Sunday, August 31, 2008

It's not you. It's your library...

A few months ago, on the New York Times book-blog Paper Cuts, over 400 people reported what they believed to be their own personal "literary dealbreakers." In a followup article ("Love Me, Love My Books"), Molly Flatt described the "dealbreaker book" as follows: "This book so deeply resonates with your soul that if a potential partner finds it risible, any meeting of minds (or body) is all but impossible. "

For bibliophiles, books are profoundly significant, and terribly under-acknowledged, factors in the making or breaking of relationships. I'm guessing that many of us are somewhat clandestine about our scoping-out of others on the basis of their literary tastes, but I can always spot a fellow bibliophile when, upon entering my apartment, s/he slowly gravitates toward my bookshelves and tries to appear indifferent while perusing the titles. I know, of course, that what this stealth creature is doing, in fact, is slowly and carefully cataloguing my tastes, measuring my educational level and cultural sophistication, piecing-togather a preliminary psychological profile and, of course, searching for evidence of his or her "literary dealbreakers" somwehere on the shelf. I know this is what the bibliophile is doing because, well, that's what I do.

It's much easier, I think, to identify the books that instantly indicate compatibility between yourself and someone else than it is to identify the ones that are prophets of relationship doom. For me, the deal-sealers are many and varied: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Philip Roth, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Milan Kundera, most existentialists, and non-fiction that is quirky, political, and timely. On the other side, though, I think that I mostly identify deal-breakers by genre rather than individual titles. Any form of "beat generation" literature is out (bye-bye to Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Borroughs). Also out is sci-fi, magical realism and fantasy (no Anne Rice, no Harry Potter, no Hitchhiker's Guide). Anything that has any number of "steps," "principles," or "secrets" as a part of the title, especially if those are directed at "self-improvement," "financial security" or "management success," is definitely a bad sign. And too much medieval stuff is a red flag (sorry Boethius, Dante and Chaucer).

If I absolutely had to identify specific deal-breakers, though, there are a few candidates that would definitely make the cut. I don't think I could bear someone telling me that his or her favorite book is Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind . Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet would probably be taken as a bad sign by me as well. And, as a rule, I usually question the sincerity of anyone who says his or her favorite book is David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest or Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time-- not because I don't love Wallace and Proust, but just because I would seriously doubt that the person actually finished them. In almost every case, I think, the people who cite those as their favorite books are pretenders, not real readers.

Another deal-breaker for me is the presence of too many "show" books-- the ones with still-pristine, unbroken spines that are obviously unread. The more a person's books show signs of being "handled," the better. Extra points for books filled with scribbled marginalia or with dog-eared pages. And extra, extra points if there is some organization to the bookshelves, alphabetical or otherwise.

Ahhhhh, the mysterious ways of nerds in love.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

McCain's Epic Fail

John McCain announced his running-mate (in this case, his running-matron) yesterday, barely before the Democratic Convention euphoria could even begin to wane. When I first learned of his choice, Alaska Governor and former "Miss Alaska" Sarah Palin, I was a little embarrassed that I had no idea who she was. No worries, though. Apparently, neither did anyone else.

It shouldn't be a surprise to any of us, I suppose, that McCain chose a woman for his vice-president. And, before I go on, let me just note again, for the record, the historical significance of having both an African-American Presidential candidate and a female Vice-Presidential candidate in the same year. (Not to mention TWO candidates under 50!) We might be finally catching up with the rest of the world here...

Unfortunately for Palin, though, I'm afraid that she will come to represent "progress" for women along the same lines as Geraldine Ferraro and Harriet Meiers did-- what I like to call progress of the "close-but-give-him-back-his-cigar" sort. Hillary Clinton may have indeed put a "thousand cracks" in the glass ceiling of patriarchy with her astounding run this season, but McCain's attempt to force Palin through those narrow, jagged openings likely will involve much blood-letting.

The truth is that Palin simply cannot be what McCain and the men-behind-the-Republican-election-curtain want, and need, her to be. They need her to be the "honey" that draws all of the disgruntled female HRC-flies over to the other side. The problem is, Palin is an anti-abortion, creationist, self-described "hockey mom" who just a month ago was under investigation for abuse of power. And she's young-- younger than Obama-- which not only casts a pall over McCain's recent lambasting of Obama's "inexperience," but will probably make her (instead of McCain) the new target of any return volley that Democrats make in the campaign "age wars." McCain's decision to choose Palin is so curious, in fact, that it makes me very suspicious... and not suspicious in a good way.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Sidney Lumet's Perfect Tragedy

I finally got around to watching Sidney Lumet's critically-acclaimed 2007 film Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Of course, Lumet really is one of the best of American directors, especially adept at manufacturing and sustaining cinematic tension, as is obvious from many of his previous films like 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Verdict, and Network. (He also directed one of my all-time favorite musicals, The Wiz.) Lumet is a Philaldelphian by birth-- his name is pronounced "loo-MET" not "loo-MAY"--and I've often said that his films seem to ooze a kind of "Philadelphia" sensibility, much in the same way that Spike Lee's films ooze "Brooklyn." Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is part heist film, part dysfunctional family drama, part bildungsroman, part mystery. It stars one of my favorite actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and one of my least favorite actors, Ethan Hawke, with supporting performances by veteran thespian Albert Finney and the vulnerable-in-a-smoking-hot-way Marisa Tomei.

It's a little hard to write about this film without revealing "spoilers" because the story is intricate, non-linear, and chock-full of plot twists... so I'll try to proceed carefully. What really impressed me about Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, though, was that it is almost a perfectly composed "tragedy" in the Aristotelian sense. Now, to a certain extent, I don't think one would have to know much about Aristotle to recognize the similarities between Lumet's film and Greek tragedies. The film centers around brother/brother and father/son conflicts (which are both sexually-charged and potentially murderous). The familial crises depicted in the film are catalyzed by individuals' unreflective and unchecked desire for money, power, and recognition. The protagonists are all basically sympathetic, even if flawed, and eminently resilient, even if weak. Like Oedipus, they do not know themselves, and they are crushed under the weight of self-knowledge when it comes to them. Like Antigone, they do not rule their worlds, and they suffer for their efforts at trying to impose an alternative Law on the world around them. As in Greek tragedies, the "physical" violence upon which the story turns is only accidental. What the audience comes to understand, really, is that the true motor of the plot and all of its players is psychic violence, for which the only truly adequate salve is exile or death.

I won't bore you with all of the ways in which Before the Devil Knows You're Dead dramatically elaborates the core themes of Aristotle's Poetics (mimesis, catharsis, peripeteia, anagnorisis, hamartia), but I do want to recommend it as an excellent teaching tool for illustrating the technical terms in that text. In the past, I showed the film V for Vendetta when I taught Aristotle's Poetics because it was so easy to identify Aristotle's elements of tragedy in that film, but now I'm convinced that Lumet does it better. (Fair warning, though: the film begins with an extremely graphic sex scene-- between Hoffman and Tomei no less!-- so there may be potential problems with showing it in the classroom.) Lumet has always been a connoisseur of family dysfunction-- the classic mise en scene for tragedy-- but he is arguably unrivalled in his skill for portraying, with equal measures of honesty and compassion, all of the mean and petty things we do to one another.

As I've suggested on this blog many times before (much to the chagrin of Booga Face and Chet), I think contemporary films are about the closest art form we have to ancient Greek tragedy in the following sense: part of the function of Greek tragedies was to serve as a mirror to the community's collective values, as well as a vehicle by which moral instruction could be imparted to the community. This is why Aristotle insisted that "good" tragedies must reflect the plight of a human being in such a way that, no matter how pitiful or fearful the protagonists' station in life, the audience can see their own humanity, their own finitude and weakness, in the actions and reactions of an other. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead excels in just this sort of representation.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Sad Song Celebrity

About a week ago, I noticed that the "hits" on my blog almost doubled overnight, and they have only continued to increase after that. Since I haven't been speed-dating or indiscriminately publicizing my blog site, this really didn't make any sense to me. So, after a little further investigation, I discovered that somehow, I really don't know how, my blog is the first thing that comes up when one Googles "sad songs." (Go ahead and try it, you'll see.)

It's really weird. I don't know how that happened. For those of you who ended up on this site because you were seeking the deep and hidden truth of sad songs, I'm sorry I can't help you. (I've basically had two "sad songs" related posts on this blog: the first was "Sad Songs Say So Much" in November 2007, and the second was "Sad Songs (Still) Say So Much," which was in June of this year.) But, since you're here, I do recommend you download my most recent all-sad-songs radio show to your iPod, which should serve as some kind of consolation.

I also want to say, for the record, that if this is my 15 seconds of fame-- because, surely, in the age of the Internet, Andy Warhol's caluclation must be truncated-- then being associated with "sad songs" is about all the fame I could've ever hoped for.

Since you're here anyway looking for sad songs, here's one that you'll probably never hear on my radio show, but it's a bona fide sad song nonetheless:

Good Science Writing

As I mentioned in a previous post, I find myself in the unprecendented situation these days of having several (very smart and relatively decent) "scientist" friends. Now, I'll readily admit that I don't know a lot about science (outside the grand philosophical tradition of scientia, that is), but I find some scientific questions eminently, sometimes frustratingly, fascinating-- like evolution, or the biological bases of the social/political categories of "gender" and "race," or why it is that when you boil an egg it gets hard but when you boil a noodle it gets soft. (Still don't really understand the answer to that last one!) Like most academics in the humanities, I don't usually get much time to indulge these interests of mine, partly because many (if not most) of the scientists I have known are difficult if not impossible to have a normal semi-human conversation with, but also because much (if not most) of the legitimate scientific literature that I have attempted to read has been so poorly-written and jargon-laden that it seemed utterly inaccessible to non-specialists.

So, it is with great pleasure that I now recommend a book that I received from a chemist colleague of mine, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History by American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science, Stephen Jay Gould. There are numerous legitimate "scientific" reasons to recommend this book, I suspect, but since I'm not a scientist and can't really measure Gould's arguments against what might be his detractors' arguments, I want to recommend it on another basis-- namely, the truly excellent prose. (In an attempt at fair and balanced coverage, I should note that Richard Dawkins, real scientist, says in his review of Gould's book : "... if only Gould could think as clearly as he writes! This is a beautifully written and deeply muddled book.") Gould's text is basically a re-examination of the Burgess Shale, a formation found in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia that hosts what Gould calls the "most precious and important of all fossil localities." The fauna preserved in the Burgess Shale, according to Gould, not only give us an unprecendented look into the otherwise mysterious workings of the Cambrian explosion of over 530 million years ago, but they also very well may upset most orthodox renderings of "evolutionary progress."

I haven't finished the book yet, but Gould's basic hypothesis is that the Burgess Shale demonstrates that "chance" is THE decisive factor in the evolution of life on earth. Chance (or "contigency") is a concept favored by we humanities folk, but mostly despised by respectable scientists, and Gould's aim is at least in part to disabuse scientists of their aversion to explanations that favor the absolutely unpredictable (and unnecessary) appearance of not only human life, but human intelligence. From Gould's introduction:

"Wind back the tape of life to the early days of the Burgess Shale; let it play again from an identical starting point, and the chance becomes vanishingly small that anything like human inteligence would grace the replay."

Why can't all scientists write like this??!! In my humble opinion, Gould's writing hearkens back to the days before we made crude, ham-handed and specialist-ic distinctions in the knowledge (sophia) that the genuinely inquisitive among us love (philia). In short, Wonderful Life is a book for philosophers, too, I think. This is the reason why, only halfway through at this point, this philosopher heartily recommends it to you.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Another Year Older...

... and I still haven't found a way to reproduce the monster style of my younger self. Check out those sleeves!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Classroom Governance

I had a somewhat odd conversation with a friend and colleague of mine recently about the implications of being considered a "cool" professor by students. Neither one of us were really sure what our students think of us, but we both guessed that if there were a kind of Kinsey Scale for such a thing, we would probably be situated just slightly on the "cooler" side of center. We also agreed that receiving the designation "cool professor" is not an unambiguously good thing. Among other problems, it usually means that both one's students and one's colleagues presume that "cool" is synonymous with "easy"-- you grade easy, you don't assign much work, you don't have or enforce many rules, and you generally run a pretty loose ship. And that got me wondering: just how "tight" a ship does one need to run in the classroom?

The thing is, I don't have a lot of rules in my classroom. I allow, even encourage, students to interrupt me. I participate in and indulge quite a bit of irreverence with respect to the subject matter. When there are disagreements, which there often are in my courses, I am okay with letting the students fight it out. (No fisticuffs, of course.) I'm happy to amend the syllabus when the interests of the class are in tension with my plan. I don't "take roll" every day. It may seem like all of that adds up to the characteristics of a "loose" ship, but I mostly think that tightening my grip over those sorts of things diminishes the kind of learning that I want to happen in my classroom.

My teaching philosophy goes something like this: have only a few rules, but enforce them rigorously, precisely, and without exceptions. I'll let a lot of things slide in my classroom, but I execute the rules I do have with an Iron Fist. There are only ten of them, which I pass out with the syllabus on the first day of every class, and you can read them here. I really, really, REALLY don't budge on those ten rules. Ever. I especially don't budge on them when rule-breaking students come to me pleading with something like "aww, c'mon Dr. J, but I thought you were cool!" Nope, that is a utterly unconvincing plea.

Since the new semester is about to begin, I've been reconsidering my Ten Commandments again. I've made a few changes to them over the years, but the version I have now hasn't been changed in a while. So, I'm interested to hear from you readers what sorts of rules you have in your classrooms... and how they've been working for you. And, as an aside, I'm also interested to hear what you think about this common misconception (I think, anyway) that if students like you or your class, then you must be "easy."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

R.I.P. Elvis Presley

It's time for my annual tribute to Elvis Aaron Presley, who (may have) died 31 years ago today on August 16, 1977. So, I say again, on behalf of all of us who have inherited that amazing hybrid of rock-n'-roll: Thankya, Elvis. Thankyaveramuch.

The King is dead. Long live the King.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Who's Your Dandy?

It all started back in April of this year, when an ill-worded comment by Obama suggesting that some white voters were a tad "bitter" prompted his then-opponent Hillary Clinton to accuse him of being "elitist." Since the end of the primaries, McCain has jumped on that bandwagon as well, most famously running the television ad claiming that Obama is more of a "celebrity" than a leader. And then there was this recent exchange between Sean Hannity and Karl Rove in which they uncovered SHOCKING. NEW. EVIDENCE. of Obama's "elitism." (They claim that, if elected President, Obama would replace the bowling alley in the White House with a basketball court... presuming, I guess, that bowling is somehow more "of-the-people" than basketball.) I feel like I've been reminded that Obama was educated in the Ivy-League, that both he and his wife are well-dressed and good-looking, and that he can cut a rug as much as I was that Edwards is the son of a millworker. Of course, anyone possessing an ounce of familiarity with American history knows that all of this Ivy-League/celebrity/elitist talk is really just code for "uppity Negro," which is supposed to scare the living daylights out of whites and foster righteous indignation among blacks.

Enough already.

I don't have any real statistics on this, but if I had to guess, I would say that a significant percentage of American politicians (at the federal level, anyway) are Ivy-League educated, that about 90% belong to an "elite" social or economic class, and that 100% of them enjoy some form of "celebrity" status. And all of those numbers go up for Presidential candidates. So, if we have problems with the fact that Barack Obama is elite, it is not because "the rest of us" can't be a part of that club, but rather because HE shouldn't be a part of that club. Even more, we think it's seriously presumptuous for Obama to think that he should be. Don't believe me? Just look at these comments from almost every major news outlet:

AP: "In a speech that risked being seen as presumptuous..."

TIME Magazine: "capable to become the Commander in Chief of a superpower -- without seeming presumptuous..."

The National Journal: "He is well aware voters here at home might see that as presumptuous..."

Washington Post: "Whether by the end of this week he will be seen as presumptuous or overly cocky..."

Chicago Tribune: "That means walking the fine line between looking presidential and appearing arrogant and presumptuous..."

Boston Globe: "plus the growing sense in some quarters that the presumptive Democratic nominee is getting a little presumptuous..."


But seriously, it's very odd that Obama continues to be painted in the press as some sort of dandy. Historically, the "dandy" arose as a figue of anti-egalitarian political protest, attempting to recapture feudal or pre-industrial aristocratic values against the onslaught of a rising middle class. The dandy was well-dressed, foppish, cultured, educated, confident, even arrogant... and, oh yeah, presumptuous. But the point is that the dandy was all of those things because he despised the people and he dreaded the possibility of being mistaken for one of them. That's just not Obama. I think there's a lot of proof that Obama is for "the people," but his position on the gross injustice of felon disenfranchisement is particularly compelling evidence.

And, yes, it does matter here that Obama is black. In the grand scheme of things, he can no more be a genuine dandy than... well, no more than I can.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


My friend Christophresh and I were recently discussing Michel Foucault's eccentric text I, Pierre Riviere... (not the full title, but you should check out the full title), which deals with a multiple-murder case in France in the 19th Century. Although Foucault is listed as the author of the text, he did not so much "author" it as he did collect and assemble the documents related to Pierre Riviere's case, including medical and legal testimony, police reports, and Riviere's own memoir. It's a really fascinating read and I highly recommend it. For those familiar with Foucault's work, it also serves as an example of the kind of meaningful "counter-memory" that could be constructed if historians saw themselves more as archaeologists/genealogists instead of authorities.

The text of I, Pierre Riviere is, in effect, a dossier... and as such it includes all of the details of Riviere's case before those details had been classified as "significant" or "insignificant." As opposed to a "biography" of Pierre Riviere, which ostensibly would have already shaped the myriad details of his life into a coherent narrative, Foucault's text gives us the unfiltered dossier, which is messy, confusing, contradictory, at times maddeningly mundane... just as a real life is. In my cartoonish imaginings of scientists, this is exactly the sort of material that I envision them sorting through and assembling. (Though I should note that, nowadays, I find myself in the unprecedented situation of having more and more "scientist" friends, which makes it harder and harder to maintain my cartoonish imaginings of them and what they do.) We philosophers rarely handle texts like these-- preferring instead the abstractions-from-undifferentiated-Sinn that have already undergone interpretation-- which is exactly what Foucault's work so provocatively calls into question.

At any rate, in our conversation, Christophresh speculated that we should compile more dossiers like I, Pierre Rivere and I responded that, for me at least, this blog was probably already serving that function. Then, in a turn of sheer brilliance, Christophresh coined the neologism: blogspossier (blogspot + dossier = blogspossier). And I thought to myself, damn, I wish I had thought of that.

The very idea of a blogspossier is such timely and monumentally accurate description of how some of our lives are being archived that I am tempted to propose it being added to the O.E.D.

Monday, August 11, 2008

It's Hard Out Here for an Infidel

Yesterday, I did an "all sad songs" episode of my Rhodes Radio show Americana the Beautiful. (If you're interested, you can listen to or download the podcast here.) In the process of putting together my song list, I was struck by the fact that so many of the songs involve some kind of cheatin', lyin', stealin' or other variations on infidelity. Well, actually, that's not true. I wasn't "struck." Of course people write sad songs about that stuff. That stuff makes people really sad.

On Saturday, in my post about John Edwards' extramarital affair, which was mostly an apology for Edwards, I added the following caveat: "I am not issuing a blanket excuse for infidelity, which I really do believe is one of the most painful things that one human being can do to another." As is often the case with blog-prose, I may have been a little sloppy with my formulation of that claim, and Booga Face took me to task for it. He wrote:

"Actually, I'm going to have to take strong issue with your statement that infidelity is one of the most painful things one human being can do to another. Really? Murder? Rape? Economic exploitation? In my view, the real violence is in the social order that demands a monogymous nuclear family, persecutes people who don't fulfill that role, and demands that we all subscribe to some crackpot theory about true, everlasting love. What a load of horse manure. Why would any sane person want any of that?"

Ouch. So, now I'm turning my apologist skills away from defending Edwards and back toward defending myself, because I think I actually did mean what I said.

First of all, Booga, let me concede a little. Yes, of course, "murder, rape, and economic exploitation" are also very painful things that one human being can do to another. And yes, of course, the fact that our social order imposes a kind of heteronormativity on all of our romantic and kinship relations is a particularly insidious form of violence, one that is often extremely painful for those who, for whatever reasons, do not or cannot abide by that cultural code. Most forms of subjection involve pain-- physical, emotional, or psychological-- and although I am generally disinclined to "rank" the terrible things that human beings do to one another, I am willing to say that for the most part, the more pain that is caused, the worse the offense.

But, strictly speaking, "infidelity" is not really a form of subjection. It is, rather, the abrogation of a certain set of implicit or explicit obligations between two people. Now, it may be the case that those obligations were already problematic or unrealistic (as is arguably the case with monogamy), and I certainly don't want to reduce all human relationships to contracts, but for better or worse, we depend on our fellow human beings to be fidēlēs. When the faithfulness to obligation only involves, say, keeping an accurate putt-putt score, it's not that big of a deal... but when it involves matters of the heart (or, as you rightly note, the family), things can be very painful. And that pain is a very different sort of pain, I think, than the pain of subjection.

Is it worse, though? Again, I don't think such things can be accurately measured, much less ranked, but it seems to me that at the very least the pain caused by infidelity is painfully protracted, thus possessing the added disadvantage of handicapping one's ability to engage in good-faith relationships (of any kind) in the future. Your quasi-defense of infidelity (which amounts to something like "it's not that big of a deal because everyone does it and, furthermore, the rules that were broken were unfair in the first place") does nothing to diminish the very real pain that is caused by it. I'm no saint, either, and I agree with your metacriticism of the "institution" of monogamy (which may not be for everyone), but when it comes to infidelity, I just don't think that one can justifiably enter into a good-faith relationship with another human being, then betray the trust upon which that relationship is built, and then still object that the other person isn't significantly pained. A little more than a year ago, I posted on this blog about what I called "The Problem with Infidelity," in which I basically made this same argument. So, you can read the whole thing there.

Sure, we're all guilty. Because I know that, I can empathize with Edwards instead of passing some FOX-news-ish type judgment about his "character." But, as I said in the previous post, I'm not his wife, and it's not my charge to judge him as a husband, which would make a world of difference in my opinion because it would necessarily include factoring in the tremendous amount of pain that he has caused me. Maybe that pain is not "the worst" that one human being can cause another, but I still think it's one of the worst. And, more importantly, I don't think that protesting the "fairness" of the obligations Edwards violated is any more sufficient than I think that saying "hey, it could've been worse" dimishes the pain that a jilted lover suffers.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

R.I.P. Isaac Hayes

Memphian and funk-and-soul legend Isaac Hayes died early this morning here in town. Hayes was one of the driving forces behind Memphis' own Stax Records and he remained a faithful and active citizen of our fair city for his entire life. Most people know Hayes as the voice behind South Park's character of "Chef," but he was also a "King." (He was given the honorary crown in recognition of his humanitarian work in Ghana's Ada district.) And, of course, Hayes was also a Scientologist, an allegiance that everntually ended his stint on South Park when he accused the show of religious intolerance.

For several years, Isaac Hayes hosted a local radio show in which he would play what he called "hot-buttered love songs." It was one of the best radio programs I've ever heard, and one of the few for which I've ever manipulated my schedule just to be sure I didn't miss it. For a lot of us, there was nothing sexier and more soothing than Hayes' hot-buttered bass voice. He'll be missed.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Say It Ain't So, John

Alas, the mighty have fallen.

The news was released yesterday afternoon that John Edwards engaged in an extramarital affair in 2006 and that he lied about it during his campaign for President last year. Edwards' paramour, Rielle Hunter (who, apparently, is also the inspiration for a Gen-X literary character), now claims that Edwards is the father of her young child, making his very-inconvenient news downright disastrous. And, to add insulting injury to insulting injury, it looks as if Edwards' people might have also doled out a significant amount of hush money to keep the affair under wraps.

Edwards defended himself in the press yesterday by saying that although he was completely and painfully honest with his family about the affair, he was only "99% honest with the public," using the fact that reporters' version of the story included many false details as a way to deny the whole thing. Hmmm... to use a Southernism with which I am sure he is familiar, that dog don't hunt. That dog don't even bark. Hell, that dog barely breathes.

Like most of Edwards' supporters, I'm somewhat disappointed. He always impressed me as a politician who managed to remain above the fray. It is a monumentally bad show of judgment for a father of four children (one who died tragically in an automobile accident) and the husband of a supportive (and cancer-ridden) wife to go skirt-chasing in his mid-fifties. So, yes, shame on him. His judgment was bad, his will was weak, and he erred or sinned or transgressed or whatever you want to call it.

But would I still vote for him as President of the United States? You bet I would.

Let me take a minute to serve as Edwards' apologist-- not an apologist for his affair, which I believe is a matter only between him and his family, but for his lying about it, which is all that does (or should) really matter to the rest of us. The thing is, I don't want politicians who lie to me anymore than the next red-blooded American does, but even more than that, I don't want to permit the possibility of any imperfect human being-- even a politician-- to be forced into a panopticon. Public representatives are surveilled more than the rest of us, as they should be, but there are limits to what we should be allowed to ask them and, consequently, I think there are limits to the disclosures of "truth" we can justifiably expect them to provide. I am more bothered by the fact that the question was asked to Edwards about his sexual activities than I am about the fact that he lied about it. At least he wasn't asked under oath, a small but significant consolation.

One of the drawbacks of our celebrity-obsessed culture is that we in the hoi polloi are led to believe that every personality whose image shows up on our little box is open to unrestricted scrutiny. I'm going to go out on a limb here and speculate that there isn't any one of us who could dodge all of the arrows of that kind of microscopic examination. This puts our public figures in a pickle-- they can't lie, they can't tell the truth, and they most certainly can't say "it's none of your damn business." If I were Elizabeth Edwards, then John Edwards' lie would matter a great deal to me, because it may mean that he is a bad husband. But I'm not her. I'm just a voting American, and John Edwards' lie tells me nothing about what kind of President he might be, save for the fact that he may be a President who makes mistakes, which distinguishes him from all the others in no way whatsoever.

Let me be clear: I am not issuing a blanket excuse for infidelity, which I really do believe is one of the most painful things that one human being can do to another. But I find the self-righteous media circus surrounding Edwards' affair sickening, naive, disingenuous, and grossly exploitative. Did we not learn this lesson back in 1998? It's deja vu all over again.

It'll almost make you lose faith in humanity. Thank god for Zhang Yimou.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Politics in Gracelessland

We Memphians just saw the conclusion of what has been a truly U-G-L-Y battle between the candidates for Tennessee's 9th U.S. Congressional District, incumbent Steve Cohen and challenger Nikki Tinker. As you may already know, our district Representative before Cohen was the DNC wunderkind Harold Ford, Jr., who was famously done in by his Senate-race opponent Bob Corker's race-baiting ad last year, so we're no strangers to dirty campaigns around these parts. (If it's not already obvious, it's the last 5 seconds of that Corker ad that caused all of the scandal and, perhaps, lost Ford the election.) Anyway, in the most recent race, Cohen came out victorious in a landslide victory over Tinker, but not without taking more than a few below-the-belt first.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way. Here are pictures of the two candidates. If you know anything about Memphis politics, this ought to explain some of the tension. Cohen is on the left, Tinker on the right.

Now for the dirty details. There were two "questionable" campaign ads run by Tinker. The first, which you can't see anymore because someone on her staff was smart enough to remove every last evidence of it from the web, ostensibly criticized Cohen for not advocating a proposal to change the name of dowtown Memphis' Nathan Bedford Forrest Park. Of course, there's nothing wrong with pointing out that it's still an embarassment that our city has a park named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, but Tinker's ad juxtaposed images of Cohen (who is Jewish) with hooded members of the KKK, not-so-subtly suggesting that the two had much in common. In the second ad, Tinker questioned Cohen's sincerity whenever he was (in her words) "in OUR churches." (Did I mention already that Cohen is Jewish?) Here's the second ad:

So, essentially, Tinker's campaign strategy amounted to reminding her constiuents, in terms that even a single-celled organism couldn't misunderstand, that her opponent was (1) white and (2) Jewish. Then, to connect the remaining enormous-Sesame-Street dots for us, she aired television ads that effectively said (1) "white people are KKK racists" and (2) "Jewish people don't go to OUR CHURCHES and are trying to prevent OUR CHILDREN from praying in school to OUR GOD." Nevermind that the House of Representatives just passed Resolution 194-- also known as the Cohen Resolution-- issuing the first apology EVER by the federal government for our country's history of slavery and racial segregation. And nevermind that people like Skeptical Brother (who, by his own description is "unashamedly black and unapologetically political") have been complaining for over a year that she, not her opponent, just doesn't get it-- and by "it" I mean the complicated mix of race, religion and politics in Memphis. Oh yeah, and nevermind that almost everyone within cell-phone range of Nathan Bedford Forrest Park agreed that her campaign was graceless, which is just about everyone... because, you know, cell-phones reach pretty far these days.

This 9th Congressional District constiuent, for one, is glad it's over.

When There Is No "Why"...

There is quite a bit of buzz about the upcoming release of the new film Man on Wire, which is a documentary account of Philippe Petit's 1974 illegal and clandestine 110-story high tightrope-walk between the World Trade Towers (pictured left). I remember first learning of Petit's stunt a few years back when I read about it in Paul Auster's The Red Notebook. (According to the movie trailer, Petit's stunt "made headlines around the world"... but, hey, I was still in diapers in 1974, so you can excuse me for only coming to the story of late.) By Petit's count, his walk took over six years to plan and it was, in almost every imaginable way, a death-defying stunt. The new film, directed by James Marsh in close collaboration with Petit, is reportedly framed as a "heist" story, focusing more on Petit and his friends' planning of the crazy-cum-criminal act rather than the reasons behind his decision to do it. Interestingly, Petit has claimed that he never understood the fact that, upon descending the Towers safely (but in handcuffs), the only thing he was asked by the throngs of waiting reporters was: "Why did you do it?"

Petit's answer: "There is no why." (Elsewhere, he is reported to have said: "When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I walk.")

I'm not sure that the mere mortals among us can really get our heads around Petit's act, but I imagine that it's even less comprehensible to us that the truth may be that "there is no why." Perhaps tightrope-walkers, and "daredevils" in general, are engaged in some highly sophisticated enactment of eudaimonia ("living well") that rejects on principle the very possibility of a human being reduced to "bare life." (On that note, I highly recommend your taking a look at the interesting dicussion developing on Mahogany Feed, where Dr. Trott suggests that "ultimate fighting" might demonstrate a similar disambiguation of bare life.) Still, I'm fascinated by Petit's claim that "there is no why," even if only because it seems to lend an air of aesthetic transcendence to what otherwise appears to be... well... madness.

And then there's this, from Auster's account:
"Each time we see a man walk on the wire, a part of us is up there with him. Unlike performances in the other arts, the experience of the high wire is direct, unmediated, simple, and it requires no explanation whatsoever. The art is the thing itself, a life in its most naked delineation. And if there is beauty in this, it is because of the beauty we feel inside ourselves."

I wonder whether Auster is right, first, to identify tightrope-walking as an "art" and, second, to suggest that it is the sole "unmediated" art that "requires no explanation whatsoever." I'm fairly well-inclined to agree with the first-- anyone who has ever seen a tightrope-walker in live action would be hard-pressed to say the performance is not an art-- but the second claim is a bit harder for me to accept. I'm not convinced that any art is "unmediated" or "the thing itself," and in the case of tightrope-walking I am tempted to say that what makes this art "beautiful" (such that it is) is the fact that it is mediated by the very real possibility of death. That is, the recognition of what Auster calls "the beauty we feel inside ourselves" is the intensification of human fragility and finitude (dare I say it... weakness?) embodied by the tightrope-walker. Not to get all Third Critique here, but it seems to me that what is beautiful about this particular art is that it exihibits a kind of purposiveness-without-purpose... or, at the very least, a purposiveness that extends beyond its "merely" teleological purpose (i.e., getting to the other end of the rope, alive). And what makes it even more captivatingly, almost painfully, beautiful is that we cannot help but ask "why, oh why, does anyone who could perish ever step on the rope in the first place?"...

I'm looking forward to the release of Man on Wire here in Memphis, which unfortunately isn't until 8/29. In the meantime, though, here's the movie trailer:

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

An(other) Omen Read Wrong

Recently, I was reminded of a passage from Micheal Herr's excellent 1977 memoir Dispatches. Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War, he helped write the screenplays for Coppola's Apocolypse Now and Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, and he (along with Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe) pioneered the literary genre of the nonfiction novel. There's an excellent documentary called First Kill about what war does to the human psyche (in Greek, both "mind" and "soul")--including an exploration of what has come to be known as "the libido of war"-- that is partially based on Herr's Dispatches. It includes several interviews with Herr and you can watch it online here. But, back to Dispatches...

There's a short section from Dispatches in which Herr bemoans the circus of misinformation that was the Vietnam War, at the end of which he recounts the following anecdote about U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam (and former Vice-Presidential candidate) Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.:

"One day in 1963 Henry Cabot Lodge was walking around the Saigon Zoo with some reporters, and a tiger pissed on him through the bars of its cage. Lodge made a joke, something like, “He who wears the pee of the tiger is assured of success in the coming year.” Maybe nothing’s so unfunny as an omen read wrong." (Dispatches, 50)

I suppose it's mostly unnecessary for me to explicate the analogy between the "wars" in Vietnam and Iraq here. It should suffice to say that our current mess is in large part the result of a series of monumentally bad judgments-- many of which were, effectively, wrongly read omens. Of course, some of the Iraq-related bad judgments have also included outright misinformation, and not simply imperfect communication, but for now I want to stick to the omens...

The thing is, "hard facts" by themselves reveal precious little about the reasons for America's involvement in Iraq. Were there really WMD's in Iraq before we invaded? It matters far less than you think. For all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth that the Conservative Right does about postmodern relativism, their treatment of the "fact" of WMD's demonstrates that, quite often, the "world that is the case" is no contest for those who need to see the world as some determinate "sign" or another. Facts are only ever omens, sometimes manufactured as booby-traps for those of us seeking a coherent meaning behind all this madness and bloodshed. They must be read, they often are misread, and although the world that is the case may offer some resistance to our interpretations of it, rarely does it muster enough resistance. It is always our charge as the custodians of logos to interpret omens, to attach meaning and significance to the representations that history hands over to us. And, as Herr says, nothing is so unfunny as when we do that badly.

It's no use, I think, simply to complain that the world is mediated, as opponents of revisionist history are often wont to do. There is a use, however, in complaining when that world is mediated in stupid, non-critical, or manifestly manipulative ways... as it has obviously been with the Iraq War. As my friend anotherpanacea says in his recent excellent post on Interpretation, "philosophy is the practice of making sense of the world we share." So, we philosophers should be the first to stand up and say something like "No, Hank, the tiger just pissed on your leg. That's all there is to it." And on the eve of what (I hope) will be a new administration in this country, it is the philosopher's job to vociferously protest the further distribution of badly-manufactured historical accounts of this war.

Again, from Herr's Dispatches:
"Straight history, auto-revised history, history without handles, for all the books and articles and white papers, all the talk and the miles of film, something wasn’t answered, it wasn’t even asked." (Dispatches, 49)

If we're not asking whether or not we are reading the omens in the best possible way, then who will? Il n'y a pas de hors-texte!

Monday, August 04, 2008

Pères de Docteur

There's an interesting discussion over at Perverse Egalitarianism following a post entitled "Derrida and the Professors" in which the post's author (Mikhail Emelianov) asks:

Why is it that Derrida’s philosophy, after a quick and eventful love affair with American English departments and a rather scandalous world tour and a series of “live albums” (excuse my music analogy here), has ultimately failed to make its essential points stick?

It's a good question, and one that I have wondered to myself on many occasions. Emelianov speculates that the problem is with the practitioners of (what he terms) "derridalogy"-- mostly philosophy professors who are excellent "commentators and summarizers" but who are not original thinkers, even less so bona fide deconstructors, perhaps only barely more than the rough-hewn products of a rather silly Derridean orthodoxy. What it means to be a "Derrida scholar" these days, according to Emelianov, is pretty much to be a kind of anal-retentive curator (or archivist) of the Master's minutiae. That is, Emelianov worries that the secondary literature on Derrida reads more like a series of tributes to the Doktorvater (the best French equivalent I could manage is pères de docteur), which is a rather peculiar phenomenon given that one of the first principles of Derridean Orthodoxy seems to be that "philosophy" is not only scandalous, but should be scandalized.

For the most part, I agree with Emelianov's complaints concerning the state of secondary literature on Derrida these days. (Although, for the record, I actually studied under two of the main targets of his criticisms, and I think he's a little hard on them!) The problem is not, of course, that commentators on Derrida's work are simply commentators-- because Derrida himself was, famously, an excellent commentator on other philosophers (Plato, Rousseau, Marx, Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, etc., etc.) at the same time as being an original thinker. There's nothing about "secondary" literature that requires it to be completely derivative. The problem is rather that commentators on Derrida's work are often not very original. They are, instead, merely "professors" (in the pejorative/Kierkegaardian sense)... and I think Emelianov is right to point out that such orthodox professing is at odds with the ostensible project of philosophy-inspired-by-Derrida.

So, who's fault is this? Is there something about Derrida's work (or Derrida himself) that necessarily produces a cult of personality? It's certainly conceivable that the combination of Derrida's fame and eccentricity served as a kind of catalyst for poseurs who wanted to mimic the tricks of the Master without mastering the trade... but I'm mostly disinclined to believe this, if only because there are still really good "Derrideans" out there. Furthermore, there are plenty of other contemporary philosophers that seem to have inspired similar phenomena-- Foucault, Badiou, Negri, Deleuze and Guattari, just to mention a few. One of my chief complaints about the secondary literature on Derrida for years has been that I couldn't understand why native English-speakers still wrote as if they had been translated from French. Obviously, they were doing their best to ape the "style" of Derrida, though the resulting texts (and ideas) were mostly disastrous. But those disasters pale in comparison, in my mind, to conversations I've had with some of the Deleuzians out there, who could not tell you what "rhizomatic" or "the body without organs" actually means if their very precious plane of immanence depended on it.

So, I am led to wonder whether the fault lies not with the pères de docteur (because, let's be honest, we're mostly talking about the Frenchies here) but perhaps rather with a particular generation (or two) of American philosophers/professors. I don't want to continue to fuel the fire of contemporary stereotypes of the Continental/Analytic philosophy divide, but I find myself sympathetic with at least one variation on the Continental/European philosophy stereotype usually put forth by critics trained in the Analytic tradition, which is that some of our leading voices are too quick to sacrifice substance and clarity for style. Maybe that's the fault of their sources of inspiration... but I doubt it.

R.I.P. Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Exiled Russian novelist, political activist and Nobel Prize for Literature winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn brought the horrors of the Soviet labor camps to the attention of the world in his 1973 The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn's criticism of the Soviet police state resulted in his exile for almost two decades, but he returned home to Russia in 1994 and was elected as a member of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Solzhenitsyn died yesterday, August 3, 2008. He was 89 years old.

From Solzhenitsyn:
"Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle.”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Brain is a Kluge

I just finished watching the documentary Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus by marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson. As it turns out, less than 50% of Americans believe in evolution. The most vocal opponents come from the Intelligent Design camp, organized chiefly by the Discovery Institute, who basically believe in a modernized form of the old teleological argument for the existence of God (aka, the "argument from design"), only slightly modified by omitting the identity of the "Designer." There is, of course, lots to say about the conflict between these two camps and the cultural--not to mention educational--significance it has had over the last decade or so. Anyone who has ever stood on the authoritative side of a classroom is surely familiar with the perils of discussing evolution and creation, but these perils are not limited to the classroom. Last fall, we even saw this "debate" show itself in the Republican Presidential primaries. (I wrote about Mitt Romney's version of creationism on this blog in a post entitled The Trouble With Fossils.) My general impression is that the educated among us, largely, dismiss Intelligent Design as manifestly unscientific and driven by a religious/cultural/political agenda that is less concerned with truth and accuracy than it is with preserving the integrity of a particular cosmology.

However, lest we jump too quickly to the conclusion that Intelligent Design has cornered the market on "dodos," we may want to consider that some scientific evolutionists secretly adhere to their own version of rather reductive beliefs. In his new book Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind, developmental cognitive neuroscientist Gary Marcus argues against an overly-simplistic form of evolutionary adaptionism, which supposes that any trait of an organism must be doing something useful or else it wouldn't be there. In defiance of both the Intelligent Design lobby and the cheerleaders of evolution, Marcus proposes that the human mind is a "kluge" (a term he borrows from engineering, which refers to "a clumsy or inelegant--yet surprisingly effective--solution to a problem"). If natural selection does, in fact, tend toward the selection of "superlatively well-engineered functional designs" (in the words of John Tooby and Leda Cosmides, founders of evolutionary psychology), then Marcus asks: why are our memories so bad? why is our language so ambiguous and vague? why are our wills so weak? why are we so gullible?

Because, according to Marcus, evolution does not tend toward perfection. The mind's fragility is most convincingly demonstrated by mental illness, which has no "adaptive" purpose. Although we humans certainly have developed higher mental functions, like the capacity to reason, the truth is that the lizard-parts of our brain still dominate. So it seems as if the human mind, far from being a "superlatively well-engineered functional design," is rather more like a McGyver-esque kluge that has enabled us to solve a few problems, but only at the expense of doing a lot of the mind's supposed work (like reasoning, communicating, remembering, and emoting) pretty badly.

What I appreciate about Marcus' argument is that it reveals the extent to which both evolutionists and believers in Intelligent Design share a common teleology. For both, the telos is "perfection." Whether that perfection is defined in terms of adaptive functionality or divine purpose, it still drives a kind of teleological thinking that needs to overlook the imperfections that we cannot explain.

For your amusement, here's a montage from the television series "Friends," in which (archeologist) Ross and (dim-witted blonde) Phoebe "debate" evolution.