Friday, March 31, 2006

High and Low

Over at Snarkmarket, there's a comment thread on the origin of the phrase "blood and treasure" that I spent way too much time on. You have to scroll all the way through to see it all.

And lest you think I spend the entire day with my head up the crevices of the 17th century, check out this unbelievably awesome commercial I saw this morning, watching Fargo on Bravo, of all things.

If you need further enticement, just know that the phrase "APPETITE FOR URINE" is featured prominently. Along with "SCIENTIFIC BLACKLIGHT."

Monday, March 27, 2006

Oh, Sigmund

For all the times I've gotten all brainy and booky in this blog, it's probably not super-clear what my positions are vis-a-vis some of the big intellectual thinkers and movements of our time. Now, for most people, this probably isn't very important, but in the academy, and especially in literary studies, most people expect you to have a pretty well-staked intellectual position. In addition to giving you a critical modus operandi, it also relates you to other people's work, whether living or dead. Sometimes this comes with a full-fledged label and a whole intellectual and/or political program, but for most of us, it boils down to something like the answer you'd give if you were in a rock band and someone asked you who your influences were.

Most of my influences, for one reason or another, speak German. I really like Nietzsche, and have since my freshman year of college. I also am a big fan of Walter Benjamin, whom I would probably give as my answer if you ever asked me to name my favorite literary critic. (Marjorie Perloff is my favorite living poetry critic, in case you were wondering.) Other favorite Germans include Max Weber (my most quoted sociologist), Martin Heidegger (next to Heisenberg, the world's smartest Nazi), Immanuel Kant (reads a little drier, but that's only because he's smarter than you), G.W.F. Hegel (mostly for his arguments against immediacy and the ideal of his commitment to criticism, leavened with a healthy dose of pragmatism), and Georg Simmel (another eccentric philosopher/sociologist who wrote the wonderful "The Metropolis and Mental Life", along with The Philosophy of Money).

But another German-speaker whom I like a whole lot, and who's taken almost as much of a drubbing as Heidegger, is Sigmund Freud. Now Freud is one of those guys who, despite the occasional dip into pedantry, quotes really well -- only his quotes often don't reflect very well on him. As propositions, some of his positions don't look like they hold up; and considering him either as a doctor or as a scientist, neither do some of his ethical judgments.

But when you read Freud's books -- especially The Interpretation of Dreams, along with Beyond the Pleasure Principle or Civilization and its Discontents -- you get a sense of the enormous weight and power of this man's thought, the struggle that brings it forth, and the simultaneous depth and freedom of the intellect behind it all. When you consider this paradox, only Nietzsche is really comparable to Freud. And despite all of the criticisms you could make of him, I think that Freud is basically right: that conscious prohibitions often lead to unconscious behavior -- here the German is (un)bewusst, which really means (un) aware -- manifesting themselves in symptoms, which in turn have meaning.

There a couple of pretty good articles on Freud that have popped up recently, which prompted this whole line of thinking. The first, by Jerry Adler -- not, presumably, the actor from "The Sopranos" and "Mad About You" -- is from Newsweek, which I'd stopped reading in high school, but I picked up at the gym today when I saw SF on the cover. It has a terrific first paragraph:

We stand now at a critical moment in the history of our civilization, which is usually the case: beset by enemies who irrationally embrace their own destruction along with ours, our fate in the hands of leaders who make a virtue of avoiding reflection, our culture hijacked by charlatans who aren't nearly as depraved as they pretend in their best-selling memoirs. As we turn from the author sniveling on Oprah's couch, our gaze is caught by a familiar figure in the shadows, sardonic and grave, his brow furrowed in weariness. So, he seems to be saying, you would like this to be easy. You want to stick your head in a machine, to swallow a pill, to confess on television and be cured before the last commercial. But you don't even know what your disease is.
The other, by Jenny Diski for the London Review of Books, is written in an equally jaunty style but has an even more mixed assessment. It's mostly a review of a new biography of Freud's wife Martha, who by all accounts was a pretty tame and well-adjusted (if in an eerie, excessively submissive way) hausfrau. There are some nice moments here, too:
Imagine if Freudian analysis had gone quite another way and the master had studied the normality he apparently had so close to home instead of its deformation. What was it that Emmeline (whose bossiness and self-absorption Freud hated) and Berman Bernays did so right? How could he not have been in a rage to know? But what intellectual innovator would want to give up interesting for ordinary, especially when ordinary, if left to its own devices and sublimation of desires, arranged such a comfortable life for him?
The two come together, however, in this section of Adler's article, on Freud's technique of word association:

You can see this clearly in his 1901 book "Psychopathology of Everyday Life." Here, Freud discusses an encounter with a young man who cannot recall the Latin word "aliquis" ("someone") in a passage from Virgil. To Freud, such moments are never without significance, and the very obscurity of the slip gave it added interest. Freud wouldn't waste couch time on a slip that was obvious to the person who uttered it. He employs his trademark technique of "free association" ("tell me the first thing that comes into your mind ... ") to uncover a link to "liquid," then to "blood," and through several other steps to the revelation that the young man was worried that a woman with whom he had been intimate had missed her period. What a tour de force for psychoanalysis!

Does it detract from our appreciation of his genius that the freelance historian Peter Swales has shown that there most probably was no such young man, that the memory lapse was probably committed by Freud himself and that the woman he was worried about was Minna Bernays, the sister of Freud's own wife?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

In Profile

I think this is one of my better recent photographs. (Taken this afternoon by the lovely Sylvia.)

Friday, March 24, 2006

Another Reading Assignment

To keep running with the demographics/gender/unintended consequences thread, here's another oldie but goodie (even though sadly, it makes very few references to the Mongol war machine). It's Caitlin Flanagan's seminal (in my opinion) article from the March 2004 "Nanny Wars": "How Serfdom Saved the Women's Movement."

Compared to this, all of Flanagan's writing at The New Yorker has been (however capable) a terrible disappointment. From this article, I really thought she was going to be a conservative lady Gladwell, like David Brooks crossed with Barbara Ehrenreich. And who knows? Given enough time, she just might.

(Update: interested parties e-mail me for a PDF of the Flanagan article.)

Barbarians at the Gate

Over at Snarkmarket they've got a post on changing demographics in the 21st century, referencing a Foreign Policy article on "The Return of Patriarchy" I shot to LPS a while back, prompted by a New York Times Op-Ed on gender imbalances in college applications that had been flagged earlier. So, like cities last year, demographics and population seem to be the thing everyone in our little virtual salon is thinking about at the moment.

But wait! They're totally related! Here's my original comment on Robin's Snarkmarket post:

That Foreign Policy article on patriarchy reminds me of an even more awesome article by Ian Frazier that appeared last year in The New Yorker, about Genghis Khan.

The gist of both of them seems to be this: cities and advanced civilizations, with their culture, commerce, safety, and pluralism are wonderful things. But sooner or later, the barbarians will come to the gate, and with their axes, horses, draft animals, will either burn your cities to the ground or force you to open your gates, and two centuries from now, all of your children will look like them and speak their language.

When I was in high school, I had a formula for this (it was actually about European languages): "Sooner or later, everyone gets fucked by a Viking."

To modernize it a bit, "the creative class" inevitably gets outdone by "the procreative class": new urbanites are no match for the procreative power of exurban conservatives or the immigrant and indigent urban populations they seem to be displacing.

To some degree, this is really Joel Kotkin's argument against Richard Florida in a nutshell. Kotkin wants cities to stop trying flashy gimmicks to draw in the childless older, gay, and young professional populations, and invest in infrastructure, schools, and the other things that will keep and attract families. We've also been down this road with the cities-schools thread that bounced back and forth on Short Schrift and Snarkmarket last year.

Now I've argued with Kotkin before, and I still think this demographic sword cuts both ways. An aging and childless population, however wealthy, is a terrifying prospect for nations, because it requires huge expenditures in health care, pensions, etc., without a corresponding increase in revenues. For cities and local governments, though, it's a different story, because their revenues and expenditures are balanced in almost entirely the opposite direction. Having a population of the old, gay, and childless is guaranteed property tax revenue without a corresponding expenditure on schools, transit (to some extent), etc.

So we have a demographic contradiction -- cities have strong incentives to get rid of kids, while nations have strong incentives to encourage children and childrearing. (School districts are different -- they want school-age children, or more to the point, they want the money associated with children. But the governments of cities and counties don't, at least, not really.)

Maybe this is an aspect we need to bring to the forefront in our discussions of cities and communities, as it's already been brought to the forefront in most discussions of health care. The policies we make now really have to address the question of what kind of population we want to have, the unintended consequences of well-intended changes, and the unimaginable: how to correct the mistakes of the present without repeating the sins of the past.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

This, Apparently, Is What People on the West Coast Think Philadelphia Is Like

Via Philebrity and YouTube, a commercial for Jack-in-the-Box's new "Philly" cheese steak.

Meanwhile, according to Elle Decor -- which has a slightly different sensibility -- Philadelphia is "a kind of Madrid on the Delaware River." (Liz Spikol/Philadelphia Weekly/Philadelphia Will Do.)

Talk about the two Philadelphias.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

That's a Lot of Escarole

Over at Snarkmarket, they're talking about various ways you could peg consumption to the cost of oil. But this wire story I read today gave me another idea for a mind-boggling metric: the federal debt ceiling.

The U.S. Senate just voted to raise it to nearly $9 trillion. ($8,965,000,000,000 to be exact.) Richard Cowan, the author of the Reuters article, notes that even the senators themselves can't quite wrap their head around that many zeroes, let alone most citizens.

John Nolan, a mathematics professor at American University in Washington, said that a trillion is "not a big number at all" for some theoretical problems. "But in terms of practical numbers it's just overwhelming."

So he conjured up a spending spree, something Americans might be able to relate to. "If you spent a million dollars a day for a million days (2,739 years)," you'd hit $1 trillion, Nolan observed.

To spend $1 trillion in the average American life span of 77 years, you'd have to be on a lifetime spending spree of about $35,580,857 and change every day from birth.

So here's my idea: instead of indexing something relative to its cost of a barrel of oil (which is only going to go lower and probably become less meaningful as the price of oil goes up), let's take the cost of the item, multiply it by a million, and figure out how many years you'd have to buy a million of that item every day to reach the debt ceiling.

60 GB Video iPod ($399 + tax) @ one million iPods per day: 57.53 years
Leather Armchair ($2090 + tax) @ one million chairs per day: 10.98 years
Two Bedroom Condo in NYC (Upper West Side) ($1.2 million) @ one thousand units per day (let's not be greedy!) : 20.49 years
One year's graduate tuition at Princeton University ($32,450) @ one million students per year: 276.27 years
One million barrels of oil per day ($60.75/barrel): 404.30 years
Twenty million barrels of oil per day (about the rate of U.S. oil consumption): 20.22 years

This is where oil consumption/prices and the national debt show themselves to be mutually terrifying. The only consulation is that we will just might run out of money before we run out of oil. If we're lucky.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


It's been a long break, but well worth it to recharge the batteries. Thanks to the dozen or so readers of this blog for putting up with the wait.

Actually, I hadn't planned on starting it up again today. I had said that I would write again when I had something I wanted to publish in this space. Since I haven't (yet) seen it anywhere else, I thought that this certainly qualified.

In case you're wondering what I just linked to, I'll give you the teaser of teasers:

After a few seconds, the ground stopped moving, and after they had recovered from their shock, Ayalew and his colleagues realized they had just witnessed history. For the first time ever, human beings were able to witness the first stages in the birth of an ocean.
(From Spiegel Online.)