Tuesday, July 31, 2007
My Kantian friend had suggested that all answers to the game 20 questions had to be something that could be "imaged" in the mind, thus "ideas" were unfair answers. But I don't think that's true. For example, I think you could have the idea of "freedom" or the idea of "WWII" as an answer, neither of which can really be "imaged" in your mind, but which you could still expect people to guess in 20 questions or less. However, I argued that I DON'T think you could have "the idea of freedom" as an answer-- not because it can't be imaged, but because it is a compound idea. So, in effect, it would be like thinking of two things instead of one. (As an analog, I would say that it is unfair to be thinking of "bread and butter.")
There were lots of other disagreements, for example, whether or not any of the following attributes could be included in the answer: space (e.g., "the tree in my backyard"), time ("Benjamin Franklin at 22 years old"), ownership ("my pencil"), etc. My Aristotelian friend pointed out that, although the game suggests that what one is supposed to do is guess a "particular" from the universe of things, in fact the final answer is not very particular at all since it doesn't include some of the above attributes.
Just a cautionary tale about mixing philosophers and parlor games....
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Wild Bill passed away Sunday after a bout with cancer. It's hard to explain what a loss this is. Bill Storey, who must have been in his 90's, always took the money at the door of his place-- a measly 5 bucks, which was a steal considering the time you were inevitably going to have there. Sometimes, when the place was really hopping, Bill would scurry around and distribute the "set-ups," occasionally partaking in a little nip himself. "Set-ups" are really just ice and glasses-- Wild Bill's only serves 40 oz. beers and a couple of fried foods (chitlins and wings). You can bring your own bottles of liquor, though, and can pay $2 for a "set-up." There was a time when Bill knew my face and my name, and he always gave me a bear hug when I came in. He was a man of few words-- I may have only collectively heard him say about 4 sentences in the years that I went to his place--but he had a presence. And he loved that place. And everyone loved him.
A couple of years ago, I was living in Philadelphia and travelled home to Memphis for a conference. I noticed that the airline magazine had a section on "Places to Go in Memphis" and that it included Wild Bill's. At the time, I thought this was the most tragic thing I had ever read. One of the great things about Wild Bill's, for many years anyway, was that it was the place you went to get away from the tourists. Of course, you can hear good music lots of places in Memphis, but Bill's was a place that only the "locals" knew about-- and even if a visitor had heard of it, they probably wouldn't be able to find it. When I saw the address listed in the Northwest Airlines magazine, my heart sank a little. Of course, this was selfish of me, as I am sure that the new publicity made Bill a lot of money, but it seemed like an era had passed, and I was sad about it.
I would say "Rest in Peace, Bill"... but the fact is that I can't really imagine Bill anywhere "peaceful", or at rest for that matter. I hope that wherever Bill is now, there is an organ and a few road-weary guitarists plugged into beat-up amps. I hope there's a cover charge, and that Bill is trusted to man the door. I hope he can smell the chitlins frying in the back and that the bottle of hot sauce is full. I hope that whoever sits down next to Bill remembers to bring a bottle of something brown and strong, and I hope that they tell Bill to help himself. And I hope he keeps watch over his place down here. We'll miss him.
Monday, July 23, 2007
Saturday, July 21, 2007
Ive been advised by my new colleagues that the best way to teach this course is to pick some sort of a guiding "theme" and try to trace it throughout the texts over the course of the whole semester. The students have so much reading to do, and they will be doing it at such a quick pace, that my colleaugues think a theme can serve as a kind of anchor (for both me and the students). So, I'm soliciting suggestions for "guiding themes." Here are (most of) the texts we'll be reading:
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Homer's Illiad and Odyssey
lots of O.T. stuff (Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Samuel, Isaiah, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, Job)
Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War
Sophocles' Oedipus Rex and Antigone
Plato's Republic, Symposium, and Apology
Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics
My first inclination was to choose something like "friendship," but I'm not sure that's going to get me through all of the texts. I'm definitely open to having more than one theme. Help!
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
Thursday, July 12, 2007
For the most part, Professor Deresiewicz is upset with the current cinematic trend that portrays professors--especially humanities professors, as he points out--as lascivious, alcoholic, pathetic, amoral predators desperately trying to give meaning to their meager lives by sleeping with their students. According to Deresiewicz, this stereotype has (unfortunately) replaced the older caricature of professors as absent-minded and bumbling, but philosophically astute and ethically noble. He lists the offending films, almost all of which I am sure will be familiar to readers of this blog: The Squid and the Whale, The Life of David Gale, Little Miss Sunshine, One True Thing, Wonder Boys, We Don't Live Here Anymore, A Love Song for Bobby Long, Terms of Endearment, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...
Professor Deresiewicz offers some interesting insights about how and why this new stereotype has taken hold. Maybe all of the current screenwriters are really ex-humanities-grad-students with a little too much ressentiment. Or maybe these films reflect the resentment by the larger American populist mind toward academia, which depends on elitism and intellectualism, and in which everyone is most certainly not equal. Or maybe we should blame coeducation for putting men and women in the same place at the same time in the first place. Or maybe its the fault of the baby boomers, who expect professors to act in loco parentis for their coddled, spoiled, oh-so-precious children.
However, the most interesting argument in Deresiewicz's piece comes near the end, where he writes:
Still, there is a reality behind the new, sexualized academic stereotype, only it is not what the larger society thinks. Nor is it one that society is equipped to understand. The relationship between professors and students can indeed be intensely intimate, as our culture nervously suspects, but its intimacy, when it occurs, is an intimacy of the mind. I would even go so far as to say that in many cases it is an intimacy of the soul. And so the professor-student relationship, at its best, raises two problems for the American imagination: it begins in the intellect, that suspect faculty, and it involves a form of love that is neither erotic nor familial, the only two forms our culture understands. Eros in the true sense is at the heart of the pedagogical relationship, but the professor isn’t the one who falls in love. ... This is the kind of sex professors are having with their students behind closed doors: brain sex. And this is why we put up with the mediocre pay and the cultural contempt, not to mention the myriad indignities of graduate school and the tenure process.
Of course, Deresiewicz's argument also includes all the perfunctory references to Plato's Symposium that one might suspect. But he ends with a real winner. He writes,
The Socratic relationship is so profoundly disturbing to our culture that it must be defused before it can be approached. Yet many thousands of kids go off to college every year hoping, at least dimly, to experience it. It has become a kind of suppressed cultural memory, a haunting imaginative possibility. In our sex-stupefied, anti-intellectual culture, the eros of souls has become the love that dares not speak its name.
I say: Bravo, Professor! Bravo!
So, any of you sex-crazed, Godless, pinko professors out there have a comment?
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Many years ago, here in Memphis, Keith Sykes used to host a monthly "Songwriter's Night" in a dive bar downtown. He would invite all of his old Nashville/Austin/Memphis/Key West songwriter friends to come and play. It was unbelievable. These guys who you've never seen or heard of--and who looked like they had been rode hard and hung up wet too many nights in their ragged lives--would sit on a bar stool with a Coors Lights and a guitar and play songs that had made the likes of Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw millions of dollars... though the songwriters themselves were still struggling to pay rent. One night when I was there, a man with a ukelele said, "here's a song I wrote that you mighta heard..." and then proceeded to play "Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress." Bet you didn't know that song was intended to be played on a ukelele!
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
His destination: Idaho.
Sad to say, poor Ken didn't make it all the way to the promised land. He landed in a farmer's field, short of Idaho, but almost 200 miles from his home. He also had to pay a $1,500 fine for violating air traffic regulations. (You can read the whole story here.)
So take this lesson to heart, kids... Follow your dreams! Reach for the sky! Throw off the shackles of convention and common sense and concern for personal safety... and set a course for Idaho! You'll be a hero to some, a legend to many, and an inspiration to all.
Saturday, July 07, 2007
I was only introduced to the work of Frida Kahlo about ten years ago. Kahlo's paintings are a dreamy mixture of physical and emotional pain, many of them surreal self-portraits, and they exemplify that peculiar manner in which human sadness can be both captivating and beautiful. Very much like Edith Piaf's songs. Both women's lives were unbelievably tragic-- so much so that if you didn't know the stories were true, they would seem tastelessly overwrought-- and they both died quite young (age 47). Both were unapologetic drunks, one of many self-destructive chracteristics they share, and both became cultural icons of a sort, though never really enjoying the kind of satisfaction one might presume comes with that.
It's hard not to think that the popular fascination with these two women's art has more than a little schadenfreude about it. But, then again, so does Greek tragedy, I suppose. Nevertheless, Piaf and Kahlo are archetypes of women in pain: emotionally raw, stoically romantic, simulataneously optimistic and fatalistic, passive-aggressive and vulnerable. In general, I'm not one to overemphasize gender-specific differences (much to the dismay of my bona fide feminist friends!), but there is something unique about these women's pain that I am not sure one finds in the lives, however tragic, of male artists. They fought losing battles their whole lives, and Piaf still sings:
Jamais rien ni personne
J'en ai le droit d'aimer
J'en ai le droit...
A la face des hommes,
Au mépris de leurs lois,
Jamais rien ni personne
(from "Le Droit D'Aimer", 1962)
Thursday, July 05, 2007
I grew up an Atlanta Braves fan. And I don't mean the Atlanta Braves that people know now--I'm talking about the Braves of the early 80's (Dale Murphy, Rafeal Ramirez, Claudel Washington and his toothpick wadering around the outfield). Being a Braves fan used to be something that people were assigned to do as penance... and for really horrible sins, like kicking cute puppies. It was an exercise in futility. It was truly tragic. And nobody did that tomahawk chop thing. But my great-greandmother (aka, "Milkshake Grandma") taught me this valuable early-life lesson: Somebody's gotta love the losers. And, man, did we love the Braves.
As we all know, Barry Bonds is closing in on one of the most impressive records in sports history--Hank Aaron's 755 home runs. But it's hard to be excited about that, given the allegations and court cases (not to mention Bonds' capital-A-Attitude) sullying the event. I don't want to sound like a crybaby baseball purist, but...well... I guess I want to sound like a crybaby baseball purist. What happened to the game? You know there's something rotten in Denmark when even Hammerin' Hank says that he doesn't want to be there for Bonds' record-breaking longshot. Says Hank (the Brave) of his decision not to attend the game: "If I chased behind Barry, then I would be endorsing everything Barry is doing."
I'm not watching it either. Just give me the peanuts and cracker jacks... you can keep the old ballgame.
Tuesday, July 03, 2007
This year is the 30th anniversay of Elvis Presley's death. As you may know, Memphis memorializes Elvis' death every year with "Elvis Week" in August, including a candlelight vigil and an "Almost Elvis" impersonation contest. As it just so happens, Elvis' death (August 16) is the same week as my birthday (August 19). So, I am extending an open invitation to all my friends to attend Elvis Week this year, which promises to be one of the most well-attended events ever. (And that's saying something, since almost a million people travel to Memphis every year for Elvis Week!) I've never actually attended the candlelight vigil--being a native Memphian, my absence is de rigeur--but I will gladly play the tourist if you decide to come. Or, if there are enough of us, we could hold our own impromptu vigil in my backyard. I can promise that drinks will be cheaper with the latter option. You are all welcome to stay in my house--which you pretty much would have to do anyway since all the hotels sold out a long, long time ago. Warning: it's hotter than hell in Memphis in August, so bring as little clothing as possible.Now, for those of you in Philly, it's not an impossible drive. So if 3 or more of you are coming, you should drive. Same goes for State College, actually. But if you can't or don't want to drive, there are currently cheap flights available for August on Expedia. (It's even cheaper if you fly to Nashville, and I could come pick you up there.) There's a long-standing rumor that if you fly to Memphis dressed as Elvis during Elvis Week on Northwest then you can fly for free, but I don't know if that's true. Even if it's not, I think you should don the appropriate attire for your travels.
I'm really very serious about this invitation. Really. So, who's up for it?
"Rahel Jaeggi's Entfremdung is one of the most exciting books to have appeared on the German philosophical scene in the last decade. It has two significant strengths that are rarely joined in a single book: it presents a rigorous and enlightening analysis of an important but recently neglected philosophical concept (alienation), and in doing so it illuminates, far better than any purely historical study could do, fundamental ideas of one of the most obscure figures in the history of philosophy (G. W. F. Hegel)."
Huh? Hegel? One of "the most obscure figures in the history of philosophy"? Yeah, I guess so... right after Socrates and Nietzsche.
Now, for most people of my generation/education/political persuarsion, the idea that comedy has some political purchase is nothing new. In fact, for many of us, the only thing standing between our day-to-day existence and total despair is Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Most of my friends have themselves adopted this sharp (or, negatively stated, acerbic), quick (sloppy), biting (mean), and astute (cynical) sense of humor, which often turns an everyday conversation over beers with them into an exercise in pugilistic hilarity. Some people (namely, my father) find this generational characteristic a little off-putting--we're too loud, too mean, too enamoured with our own disillusion and, yes, a little too honest to make for good (read: polite) company. I actually respect his criticism to a degree, as I myself (like almost everyone I know) have certainly gone home and plucked the barbs out of my own ego after having been lambasted by friends... all in good fun, of course. But it is what it is. These are my people.
What Willet's work has made me think more about, however, is how much can actually be accomplished by such comedic criticism. Every night I watch Jon Stewart and I wonder: how in the world can things continue to go on like they are with this kind of truth out there? Of course, I know that the targets of Stewart's and Colbert's not-so-subtle criticisms probably don't watch their shows, or grossly misunderstand the jokes, but one would think the fact that The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are such a central part of the social milieu would have some cash-out value. But, then again, maybe Stewart and Colbert are not that central. Maybe I'm just a member of the choir that they're preaching to nightly.
When I taught Media Ethics, I would show the clip of Jon Stewart's visit to the FOX exercise-in-ridiculousness show Crossfire. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it here. (And even if you have seen it, watch it again!) Stewart's dilemma in that conversation is the one that I imagine is the most insurmountable for the comedian who actually wants to effect political change-- how do I get people to take me seriously? But every time I see the clip again, I am reminded that it is one of the most brilliant, and most inspiring, moments of political confrontation that I have seen in my lifetime. It's such a perfect little concentration of all that is wrong with political discourse in our country right now... namely, that there is no "discourse." The Right caricatures and then lambasts the Left seriously, and the Left caricatures and lambasts the Right comedically. We all know who's been winning that battle for the last 6 years-- the question is, who's going to win the war?