Monday, February 27, 2006
A round up of some news from blogs I read.
- Happy Birthday Dissoi Bloggoi!
- Kieran Satiya is assuredly not alone in lamenting the decline of footnotes.
- Uriah concentrates on concentration.
- Mixing Memory has been nominated for a Koufax Award for Best Expert Blog. Tough competition, but Mixing Memory is definitely among the best.
- Rex at Savage Minds higlights a booksale from Univeristy of California Press. Some great titles at decent prices, not just anthropology, but a good selection in that area.
- Brandon looks at could vs. can, or propositional modality vs. predicate modality. This follows I think from discussions started by Richard at Philosophy et cetera.
- Dylan Trigg has been reading Ricoeur. Okay, I'm falling behind here. The first two in the series were great. I will read the others today when I finish posting.
- Gary Sauer-Thompson has been looking at Nietzche's biology, Deleuze' idea of the body in Nietzsche & Philosophy, and related. This is an impressive bit of concentration--but no worries. Today's post on Adorno confirms that his blog really isn't a dissertation, but a philosopher's conversation.
Methodological objectivism, a necessary moment in all reasearch, by the break with primary experience and the construction of objective relations which it accomplishes, demands its own supersession. In order to escape the realism of the structure, which hypostatizes systems of objective relations by converting them into totalities already constituted outside of individual history and group history, it is necessary to pass from the opus operatum to the modus operandi, from statistical regularity or algebraic structure to the principle of the production of this observed order, and to construct a theory of the mode of generation of practices, which is the precondition for establishing an experimental science of the dialectic of the internalization of externality and the internalization of internality, or, more simply, of incorporation and objectification 1
Kathryn Linn Geurts' Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community (University of California Press, 2002) makes an important empirical contribution to our understanding of the senses, and strengthens the case for what she calls "a paradigm of embodiment." The empirical contribution is essentially this: The Anlo-Ewe sensorium encompasses modes of sensation that do not neatly correspond with either Western scientific or folk models of the senses. Geurts lists the following nine components of the Anlo sensorium (pp. 46-47):
- nusese: aural perception or hearing
- agbagbaɖoɖo: a vestibular sense, balancing, equilibrium from the inner ear
- azɔlizɔzɔ or azɔlina: kinesthesia, walking or a movement sense
- nulele: a complex of tactility
- nukpɔkpɔ: visuality or sight
- nuɖɔɖɔ and nuɖɔɖɔkpɔ: terms used to describe the experience of tasting
- nuvevese: olfactory action or smell
- nufofo: orality, vocality and talking
- seselelame: feeling in the body; also synethesia and a specific skin sense
Guerts devotes the most attention to seselelame and slights nusese on the grounds that other scholars have already adequately explored Ewe aurality. Personally I feel that there's much more that could be said about aurality and its relation to agbagbaɖoɖo, and this alone would be a sufficient basis from which to critique received ideas about the senses. In any event, Guerts privileges seselelame, which she refers to as "a local theory of immediate bodily experience" that "culturally elaborates introceptive as well as extroceptive sensory fields" (p. 111). Guerts views this elaboration as essential to the constitution of Anlo personhood, which is in fact one of her primary interests.
Geurts situates her perspective within a paradigm of embodiment. She acknowledges a substantial debt to Pierre Bourdieu, but her reading of Bourdieu is strongly mediated by her reading of Thomas Csordas, as is her reading of Merleau-Ponty. Her approach to the problem of embodiment is roughly similar to that of a handful of other anthropologists working in the same vein. (There is a very interesting parallel with C. Nadia Seremetakis, whom Geurts alludes to but does not explore). Geurts' view of embodiment is thus further mediated by a set of common concerns, including American ethnography's normative cultural relativism, and an approach to symbolic meanings that owes much to Clifford Geertz and Victor Turner--Geurts reads Turner at one point through a secondary source, the philosopher Edward Casey, but I think Turner's influence, and the school of thought that developed around ideas he championed, is more pervasive and enduring than any handful of citations would indicate, and references to anthropologists like Richard Shweder2, to name just one, should be understood in the context of (subdisciplinary, interdisciplinary) elaborations of a previous generation's thinking about culture.
So, the question arises, is Guerts' work truly representative of a new paradigm of scientific inquiry, or is this business of embodiment an instance of old wine in new bottles? In fact it's quite both. In contributes to an incipient paradigm of embodiment at the same time it presents an elaboration of cultural anthropology. But the ambivalence is not nearly so strong, not nearly so confusing, as it might have appeared several decades ago, when Bourdieu's Outline of Theory of Practice was something many people were curious about, but was really just an outline of a theory of practice rather than a working theory or a methodological program.
In some quarters, in certain tones of voice, the phrase "normal science" will be taken as an insult. (In other quarters one hears sighs of relief.) I certainly don't mean it as an insult, and I probably don't mean to be condescending. However I am perturbed by Geurts' heavy reliance on secondary sources, which is partly an artefact of doing normal science, in which case a reader would be well served to allow for some lattitude, and partly, to my way of thinking, a flaw in her presentation of ideas. Summing up Western thought is a very different undertaking than summing up the latest research on proprioception, and while it may be too much to ask for an anthropologist to vigorously engage with Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume and Merleau-Ponty, it is perhaps not too much for a reader to ask that an author provide a reading of one or two of the thinkers she criticizes, if for no other reason, then as a token gesture of seriousness. Additionally, it's unfathomable to me that Geurts, given her theoretical interests, would read Gustav Fechner through a secondary source, and Franz Boas through a tertiary source--well, not unfathomable, but disappointing. Regardless, Culture and the Senses is a serious empirical contribution to the study of the senses, it flushes out an incipient paradigm of embodiment within anthropology, and Geurts is more than capable of turning a few big ideas on their head, so it's definitely worth reading as an exemplary, if imperfect, bit of normal science.
1 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, trans. Richard Nice, Cambridge University Press, 1977, p. 72, emphasis in original.
2 From Shweder's review of Geertz' Available Light:
Turning his attention to the disciplines, our author, pluralist/anti-essentialist/dissolver of dichotomies, invites us to abandon the idea that there is a "unity to science". But he does not stop there. Mr. Geertz is often pigeon-holed as a "humanist." In one of the more eye-opening sections of an already riveting book ("The Strange Entanglement: Charles Taylor and the Natural Sciences"; also "The Legacy of Thomas Kuhn: The Right Text At the Right Time"), he defies all classification by inviting us to swear off the addictive idea that the academy can be divided into "two cultures" (the natural sciences versus the humanities; the positivists vs. the interpretivists). Quoting the philosopher Richard Rorty he asks, "what method is common to paleontology and particle physics?""What relation to reality is shared by topology and entomology?" Such questions Mr. Geertz argues are hardly more useful than asking "is sociology closer to physics than to literary criticism?" or "is political science more hermeneutic than microbiology, chemistry more explanatory than psychology" (page 150).
All this is quite dazzling and refreshing. These are the days when the biologist E.O. Wilson is having widely publicized visions of a state of "consilience" in the disciplines and travels around the country marketing Enlightenment dreams about the unification or convergence of the natural and human sciences under the banner of biology. In astonishing contrast, when Clifford Geertz inspects the sciences and humanities he finds "polycentric collections" of different, semi-independent or incommensurate projects, "loose assemblages" of assumptions, vocabularies and research techniques. There are no tears in his eyes when he announces that unity is nowhere in sight. He is wary of imperial decrees and cautions us to beware of all forms of "destructive integrity" (intellectual and political).
This is what Mr. Geertz has to say about the fields of psychology and the cognitive neurosciences. "Paradigms, wholly new ways of going about things, come along not by the century, but by the decade, sometimes, it almost seems, by the month." "It takes either a preternaturally focused, dogmatical individual, who can shut out any ideas but his or her own, or a mercurial, hopelessly inquisitive one, who can keep dozens of them in play at once, to remain upright amidst this tumble of programs, promises and proclamations." (page 188). Amidst the tumble he gives his blessings to "cultural psychology", which is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry concerned with the role of meaning in producing and explaining psychological differences across human populations (the relevant essays are "Imbalancing Act: Jerome Bruner's Cultural Psychology" and "Culture, Mind, Brain/Brain, Mind, Culture"). While many cultural anthropologists remain stuck in a state of irrational "psycho-phobia", avoiding all research on the mental states of individuals, Clifford Geertz, the Viceroy of cultural analysis, calls for a semiotic study of the emotions. He recognizes that emotions are personal experiences and not merely words, ideologies or symbols. He writes, "however they may be characterized and however one comes to have them, feelings are felt" (page 212), which will be news to some anthropologists.
Sunday, February 26, 2006
Freedom of speech has been all the rage of late. In the case of David Irving, convicted of Holocaust denial by an Austrian court, whether one feels that justice is being served will in large measure depend upon whether one feels threatened by National Socialism. Richard Cohen sees Irving as a harmless idiot who should be free to express his idiotic opinions to any and all. Hans Rauscher, writing for Der Standard, argues (in German) that Holocaust denial is not the mere expression of an opinion, but rather part of a political effort to make National Socialism appear harmless, and thus to rehabilitate it as a legitimate political alternative.
As an American my sympathies tend towards Cohen's view. I recall the words of Thomas Jefferson, "I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it." The original context of the statement, written in a letter to Archibald Stuart, was not a defense of freedom of speech, but of state power vis-a-vis the federal government. The sentence is often included in anthologies of statements about liberty, not unfairly, for it does express a general sentiment about political liberty. Regarding freedom of expression, we see "inconveniences" on either side, and it would be wise to consider which set of inconveniences we would rather live with.
But the limits of expression are not solely defined by such inconveniences. United States jurisprudence has long held that the First Amendment does not provide an absolute protection of all forms of speech. In Virginia v. Black et al, the United States Supreme Court held that "The First Amendment permits Virginia to outlaw cross burnings done with the intent to intimidate because burning a cross is a particularly virulent form of intimidation. Instead of prohibiting all intimidating messages, Virginia may choose to regulate this subset of intimidating messages in light of cross burning's long and pernicious history as a signal of impending violence."
The dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas in Virginia v. Black is particularly illuminating. He agreed with the plurality that Virginia had the right to prohibit cross burnings, but not on the grounds of whether any particular cross burner showed an intent to intimidate, which would involve a consideration of First Amendment liberties, but rather because the act of burning a cross is itself an act of terrorism. "[J]ust as one cannot burn down someone's house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point. In light of my conclusion that the statute here addresses only conduct, there is no need to analyze it under any of our First Amendment tests."
Thomas, known for saying very little during oral arguments, became exasperated during oral presentations in Virginia v. Black, saying, among other things, "We had almost 100 years of lynching and activity in the South by the Knights of Camellia and the Ku Klux Klan, and this was a reign of terror and the cross was a symbol of that reign of terror. Was--ins't that significantly greater than intimidation or a threat?" Thomas' questioning reportedly "electrified the courtroom." From the transcript, it seems that the other justices and lawyers echoed and confirmed Thomas' characterization of what the burning cross has meant in American history.
I don't often find myself agreeing with Justice Thomas, and I don't agree with him entirely--an image of Madonna Ciccone behind bars comes to mind, so I think the plurality was correct to consider criminal intent as separate from the symbolic act--but I do agree that in viewing such matters culture and history must weigh heavily. "In every culture," Thomas writes, "certain things acquire meaning well beyond what outsiders can comprehend." And he explains, "In our culture, cross burning has almost invariably meant lawlessness and understandably instills in its victims well-grounded fear of physical violence." Minimally, I think, one has to understand this as the background against which any act of cross burning in America will be understood.
Applying the reasoning of the Supreme Court in Virginia v. Black to the case of David Irving, imperfect though the comparison may be, it is not all clear that Irving is the victim of an injustice, for his denial of the Holocaust was not simply a matter of having had a wrong opinion, as he claimed at one point, but rather a deliberate attempt to challenge the laws against National Socialism, and promote a National Socialist agenda. Holocaust denial is a key genre among the symbolic expressions of National Socialism, and whatever else may be at stake, it is appropriate for Austrian jurisprudence to consider Austrian history and culture in deciding whether symbolic expressions of National Socialism constitute a danger to society.
In a lighter vein, one hopes, the Chinese government has moved to ban television cartoon shows that mix live action with animation. The ban will likely cover the popular children's show, Teletubbies, known as Xian Xian Bao Bao in Chinese. The motivation behind the new rule appears to be the protection of China's animation industry. (I was surprised to learn that serious complaints have been made about the cultural symbolism of the Teletubbies, but I shouldn't have been. Nowadays everything is a Rorschach.) If the ban is simply a matter of business, then it may perhaps be easily resolved. Then again, it's the sort of conflict we can expect to see with greater and greater frequency as the global communications network continues to expand.
The prospective ban on Xian Xian Bao Bao raises one issue that I think tends to undermine Cohen's argument, or at the least suggest a need to refine the case for unfettered freedom of expression. Cohen's argument relies on a "marketplace of ideas" metaphor, and more especially, a "free market of ideas" metaphor that doesn't fit the reality of how ideas are exchanged in the modern world. In the global information economy all expressions are not equally accessible, and if any correlation exists between an opinion's reasonableness and its ubiquity, it's likely to be inverse. That Holocaust denial is exceedingly rare in among liberal arts faculty, while reassuring, offers no guarantee that it won't become a popular meme or subtext to popular discourses. As it happens, American popular culture is not remarkably accomodating to Holocaust denial, but the reasons for that owe as much to historical events and cultural mythologies as they do to free and fair competition in the marketplace of ideas. To be sure, freedom of expression is an essential aspect of American culture, but a purely idyllic conception of that freedom obscures the sorts of inconveniences we would be wise to attend to, the actual legal meaning of First Amendment protections, as well as implicit assumptions about discourse that may not present themselves primarily as obstacles to free expression, but may reveal persistent systemic inequalities which cannot be consistent with an ideal of personal liberty.
The odiousness of Holocaust denial is universal, but the nature of the threat implied will differ from place to place. And yet in the era of global communications, the boundaries between cultures seem more porous than they have ever been, and questions of cultural integrity become unavoidable. It is very comfortable for an American to say that the solution to troublesome expression is simply more freedom of expression, but in conjunction with the regime of transgenerational "intellectual property" and the global economic dominance of the United States, such as stance carries a whiff of hegemony and class privilige. Unless or until academic work is as widely available as propaganda, advertising, political opinion--or Xian Xian Bao Bao, for the time being--the educated person's decision to ignore the likes of David Irving cannot be regarded as an unambiguous virtue. To fully turn the table on Cohen, by ignoring these ideas, various American intellectuals accord them a certain respect. See, why are they ignoring us? It must be because they are cultural elites.
I wouldn't want to take this line of argument to its extremes. One virtue of education is that it's not easily undone, and there's no inherent reason that the account one gives of one's view should take the form of an apology. The point I will stick to is that when one engages in crosscutural dialogue, it would be most clever to have a sense of how one's own cultural background informs one's point of view, and it would be most gracious to show respect for cultural differences. This may also be the most reasonable path to follow. As I've suggested, if we look at Austrian law in the context of Austrian history and culture, it does not on its face represent a radical divergence from American law regarding freedom of expression. This should lead us ask more probing questions about issues of liberty and equality, to ask rather than assume what sort of confrontation National Socialism represents, and what sorts of confrontations ought to be allowable in a democracy, and by what criteria we should judge the nature of a confrontation.
Whether or not the Austrian prohibition against Holocaust denial represents the best social policy, the case that a grave injustice has been done to David Irving is hard to accept. Any questions we should raise about the scope of liberty in Austria should not obscure the fact that David Irving is the mastermind of his own misfortune.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
The editors of the Washington Post ridicule the idea that racism underpinned Harvard University President Lawrence Summers' notorious criticisms of Cornel West. The episode resulted in Harvard University losing its status as the best place in the country for a young person to pursue Afro-American Studies. For that reason alone Summers deserves to be criticized. We don't know exactly what words were exchanged between Summers and West, but we do know what West has said about the affair, and we know that West and Anthony Appiah packed their bags for Princeton, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. had said he considered doing so as well. I find it hard to believe that such a move would be undertaken lightly, on the basis of a simple misunderstanding, or prejudice against white people, which the Post implies.
Summers and West represent two very different models of the public intellectual. West represents the kind of public intellectual who gets beat up on by media polemicists, without regard, it seems, to whether he's speaking wisdom or folly on any particular matter. Summers represents the kind of public intellectual who gets hugs and kisses from media polemicists, no matter what kind of crazy statements he makes, like "I've always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted." Poor Larry Summers, destined to be misunderstood.
So when I see the Post piling on, saying that the problem with Larry Summers is the problem of "loud and unreasonable minorities," I'm thinking they haven't made the case for unreasonable. And with regard to women, "minorities" needs a bit of explaining. That leaves loud. Apparently, the Post now equates prejudice with raising one's voice. The Washington Post claims to have more than six million online readers, "affluent, educated, and influential" readers at that. On those terms, then, I'd have to agree that prejudice wins.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Nathanael at Rhine River posted some thoughts on poet Heinrich Heine. In following up some links, the poem "Still ist die Nacht" from Die Heimkehr caught my attention. (Schubert fans may know this as Der Doppelgänger.) I don't like any of the several translations I've seen, so I thought I'd offer one of my own.
Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,
In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;
Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,
Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz.
Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe,
Und ringt die Hände, vor Schmerzensgewalt;
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe —
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.
Du Doppelgänger! du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,
das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle,
So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?
The night is still, the avenues are quiet,
This is the house where my dear heart lived.
She left the city long ago,
but the house still stands in the same place.
There's also a person standing there, staring aloft,
Wringing his hands in violent agony;
I'm horrified when I see his face—
The moon is showing me my own figure.
You Doppelgänger! You ghastly fellow!
Why are you aping the pangs of love
That tormented me on this spot
So many a night, in a time gone by.
I'm not fully satisfied with my translation. I sacrificed meter and rhyme, and perhaps my word choice is too pedestrian. The syntagmatic structure of the poem largely survives, but I made some flips and grammatical changes to render it more like ordinary American English. My sense of the poem is that Heine is taking up romantic themes, with echoes of courtly poetry, in rather plain language. I read it as having a bourgeois sensibility, by which I mean the setting, tone, and what I'll call the construction of desire speak to a kind of middle class urban existence. There's also an embeddedness in a literary world that may be described as bourgeois, but I won't be going there.
- "Avenues" for "Gassen." "Alleys" is too surreptitious, "streets" too broad.
- "Dear heart" for "Schatz." There's no literal "heart," but a figurative sweetheart, and a suggestion of something that should be safeguarded or cared for ("Schutz"). For the poem "sweetheart" is too saccharine, "beloved" too sober or stilted perhaps. "Dear Heart" may be more prevalent in some regions of the US than others. It sounds okay to my ear, but not perfect.
- "Aloft" for "in die Höhe." Some translators have used "into space," which is tempting, but deflects from the reading that the person has his gazed fixed upon something in particular. "Upwards" would be a natural choice, but I do think there's a sense of staring off into space as well as directing the gaze up towards the (phantasmal, remembered) beloved, so I went with "aloft" as a compromise. The off-rhyme with Sehe suggests Ehe ("marriage", the "pair" is missing) and, to my ear, eher ("ere").
- "Violent agony"/"figure" for "Schmerzensgewalt"/"Gestalt"--my own poetic sensibility, in lieu of rhyme. "Anguish" might be a good choice as well.
- "Face" for "Antlitz." I might have said "aspect" or perhaps "visage" to mark the difference between Antlitz and the more common Gesicht, but "face" works fine. I just can't bring myself to accept "countenance," but I suppose readers in the Nineteenth Century wouldn't have thought it was so strange.
- Platz/Stelle. Platz is a place like a location, a piece of real estate, not really the perspective of an inhabitant. Stelle is place like a position, a standing or a setting. Idiomatically, either could be a "spot." "Auf der Stelle" means "on the spot," i.e., immediately. To render "auf dieser Stelle" as "in this position" seemed wrong, but it's an aspect I think of what Heine is saying. It is place embodied, lived, felt.
- "Doppelgänger". If I had to avoid the German altogether, I might say "spitting image." Thankfully I don't have to. The idea of a walking double is a key element of the idea here, in my view. And the reference to other works, a folk belief and a cultural tradition.
- "Ghastly" for "bleich." I really think Heine means "ghastly" in the sense that "pale" doesn't signify strongly enough. This is a ghost.
- "Geselle." Speakers of some common varieties of English may choose "mate" instead of "fellow," in which case I might say "You ghastly mate!"
- "Äffen." We don't use "ape" as verb much anymore, but I think it's preferable to "mock" because of the sense of there being a figure, like a person, but not exactly. By reading "Gestalt" as "figure" instead of "shape" or "form," I'm privileging my own reading.
- "Liebesleid." One thinks of "Liebeslied," "love song." Now, if you can switch a diphthong in one place, you can switch it in another--"Leibeslied" ("song of the body") and "Leibesleid"" ("suffering of the body"). "Pangs of love" is hardly ideal. It may be a sentiment like "Why are you mocking my broken heart?," i.e. a bit ironic. But I'm not quite sure.
- "Gone by" for "alter." I wanted to say "another time" which would have been deceptive on my part. The meaning is "in old time," or "in time past." The phrase should parallel "pangs of love," so I'll take "time gone by" for the consonance and the assonance.
In many ways reading and writing seem to be aspects of the same activity. If there is an essential difference, can we understand it in a way that doesn't do violence to the integral connectedness of the two? And what does translation reveal about the connectedness/disjuncture? I'm not adept enough at translation to speak authoratitively on the matter, but from my vantage point, it seems impossible to translate poetry in all of its fullness and resonance without substantially rewriting it. If the tranlatability of langauge is a given--and I don't believe that's an unreasonable premise--then it must be understood as grounded in the power of speech (parole), not language, but not divorced from language, announcing language.
If translation is a kind of address, skopic, enunciatory, a report on the current state of intelligibilities, what then is poetry?
As with all things l'écriture Yak, cum grano salis, yada yada yada.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Ed Love, host of Jazz Destinations (listen here), is on a George Shearing kick. I don't really know Shearing's music, but there are some sweet sounds in tonight's set, including a version of Bill Evans' "Very Early." A nice way to come down off Ravel. That's Steve Nelson on vibes, who last I heard was playing with bassist Dave Holland.
Update. Turned out to be not such a high energy night on the Ed Love show. The best jazz radio host by far is Bob Parlocha (see this list of stations) from Public Radio Fan. But I listen to all kinds of music, especially jazz, but really all kinds of music.
My heart soared watching Kelly Clark throw down her final run in the Olympic halfpipe event, and it crashed when she fell coming down off her final trick, a frontside 900. The stuff of legends? Memorable for sure.
I don't disagree with the judges who awarded medals to Hannah Teter and the others, and I don't think the scoring system is unfair. In fact I like it because it rewards grace and punishes ostentation. But I really like the way snowboarders push themselves to the limits anyway, knowing full well that any minor dust up will be heavily penalized.
So what defines excellence in sports? Watching the snowboarders on the halfpipe, just seeing gifted athletes fall on their butts helped me appreciate how hard it must be to throw down a winning run like Hannah Teter or Shaun White. It helps me see what they're striving for. Then again, the same might be said for Clark's huge airs.
Senator Barack Obama's latest podcast is devoted to the topic of Darfur. (Obama's appearance on the NewsHour with Senator Brownback was covered by Eugene. See also Brownback, Biden Urge President to Act to Stop Genocide.) It seems that the Senators are still all together on this, urging the President to do more. In the previous week Vice President Dick Cheney had said that he was satisfied that the United States is doing everything it can do with regards to Sudan. That position has been politely rejected by leading Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, and, now it would seem, President Bush as well.
For the past year it's been my impression that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice has had more say than Cheney on the conduct of foreign affairs in the Bush Administration, but Rice's failure to obtain emergency funding for the African Union mission last December raised doubts in my mind. However, as with the case of the McCain bill to prohibit torture, evidently some daylight exists between the Vice President and the President. Cheney's opinions on matters of foreign affairs should thus not be taken as definitive statements of U.S. policy. Be that as it may, the Admisitration's position has not been consistently unambiguous. The Administration's ambivalence was vividly on display recently when Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Jendayi Frazer (a member of Rice's team) avoided committing to the position that the genocide in Darfur was ongoing. Eric Reeves characterized this as "mendacity," wishful thinking of the worst sort. Since then, Rice has reiterated the view that genocide is ongoing, and President Bush has reaffirmed the use of the word "genocide."
Eddie's recent misgivings about the use of the term "genocide" prompt me to say a few words about why I describe the situation in Darfur as a genocide, and why I think it's important to describe it that way. My view of the situation's historical development is generally consistent with Alex de Waal's (who has also informed my view, it should be said. See his Counter-Insurgency on the Cheap and Tragedy in Darfur). In deciding whether the terms of Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide apply, I have examined reports by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, various United Nations bodies, Doctors without Borders, USAID, the International Crisis Group, and others. Of these groups, only Physicians for Human Rights, I believe, has uniquivocally stated that the Genocide Convention legally obliges its signatories to intervene to prevent an "unfolding genocide" in Darfur.
Were I sitting in judgement, charged with the duty of punishing the crime of genocide, I would want to give even those accused of the gravest offenses, such as Musa Hilal or Salah Abdala Gosh, the presumption of innocence. Obviously, then, I cannot say with absolute certainty that a genocide has been committed or is in the process of being perpetrated. However, the evidence that has been made public is compelling enough for me to conclude that if the Convention is ever to become an instrument for preventing genocide, as it promises, it must be called upon in the case of Darfur. The situation in Darfur of course differs in many of its particulars from the Holocaust, the 100 days of Mayhem, or other genocides that are, in retrospect surely, easily definable as genocides according to the Convention. Any genocide will be, as an event, historically unique, involving a mixture of motives and social forces that will tend to obscure genocidal intent. Because the nature of the crime is so shocking, it is to be expected that many people will want to believe that subsidiary, secondary, parallel, or closely intertwined motives are in fact essential.
For instance, what motives underly the systematic campaign of rape in Darfur? Amnesty International, in its report on rape in Darfur, clearly sees that "[v]iolence against women is occurring in a context of systematic human rights violations against civilians in Darfur" and that "rape and other forms of sexual violence in Darfur are not just a consequence of the conflict or of the result of the conduct of undisciplined troops." In all likelihood some of the attackers do have well understood criminal motives, but these cannot explain the overall pattern of violence. Nevertheless, Amnesty finds that evidence of an intent to exterminate a group is inconclusive, even though attackers are reported to have frequently used racial insults during attacks, sometimes while expressing a desire to exterminate the racial group to which they assign their victims. Collective punishment and humiliation are surely motives for rape in this case, but only by brushing aside evidence of stated intentions can we reasonably view these as primary motives.
Amnesty, in its report on rape, entertains a similar argument with respect to the looting of livestock. I think it's quite remarkable for them to note that attackers may have pecuniary interests in stealing cattle, while avoiding the conclusion that systematic destruction and theft of livestock is evidence of an intent to deliberately inflict conditions of life calculated to bring about the physical destruction of the targeted group. So clearly the problem of systematic rape is but one of many secondary issues raised by the genocide in Darfur. In all cases it seems that "pure" genocidal intentions are difficult to discern while the genocide is unfolding, as there appear to be no shortage of other reasons to commit mass murder and grand scale atrocities.
If United Nations peacekeepers, led by NATO forces, were to intervene in Darfur, augmenting and eventually taking over peacekeeping operations by the African Union, and if it turned out, in hindsight, that the United States had been incorrect in deeming a genocide to have been occuring, what then would be the real consequences? One might expect that immediately the incidence of war crimes and various crimes against humanity would be greatly reduced, that aid agencies would have more security and freedom of movement, and thus more people who need assistance would recieve it, and that, in time, some semblance of peace and order might return to the region's inhabitants. Against that one can weigh the damage that would be done to the United States' credibility, and secondarily that of its NATO allies, and the repercussions of any potential loss of stature in the international arena. On the other hand, one must consider the consequences of failing to prevent a genocide from unfolding. In the balance, those who take the position that the situation may or may not be a genocide, but surely involves grave crimes against humanity, ought not be overly concerned with the credibility issues that would arise from taking concrete action to prevent genocide, because in either case one may put a stop to grave crimes against humanity, and that would hardly in itself set a bad precedent for the advancement of human rights or international law. And past experience teaches us that if we wait around for every scrap of evidence to come in before acting, we will find ourselves in the position of sometimes being able to punish genocide after the fact, but never being able to prevent it. That position patently does not inure to the credibility of the international system or any of its leading players.
A clumsy analogy. If police officers are called to the scene of a homicidal confrontation, and it turns out in fact to have been merely a case of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, we generally wouldn't fault the person who called the police, or the police officers who responded to the call. Police departments, perhaps especially large metropolitan police departments, are faced with constant challenges to their credibility, effectiveness and legitimacy. Responding to outbreaks of violence is one of the few things most citizens expect the police to be able to do. Failure to respond adequately or quickly to "serious" crimes is one of the frequent complaints citizens have against their police departments. In large measure good community relations depend upon the police meeting the public's basic expectation that police will respond quickly and effectively to outbreaks of violence.
Genocide is the most serious crime on the books, but so far the obligation to prevent genocide has been "in force" without being enforced. This is untenable. Either the community of nations will act to prevent genocides from occuring, or, relinquishing any serious claim to lawfulness, it will cease to exist as a community.
Friday, February 17, 2006
Camille Paglia rips on "the pretentious, verbose trinity of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault." I don't know Paglia well enough to even guess whether she's being ironic. Maybe the reference to her "78- page review essay" is a clue. Anyhow, her target is Foucault, which doesn't interest me so much. I am interested in the charge of verbosity being leveled against Derrida, because in my limited experience Derrida is a remarkably economical thinker.
Clark at Mormon Metaphysics touches on Derrida's way of thinking with regard to metaphor. At a certain level of abstraction, I think can understand what Clark is saying. It's as if Derrida had a model similar to Gödel's incompleteness theorem that he applied to various problems. For sure, Derrida is adept at axiomatic reduction and manipulation, and keen to logical contradictions, and the idea of a supplement does seem to be a constant element of his thinking.
I'd been meaning to respond to Clark's reading of Derrida since he commented on Derrida's interpretation of Husserl's Origins of Geometry, because I didn't think Clark's synopsis of Husserl's argument got it quite right. Sometimes it takes me forever and a day to assemble my thoughts, and meanwhile Clark has whizzed on by in several other posts devoted to Derrida's thinking. And it's difficult to concieve of responding to somebody who uses some but not all of the books that you've read, and some books that you haven't read and maybe won't ever get around to. It's funny that this difficulty should appear in the context of a hypothetical difference of opinion on a topic where I believe we would largely and essentially agree. How much worse could it be?
Jacques Derrida has become an icon, a transcontintental cultural marker. Some of the people who have read Derrida's works also have informed opinions about Camille Paglia, one way or another. Others don't. In cases like this, it is very hard for me to see what is essential about a thinker. Can we imagine that Socrates understood Heraclitus better than the Heracliteans? Of course, but it does raise questions about thinking, essence, logos, nous, etc.. One thing that persistently bugs me--a fault in my own thinking as much as a constant feature of pretentious and verbose discourse--is the feeling that opinions are formed primarily based on identification with a name, and once they are set, if they turn out to be pretty worthless, it's like a root canal trying to get them unset.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Jon at Posthegemony offers some notes from his reading of Difference and Repetition. I have a stack of books by Deleuze from the library (a few of which I've actually looked into), but somehow managed to not yet get hold of Difference and Repetition. If only somebody had told me it contained a chapter on the habitus! And Eros! I blame 24-hour days for my fallen state. And the String Quartet in F Major by Maurice Ravel.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
Katrina van den Heuvel writes on Why We Need an Independent War Profiteering Commission. Meanwhile Alex writes that Dwight was Right about the military industrial complex.
Update: See also Eddie's blog for his discussion of P.W. Singer's Corporate Warriors and issues related to PMC's (private military contractors).
Following up on "existence precedes essence" and such, some gobbledygook by Kyle reminds me of several things I need to set straight. To begin with, I need to actually sit down and read Totality and Infinity cover to cover. At the moment it still seems to me rather like a labyrinth of aphoristic insights. I'd thought I had a handle on the project of the book as presented in the Introduction, which may be no easy reading, but the first chapter has been jarring. And as Levinas' is wont to redefine basic terms left and right, it's like you have to hold the whole world in suspension. Curiously, I've found that I can't do sudoku and read Levinas in the same mental space. If sudoku usually prepare me for thinking, what is Levinas preparing me for?
It was of course naive of me to present "existence precedes essence" as the defining feature of existentialism. It's perhaps not completely wrong, but it's wrong enough to rethink, clarify, and imagine letting go of. Fundamentally, I don't know how I feel about the notion of philosophies as axiomatic systems. How is it that Levinas' challenge to Husserlian intentionality appears to be done from within a phenomenology while another thinker's challenge, Deleuze's for example, appears as outside? To say "existence precedes essence" is something existentialists think about is accurate but vague, and to say "existence precedes essence" is a fundamental axiom of existential ontology is too narrow. And I don't want to say it only applies to Sartre, or that it means exactly what Sartre says it means, because I feel that it was formulated in response to a direction in European philosophy that was being pursued by a wide range of thinkers, and it resonates still far beyond the confines of a Sartrean atheistic existential ontology.
Professor Bob Zunjic of the University of Rhode Island has put together a two part (1, 2) outline exploring the arguments in Sartre's "Existentialism is a Humanism." I thought it was pretty useful for clarifying the arguments, and covering the more commmon criticisms, e.g. "When existentialists say that man is 'existence' do they pose existence as a new essence of man?"
I found Zunjic's pages by googling for Jean Wahl (chasing a footnote in Totality and Infinity), a googling which also turned up this interview with Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, in which she distinguishes her phenomonology of life from a religious philosophy.
Rainova: Here a very interesting question presents itself. You say each discipline creates a different language for itself and yet speak of an interdisciplinary approach. Is your thought, the phenomenology of life, a philosophy for establishing a new religious philosophy using the phenomenological approach?
Tymieniecka: Well, I have to say categorically, no. Because the way in which I understand philosophy tells me that philosophy has to know its own limits. Philosophy, as we know, especially with Husserl, has to be self-legitimizing, that is, its procedure has to be legitimized by the standards of thought itself. Religion, religious life, religious experience, religious phenomenon do not belong to the same rational framework to which philosophy belongs. Philosophy can legitimize itself only within a certain rational framework, which is the rational framework of life. Actually, the phenomenology of life that I have developed is at the same time a critique of reason, a critique of reason in the sense that I am radically counteracting the current and always represented idea that there is one reason, the reason of the human mind. The reason of the human mind is held up as the measure of whatever happens in nature. I say to the contrary that the human mind is only one among an infinite number of rationalities. The whole realm of life through its phases beginning with pre-life, then with organic life, then the zooidal realm each phase and each moment of life advances through rational articulations that belong to the nature of life itself. Life is projecting an enormous network of rational articulations, some limited to events, or to functions, others being processes. These projected rationalities we can liken to the thread spun by a spider along which the spider can then walk. Just so, these rationalities carry life. All of these rationalities of life together with the rationalities fulgurating out of the human mind, which also proceed from life, form a rational field. But the whole point of a religious creed is that it transcends this framework. The question of the divine transgresses the limits of life, it launches beyond, to the radically Other, the radically different. Consequently, if phenomenology, as I envision it, is supposed to encompass the whole field of rationalities relative to life, then religion is beyond it: could not be grasped by philosophy in a way proper to philosophy. However, as I pointed out, philosophy cannot ignore religious experience, just as it cannot ignore any other experience. It is capable of articulating religion's development and illuminating its significance up to a certain point. Beyond that point, where it is a question of transcendence, that is the limit.
Why is it I always get sidetracked on the way to emendation? Hmmph.
Update: Also ungoogled: Ecstacy of Reason, Crisis of Reason: Schelling and Absolute Difference (pdf) by Christopher Groves. Published in pli
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
plurality, natality, supply chain management....
There is no reason that all human existences should be constructed on some one, or some small number of patterns. If a person possesses any tolerable amount of common sense and experience, his own mode of laying out his existence is the best, not because it is the best in itself, but because it is his own mode.
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Chapter 3.
Maternal love for the ordinary life--and not the progress of vitalist technology that can engulf this love or, on the contrary, the backward-looking rejection of this progress on the part of conservative religions that are vociferously probirth--is in a position to guarantee our human condition as beings concerned with the meaning of being there. From this perspective, and taking into accounts threats faced by this life (a life that some people venture to reproduce through technology in "total freedom" and that others mandate through religion and thus grant no freedom), we could predict that life, as Arendt understood the term, is either a feminine life or nothing at all. Of course, psychic bisexuality, which psychoanalysis sees in everyone, allows us to posit that a man could assume femininity of that sort, or even experience maternity defined as a tension present in the love between zōē and bios. And this situation will endure until technology has eliminated the threat of death--but will that ever be possible?
Julia Kristeva, Hannah Arendt, trans. Ross Guberman, Columbia University Press, 2001, p. 48.
Monday, February 13, 2006
Televangelist Pat Robertson recentlty offered a nauseatingly stupid reading of Sartrean existentialism. There's little to be gained by ridicule in this case, and Robertson's way of misreading Sartre is hardly singular, but this particular deployment of his raises an issue that may cast some light on what Sartre means in saying "I am condemned to be free." (For Sartre's quick and dirty defense of his philosophy against his critics, see Existentialism is a Humanism; for a deeper study of existential freedom according to Sartre, see Being and Nothingness, esp. Part 4, Chapter 1.)
Existentialism is what it is by virtue of the claim that "existence precedes essence." In "Existentialism is a Humanism" Sartre claims the idea on behalf of athiestic existentialism. It is surely an idea strongly identified with Sartre, and it implies that certain ideas about the divine ought to be excluded from existential analysis. However, while it's worth examining the differences between the givens of existence according to Sartre and, for instance, the givens of existence according to Gabriel Marcel, the leading Christian existentialist of Sartre's time (who in fact coined the term "existentialism"), it is not clear from the outset that "existence precedes essence" belongs exclusively to athiesm, so I will provisionally stick by the statement that the claim defines existentialism as such, as a secular philosophy, regardless of whether the bent of any particular existential philosopher is atheistic, theistic, agnostic or otherwise.
In Being and Nothingness (trans. Barnes,pp. 439-440) Sartre explains what the claim means:
To say that the for-itself has to be what it is, to say that it is what it is not while not being what it is, to say that in it existence precedes and conditions essence or inversely according to Hegel, that for it "Wesen ist was gewesen ist"--all this is to say one and the same thing: to be aware that man is free. Indeed by the sole fact that I am conscious of the causes which inspire my action, these causes are already transcendent objects for my consciousness; they are outside. In vain shall I seek to catch hold of them; I escape them by my very existence. I am condemned to exist forever beyond my essence, beyond the causes and motives of my act. I am condemed to be free. This means that no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free. To the extent that the for-itself wishes to hide its own nothingness from itself and to incorporate the in-itself as its true mode of being, it is trying also to hide its freedom from itself.
Hopeless, according to the Sartrean view, is believing that a priori values offer a way of escaping one's freedom. Neither is there any hope of escaping responsibility for the consequences of one's choices. Realizing this, according to Sartre, is the source of existential anguish. However, to say that one has no hope of escaping one's freedom, of existing beyond existence, is hardly equivalent to saying that existence itself is hopeless, or that life isn't lived towards its future. Likewise, to say that the meaning of life is not given, but rather must be enacted is hardly equivalent to saying that (a) life has no meaning.
The anguish which, when this possibility [of modifying one's choice of oneself] is revealed, manifests our freedom to our consciousness is witness of this perpetual modifiability of our initial project. In anguish we do not simply apprehend the fact that the possibles which we project are perpetually eaten away by our freedom-to-come; in addition we apprehend our choice--i.e., ourselves--as unjustifiable. This means that we apprehend our choice as not deriving from any prior reality but rather as being about to serve as foundation for the ensemble of significations which constitute reality. Unjustifiability is not only the subjective recognition of the absolute contingency of our being but also that of the interiorization and recovery of this contingency on our own account.
(Being and Nothingness, p. 464)
This brings us around to the question of parenthood raised by Robertson. We can give life, but cannot give meaning to the life we give. We cannot justify it, live it, or make it be other than free. In the Sartrean view, parenting itself is not something that is done because it is human nature. Parenting is rather a choice, or more concretely, something we judge by a series of actions that demonstrate a sustained, living commitment to being a parent. It can never be justified a priori, but must be perpetually enacted.
Robertson would not be the only moralist to hold that allowing for the absolute freedom of human existence opens wide the door to nihilism, absurdism and turpitude. This kind of misreading of Sartre requires that we largely ignore the discussion of conditions of possibility for action, or anything that is said about responsibility. The claim that there are "no limits for freedom" does not mean that there are no limits for judgement, that we have no basis for deciding that one course of action is better than another.
I don't mean to suggest that there aren't serious moral problems with Sartre's existentialism--Karol Wojtyla may be the most famous scholar to tackle the moral implications of Sartre's philosophy from the vantage point of an explicitly Christian phenomenology; I couldn't say whether Woytyla's rejection of the denial of God also entails a rejection of existential freedom at some level, but there can be little doubt that Wojtyla's early thinking was informed by Christian existential phenomology (see Phenomenology in Poland), and so I have some doubts as to whether he or others in that circle would have made the profound moral error that Robertson's view entails, namely this: treating one's children as instruments of one's own moral achievement.
Needless to say I don't regard Robertson's Christian eugenic community as a worthy goal. However, even if we were to imagine that some innocuous goal were aimed at, say love of granola, or a more realistic goal like excellence in sports, it would still be reprehenisble to treat the life of one's child as a means to that end.
Every parent deserving of being called a parent wants their children to do well, and to do well by their children. But desire alone is not enough to constitute good parenting. One has to make a commitment and see it through over many years. In modern liberal democracies the scope of personal liberty is broad. Consequently it is often difficult to know whether one is doing well by one's children in striking a balance between discipline and letting be. Rather than tackle these everyday parenting dilemmas from a Christian point of view, Robertson's call to procreate for God and Race invites them to be swept under the rug of an arbitary naturalness. (I'm trying to imagine an ideographic representation of "double arbitrary naturalness.") It may be comforting to his followers, but it comes with a high moral cost.
As I'm composing my thoughts on this topic, Richard Wolin's essay Heiddeger Made Kosher is causing some unrest among the Heideggerians. Several thoughts occur to me. (a) I will definitely need to revisit the homo mensura, as I'd meaning to do in response to Appiah, and also Kristeva's Strangers to Ourselves which makes for a good companion volume. (b) I am struck by the intersection of popular and esoteric discourses, which is not so surprising in the matter of Sartre, perhaps, but more surprising in view of Heidegger and Levinas. It seems that if the Heideggerians truly wish to forget about the Heidegger question, they will have to take their case to the masses. (c) The "Year of Sartre" may provide a backdrop for Robertson's outburst. (d) The notion of a cryptotheological phenomenology, ethics or perhaps a broader late Twentieth Century turn in contintental philosophy. (See also Bettina Bergo's The Return of the Religious, or Reading Ethics Using Religious Categories: Kierkegaard, Levinas, and Recent French Thought). I will expand on this point.
I make no declaration of faith, and have nothing to say for or against belief in God, or any other divine entity. My receptivity to thinkers like Wojtyla (whose theology is anything but cryptic) may be regarded as suspect insofar as I make no claim to be following a spiritual path. It is on a par with my receptivity to, oh, Roy Wagner's Anthropology of the Subject. I don't pick up such a volume intending to "go anthropologist," and I don't foresee adopting the sort of worldview that would help me adapt to a life in the New Guinea highlands. But it speaks to me nonetheless.
Yet there is a sense in which theologically minded or avowedly religious secular philosophers may have a "crypto-" quality to them. Two senses, actually, because critical engagements with Eastern European Twentieth Century thinkers must consider whether totalitarian suppressions of religion have played a hand in the shaping of the discourse. So if somebody argues that Jan Patočka, for instance, engages in a kind of cryptotheology, all proclaimed heresies to the contrary, then we have circumstantial grounds to at least consider the claim, and what might "really" be at stake. (Derrirda's treatment of Patočka's Heretical Essays will be widely known, as far as such things can be widely known. For another perspective, touching directly on the issue of existential freedom, meaning, nihilism and Christianity, see The Heretical Conception of European Heritage in the Late Essays of Jan Patočka (pdf) by Ivan Chvatík.)
The other sense in which the theological has a crypto- quality relates to the cultural history of the West, in which France looms large, particularly on the field of ideas. I'm not prepared to make the case that secular institutions of higher learning in the West have cultivated a strong systematic bias against theistic sentiment, but if one were to entertain the notion, and imagine the various causes behind the marginalization of religious viewpoints in academia, one of them would surely be the ascendancy of the natural sciences, and the adoption of naturalistic explanatory paradigms in the humanities, or the "human sciences," to use Dilthey's phrase. This situation sets up a bit of paradox in the cultural status afforded to Sartre, for the academy has valued existentialism precisely as a humanism, as an alternative to a naturalistic worldview, in particular structuralism. And yet the philosophical challenge posed by Sartrean existentialism, by virtue of its explicit atheism, avoids addressing antipathies towards human freedom that would be concealed in the mode of an antipathy towards the supernatural. (Well one can try, but this is the point at which our friend the naturalist would turn up her nose.) The typical atheist, I think I can say, won't recognize this kind of limitation as a limitation, as a strategy of containment. Theists, on the other hand, may be expected to be more sensitive to prejudices against their worldview. This recognition of constraint, without any preconcieved motive of bringing religious belief into debate, may nonetheless color and motivate a style of thinking that can be roughly described as cryptotheological. (To be fairly described as cryptotheological another step would be required, an intentional movement towards the theological. However, the mere appearance of a cryptotheology or a latent cryptotheology suffices to earn our attention by calling into question terms of discourse.)
In this manner, then, in the realm of cultural critique, there may be some warrant for regarding Levinas as cryptotheological. He is assuredly not cryptotheological in the sense of subrogating theology in place of secular philosophy. Regarding the radicalness of his critique of phenomenology, it is probably wise to take him at his word and see it as the product of his thinking, a thinking assiduously applied to the moral problems exposed by the events of his day. Levinas does not make the claim, as Wojtyla does, that the problem of subjectivism in Sartre's philosophy is the problem of atheism, or that the relation to the Other is impervious to secular inquiry. Nevertheless, the meaning of Levinas is not exhausted by Levinas. Cryptotheological appropriations of Levinas, which no doubt exist, may be serving a critical function, perhaps even if only at a deeply emotional level. (I don't mean to suggest that a view of Levinas' ethics as transgressive couldn't be completely rational or supported by close textual reading, just that emotional responses have critical value.) Whether any particular appropriation amounts to a serious engagement with Western thought or a simple case of smuggling cannot be determined in advance. In any case, religious sentiment being what it is--i.e. sublime, strongly felt, holistic-- what I am calling cryptotheological interpetations call for a heightened sensitivity to the difference between judgement and prejudice.
Well, that's a lot of bytes just to say there's more than one way of skinning a cat. I want to clearly establish the premise that my dispute with Pat Robertson is not based upon a canonical interpretation of Sartre, but rather my reading of Sartre. Not Sartre the Father, but Uncle Sartre. To a certain degree, I can imagine the kind of anomie that informs Robertson's view, an anomie he probably feels that he's addressing the best way he can. But it isn't good enough. I mean, it's really bad. Being a sloppy reader may be easily forgiven. Being a sloppy moralist, not so much.
Monday, February 06, 2006
I have long been partial to the homo mensura of Protagoras (DK 80b1), commonly rendered as "Man is the Measure of all things," or, more fully, "Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not." (To translate "anthropos" I generally prefer "human being.") Socrates' critique of the homo mensura in Theaetetus (Jowett translation) doesn't make complete sense to me. I couldn't say whether it's a fair reading of Protagoras' Aletheia, or intends to be. I do think Socrates effectively takes apart the proposition that the only thing that counts as knowledge is what one person sensibly percieves.
So why not say water bugs are the measure of all things? "We are prisoners of the perceptions of our size," according to Stephen Jay Gould, "and rarely recognize how different the world must appear to small animals. Since our relative surface area is so small at our large size, we are ruled by gravitational forces acting upon our weight. But gravity is negligible to very small animals with high surface to volume ratios; they live in a world dominated by surface forces and judge the pleasures and dangers of their surroundings in ways foreign to our experience." But I digress.
I've had Gould's Mismeasure of Man on the brain since reading Jonathan Kozol's Still Separate, Still Unequal: America's Educational Apartheid (ht Caleb). A common thread is the question of whether we can or should measure human intelligence, how, and to what purpose.
Of all the criticisms that have been directed at Gould's Mismeasure of Man, I am struck by the frequent objection that Gould's treatment of craniometry is rhetorically underhanded because (a) craniometry is patently foolish, and (b) it belongs to a distant past. This is a strange objection because the view that the past may inform the present is not particular to historians, paleontologists and the like. Introductory curricula in the natural and social sciences generally include such historical material, which may be a tacit acknowledgement at least of the principle that we can learn from past mistakes. I'd like to believe that students take away from such lessons something besides a belief that people used to be ignorant, whereas now they are wise. For surely there was a time when craniometry was not patently foolish, or its foolishness was not widely evident to practicing scientists. Maybe the historical viewpoint put forward by Gould carries implications about the nature of empirical science that his critics find displeasing, and it is these implications rather than the reminder of an embarrassing history that troubles them. Do we learn from our mistakes? In what way? How do we measure our progress?
Socrates, nearing the completion of his midwifery in Theaetetus, seems to suggest that there is yet some truth in the homo mensura, provided we don't make the mistake of reducing knowledge to pure sensory aisthesis.
The simple sensations which reach the soul through the body are given at birth to men and animals by nature, but their reflections on the being and use of them are slowly and hardly gained, if they are ever gained, by education and long experience.
Is Socrates saying that the noetic is constituted in praxis? Not nous itself, I wouldn't think, but perhaps its faculty of discernment? Even so, there is the additional emphasis on education, which may make all the difference. The homo mensura as encountered in the dialogue presents a problem for pedagogy. If the teacher's knowledge is no more privileged than the student's, then what exactly does the teacher teach? The Pythagoran pedagogy may be thought of as therapeutic (see Timothy Chappell's entry for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Plato on Knowledge in the Theaetetus). Does any sense of education as therapeutic survive the peritrope? If we were to begin to rehabilitate the homo mensura by an equation of knowledge with the experiential (or pragmatic), broadly concieved, are we still not left with the proposition that wisdom is the better measure of things than ignorance? What would our belief then entail?
In the United States, a pupil can advance through the ranks to recieve a terminal degree without ever having been asked to read Theaetetus or any of Plato's other works. Many people who score 800 on the analytic section of the GRE have no knowledge of philosophy, and little interest in learning philosophy. (Apparently the test has changed a great deal over the years, but the point still stands, I think.) If philosophy isn't considered particularly beneficial to students seeking to advance through the ranks, what sort of knowledge is?
I would think that an understanding of compound interest would be the most uncontroversially beneficial thing an American pupil could learn, but the evidence suggests otherwise. How exactly can we explain the professoriate's satisfaction with the rates of return of their TIAA-CREF funds? How can we begin to fathom the average amount of consumer debt carried by the American citizen? Or the burgeoning popularity of interest-only mortgages? If our educational system does manage to inculcate or nurture the growth of wisdom in a few of its young charges, it may best be understood as epiphenomenal, a byproduct of the mass production of shark fodder.
Looking at the glass half full, I am still at a loss as to how one would measure the teaching or learning of the Theaetetus. Undoubtedly those who teach Theaetetus do measure the progress of their students, often by means of explicit criteria. But it's difficult to imagine that we could or should want to completely eliminate the role played by subjective evaluation in the process of measuring a student's progress. Should we measure the progess of the students of Mitzi Lee, for example, by the same standard we use to measure the progess of the students of Jonathan Beere or the students of Robert Cavalier? Could such an objective standard, if one could be agreed upon, possibly not do damage to the integrity of the learning process?
Reading is so profoundly unlike mathematics, and so obviously so, that I am continually amazed by attempts to measure progress in both subject areas by the same devices. Multiplication is something that is learned once (and taught again and again, but I digress). No matter how many times I return to it, two times two still equals four. Reading Theaetetus is nothing like that. Every time I come back to it, I wonder whether Heraclitus wasn't on to something, and yet I still can't think of consigning Parmenides' ontology to the trash heap of bad ideas. I skim here, dwell there, tarry, dawdle, reason, paraphrase, remember, analyze, play.
Perhaps it might be deemed a blessing that Theaetetus isn't taught in schools that deny children recess. That would be a bitter pill to swallow, even with a glass half full. Too bitter for me.
Friday, February 03, 2006
Warren Platts has started a great discussion of materialism vs. vitalism in Aristotle's biology.
A not-so-cranky anonymous poster at Chris's blog has pointed to the work of Liana Gabora, who teaches in the Psychology and Computer Science department at the University of British Columbia, and is also an adjunct professor with the Leo Apostel Center at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Gabora gives the following account of her work:
My work focuses on the origins and underlying mechanisms of creativity, and implications for the evolution of culture. At the crux of the issue of how creative thought is possible, and of how ideas adapt to new situations, build on one another, and evolve, lies the problem of understanding the flexible way we use concepts. Thus my interests in creativity and cultural evolution have led to work on the development of a contextual theory of concepts. Finally, the process of comparing and contrasting the evolution of biological and cultural form has led to some fledgling efforts toward a general theory of evolution.
Gabora's ideas on worldview and cultural evolution strike me as sophisticated and reasonable. Although I cannot sign on to the view that evolution offers the best paradigm for explaining historical transformations in culture, Gabora's take on Evolutionary Psychology is imaginative and careful enough to merit the attention of all but the most diehard critics of that school of thought. At any rate, Gabora's work touches on some of the ideas I've been kicking around lately, so I'd like to take notice of a few of her papers.
In Ideas are Not Replicators but Minds Are, Gabora takes on the idea of memes. At issue is how to analogize from our knowledge of biological evolutionary processes to our view of the development of concepts. The possibility that we may be dealing here with three incommensurate views of evolution is not lost on Gabara, I think, so it is only fair to entertain the counterargument that these may yet be unified under a single paradigm. Here is the abstract:
An idea is not a replicator because it does not consist of coded self-assembly instructions. It may retain structure as it passes from one individual to another, but does not replicate it. The cultural replicator is not an idea but an associatively-structured network of them that together form an internal model of the world, or worldview. A worldview is a primitive, uncoded replicator, like the autocatalytic sets of polymers widely believed to be the earliest form of life. Primitive replicators generate self-similar structure, but because the process happens in a piecemeal manner, through bottom-up interactions rather than a top-down code, they replicate with low fidelity, and acquired characteristics are inherited. Just as polymers catalyze reactions that generate other polymers, the retrieval of an item from memory can in turn trigger other items, thus cross-linking memories, ideas, and concepts into an integrated conceptual structure. Worldviews evolve idea by idea, largely through social exchange. An idea participates in the evolution of culture by revealing certain aspects of the worldview that generated it, thereby affecting the worldviews of those exposed to it. If an idea influences seemingly unrelated fields this does not mean that separate cultural lineages are contaminating one another, because it is worldviews, not ideas, that are the basic unit of cultural evolution.
Gabora takes up the question of abiogenesis in Self-Other Organization: Why Early Life did not Evolve through Natural Selection. Again, I am not convinced that the two views of evolution under consideration belong together under the rubric "evolutionary theory," but Gabora does note the important distinctions. and there may be something to her idea of "lineage transformation through context-driven actualization of potential." The abstract:
The improbability of a spontaneously generated self-assembling molecule has suggested that life began with a set of simpler, collectively replicating elements, such as an enclosed autocatalytic set of polymers (or protocell). Since replication occurs without a self-assembly code, acquired characteristics are inherited. Moreover, there is no strict distinction between alive and dead; one can only infer that a protocell was alive if it replicates. These features of early life render natural selection inapplicable to the description of its change-of-state because they defy its underlying assumptions. Moreover, natural selection describes only randomly generated novelty; it cannot describe the emergence of form at the interface between organism and environment. Self-organization is also inadequate because it is restricted to interactions amongst parts; it too cannot account for context-driven change. A modified version of selection theory or self-organization would not work because the description of change-of-state through interaction with an incompletely specified context has a completely different mathematical structure, i.e. entails a non-Kolmogorovian probability model. It is proposed that the evolution of early life is appropriately described as lineage transformation through context-driven actualization of potential (CAP), with self-organized change-of-state being a special case of no contextual influence, and competitive exclusion of less fit individuals through a selection-like process possibly (but not necessarily) playing a secondary role. It is argued that natural selection played an important role in evolution only after genetically mediated replication was established.
Gabora's Amplifying Phenomenal Information: Toward a Fundamental Theory of Consciousness resonates with some of Mariela Szirko's ideas, and also, I think, the idea of affordances which I've been meaning to revisit with reference to Jordan Zlatev's work. Anyhow, here is the abstract to Amplifying Phenomenal Information:
Fundamental approaches bypass the problem of getting consciousness from non-conscious components by positing that consciousness is a universal primitive. For example, the double aspect theory of information holds that information has a phenomenal aspect. How then do you get from phenomenal information to human consciousness? This paper proposes that an entity is conscious to the extent it amplifies information, first by trapping and integrating it through closure, and second by maintaining dynamics at the edge of chaos through simultaneous processes of divergence and convergence. The origin of life through autocatalytic closure, and the origin of an interconnected worldview through conceptual closure, induced phase transitions in the degree to which information, and thus consciousness, is locally amplified. Divergence and convergence of cognitive information may involve phenomena observed in light e.g. focusing, interference, and resonance. By making information flow inward-biased, closure shields us from external consciousness; thus the paucity of consciousness may be an illusion.
When I included in Under the Sun a link to the Social Science Research Council's online forum Is Race Real?, it occurred to me that it would not do the job I wanted it do, namely, pass the question of "race" over to experts in the scientific study of human biological diversity. Now that blogger Dan Jones has taken issue with my post, I feel compelled to reiterate the distinction between Richard Lewontin's political beliefs on the one hand, and the scientific consensus that has built up around the question of "race" on the other. To that end, I now cite the American Anthropological Association's Statement on "Race", their Statement on "Race" and Intelligence, and the American Association of Physical Anthropologists' Statement on the Biological Aspects of Race. I stand by my claim that the consensus opinion among scientists is that race is "not a useful scientific concept. It doesn't describe observable human genetic variation with adequate precision, and it typically introduces more problems than it solves."
As an aside, I repeat my view that the conventional wisdom among scientists is open to revision. It is not my intention to represent the scientific consensus as monolithic, dogmatic or otherwise etched in stone. My criticism is with the way Pinker and Leroi have gone about attacking the conventional wisdom. Strawman arguments and appeals to common sense racism do not cut it in my book.
One of Mr. Jones' more curious objections, indeed it may the substantive thrust of his post, is that reasonable people ought to "be able to discuss the science of race sensibly, without racist connotations." There is in fact no "science of race" among the modern sciences, but rather sciences of genomics, human population genetics, physical anthropology, and so on. However, if one wishes to buck the conventional wisdom by holding on to the claim that races exist and ought to be studied scientifically, then one is a racist by definition, a "scientific racist" to be precise. If you take that position, and the connotations of the word "racist" bother you, then you might take that as an indication that there's a problem with your choice of words. I certainly don't have the power to change connotative meanings, or to redefine "racism" to not mean "racism," and I don't have any solutions for those who want to be racists without being "racists." It's just not my cup of tea.
Thursday, February 02, 2006
One. The NewsHour carried a report on mine safety tonight. One of the coal miners who was interviewed, Joe Reynolds, said:
You should be able to put a man in a coal mine every day and bring him out again. There's no reason for men to die on the job.
It's this coal mine mentality from years ago that it's like going into combat, and so many miners will die, that's an acceptable loss. That's been ingrained in people for decades here; a mindset like that is totally ignorant.
Reynold's rejection of the mindset internalized among members of his community has profound implications for the way we understand culture, freedom and justice. Is it legitimate to regard mining fatalaties as an acceptable loss, as a cost of doing business? The question never truly arises until, in a moment of crisis perhaps, the possibility of refusal is made explicit. The rejection of the premise is not like ordinary logic. An entire symbolic universe is at stake, a world of heroes and tragedies, grit, struggle, family, life.
Two. I have to take issue with Annie Proulx when she says that sentimentality didn't creep in to Ang Lee's adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, but it's a rather restrained sentimentality, even by Lee's standards, so I won't press the point. Before seeing the film, Proulx "feared the landscape on which the story rests would be lost," and was delighted to find that it wasn't. I agree with Proulx that the film is huge and powerful, and one element of that is the landscape, which is never merely scenic. The dramatic tension of the story builds around a conflict between Ennis's internalization of an extreme homophobia typical of rural communities in the mountain West, and the possibility of freedom that his lover Jack represents. The landscape, principally Brokeback Mountain, where this conflict plays out, has a mediating function, or a double-sided symbolism, representing exile and ecstacy, freedom and constraints, desires and traumas.
If Brokeback Mountain were just any movie about the freedom to love and the tragic consequences of homophobia, it might be worthwhile, another important move to represent gay love in cinema outside the prism of camp, but it would not be huge and powerful. It is made huge by the wholeness of the characters, and in particular, by the thoroughness of Ennis's internalization of the forces of social domination. It is not just homophobia, but also class and regional identity that serve to keep Ennis in his place. Ennis is not allowed the comfort of taking his worldview for granted. He is made aware that his mindset could be otherwise, that he could change his cowboy ways, lead a less miserable life. But he also recognizes that the violence of his world is no mere fantasy, that the need for shelter is real. The prospect of trying to adapt to a more urban cosmopolitan lifestyle may or may not be realistic, but it simply does not appeal to him. Whether Ennis's attachment to his world is foolish or wise, it's understandable. It's a world he knows how to live in, tragic consequences and all.
Lee's visual language powerfully represents the predicament of living in a world dominated by brutal repression, driven by the hope of liberation. Neither interiors nor exteriors are complete unto themselves, and even in standing still, there is a trajectory. (Leaning is a constant figurative motif in Brokeback Mountain, and the picnic scene, which may go down as a classic in American cinema, can be seen as its explosive climax--though hardly the end of it.) Brokeback Mountain is a huge and powerful film, a not too sentimental gay cowboy movie, and a smart critique of symbolic violence.