiable things -- tropes, styles, moves, etc. -- that these shows use to try to communicate that they're "realistic" and "gritty" and more serious than the standard and generic cop shows that have dominated TV for so long. What I find intriguing, though, is that they each attempt to intertwine themselves with a city, to make that connection integral and significant. They all seek to establish themselves as deeply imbued with a sense of place.

In the end, though, I don't think it works. The cities they construct are still paper-thin.

Feb 14, 2011

Describing religion

America's religious plethora is basically baffling if you're not in the thick of it. Sometimes even if you are. Even without including groups like the Summum, even if you just restrict the plethora to just Christianity in America and, further, to historic Christian deonimnations in America, it's confusing and complicated.

A fellow master's student told me, after we'd taken History of American Evangelicals together, that while she knew a lot about the history and developments, the denominations still baffled her. What, she said, is the difference, really, between a Methodist and a Baptist?

Though that distinction is easier than some, there are three almost completely seperate ways of making it. This, I think, is the really interesting problem. You could say how they're different doctrinally. You could say how they're different historically. You could say how they're different experientially.

There's a common inclination, I think, to take the first two spheres as solid and real and the third one as more ephemeral. It's true the experiential difference between one denomination and another is hardest to articulate and describe. It might be the more important one, though, in understanding the way the religion or faith is actually lived in the world.

Feb 7, 2011

The theocratic Lone Ranger

A Georgia state legislator has grabbed some attention recently for a bill that would do away with driver's licences. It's the kind of story that's good because 1) it's crazy, being well outside the normal window of debate, and 2) it's conservatism that seems to contradict you're more standard far-right conservatism. The "small government" right in Georgia has been pushing for voter IDs and similar measures and here comes a state rep. from the right worried about too-much government in the form of IDs.

It has caused a little bit of a head-snap.

There are, of course, varieties of conservatism, varieties of far right, so the idea that one law proposed by a conservative should be consistent with another law proposed by another is a bit silly. It can be hard to keep track of the types, though. Bobby Franklin is the type you sometimes hear a lot about but rarely actually see: a theocrat.

Feb 6, 2011

Bigfoot stakes

It’s never been clear to me what is supposed to be at stake in the hunt for bigfoot.

I am officially agnostic about whether there is such a creature out there, but more than that, I’m can’t figure out why it would matter. I am very interested in people, in this subculture and their passionate search and obsession with bigfoot, but I still can’t figure out why, to them, the search feels to be of consequence.

It wouldn’t, so far as I can tell, change anything about my life or about my understanding of the world, nor can I conceive of any other understanding of the world that would be shaken or even challenged by the discovery of bigfoot. One more species on the planet, even on a part of the planet pretty near to us, might be interesting, but wouldn’t reshape our understanding of life, so far as I can tell.

I have asked a number of people interested in bigfoot -- hunters, researchers, authors of books and blogs -- why it would matter, and each of them assured me it would, but thought it was self-evident, and couldn’t explain why. Generally, they told me it would be “huge,” “earth-shattering,” and “the biggest thing in our life time,” but they couldn’t say why it would be bigger or more significant than the discoveries of other new species that have happened without any world-altering results.

I suspect that at one point bigfoot was spoken of as a kind of living missing link in the evolution of man, a species half way between man and ape on the family tree, and thus the discovery would be as important as, say, discovering Neanderthals camped out in a field. That isn’t how bigfoot is normally talked about though – as a missing link or something like that – so I still don’t know what the import is thought to be.

When I asked Whitton and Dyer, they used exactly this same language of significant impact, “huge,” “shocking,” etc., but really only repeated the discourse as it stands. It’s not clear when the two men started thinking about or talking about bigfoot, or when they began to pay attention to the “bigfoot world,” but by the time I talked to them they had definitely acquired the language.

Feb 5, 2011

Thesis monster


I call it the thesis monster. I think it's eaten my mind.
I can't explain it/ I feel it often/ everytime I see her face

Feb 3, 2011

What? This?
Thursday night pants Thursday night pants
Ideas or drifts of ideas I have noticed seem to be going on but haven't had time to think about yet

1. The world without humans
I've seen several photography projects dedicated to cities (London and New York, I think) that appear depopulated. The speculative realists think philosophy can only truly happen if we can get past anthropomorphic thinking in our thinking about "reality." There was a book -- a couple years ago? -- that was supposed to be a kind of ecological book about humanity's negative effect on earth that was what would happen as soon as humans disappeared, how long it would take cities to crumble, etc.

Both the "fast zombie" movies I watched, 28 Days Later and I Am Legend, have this moment at the end where you think the little band of people are the only people, but then the script pans out and you see that's not the case. In both cases, it felt like the movie was refusing to look at something -- tacking on hope for the popcorn public. Maybe this is what they were looking away from?

And is it a new nihilism/self loathing? An ecological concern? A deep pessimism about out ability to actually solve our problems or get out of this mess?

2. As Chesterton said, 'if you don't quote me, you'll quote everything
G.K. Chesterton seems to attract really idiosyncratic attention. There's kind of a standard use for C.S. Lewis quotes, for example, and J.R.R. Tolkein's might be used by a less orthodox group of people, but still within a certain range. Chesterton, though, shows up in the weirdest places. Zizek, for example, but also Marshall McLuhann. Why?

Also when Tolkein's quotes you can usually tell it's going to happen before it does. Same with Lewis. Chesterton comes up at you without warning in the weirdest corners. Also, the more idiosyncratic the place the more likely he is to be named Gilbert Keith instead of G.K., so it'll be that much longer before you recognize him.

3. You say you want a revolution, well yeah
On a popular level, Americans seem to almost universally support uprisings and revolutions, seeing them as outbreaks of liberty. The very defining feature of revolutions, though, is that they do not yet mean.

The problem with the prehistory of bigfoot

Those interested in bigfoot almost always deny that the legend started in ’58 and ’67with the tracks and the film, citing Native American accounts of an “Oh-Man” or a “Sasquatch.” Their understanding of those accounts seems highly suspect, though, as they read them in naive, presentist ways, taking tales of monsters and boogey men out of their cultural contexts.

This predating also seems overwhelmingly motivated by a desire to separate bigfoot from the modern media environment in which he exists.

If there is a pre-history of bigfoot, a bigfoot legend that predates ’58 and ’67 and could contextualize those alleged discoveries, it’s the reports of Yeti footprints in Nepal. Those accounts, however, are still squarely within the context of our modern, mass media environment.

The reports in the ‘20s were used to promote and attract attention for British explorations. A number of well-publicized reports in the early ‘50s involved or were connected to the famed British explorer, Sir Edmund Hillary, who grabbed headlines wherever he went. One Yeti-hunting expedition in ’54 was sponsored by the British newspaper, The Daily Mail. In ’57 and through the ‘60s, Tom Slick, a wealthy heir of a Texas oil fortune, invested his time and money in the search for yeti, reportedly with the support and encouragement of American actor Jimmy Stewart.

At least some of the Yeti reports were widely known at the time of the bigfoot legend's beginnings, and the ’58 find of tracks mirrors, in many ways, the explorers’ much-reported Yeti footprint discoveries in Nepal.

The “prehistory” of bigfoot seems wrong to me. These modern monsters are completely co-existent with mass media.

Feb 2, 2011

Course descriptions for my 2011 Summer semester classes

Proseminar: Issues and Themes in American Religion
American culture and life is deeply intertwined with religion, faith and spiritual seeking. It has been so throughout its history, despite the fact the country has no official religion, the public sphere is marked as secular, and its culture is pluralistic. This class will look at America’s vibrant and conflicted religious history through the study of beliefs and practices and an examination of historical developments, arguments and questions. This course is intended to give students an overview of American religious history and help them gain a working understanding of the fundamental dynamics of religious life and thought in America.

Übung: Religion and the Marketplace in America
American money bears the legend, “In God We Trust,” and its citizens overwhelmingly embrace that duality of God and money, identifying themselves as very religious and as firm believers in free markets. What is the relationship, though, between God and money? How do the very different spheres of religion and the marketplace interact, shaping or influencing each other? In this course, we will examine the complex relationship between religion and economics in America, looking at theoretical models and important new theories as they have been and can be applied to American culture and history. The seminar aims to prepare students for a fruitful participation in the Heidelberg conference on “Religion and the Marketplace in America” that will take place October 6-8, 2011 in the HCA.

Course readers will be provided at the beginning of the semester.