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Friday, November 30, 2007

I'm Singin' To You

Apparently, the recent entry Sad Songs Say So Much struck a chord with many of you. So, I thought I would continue the theme for a bit more...

One of the many, many reasons that I think sad songs say so much is that they don't actually "say"... they sing. There are a whole mess of things that are hard to say-- I love you, I miss you, I'm leaving you, I'm sorry, I did you wrong, You did me wrong, This isn't working, Don't think twice, it's all right-- but those very same expressions seems to slide out of our broken hearts and over our trembling lips easier when accompanied with music and sung to the poor, wretched soul to whom they are directed. You don't actually have to be a "singer" to know this is true, I think. How many of us have made mixed-tapes/CDs (or received the same) full of songs that somehow perfectly comunicate what we couldn't bring ourselves to articulate? How many of us have called in to dedicate a song over the radio? How many of us have stopped a conversation mid-sentence in a bar or restaurant, late one night, and noticed the song playing over the speakers? And then, somehow, still had the feeling that something that needed to be said had been said... in song.

Now, I am-- or, at least, have been in the past-- a singer. Not a great singer. Not even a really good singer. But I grew up in a singing church and a singing family, in a musical city in the musical part of this country, and I do still love to sing. I've always felt that people singing together is one of the purest experiences of community that human beings can have. For about the last fifteen years, until very recently, I sang in some band or another. (R.I.P. all my old bands: The Dillingers, Bob, The Dialectics, Sweetness, Mad Love, Red Hip and the Boys, Soultryst, Philbilly Cadillac... I miss them all. Even the ones with terrible band names.) Many times over the years, when I was trying to woo someone or another, I would try to do it through song. And, as I got older and started writing my own songs, they were almost all substitutes for things that I wanted or needed to say, but could only sing.

I think every sad song is being sung to someone. Someone with a story and a history. I have a hard time getting the same feeling from sad songs that are entirely instrumental as I do from songs with lyrics-- and, correspondingly, a singer-- though I think there are some good ones. Almost all of the sad songs I've ever written were written to someone, and even when that someone wasn't present when those songs were played many years later, I still thought of that missing person and thought to myself: "I'm singing to you."

I love it when other people sing... even, and sometimes especially, when they are bad singers. There something honest and endearing to me about that form of expression. And this is particularly true when the song is a sad one, because sad songs are those kinds of creations that seem like they're for someone and everyone at once. I've always imagined (read: "hoped") that people felt the same way when I used to sing. Because, if you were ever there, I was singing to you, too.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Because They're There

I want to present an award. I'm calling it The Most Ridiculous (Yet Still Frightening) Article of the Week. And the winner is.... drumroll....

The Next Five States by Thomas Barnett (in Esquire magazine)

The author begins his essay by bemoaning the fact that he will be the first Barnett in several generations to be born and die under the same flag. That is, unlike his father, grandfather, and all the way back to his great-great-great-great-greandfather, Barnett has not seen the addition of a new state to our United States during his lifetime. So, what's a man to do? You guessed it. Propose a plan for American imperial expansion.

No, seriously. And this was in a men's "lifestyle" magazine. For real.

Here are the "next five states" to join the union, according to Barnett's plan.

1. Cuba (Barnett thinks that if we are able to acquire "Red State Cuba", that we will probably see the addition of "Blue State D.C." to balance it out. So this is really a two-fer.)

2. Puerto Rico

3. northernmost Mexico (which Barnett sees as a "Texas subdivision")

4. El Salvador and/or Panama (he calls them "dollarized economies")

5. westernmost Canada (to his benefit, Barnett does clarify with the statement: "I'm not kidding")

(6.) Barnett also mentions--you know, while we're at it--that we could take (back) any or all of the 563 "tribal nations" within the U.S. borders. That would add not only 57 million sqare acres of territory to our beloved country, but also (wink, wink) the presently untaxed casino revenues.

The only thing I can say in defense of this article is... hmmmm.... I'm thinking.... oh yeah, at least Barnett doesn't go for the obvious new potential-states of Afghanistan and Iraq. That's to his credit, I suppose. Instead, he stays close to home. Although he does offer some "justification" for each of his choices, it's not clear that these justifications amount to much more than the proximity of his selections for putative statehood.

In sum, the argument goes something like this: "Let's get 'em. Because they're there."

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sad Songs Say So Much

My friend Kyle and I used to make up these games, in which we would try to list the top ten songs/artists in an invented category, mostly to keep us occupied in the culturally-vacant wasteland that was State College, PA. Often, determining the category was as fun as filling it out, and Kyle was particularly brilliant at category constructions. Some examples: "Top Ten Artists that You Know You SHOULD Love But You Secretly Hate" (Both Kyle and I listed Jim Morrison/The Doors as #1); "Top Ten Great Singers Without 'Great' Voices" (I think Kyle said Nina Simone... mine was Leonard Cohen); "Top Ten Rock Anthems" (me: Styx's "Come Sail Away", Kyle: The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black"). Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

Once, Kyle presented the following category: "Top Ten Saddest Songs EVER." Now, I'm sure you're thinking that you could easily rattle off ten sad songs without much effort. And, of course, so could Kyle and I. But that wasn't the point of the game, as we saw it. We took great effort to make sure that our top ten lists only came at the end of much thought and deliberation (and beer). We also were careful that our selections were non-obvious ones. We must have debated dozens of potentially list-worthy songs that night before settling on our ten. I wish I could remember all of the finalists, but I don't. (I do recall that I cheated just a bit in this category and included one of my own songs, "Heart of Stone.") However, I have never forgotten Kyle's choice for #1 Saddest Song Ever... Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." (That's a link to Dylan performing the song on YouTube. You should watch it.)

It's such an obvious selection in some way... and, yet, I doubt anyone with insight, sensitivity and erudition only a hair shy of Kyle's (which is almost everyone) would have thought of it. The context of Dylan's story in "Don't Think Twice" is post-breakup, the perfect mise en scene for sad songs. But instead of a lot of wailing and moaning and gnashing of teeth, its voice is one of (to borrow a trope from Kierkegaard) infinite resignation. The coup de grace comes at the end, after Dylan's ambling but concise account of the love that was never meant to be. He sings:

I'm walking down that long lonesome road, girl
Where I'm bound, I can't tell.
Goodbye is too good a word, gal
So I'll just say fare thee well.
I ain't saying you treated me unkind.
You coulda done better, but I don't mind.
You just kinda wasted my precious time.
But don't think twice, it's all right.

Ouch, baby. That hurts. That really hurts. It's just this kind of resignation that captures what is so, so sad about lost loves. And it's just this kind of attempt at being okay, this shoulder-shrugging stoicism-- so earnest and so false at the same time-- that drives home the hurt that lies beneath. A masterful song, really.

On a related note, I've said for many years that the best songs are sad songs. (That's why I like country and blues so much.) I've never been able to write a "good" song that isn't generously seasoned with sadness. I just don't know how to do it. Anyway, I'm opening up the comments section of this post for your additions to the list of "Saddest Songs Ever." Which tunes tug at your hearts?

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Mommy and I Are One

Okay, so I am now willing to retract-- or at least severely qualify-- my earlier disavowal of psychoanalysis. My sincerist apologies to Sigmund.

As you may remember, a few days ago I wondered (in a post entitled "Mind Over Mater") what was so damn compelling about the Freudian reading of Sophocles' inimitable tragedy Oedipus Rex? I have always been suspicious of the way certain axioms of Freudian psychoanalysis are taken up uncritically, especially in literary analysis. Such "critics," it often seemed to me, erroneously claim to find evidence of regard for fathers as adversaries and competitors for the exclusive love of mothers, when more often than not this structure was imposed upon the storyline rather than simply being uncovered there. The bottom line, you see, is that I just didn't believe that the Oedipus complex, so crucial to Freud's description of human psychosexual development, is a "natural" or "scientific" fact about human consciousness.

Now, that is not to say that I didn't (or don't) recognize that the widespread uptake of Freud's ideas have indeed produced just what they claim to have discovered. My objection all along to the thoughtless deployment of orthodox psychoanalytic readings (of literature, of art, of philosophy, of human biography) was simply that it seemed uncritical and unreflective. But, secretly, I also thought it was false.

This past week, Dr. Karen Gover (Asst. Professor of Philosophy at Bennington College) delivered a lecture entitled "Truth Hurts: Why We Still Read Greek Tragedy." In that lecture, she recounted the story of a 1985 psychology experiment conducted by Lloyd Silverman and Joel Weinberger. In this study of the effectiveness of subliminal messages as aids in self-motivation, Silverman and Weinberger secretly flashed the message "Mommy and I are one" to their test subjects. They reported their results in the journal American Psychologist in an article entitled "Mommy and I are one: implications for psychotherapy." (If you are able to access scholarly articles throuh your library, you should really read the entire article. It's absolutely fascinating.) In the authors' abstract, they summed up their findings thus:
"Mommy and I are one: implications for psychotherapy" presents evidence to support the thesis that there are powerful unconscious wishes for a state of oneness with "the good mother of early childhood" and that gratification of these wishes can enhance adaptation. Data come from experiments that used the subliminal psychodynamic activation method with over 40 groups of Ss from varied populations, including schizophrenics, neurotics, and normal students. These studies have reported that the 4-msec exposure of stimuli intended to activate unconscious symbioticlike fantasies (usually the words Mommy and I are one) produced ameliorative effects on different dependent variables in a variety of settings. It is proposed that patient-therapist relationship factors in psychotherapy, seen by many as a common agent of change in different forms of treatment, owe their effectiveness partly to their having activated these symbioticlike fantasies.

Yes, you read that right. When prompted with the subliminal message "Mommy and I are one", schizophrenics got less schizophrenic, smokers quit smoking, students made better grades, neurotics and phobics lost their neuroses and phobias. It didn't work when subjects were flashed "neutral" messages like "People are walking." And it didn't work when even a slightly different positive message was used (like "Mommy loves me"). When the experimenters made the highly dubious decision to flash the message "Destroy Mommy"... well, everybody got worse.

[For the record, I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that decision-making process. DOCTOR ONE: "Hey what do you guys think about trying out the phrase 'Destroy Mommy' with the schizophrenics?" DOCTOR TWO: "Sure. Let's see what happens."]

Anyway, in sum, I am willing now to admit that there may be something more here than ivory-tower speculation aimed at valorizing yet another German theory of consciousness.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Noun, A Verb, and 9/11

Last week, Senator Joe Biden remarked of fellow Presidential candidate Rudy Giuiliani:

"There's only three things he mentions in a sentence: a noun, a verb and 9/11"

Echoing Biden's sentiments, The Daily Show anchor Jon Stewart suggested that Giuliani has a condition called "9/11 Tourettes." Similarly, Sen. Chris Dodd lambasted Giuliani for accepting donations of $9.11 on his website, a fundraising movement sponsored by one of Giuliani's California supporters. And then there was The Onion contribution, which you can see here.

I assume it goes without saying that the Presidential election next year, like almost every other year, likely will not be about the "real" issues. Chances are it will be about race, gender, and 9/11. Two of those issues are small red herrings, and the other is a big, fat, farm-bred one. As we know, or should know by now, the attacks of 9/11 had little or no connection to any of our current conflicts save the manufactured connection that was initially used to justify the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Few of the Presidential candidates, as far as I can tell, have either clear or practical solutions to our current moral and military quagmire, but the candidates on the Right (especially Giuliani and Thompson) seem more inclined to fall back on the ready-to-hand symbol of "9/11" to escape the messay ambiguities of our current political situation.

It's difficult for me to tell sometimes whether this (apparent) discursive abuse of "9/11" is exploitative or not. (Fellow blogger Chet considered this in an entry he titled "The Uses and Abuses of 9/11 for Literature") Clearly, Biden's remark about Giuliani's limited vocabulary is meant to highlight the absence of substative content in Giuliani's speeches. But Biden's chiding doesn't really address what we unfortunately know to be the case: that many, many Americans still believe that there is a direct line of causation stretching from our current troubles back to the events of that day.

I am curious what it would take to clip that line of erroneous connection.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mourning Again

On this blog, almost exactly a year ago, I posted an entry on the importance of what I called the work of mourning. That post was prompted by my attendance at the SPEP business meeting, which every year includes eulogies of the SPEP members who have passed in the previous year. I was disturbed by complaints I had overheard by attendees of the meeting who bemoaned the fact that the eulogies that year had taken up the majority of the time in the business meeting. (That was partly because of the unusually high number of deaths that year, but also because of the prominence of the persons eulogized, which included among others Iris Marion Young.) In contrast to these complaints, I praised SPEP for being the kind of professional community that still recognized the deaths of its members (a task no doubt difficult for organizations larger than SPEP) and for its commitment to publicly and officially mourning its community’s losses.

This year at SPEP there were only two eulogies. One was particularly tragic (to whatever extent it makes sense to quantify “tragedy’), as it was devoted to a young (28 yrs. old) graduate student who had committed suicide. The other was a eulogy for an established feminist philosopher who had also died quite young—in her early 50’s as I recall—of leukemia. I wasn’t clocking the orations, of course, but if I had to guess, I would say that together they didn’t take more than 20 minutes.

Again this year, I heard complaints. And what’s worse, I heard that SPEP was seriously considering eliminating eulogies from the business meeting. So, again, I want to register my official disavowal of this proposition.

As professional academics, and as professional philosophers in particular, I imagine that many of us live a double existence, in which some of the most important activities and values of our lives are kept apart, to a significant degree, from the people closest to us. In fact, the people who populate our “personal” domain (to use an old and terribly inadequate distinction) are most likely ignorant of the actual content of our professional lives and commitments. I can’t begin to address the myriad reasons why this segregation is necessary, or perhaps desirable, for many of us... but I can recognize that, for most of us, the people that attend our funerals likely will not be the most informed speakers on the totality of our lives. The SPEP eulogies that I have heard over the many, many years that I have been attending that conference have given me pause and inclined me to appreciate the specific value of those remembrances. It seems to me, in my best attempt to be a Kantian, that we might have a moral obligation to the deceased to advocate just these sorts of recognitions and remembrances.

But, again repeating myself from a year ago, I don’t think this is merely about what we owe the dead. (Apologies to Denny.) I think that the public work of mourning is a constitutive part of what it takes to build, and to maintain, a healthy and self-aware community. There has yet to be a time in the business-meeting-eulogies of past SPEP conferences when I was not reminded of what makes our (so, so small) community important and of the innumerable people who made it possible. I genuinely believe that it will be our loss to eliminate this practice from our annual gatherings, that individually and collectively we will be lesser for it, and that, perhaps most importantly, we will have betrayed many of the fundamental values of “phenomenology and existential philosophy” if we choose to relegate the work of mourning to a mere note in the business meeting program.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Time Out

Tomorrow morning, I will be heading to Chicago for the annual meeting of SPEP (The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy). So, the blog will be quiet for a few days...

I can guarantee that there will be stories when I return, however.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Mind over Mater

My "Search for Values" class began our section on tragedy at the end of this week with Oedipus Rex. (We'll read Antigone next week.) Sophocles' "trilogy" is one of those works of literature that I always need to read again to remember how great it is. Part of that, I think, is due to the almost-ubiquitous use of Oedipus as a reference in academia, which makes the character and his story seem banal to me most of the time. Another part of that is my latent distaste for psychoanalysis, an ideological prejudice that I have been working to overcome for years now. Nevertheless, every time I read Sophocles' plays I am, in the parlance of Aristotle, struck with pity and fear... and then, ultimately, edified by the subsequent cartharsis.

My students, like most first-time-readers of Oedipus Rex, initially viewed the major conflict of the play as one between fate and free will. Of course, there was no real concept of "free will" when Sophocles wrote the play, but we all know that not having a philosophical concept for something certainly does not preclude human beings from experiencing it. Still, our discussion in class quickly boiled down to a question about the nature and extent of Oedipus' "freedom," such that it was. What, exactly, was Oedipus 'free' to do?

I like the way Robert Fagles (whose translation of Sophocles I use) answers this question in his introduction to Oedipus Rex. In the spirit of Aristotle, Fagles argues that Oedipus was "free" to know (or not to know) the truth. Sophocles was writing his plays just as philosophy was being born, and the not-so-subtle tension between the truth of the philosopher and the truth of the oracle is written all over Oedipus' story. I agree with Fagles that this is what draws us to the play; this is what "we" see in Oedipus' story that we also recognize in ourselves.

As much as I want to resist my own tendency to over-intellectualize the play or to settle in an interpretation that seems, well, disembodied, I just have a hard time reading Oedipus Rex along with Freud and his followers, who want to see in this story an archetype of human sexual desire, human aggression, and the specific targets at which those drives are directed. But I'm still open to hearing arguments in favor of a psychoanalytic reading of this (or any other) text.

Why isn't this story one of mind over mater?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Idiosyncratic Crises

Prefatory disclaimer: I am fully aware that the following "crisis" only legitimately qualifies as a "crisis" for those of us in academia. Which, of course, means that it's not a crisis at all.

I hate, hate, HATE the practice of submitting panel or paper "proposals" for conferences. The way this always works out, or at least the way it works out in my experience, is like writing a check on an account in which the funds are not there. That is, I regularly submit "abstracts" for papers that I have not yet written or "panels" for which I have not yet prepared, only to be bound (usually, MANY months later) by my commitment without being able to remember or reconstruct whatever it was I was thinking when I originally proposed my ostensibly admission-worthy idea.

I think this whole practice is just an extension of the (terrible) practice of taking "incompletes" in grad school-- where one promises to produce a paper of some quality at a later date, which for some probably lame reason cannot be produced now, only to discover that when that later date arrives, there are more immediate tasks to finish and one can barely remember the content of the still-uncompleted course for which the paper is now long overdue.

Bad, bad, BAD practice!

(for those of you who may be wondering what in the world this photo has to do with this post... well, it seemed to me a perfect image of "idiosyncracy")