Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Was It Not Real?

Shelby Foote died today in Memphis. I heard the news today on NPR, and resisted the temptation to rewatch all of Ken Burns' The Civil War today on DVD, but just barely. If you haven't seen it, I strongly suggest it -- and those who have seen it know that Foote consistently steals the show. He was 88 years old, so it's hard to see his death as anything but inevitable, but when I read sentences like these:

Foote was born Nov. 7, 1916, in Greenville, Miss., a small Delta town with a literary bent. Walker Percy was a boyhood and lifelong friend, and Foote, as a young man, served as a "jackleg reporter" for the crusading editor Hodding Carter on The Delta Star. As a young man, Foote got to know William Faulkner.
I can't help but think that another of our last and best links to the past is gone forever.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

File Under: "That's Some Crazy Shit"

Get this: On July 4, NASA's Deep Impact shuttle (no joke) is going to try to blow up a comet. Here's the WSJ article. And here's the AP story, which contains two highly dubious claims:

1.) "The Deep Impact spacecraft shares the same name as a 1998 Hollywood disaster movie about a comet headed straight for Earth. NASA says that the names for the space mission and blockbuster movie were arrived at independently around the same time and by pure coincidence."

2.) "Scientists say Deep Impact has real science value that will hopefully answer basic questions about the solar system's birth."

Come on. I know NASA's been dying to see if they can blow stuff up in space. At least, y'know, since Star Wars (the movie, not the missile program), and especially since '98, when they made two movies about astronauts and scientists saving life as we know it. And the July 4th thing? That's pure gravy. Let's just hope that we don't wind up seeing a movie about this in the future, and when watching the preview, hear a low, whispery voice from mission control say: "Something went wrong."

Fostering Mother

Today's NYT has a bittersweet op-ed all about the city of Detroit. I think Paul Clemens, the author, is right: he doesn't phrase it this way, but our collective grief over the state of our city has finally gone through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression to acceptance. Only a god (that is, universal health care and a government bail-out of the pensions) can save Ford and GM now.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Sing, O Muse

This week's Times Literary Supplement includes a new poem by Sappho, greatest of the Greek lyric poets, and more than 2500 years young. Here's hoping those X-rayed rolls papyri turns up more gems (I heard there's some choice Sophocles fragments in there). And maybe TLS will get with it and let people permanently access this stuff, including the original Greek. Philistines.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Whose Brain Is That?

A couple of neat links: first, "In Our Time," a program on BBC's Radio 4, is having a contest to determine history's greatest philosopher. They've got it down to a shortlist of 20 -- apparently, some douchebags determined that Karl Popper beats Locke, Rousseau, and Hegel -- but the real treat is listening to the brief audio commentaries on each philosopher, where some learned British voice tells you why, say, Thomas Aquinas should be the greatest philosopher of all time. Cool stuff.

The second link, from The Guardian UK, features a diagnostic test you can take online, developed by Simon Baron-Cohen (no, not Sasha Baron-Cohen), which he's used to support his theory of brain differences among males and females. It also apparently can help diagnose high-functioning autism or Asperger syndrome.

The test comes in two parts: the first tests your brain's capacity for empathy, the second your capacity for systematization. Baron-Cohen's thesis (supported thus far by his research data) suggests that women on average tend to be empathizers, while men tend to be systematizers. What goes wrong in Asperger syndrome is an extreme and crippling tendency towards systematization and away from empathy -- in this context, a hypertrophy of typically male traits.

Both tests are questionnaires, with the standard "strongly agree," "slightly disagree," choices. I noticed that the empathy quotient test seemed, at least to me, fairly gender-neutral -- it's mostly about how you respond in social situations, with a few questions about animals and long-term friendships, etc. The systemizing quotient test, on the other hand, had more than a few questions that seemed pretty gendered -- whether you read lots of articles about science and technology, what kinds of research you would do before buying a computer, camera, or stereo, whether you can make sense of a map, and so on -- typical boy stuff. It would be interesting to see, should someone could come up with a new questionnaire, whether they could replicate Baron-Cohen's results.

As for myself, either I'm too self-conscious about these sorts of questions, or I'm some kind of systematically empathizing freak -- I scored a 62 out of 80 on the empathy quotient (average for a women is 47, men 42), and a 67 out of 80 on the systematizing quotient (the average for men is 30, women 24). On the last one, I probably lost points because I said I preferred reading fiction to nonfiction. What are you going to do?

Sunday, June 19, 2005

File Under: Unfinished Projects

So my dissertation is all about the role/status of things in modernist art and literature. I've got an essay on mimesis, junk culture, and the outmoded in James Joyce, one on the problem of artifice in Gertrude Stein and Marcel Duchamp, another on theories of the Renaissance and anti-occidentalism in Ezra Pound and Charles Olson, the problem of over-accumulation and value permutation (or the gift, the collector, and trash) in Melville, Borges, and Citizen Kane (as read through Derrida), another on a similar problem in Vittorio de Sica's films Bicycle Thief, Umberto D, and La Ciociara, a piece on slapstick comedy and the blurred line between the organic and the inorganic in Marcel Proust's A la recherche de la temps perdu (with notes on Bergson, Heidegger, William Carlos Williams and Buster Keaton), and maybe some others. It's a mix of theory (both old and new) and what I hope are some original readings of some key texts. I have a review to write by the end of the summer of two recent books by Bill Brown from the University of Chicago, Things and A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature, that will also stand in as a kind of survey of the field: "thing theory," as Brown coined it in 2001, has become an interesting and fairly vital offshoot of the whole lit-theory enterprise within the past few years. What I hope to do (both in the review and the dissertation) is to crystallize what's already been done and open the door for something fresh and new.

But every once in a while, I get the urge to leave things behind and write about something else entirely. These are two projects I've been kicking around for a while now (the first quite a bit longer than the second) which might make for good ideas for courses or book-length projects once I've had my fill with thing theory. Also, since I've been reading a lot of ancient Greek literature this summer, I've been thinking about each of them quite a bit.

Read the first here: Punishment and Drama.

And the second here: The Literary History of Paternity.

And please, tell me what you think. I hardly ever get comments on this blog, at least by regular readers, and here more than anywhere I need feedback, some ideas about where to go next. You know, once I finish this first thing.

Unfinished Project #2: The Literary History of Paternity

My second unfinished project is less fleshed out than the first, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately. It's also fitting, since today is Fathers' Day.

It's a history of the idea of paternity, again starting with the Greeks and running through the modern period. One of the arguments that comes up in the Orestia (advanced by Apollo on Orestes's behalf) is that the murder of one's mother (as in the case of Orestes) is a lesser crime than the murder of the father (Oedipus) since the father is, strictly speaking, the only parent. How'd the Greeks come up with this? The answer is found in the etymology of the word "semen." The Greeks thought, on analogy with agriculture, that the prenatal child was entirely present in the man's "seed" (the active element), while the woman acted only as a host or soil in which the seed germinated (the passive element).

Okay, not hard to do a feminist critique of that position -- left as an exercise to the reader. But it's interesting, at least to me, that you get the opposite point of view expressed in James Joyce's Ulysses. Joyce (who obviously knew his Greek) has his character Stephen Dedalus state the case that paternity is really just a legal fiction: the woman "fathers" the child when she states the child's paternity and (in the absence of DNA testing) that has to be taken at its word. It's Dedalus's fun with fatherhood that allows him to cast himself as both Hamlet and Telemachus, the vengeful son in search of his spiritual father (Leopold Bloom).

The problem with both positions, of course, is physical resemblance -- I've argued before that we can't entirely take Joyce seriously when Dedalus tries to escape the fact of his own fatherhood. (When he looks in a mirror, his friend Buck Mulligan remarks that "he is the ghost of his own father.")

So how do we mediate between the physical/organic fact of paternity on the one hand, and the social reality of paternity (in the "legal fiction" sense) on the other? In what sense does paternity embody the political, and in what sense -- as when Antigone remarks that she can have no more brothers, since her father and mother are dead -- does it entail the resistance to the political as such?

Part of my thinking on this subject is motivated by Derrida's reading of Hegel in Glas. Derrida notes as an aside Hegel's recognition, late in his life, of an illegitimate child. Hegel -- whose philosophy in large part concerns the problem of the relation between brute facticity on the one hand and abstract categories on the other, the problem of recognition, and the mediation of the family by the social -- remarked to his son (I'm paraphrasing): "Before, I was always the inessential element -- now I am the essential one." The thought that Hegel's entire philosophy (and perhaps not only Hegel's) is motivated by the problem of paternity is enticing enough to warrant its own treatment.

In general, I would say that I'm interested in what Adorno would call "negative dialectics" -- the portion of experience or reality that is discarded from the discursive formulations of that reality. Like with things -- which we usually only encounter only as physical objects, fungible commodities, or usable tools, never as things themselves, and rightly so, since we lack the language and the practice with which to do so -- I want to try to think the unthinkable, or at least the margins of the thinkable, through the concrete. Is that really so hard?

Unfinished Projects #1: Punishment and Drama

The first is a course (and possibly a book) about punishment and drama, from Greek tragedy to contemporary film. Sometimes we can overlook how central the problem of guilt and punishment is to tragedy. (I blame Aristotle -- that smarty-pants was only interested in the typology of heroes and the epistemology of tragic irony.) The dynamic impetus behind most Greek tragedy is punishment that is either undone or has gone too far.
Aeschylus's Oresteia is precisely about this problem: Agememnon kills his daughter, his wife Clytemnestra kills him, their son Orestes kills Clytemnestra, then the Furies come after Orestes, who appeals to Apollo and Athena, who have a trial that acquits him of blame for his mother's murder. Part of the problem here is the incompatibility of different kinds of revenge and different conceptions of justice: the furies have to set aside their primal, tribal anger for the communal justice of the Areopagus, the court established by Athena.
This same issue animates Sophocles's Antigone, which takes the opposite tack of the Orestia: Antigone, standing in for the Furies, asserts that there are some laws (the laws of familial obligation and proper respect for the dead) that transcend the civic authority represented by Creon. Creon takes his right to punish as too absolute, and punishes Polynices, Antigone, and Haemon excessively: Antigone in this sense stands in for the radical resistance to tyranny. A woman in love with death.
The problem established by Greek tragedy -- and hence western literature, right from the beginning -- seems to be the problem of tyranny on the one hand and chaos on the other: this is why King Lear is the most genuinely tragic of Shakespeare's plays and Hamlet the most sophisticated (since Hamlet deals with the problem of guilt and punishment in the absence of either chaos or tyranny).
So I would begin there and close with two of my favorite films: Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Rashomon, like Oedipus Rex, has been read too much in the light of its epistemological implications and not enough politically, in terms of a critique of the possibility of punishment. In Rashomon, various witnesses give their accounts of a murder. They all agree on a certain set of facts: a bandit attacked a couple in the road, tied up the husband, and raped the wife. Afterwards, after a struggle, the husband was killed. However, all of the witnesses differ greatly in their account, and all of them claim responsibility for the death of the husband. The bandit claims that he killed the husband honorably in hand-to-hand-combat. The wife claims that the bandit fled, and that she killed her husband out of shame at his gaze following the rape. The dead husband (speaking through a medium) claims to have killed himself out of shame at his wife's betrayal. Each tells a story that implicates himself or herself, exonerates the others, but allows them to save face, social shame being apparently less preferable to official guilt. Each of the stories also follows certain cliches of Japanese literature (and movie-making) involving nobility in undignified circumstances.
Finally a woodcutter recants his initial story of having come along only after the murder and claims to have witnessed it: all of the principals were lying, he says; both men were cowards, and only the woman's laughter caused them to fight one another at all. But his story is also suspect, since he probably stole some valuables from the dead man's body.
"Rashomon" refers to the large gate at which the woodcutter relates his story: it's a symbol for the multiple frames through which the story is told, but also (again) for the tenuous boundary between civilization and the bitter reality of nature (especially human nature). The rain batters the gate and the men are barely able to keep dry. Rashomon does indeed fuck with our notions of truth, but it's really truth in a certain context, namely the truth necessary to punish, to blame or absolve or otherwise allay guilt.
But what's the nature of the cliche, the formula? Is it a persona that we adopt in the face of power, a rite of absolution? I haven't figured that out yet. Rashomon and Unforgiven both explode conventions of genre and character and destabilize the law, and those two seem to be connected somehow.
In some ways, Unforgiven is closer to the spirit of Greek tragedy, albeit with an overlay of the cliches of the Western and the rhetoric of original sin. A nameless cowboy cuts up a prostitute, and is in turn released by the local sheriff, Little Bill Daggett (played by Gene Hackman), after the cowboy agrees to pay the whore's pimp as compensation for her injuries. The other whores gather together (like Antigone, it's always women who stand for the unwritten law against the tyranny of men) and put a bounty on the two cowboys' lives. This attracts two old outlaws out of retirement, William Munny (played by Clint Eastwood) and Ned Roundtree (played by Morgan Freeman), led by an upstart calling himself The Scofield Kid. At stake is whether Munny can overcome his lawless ways or whether he really is (as he used to be) evil to the bone -- the movie never entirely answers the question.
The outlaws eventually manage to kill both cowboys, but Little Bill captures and accidentally kills Ned, who had no stomach for or part in the killings. Like Creon, he refuses to bury Ned's body, putting a sign on his coffin declaring "this is what happens to assassins around here." Little Bill is less outwardly vicious than pragmatic, yet with a skill and capacity for violence that seems to make his funny, appealing pragmatism a self-delusion, a la Rashomon (or Creon in Antigone). Little Bill and William Munny, along with English Bob (a self-styled "noble" mankiller played by Richard Harris) are more alike than they are different, linked through their similar capacity for outrageous violence. "I've always been lucky when it comes to killin' folks," Munny says, after he guns down Little Bill and all of his deputies in retribution for Ned's death. We're tempted to see these men as something different from the rest of us -- murderers, dangerous men. But the rest of us are simply cowards -- the message of Unforgiven seems to be that anyone is capable of great violence at any time, that we are all in some way guilty.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Foucault and Islam

Via Arts & Letters Daily: "What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?", a newspaper article written by French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault at the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1978, and a Boston Globe article on Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, a new book by Kevin Anderson and Janet Afary on -- you guessed it -- Foucault and the Iranian Revolution.

Actually, Anderson and Afary's book has a subtitle: Gender and the Seductions of Islamism, although you'd never know it from reading Wesley Yang's article in the Globe -- he doesn't mention gender at all. I don't know Foucault's writings on Iran terribly well, apart from the write-up in Mark Lilla's The Reckless Mind -- which I described at the time as "a turd of a book" -- so I don't know exactly what the gender angle is all about.

Still, though, Yang seems to have an axe to grind in his pretty brutal criticism of Foucault's position on the Iranian revolution, which sometimes distorts his readings of M.F. He often quotes Foucault out of context. For example, he writes:

Early on, Foucault assured his readers that "by ‘Islamic government' nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control," and that "there will not be a Khomeini government." A month after the Iranian electorate overwhelmingly voted to designate Iran an Islamic republic under Khomeini, the repression of women, political dissenters, and non-Muslim minorities that would characterize the regime was unleashed.
There's a strange attribution of double liability here, as though Foucault if responsible both for being wrong about "Islamic government" and for his support of it, or rather even for the consequences he did not support but rather denounced. Also, when you read Foucault's article on the Iranian revolution, it's clear that when he uses the phrase "Islamic government," he's referring to the explicitly "utopian" (i.e., unrealistic but profoundly moving) democratic and spiritual fantasies ("songe," or "dream") of the Iranian people. Here's the quote in full (from "What Are the Iranians Dreaming About?":
"What do you want?" It is with this single question in mind that I walked the streets of Tehran and Qom in the days immediately following the disturbances. I was careful not to ask professional politicians this question. I chose instead to hold sometimes-lengthy conversations with religious leaders, students, intellectuals interested in the problems of Islam, and also with former guerilla fighters who had abandoned the armed struggle in 1976 and had decided to work in a totally different fashion, inside the traditional society.

"What do you want?" During my entire stay in Iran, I did not hear even once the word "revolution," but four out of five times, someone would answer, "An Islamic government." This was not a surprise. Ayatollah Khomeini had already given this as his pithy response to journalists and the response remained at that point.

What precisely does this mean in a country like Iran, which has a large Muslim majority but is neither Arab nor Sunni and which is therefore less susceptible than some to Pan-Islamism or Pan-Arabism?...

One thing must be clear. By "Islamic government," nobody in Iran means a political regime in which the clerics would have a role of supervision or control. To me, the phrase "Islamic government" seemed to point to two orders of things.

"A utopia," some told me without any pejorative implication. "An ideal," most of them said to me. At any rate, it is something very old and also very far into the future, a notion of coming back to what Islam was at the time of the Prophet, but also of advancing toward a luminous and distant point where it would be possible to renew fidelity rather than maintain obedience. In pursuit of this ideal, the distrust of legalism seemed to me to be essential, along with a faith in the creativity of Islam.

Again, at least from this rather limited sample of writing, Foucault doesn't seem to be smitten with a "reckless enthusiasm" for the revolution or radical Islam. Rather he seems to be on the one hand quite skeptical of the revolution, especially of the possibility (which Yang blames him for) that the government could fall into familiar oppressive and totalitarian forms, and on the other, intrigued and fascinated by the idea that a new yet somehow wholly anti-modern political movement could be emerging in the revolution -- i.e., that the Iranian revolution could be the equivalent French or Russian revolutions now, in our times, but a revolution that is somehow against modernity itself.Yang quotes Foucault again: "Any Western intellectual with some integrity," he wrote, "cannot be indifferent to what she or he hears about Iran." I wonder if we fail, as Foucault, despite his lack of hindsight into the subsequent history, to give what happened in Iran in 1978 and 1979 enough credit -- a sudden, unexpected flare at the beginning of the end of the cold war, it may well be the signal event of our times, albeit a signal whose full meaning is not yet known, one which is, like Nietzsche said of the death of God, still on the way.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Repression of the Serious

Via Arts & Letters Daily: "Bring on the Mud" by Christopher Hitchens. Here Hitch examines the American voters' joint claims that the two political parties are too similar and that partisan politics is too divisive, finding them less contradictory than somewhat lacking and confused.

"There are large and important topics that the electoral “process” is almost designed to muffle or muzzle," Hitchens writes, citing the war on drugs, the death penalty, and the pledge of allegiance as three examples. But Hitchens doesn't plumb why these three issues have turned into sacred cows, other than to suggest a gap between politicians and the electorate.

I might identify these three as one of our many topics of national confusion. On each issue, there's a section of the populace that's bitterly pro, a section that's bitterly contra, and a muddled, muffled mass in the middle. Most of us know there are problems with the death penalty and the war on drugs but don't really know, understand, or would be willing to support an alternative, just as most of us know that there are constitutional problems with (and a touch of totalitarian creepiness in) the pledge of allegiance yet remain oddly attatched to it, or at least some of the devotions of patriotism.

What's more, we don't trust -- at least as our politicians -- those with dreadful clarity on these issues. I'd wager that to the majority of Americans, even those who support the use of the death penalty, George W. Bush and his ilk appear to like handing it out just a little too much. At the same time, a national candidate who ran on the abolition of the death penalty would likely meet resistance from those same moderates who want to preserve it as an option in the most extreme instances. Only a thin slice of the electorate would be happy with total abolition. The only other route to go is reform -- which virtually everyone would support in principle, but which is difficult to spell out in any detail. It's not immediately clear to me how one could legislate reform of the death penalty at the national level at all -- maybe some kind of federal oversight body or something.

So we don't want our candidates to be too certain, but we don't want them to be uncertain, either. We want them to be leaders: which apparently means that we want them to be something like ourselves, only better-looking, better-connected, and more resolute (whatever that means). A clarification of and avatar for ourselves, with all our flaws either absent or in firm denial. No wonder a politician's supporters always simultaneously idealize and personalize him, as Hitchens notes: going any deeper into their tics, foibles, and shortcomings might require some serious self-examination as well -- and that's not the kind of drama our political theater is playing.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Putting Your Foot In It

Via Yahoo News: USA Today reports a story on the Bush's administration's editing of reports on climate change. The poster child is a lawyer (and former oil lobbyist) who presumably made the strongest edits, or had the most nefarious biography.

This stuff may be old news (it's originally based on reporting for an article in the Times) but I got a perverse kick out of one of the sentences. At first I thought it was USA Today's spin, but it turns out the Times uses close to the same language. Here it is: Some of the changes were as subtle as adding the words "significant and fundamental" before the word "uncertainties," the Times reported.

Subtle? There's nothing subtle about that change. "Significant and fundamental" signals exactly that: that it is significant and fundamental. As the rest of the Times article points out, that's what this game is all about -- introducing uncertainty where there isn't any and making whatever uncertainty does exist seem more widespread and of a greater magnitude and importance than it really has.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Hot Electric Robot Love

Hey hey, folks -- typing's still impaired, but I'm doing better. Stitches should be pulled Wednesday.

I wanted to shoot a link over while it's still piping hot. Peter Huber and Mark Mills, who dropped the excellent "Why the U.S. Needs Nuclear Power" article in March (about which I blogged here), have cranked out another sizzling, engineering-porn-meets-new-tech-policy state-of-the-union, this time on electricity in automobiles. It's titled "The End of the M.E.?" and it appears in this month's Mechanical Engineering magazine. (And no, I haven't taken to reading engineering mags -- I found it via A&L daily.)

If I were writing with Huber and Mills, I would have titled the paper "The End of the M.E. Century," and indeed, the authors close with a brief historical prospectus of mechanical engineering and its twined fate with the combustion engine. The age ahead of us belongs to the electrical engineer, and not just because we shoot zeros and ones across continents; no, it's because they're making new, super-efficient electric motors the size of coffee cans.

I seriously dig the way that Huber and Mills write. Peep this paragraph:

At kilowatt and megawatt power levels, lasers don't move bits, they move material. They fuse powdered metals into finished parts, without any machining, cutting, or joining. They supply ultra-fine heating, soldering, drilling, cutting, and materials processing, with fantastic improvements in speed, precision, and efficiency. They create thermal pulses that can blast metals and other materials off a source and deposit them on a target to create entire new classes of material coatings. They move ink in printers—not just desktop devices, but also the mammoth machines used to produce newspapers. They solder optoelectronic chips without destroying the silicon real estate around them, and they supply unequaled precision in the bulk processing of workaday materials—heat treating, welding, polymer bonding, sintering, soldering, epoxy curing, and the hardening, abrading, and milling of surfaces.
At a certain level, I don't think it would really matter to me whether anything these guys told me were really happening -- it just all sounds so cool. It lulls, it trances, and then it pops.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Post hiatus

Hey folks,

I'm sadly going to have to shut Short Schrift's doors for a few days or so -- not the longest hiatus in its history, surely, but sad as it comes on the heels of a good run of semi-frequent posts and a flurry of ideas I want to get down before they turn stale.

You see, on Wednesday night, I did a silly thing: namely, I managed to plunge one of my beautiful hand-forged Wusthof kitchen knives about an inch into my hand between my thumb and forefinger. Three stitches and some tissue damage later, it's kind of a pain to type. Or do anything, for that matter.

So, I'll be getting the stitches pulled next week and with luck, I'll have full dexterity not long after. Then I can go back to the from-the-hip style I like the best, rather than the painfully slow one-hand stylings I'm sporting now. I'll catch up with you then with more thoughts on cities, anonymity, EPIC 2015, and maybe even some ruminations on being (for a little while) a one-handed man.