Tuesday, December 21, 2010


The Borders in my town has been in the process of closing for a few weeks now. I first heard about it when I came back to California for Thanksgiving break; at that point, the store had a 30% off sale on everything in store and up to 50% or so on bargain materials. When I went back today to pick up some holiday gifts, the sale had turned into a 40% off on everything to 60% for bargain stuff. They're replacing it with a new medical building.

I'm a big fan of print culture. I really love bookstores and libraries. They've always felt like a source of comfort for me. I can't really imagine using an e-reader because I'm so attached to the tactile sensation of pages, especially worn pages, beneath my fingers. I get finicky about the contrast, size, and typeface of the print on pages. I like certain publishers more than others because of that. Et cetera.

Which is why it was so weird to go into this bookstore in its death throes. People swarmed. Shelves were empty. The area around the Children's section, which included the Biography section and the Philosophy section, was corded off with police tape. All of the sorting was haphazard; the sections weren't well labeled and the staff clearly hadn't bothered to alphabetize everything when they moved it. There were signs taped onto some of the columns in the store, printed on brightly-colored paper, with things like "A mind is a terrible thing to waste!!" on them throughout. Most of the shelves themselves had yellow index-cards at the top indicating that they had been sold to one person or another; others had signs with prices on them, several of which had been Sharpied-out once or twice and reduced. Sections once-familiar were jammed with books that I remembered from other parts of the store.

The experience was profoundly unsettling. I felt like a vulture at times, picking off the scraps of the place at its end, exploiting the sale prices and joining the mass in hastening the store's demise. There was a profound sense in me that something there had been lost, that an order with which I was familiar had been discarded in the end times, that things I remembered and memories that I had did not apply to the building in which I was standing. Something was off. I wasn't sure what. But, the emptiness was palpable; cold and staid.

It's probably cliché by now to bemoan the death of the local bookstore. Other people have done it with prettier prose. And I'm conflicted about how much that outweighs the ability of people to have greater access to cheaper books now than before. But there will for me always be a sadness in watching bookstores, even corporate ones, die one by one. There's something about physical places that gives them a soul of their own. Memories are built in them, they become like old friends. Friendships, romances, periods of life alight and dissipate. Especially for bookstores, they are places of communal thought and learning. Their presence says something profound about the values a culture and society holds and the things we as people love, with all of our hearts and souls.

What do we lose, irreparably and forever, when a place dies?

I picked something up for me on the way to the cash register. The store's last copy of Paradise Lost.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Riding the Crest

From Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chapter 8:

Strange memories on this nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era — the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time — and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.
My central memory of that time seems to hang on one or five or maybe forty nights — or very early mornings — when I left the Fillmore half-crazy and, instead of going home, aimed the big 650 Lightning across the Bay Bridge at a hundred miles an hour wearing L. L. Bean shorts and a Butte sheepherder's jacket . . . booming through the Treasure Island tunnel at the lights of Oakland and Berkeley and Richmond, not quite sure which turn-off to take when I got to the other end (always stalling at the toll-gate, too twisted to find neutral while I fumbled for change) . . . but being absolutely certain that no matter which way I went I would come to a place where people were just as high and wild as I was: No doubt at all about that. . . .
There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .
And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting — on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday

I was having a conversation on Facebook earlier (see subject header). No, not about a marriage about to take place, but rather this little concept called "covenant marriage". From said link:
In some parts of the United States, a covenant marriage is a legally distinct kind of marriage, in which the marrying couple agree to obtain pre-marital counseling and accept more limited grounds for divorce. The covenant marriage laws emphasize the belief that marriage is more than just a mere contract between two individuals, contending that without marriage, there would be no foundation of family in society and, in turn, no civilization or progress to follow.

There are obvious giant problems with the part that begins "without marriage, there...", but I won't get into that now because it's (a) not a very interesting line of argument, (b) will take too long to detail all of the issues, and (c) will just kind of make me angry. Rather, I want to focus on something that was said in the midst of the discussion (from Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked)
it makes marriage a THING (or, should I say, a unique signifier). Right now, marriage is not particularly different from long term cohabitation, which carries its own barriers to exit (leases, etc). If we want it to be a separate category, especially for people like you and me, who can't have sacramental marriages, it needs to be differentiated legally and linguistically to forge a cultural distinction
The question I find interesting, and that I think is significant for Leah, myself, and for atheists generally is why exactly this is what we want, given that we don't buy into the rhetoric of a transcendental religious meaning. Given that, I don't exactly know what should make marriage a "unique signifier". Marriage sans God, as far as I see it, does make marriage look a lot like a long-term co-habitation with a lot of pretty legal things (which are important, yes, but not in the roughly metaphysical sense we're talking about). The way we conceptualize marriage is what's different, and I think that conception is unhealthy -- it posits that there's a fundamental change in essence in a relationship when a wedding vow is made, a bright-line distinction. I've never been married (shocker!) but it doesn't seem to me that, in the minds of the people going through the vows, that the love signified by the wedding ceremony and to a broader extent the marriage is different in kind after the "I do"s than it was before. Different in degree certainly, but it doesn't seem like the love looks different.

So then, for the atheist, there's a choice in how we attack the marriage question: do what Leah says, and try to see covenant marriages as a way to split out all of the nasty cultural expectations that go along with marriage, or use the word marriage to change the character of what's signified. Here, a brief starting point is useful:
3. Despite the general displacement of the classical, "philosophical," Western, etc., concept of writing, it appears necessary, provisionally and strategically, to conserve the old name. This implies an entire logic of paleonymy which I do not wish to elaborate here. Very schematically: an opposition of metaphysical concepts (for example, speech/writing, presence/absence, etc.) is never the face-to-face of two terms, but a hierarchy and an order of subordination. Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of nondiscursive forces. Each concept, moreover, belongs to a systematic chain, and itself constitutes a system of predicates. There is no metaphysical concept in and of itself. There is a work - metaphysical or not - on conceptual systems. Deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another, but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order is articulated... To leave to this new concept the old name of writing is to maintain the structure of the graft, the transition and indispensable adherence to an effective intervention in the constituted historic field. And it is also to give their chance and their force, their power of communication, to everything played out in the operations of deconstruction. (Derrida, "Signature, Event, Context" from Margins of Philosophy)
To unpack a little bit: what Derrida's saying here is that whenever you set up a dichotomy between two things (the example he focuses on here is speech/writing, the one I want to use is "religious conception of relationship" / "secular conception of relationship", understanding that the two do not match neatly onto the set of religious people / atheists, as Leah herself shows), there's always an implicit hierarchy that has existed historically and influences how people now see the relationship between the two things in question. In Derrida's case, speech is "privileged" over writing -- that is, historically, people have thought about writing as "parasitic" on speech and a "derivative" thereof, with speech as the default; in our case, it's the idea that marriage is a fundamentally religious institution and that non-religious people who get married are parasitic on a religious framework.

To follow the reasoning, what we should be doing is playing with the word "marriage" and applying the term to a whole bunch of different things to make "marriage" the concept show itself for what it really is: not that much of a change at all (but still meaningful for the people involved!) This lets us change how the word works culturally, to strip away the problematic elements that come along with marriage as understood in a religious context and overthrow the religious framework that creates the way we conceptualize "atheist marriage" in the first place. This allows something else to live and breathe that fits more in line with a godless framework, and at least as far as I'm convinced, something that's less oppressive to women in more religiously conservative communities who might be expected to enter into a marriage that looks something like a covenant marriage without the supposed ability to "take the choice more seriously" that covenant marriage offers as a putative benefit.

So, marriage: still means things! But not the same things that we presume it means because of religious privilege and cultural influence! If deconstructing marriage means that atheists get space to express their love in a way that's not just an inferior knock-off of the Judeo-Christian way of doing things, in a way that creates a space more friendly to women at the same time, that satisfies me.

So, what did I miss?

What should marriage look like in an atheistic framework?

What, if anything, is metaphysically different about marriage that doesn't extend to other relationships?

(P.S. If the above wasn't clear, let me know and I'll try to clarify -- Derrida always tends to get a little messy.)

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

No, The New York Times, Michael Vick Doesn't Get to Be a Hero

The New York Times, last Saturday, ran this article on the "renaissance" of Michael Vick:
“I told people I thought he would be a great story and he would do the right things off the field,” said the former Colts coach Tony DungyNBC’s “Football Night in America” analyst, who counseled Vick during and after his incarceration. “But if people had pressed me and asked if I thought he could get back to this level, I would have to say probably not. I would have said he’ll get a certain percentage of the way back, but how could you ever get all the way back?”
A "great story"?  Remember who we're talking about here: Michael Vick, former quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, who orchestrated an enormous interstate dogfighting ring. For five years. Fortunately the article here did mention his involvement with the dogfighting ring, but as these things usually are, it was only mentioned in passing as a low point against which could be juxtaposed a "football renaissance" for Mr. Vick. It has all of the ritual trappings of a religious revival, complete with throngs of adoring disciples:

But just inside the locker room door, at least 50 journalists huddled so tightly last Wednesday that when the player they were waiting for, Michael Vick, surveyed the gathering, he could only shake his head slightly.
“Amazing,” Vick whispered.
And monasticism:
Vick’s studying, though, has been crucial. Members of the Eagles organization said Vick had to be reminded to leave the training facility. The film room has become his sanctuary, and he has learned the Eagles’ offense better than he did Atlanta’s. 
Plus some martyrdom:
“I have been under pressure my whole life,” Vick said. “Pressure to take care of my family and a lot of other things. This is football — it’s pressure. But you’ve also got to make light of the whole situation. That’s what I try to do. There’s always going to be pressure. But it brings the best out of you.” 
I'm not very happy about this situation as a whole. Vick might be a good football player. He might even be a really good football player. But honestly, is the fawning love from sports commentators and even that symbolic bastion of Balance and Truth, The Grey Lady, necessary? Again: the "best" brought out of Vick by that pressure he's been feeling his whole life? Based on that, his "best" includes management of a dogfighting ring, at least three dogs from which had to be euthanized because they were completely incapable of being re-socialized.

Unfortunately, this sort of coverage and cultural acceptance is not unique. There are any number of other examples of apologia or glorification of famous people, even those with the deepest and darkest scars: those that excuse Roman Polanski's raping of a young girl on the basis of his "artistic genius", for example, or Paris Hilton apparently posing for her mugshots now, plus any number of highly publicized celebrity trials after which the celebrity is almost universally let off the hook. If anything, these cases prove that real justice and the legal system very rarely intersect (though ideally they should). So long as the powerful have both the cultural and real, financial capital to turn the United States justice system into a mockery of itself -- where money can buy powerful lawyers, or where wealthy defendants can defer cases endlessly, or where prosecutor's offices and police forces abuse and coerce those without the resources to fight back -- it becomes incumbent on us as a society to be aware of this fact. When Michael Vick's prison sentence becomes a stepping-stone in our discourse to his rebirth, there's a problem that has everything in the world to do with power.

Perhaps this bleeds into a trickier question of the concept of heroism and valorization generally. I'm becoming more and more convinced that heroism is inherently problematic in that it produces a really simplistic discursive representation of people (who tend to be famous and usually rich) that whitewashes the evils they commit for the sake of creating a narrative that paints them as good. Look at the term "flawed hero": the "flaw"-edness of the hero is a deviation from the category, not an inherent part of it. People are way more complicated than this characterization gives them credit for, and in our minds, it generates a very visceral, very emotional reaction when these "heroes" are criticized (see the many, many defenses of Roman Polanski or Mother Teresa -- there are a lot).

So while I don't think that we should instead be counter-categorizing these people as inherently "evil" (because no one and nothing can be inherently anything, différance and all that), Michael Vick's name should never, ever come up in our heads without a giant asterisk. And that's where the New York Times article fails. It turns that asterisk, that complicating factor, into a Herculean trial to be surpassed. And as long as that happens, these people will continue to get away with atrocity.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Wikileaks is Necessary

Sorry I haven't been posting very frequently; I have a number of different topics floating around that I've wanted to write about (atheism as a social movement, the racial effects of capitalism, a thought-piece about conceptualizations of American identity and problematizations therein via literary criticism and analysis, etc the list goes on) but I haven't been able to get around to them because of schoolwork. Anyways, the following is the text of a speech I gave on the floor of the Yale Political Union on Tuesday on the topic "Resolved: Wikileaks Should Not Have Published Classified Documents". I was the second speaker in the Negative, on the docket along with fantastic blogger, amazing speaker, and great friend Leah Libresco of Unequally Yoked. All names referenced herein are redacted unless the people in question would like their names reinserted. Enjoy! (For those interested: the resolution failed by a vote of about 28-35-2, if I remember correctly).


I never thought I’d be on this floor following Mr. [redacted] after hearing him praise the value, power, and foresight of government – this is really new. Anyways, this is why Mr. [redacted] is wrong: in so saying that we can inherently trust people to filter and disseminate information that we “can handle”, he ignores the fact that everything has a political bias. This is no different for his lone editor or disseminator or government than it is for any of us in this room. So then, what we’re doing is handing the ability to determine truth to people that are already powerful; in a way, we’re practicing a bizarre kind of epistemological relativism wherein the people with the most money and the most guns get to decide what’s true.

This situation – where the powerful in society give an incomplete picture of events as they unfold to the people necessary for that power’s continued support – is exactly the type of thing Wikileaks is attempting to stop. Only by hearing the stories from those on the margins of our discourse, from those decentralized places that have neither interest nor duty in upholding the existing status quo, can we as the moral supporters of our government actually figure out whether we can and should support the things our government and our corporations do at home and abroad. Using Mr. [redacted]'s language, this comes down to transparency, and why it’s good for all of our sakes – because it means we can see all of the consequences that the moral and political choices that we as a people make.

Let me explain. The material on Wikileaks is targeted to a very specific audience. It’s not the terrorists; they don’t have much less of a habit for killing civilians than we do, and regardless of what a bunch of people posting classified documents do, they’re not going to be more or less likely to kill American soldiers, because in joining a terrorist group, they’ve already made the choice to do that. It’s not the Afghanis; most of Afghanistan (because of continued military occupation and rampant poverty) doesn’t have internet access and rates of computer ownership in Afghanistan is among the lowest in the world, besides that, they don’t need to read internal documents to know that US soldiers shot an innocent deaf and blind man down the street three years ago. Those documents on Wikileaks are intended for us, the privileged people sitting at home in America who make arguments that “we don’t kill civilians”, or “Pakistan is our ally in the region”, or that counterinsurgency is “working”, or that the war is “difficult but necessary”. The documents paint a cultural picture – one where what we’ve heard from the administration and military leadership about the progress of this war seems at best misrepresented and at worst an outright lie. Insofar as the release of these documents can change how we think about the war and our compulsion to support it, their release is a good thing.

But even further, the fact that Wikileaks is disseminating information that those with the greatest interest in maintaining and perpetuating the war saw fit to keep secret gives us the opportunity to see that perhaps the dominant narrative in our political discourse is not a given, and maybe even that the emperor in fact has no clothes. When we lose the opportunity to see information for ourselves, as Mr. [redacted] wants to see happen, and instead what we see are the same repeated analyses and moral judgements made over and over again, we tend to lose sight of how big this war really is, or that perhaps we don’t have any solid footing on which to stand in supporting it. What Julian Assange and Wikileaks did was actually raise the war as an issue to be discussed, even if only for a very brief time, instead of something lost in the background and dismissed as a necessary technical detail of our foreign policy. When we see video of soldiers in planes cracking jokes while shooting groups of people with precision bombs, or when we hear about the extent to which we have unmanned drones blanketing the skies above Afghanistan and Pakistan, it becomes very hard to just look away and dismiss all of that. Mr. [redacted] bemoaned the lack of sanitization of the scenes of war from coverage earlier. But, if images of piles of skulls filling ditches or corpses strewn across field are the consequences of war – and they are – shouldn’t we know about and see those things when we make the choice to continue waging wars? To some extent, we can change and modify our first principles and the things we support by being confronted frankly and honestly with the consequences of what we believe: this sort of discourse happens every day between members of this body. If we’re really comfortable as a people with letting loose the dogs of war and continuing to feed them for eight years on, then we should be able to look through our computer screens into the dead eyes of a young Afghani child killed in battle crossfire and say “I accept this cost.” If we do anything less, we’re not being honest with ourselves or paying fair tribute to the horrors we cause, and Wikileaks will continue to have a role to fill. I think that’s enough to vote in the Negative tonight.

Monday, August 30, 2010


From Gravity's Rainbow, pages 775-776 (2006 Viking Edition):
The rhythmic clapping resonates inside these walls, which are hard and glossy as coal: Come-on! Start-the-show! Come-on! Start-the-show! The screen is a dim page spread before us, white and silent. The film has broken, or a projector bulb has burned out. It was difficult even for us, old fans who've always been at the movies (haven't we?) to tell which before the darkness swept in. The last image was too immediate for any eye to register. It may have been a human figure, dreaming of an early evening in each great capital luminous enough to tell him he will never die, coming outside to wish on the first star. But it was not a star, it was falling, a bright angel of death. And in the darkening and awful expanse of a screen something has kept on, a film we have not learned to see... it is now just a closeup of a face, a face we all know—
And it is just here, just at this dark and silent frame, that the pointed tip of the Rocket, falling nearly a mile per second, absolutely and forever without sound, reaches its last unmeasurable gap above the roof of this old theatre, the last delta-t. 
There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you, or to reach between your own cold legs... or, if song must find you, here's one They never taught anyone to sing, a hymn by William Slothrop, centuries forgotten and out of print, sung to a simple and pleasant air of the period. Follow the bouncing ball:
                       There is a Hand to turn the time,
                       Thought thy Glass today be run,
                       Till the Light that hath brought the towers low
                       Find the last poor Pret'rite one...
                       Till the Riders sleep by ev'ry road,
                       All through our crippl'd Zone,
                      With a face on ev'ry mountainside,
                      And a Soul in ev'ry stone....
Now everybody—
I'm not even going to try to analyze everything that's going on here. I'm not even close to capable of doing so, and even if I were (big if), I'm not sure that anyone could. But there is an image here that speaks to my life-as-it-is these days, while I sit on Beinecke Plaza back on campus. The last delta-t.

A friend recently told me that she thought of that concept as a picture of the world collapsing -- not in the conventional sense of the Rocket's explosion and consequent death of everyone in the theatre, but how that last moment, the last delta-t, is reality falling apart into physics. At that last moment, motion and time cease to matter. Form collapses. The only meaningful conception of everything is the presence of the tiny, imperceptible, currently-theoretical fundamental subatomic particles and the empty space that makes up the immensity around each of them. Before the rocket does anything, we become Nothingness. Our lives and our experiences crash and dissolve into mathematics.

But even so, we do not perceive that collapse. At the very last instant before the Rocket hits, the world still is, even if there's nothing we can do to alter that fate. However, I think that the world would look nothing like how we perceive it now. The knowledge of imminent death on the part of terminal patients long before their deaths seems to change them radically, I can only imagine that moment that all of us will at one point share, the last moment before death, does something infinitely more chaotic and infinitely more radical. What would I feel at that precise instant? What would I be thinking of? What would I see, and hear? How would my reality change, or expand, or break apart?

I can't answer those questions. I don't know if anyone can, or if we'll ever be able to. But it feels to me like at that very last delta-t, the minutiae of daily life and the accepted rules -- social, physical, and otherwise -- of reality cease to matter. All that matters is that final tingling of sensation, whatever that may be: from Pynchon's examples of companionship and sexual gratification, to those things that give us solace, or make us find and build meanings or reasons or rationalizations, or joy, or fear, or transcendence, or an inseparability and indistinguishably complete blending with that which we in our arrogance consider to be apart from us, or a sickening grotesqueness (as Pirate Prentice conceives of early in the book when he thinks of that last moment as a rocket hit him precisely on the head, as the tip pressed into his skull), or wholeness or emptiness, or the fullness of life bound wholly unto the fullness of death. Circularity.

That consideration has been important for me, as I try as one of my major intellectual projects to find a way to reconcile my life as a Literature major with a penchant for theory that exists under many labels, many of which are considered "postmodern", with a persistent respect, fascination, and love for science (thanks for the sentence construction, Leah Hauge at Whore of All the Earth). I can't bring myself to think that the two are irreconcilable, however vitriolic the differences and arguments betwixt may seem. There has to be a third way. And that's what the image, beautiful and pure and horrifying and whole, of the last delta-t is for me. It is that moment where subjectivity becomes most important, even in the most oppressive bounds of objective reality. The ultimate constriction of a scientifically-based reality, the calculable parabolic arc of a rocket shot into the sky approaching in its final descent, pulled faster and faster towards the end by a force or by the invariable underlying structure of spacetime in gravity's rainbow, releases us fully even as it fully restrains us, creating the space for a sensory experience liberated from every stricture and every rule. The subjective and the objective become one. 

I hope, with all my heart, that there's a way to do that. I hope I can find what that means before the last moment comes knocking. But until then, I'll be damned if I don't at least try -- because I have no other choice. Here I live, lost at the crossroads of literature, science, and (post)modernity.

Now everybody

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Laura Schlessinger's Apology Doesn't Count

For those of you that haven't heard, this is Laura Schlessinger:

And she is a racist.

From further research, she is also a raging homophobe. This sort of stuff's not new -- latent and extreme forms of racism, homophobia, sexism, and other forms of discrimination have percolated in American society for generations. The news here is that a) she did all of this stuff explicitly and personally, and b) it got caught on tape. Of course, as all public figures who make complete asses of themselves publicly do, she decided to apologize for her "wrong" use of the N-word. Quoth the good doctor (from her blog):

I talk every day about doing the right thing.  And yesterday, I did the wrong thing. 
I didn’t intend to hurt people, but I did.  And that makes it the wrong thing to have done.
I was attempting to make a philosophical point, and I articulated the “n” word all the way out - more than one time.  And that was wrong.  I’ll say it again - that was wrong.
I ended up, I’m sure, with many of you losing the point I was trying to make, because you were shocked by the fact that I said the word.  I, myself, realized I had made a horrible mistake, and was so upset I could not finish the show.  I pulled myself off the air at the end of the hour.  I had to finish the hour, because 20 minutes of dead air doesn’t work.  I am very sorry.  And it just won’t happen again. 
 And as usual, like most people in her situation, when she says "apology" she just means "string of feel-good words so you can forget I ever did this and move on, thus you don't notice the trend when I do it again". Seriously? We were "losing the point" you were trying to make? No, we got the point -- your "point" is actually just as racist, if not moreso, than you spewing the N-word repeatedly. Oh, no, in her world, racial stereotypes are just funny, and it's not racist to make black people totally absolutely speak for their entire race every time a white person asks. Also, when you criticize someone for their racism, he or she is really just trying to "NAACP" you (yes, she used "NAACP" as a verb). Also, using uncalled-for diminutives to characterize black people totally isn't so pre-Civil Rights Movement or racist or sexist or anything.

Schlessinger's "apology" was everything but. She may have said repeatedly that her using the word was "wrong", but she clearly doesn't get it. She made no attempt to identify why exactly her using the word was wrong, and she didn't spend any time reflecting over why she went ahead and used the word in the first place. Also, she posted a letter from a long-time listener (who coincidentally happens to be African-American), saying that Dr. Laura was correct under her racial clusterfuck and really isn't a racist (because the "I have a black friend!" defense is totally legit here). Really. 

The fact of the matter is that the racial language Schlessinger used is not something that can be separated from the underlying argument she was trying to make. The two were one and the same, and even if she hadn't mentioned the N-word so much as once, the argument she was making was a rhythmic chant of that word, and all that it's represented historically, and all that it represents today, continuously and endlessly.

Yesterday, I found a neat little two-part list of moments of (Stephen) Sondheim genius, compiled by Brian Rosen (Part 1, with 10-5, is here, Part 2, with 5-1, is here). The one that applies here is #3, from Sondheim's fantastic 1991 show, Assassins:

3 -- Booth Drops the  N-bomb (Assassins)
Assassins plays a constant balancing game. Populated by a world of outcasts and murderers, Sondheim and Weidman labor to show them as humans, giving them a chance to voice their discontents, explain and justify their actions. And then, just as you start to like them, you’re reminded of the grand and terrible actions that have led to their notoriety.
Nowhere is this more startling than in the Ballad of John Wilkes Booth.  Wounded and cornered in a barn, Booth labors to explain why he just shot Lincoln. He knows he is doomed, and desperately wants the future to know that he has not acted impulsively, irrationally. He had reasons, sound, solid reasons. As audience members, we are naturally empathic. He implores history (as personified by the Balladeer) to listen to his side of the story.  And we do. And it’s tragic and beautiful, he laments the loss of his country, of the irreparable damage done by civil war. And the music swells with the power of his emotion, and just at the climax, Booth delivers an outburst of rage and hate and racism, a savage gut punch to everyone sitting in the theater. In four syllables you move from empathizing with this beautiful and tragic man to reviling him, a disorienting 180 degree spin that sucks the oxygen out of the theater (or wherever you happen to be listening to the cast album).
[Clip from "The Ballad of Booth"]
Our moral compass is now firmly pointed as far away from Booth’s as possible, and he seems to sense that he’s lost us. Half heartedly hoping that history will eventually understand him, he shoots himself, and we’re relieved when the Balladeer starts singing again, confirming that our own feelings of revulsion are justified, that there is a right and wrong, and that history will get it right.

The 2004 Revivial version of this moment, I think, is stronger than the original cast recording -- in the revival, Michael Cerveris (who, coincidentally, plays Sweeney Todd in that show's 2005 revival) as Booth actually builds up to a scream when he hits those four syllables. Since I first listened to the recording, I've been convinced that if you've ever wanted to hear what the Rebel Yell sounded like, that's probably it.

Rosen's analysis of this moment both gets it right and applies exactly to Schlessinger's outburst. Booth's screaming the N-word (and thus castigating all people of color and those opposed to racism, as the word comes as part of an insult of Lincoln) poisons for the listener everything Booth tries to convince us of during the song -- that the Civil War has irreparably wounded the country, that Lincoln and the Union forces callously bludgeoned the South, that Union leadership was responsible for the murders of over 600,000 people --  just as we're beginning to understand what he's trying to argue. Every last bit of sympathy we have for him, or his plea to history, or his "point" drains out as soon as he utters the N-word, and everyone listening -- the Balladeer, us -- realize that two-syllable expression of hatred, of fear, of a refusal to understand and consider a segment of the population as human is just a logical extension of everything he's said before. The two are inseparable, and there's no way to accept what Booth implores of us without also accepting his use of the word. Thus the Balladeer gets the last word: "Damn you, Booth!" Schlessinger likewise makes us realize that her using the word again and again and again is just the SparkNotes version of her argument. The two are united, and it's not some mysterious act of will or "mistake" that made her utter that word, but rather her beliefs, the culture in which she grew up, and her "point".

If Schlessinger truly were sorry, not only would she have apologized for using the word, but she also would have spent some time trying to figure out why she used the word at all. And then, she would have explicitly recanted the "point" she was trying to make. Yet, she didn't apologize for using the N-word, or for her political views or for the philosophy that made her use the word in the first place. As it stands, she's just apologizing for being too straightforward about it.

Friday, August 6, 2010

"One Feels as if One is Dissolved and Merged into Nature"

During the commute back from work today, I listened through my collection of Symphony of Science songs, including some of the remixes (which are a little hit-and-miss, admittedly, but some of them are very good). I'm an enormous fan of the project. Basically, it's sort of like Carl Sagan's Cosmos meets Auto-Tune the News, with famous scientists (Carl Sagan, obviously, Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku, Richard Dawkins, Richard Feynman, Jane Goodall, and Bill Nye, among others) saying things about science, auto-tuned and set to music. And it always gets to me -- in a similar way to how Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot speech always gets to me. Scientific understanding has, for as long as I can remember, always been a really significant component of my worldview. Not necessarily all the little details, I'm not a science major so I don't know all of those, but just the way scientific understanding almost removes a set of blinders for me and lets me into the slightest shallows of a cosmic ocean (thanks, Carl) -- enough to know a little, tiny bit, but more importantly enough to see the immensity before me and give me a sense of how little I, or really, any of us really know about this world in which we live. I'll try to keep this short. I'm just going to tell a quick little story from this summer that I hope gets the feeling across a little bit.

A few weeks ago, I spent a day watching through the aforementioned television series: Carl Sagan's Cosmos (thanks to a friend on Facebook, I discovered that all of the episodes are up on Hulu for free, so go watch). It was a marathon session, so it was me and a few other people (for about the first half, I watched the rest on my own once they left) for thirteen hours, listening to Carl Sagan talk to me about what felt like everything: the Library of Alexandria, evolutionary development, supernovae, Kepler and Brahe, wormholes. I've seen it before, a few years ago, but I've developed a lot emotionally and intellectually over the last few years, so it was almost like a new experience for me again.

After the last little bit of "Who Speaks for Earth?", the last episode, I froze in stunned silence for a few minutes. I do this every so often when I see or read something that grabs me and rips me out of the world for a little bit, a sensation probably not unlike what the Square felt when he was pulled out of Flatland for the first time and shown the third dimension -- I've felt this before after seeing V for Vendetta  the fifth time, after finishing Gravity's Rainbow and American Pastoral, and other similar instances. After finishing, I felt an urge to rush outside (note that this was about 2 in the morning), so outside I went, and I collapsed onto the grass, facing upward, eyes fixed, staring at the blackness vast above me. For some reason the streetlight was out, so I could see the stars almost perfectly. There they shone, little pinpoints of light in the deep darkness sprawled above. The light from the stars is a phenomenal thing. All of the stars we see in the night sky are many, many millions of light-years away from us, and while a light-year is technically a unit of measurement, we as primates who evolved in Sub-Saharan Africa, dealing with objects of medium size travelling at medium velocities (thanks to Richard Dawkins for that line), don't really comprehend how enormous that distance really is. It may seem obvious, but it represents the distance that a ray of light travels moving constantly for a year. That light moves at a speed of 3.0x10^8 meters per second. That's over ten million times the speed of a car on the freeway (65 mph). The light we see here on Earth from the stars, depending on which particular star we're talking about, ranges from old to ancient. The nearest stars we see are between 5 and 12 light-years away, meaning that the light we see today was emitted by a churning of hydrogen and helium atoms in atomic fission the scale of which is almost impossible to conceptually graph, before I started high school or before the turn of the millennium. The furthest star we can see without a telescope, Mu Cephei, emitted the light we see today near the beginning of agricultural human civilization. The stars at the center of our galaxy emitted the light we see before humans as we know them today, biologically, not counting any of our advances in civilization or society, existed. The nearest galaxy we can see, Andromeda, is 2.5 million lightyears away -- shooting forth beams of light that were sent before some of our immediate ancestors existed. From the perspective of Blake's Evening Star, the temporal difference between him and me is almost negligible.

I then felt the grass under me, brushing against the skin of my arms, which drew my attention away from the Cosmos above and brought me to my more immediate surroundings. Somehow, when I ran my fingers through it, it almost felt papery to the touch. It doesn't really strike us all that often how truly phenomenal the little things that surround us, that we ignore most of the time, really are. Those blades of grass possess survival structures and distribution networks that allow it to pull water enough to survive from the Earth and to draw energy from the Sun and turn that light, through a process rivaling the complexity of some of our greatest engineering feats, into sugars that nourish it. Chemically, those blades generate a mélangée of hormones that allow it to grow, to propagate. On a larger scale, those blades exist in a delicate and precise ecosystem involving thousands of different plants and animals; almost like a precisely choreographed ballet where even one mistake -- one component vanishing from the system -- spells the death of all. Those blades are the engineering product of millions of years of slow tinkering by a small, gradual, consequential process that can't even realize what precisely it's doing or see the world beyond how it is at the present moment, and that each and every component of that blade has been carefully and brutally tested by the sands of time enveloping around it and its ancestors from almost every continent on Earth. I thought of myself. How my day-to-day life is a carefully balanced dance of hormones and physical processes. How I owe my existence to a string of four different nucleotides, labeled arbitrarily A, T, G, and C, repeated over and over in different combinations and paired three billion times, and how an army of enzymes replicate and duplicate that string of letters faithfully and consistently every single day with an efficiency far surpassing any machine we're capable of building and a success rate that's nearly perfect. I thought of how all of the atoms in my body heavier than iron -- number 26 on the periodic table -- are the remnants of long-dead stars, thrown out by explosions thousands, if not millions of times, stronger than the strongest nuclear weapons we've developed, or how the things I see, and everything I feel, and everything I am, how my consciousness is the byproduct of a hundred billion neurons and a quadrillion connections between them firing electrical pulses back and forth engine-like because of a charge differential caused by sodium and potassium across a membrane border. And the physics -- how everything around me is built of particles that I can't see individually without the strongest of electron microscopes, and how even those things are 99.9999999999999% empty space and built of even smaller particles, which means that I, effectively nothing, interact and feel those blades of grass below me that are effectively nothing, and that the whole of my experience and the whole of my reality is derived from vague approximations of atomic density and distribution and through minute calculation of the frequencies of waves ranging from a few meters long to just a few nanometers long: how everything that makes up who I am resolves in a vanishingly small fraction of a percent. The sensation is difficult to describe accurately. For any of you at Yale that saw Arcadia at the end of last semester, it was very similar to the feeling at the very end of the show. It was as if my senses started bleeding into one another, synesthesia-like, as if my thoughts were slowly crushing me into dust and dissolving into nature. But it still felt perfectly material. It's unfortunate how difficult it is to talk about heightened states of awareness and awe without religious language, but none of those words really describe what exactly I felt out on the grass in the early hours of the morning. It wasn't connected to anything out-of-body, or supernatural, or mystical, or revelatory; it was an extension of understanding I already had.

This'll probably become a recurring toast for me starting in the fall. I think that Neil deGrasse Tyson had it exactly right when he said that "When you're scientifically literate, the world looks very different to you... and that understanding empowers you". I spend a lot of time talking about ethics and philosophy with my friends, and even if we can't directly derive our moralities from scientific reasoning, the lens with which we see the world informed by science is very different. Carl Sagan, as he usually does, had this right. The ethical issues into which we've been careening for the last century and will be speeding headlong into as we continue to progress have almost everything to do with the technologies that natural discovery enable, albeit indirectly. It's at best irresponsible to talk about these things without a firm grasp of the science underlying them and without understanding how we can search the vastness around us, but at worst, "this is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces." Unfortunately for all of us, that explosion is almost certainly literal.

So, to Knowledge, that minuscule point of light we have in an infinite chasm of darkness; to the memory of Carl Sagan and all that he's done for all of us; to Science and what it lets us accomplish; and to the hope that we take seriously that understanding before we destroy ourselves in our ignorance.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Why I Love the Internet Sometimes, Vol. 1

So sometimes the Internet is responsible for a lot of awful things. Like Andrew Breitbart. Or /b/. I could go on. But sometimes the Internet does something that makes me very, very happy, and sometimes I can forget the nasty stuff a little bit. This video is one of those happy things. Thanks to a good friend for posting this on Facebook first.

And thus, I hereby present for your viewing pleasure "Jane Austen's Fight Club".

(What I wouldn't give for a full version of this with a glorious slow-mo shot of Lizzie punching Lady Catherine in the face.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

AHHHHHHHHHHT (Or, Why Modern Art is Important)

The other day, I read a blog post over at BlagHag (by Jen McCreight -- lovely blog, and I recommend reading some of the other stuff too) regarding modern art. What the post says is more-or-less a repetition of a really old criticism of modern / contemporary art, and the more broad l'avantgardisme -- that it really doesn't mean anything, or that the artists / art critics / random people are writing obtuse descriptions of pieces of art that don't relate to anything at all, or that the artist didn't really mean that. It's a really tempting argument to make, and Science knows I wasn't very good about understanding art for a very long time, so I understand the impulse. Nevertheless it's not a friendly criticism, and it's a criticism that sort of misses the point of avant-garde.

The argument rests on an unstated, but pernicious, assumption: that avant-garde work either doesn't qualify as "good art", or even "art" at all, and therefore when people treat it as such, their interpretations are meaningless tripe trying to say something profound about something that isn't profound at all. This assumption is strong, but it might be well-founded -- well, if that assumption wasn't exactly what avant-garde argues against in the first place. Let's think about this with a particular piece, this one referenced in the above-linked blog post.

Untitled (1976), Robert Morris 

The AIC describes this piece as "industrial felt", Jen used the word "oversized car mat" to describe it. My initial impressions were based somewhat on the car mat idea, but I think it holds nonetheless. In day-to-day existence, car mats are one of the least noticeable parts of a car, and are by function permanently underfoot (speaking from experience commuting on the 101 for my internship this summer, this is very true), and is therefore generally unconsidered as an object in an of itself, unless something goes wrong -- the material gives me allergies, or it gets stuck under the seat and gets a lump that bothers the position of my feet, or whatever (this conception I originally heard from my professor for Intro to Theory of Literature last semester, who made the same point, but with a bike -- you never notice the actual mechanics of the bike while you're riding it unless it starts to jam or breaks and you get thrown off). 

What Untitled is doing is a general subversion of that principle. It takes the idea of the car mat , removes it from its permanently trampled place in contemporary society, and puts it up on a wall in the middle of a museum with a title and description and space all its own to consider for its own sake, to be celebrated and contemplated. The mere fact that we're able to contemplate it at all means that the work, as far as I interpret it, succeeds. What this piece and other pieces of found art ask is what exactly we mean when we use the word "art". Does it have to be something that's beautiful? Well, we don't agree on what's beautiful, and our conceptions of beauty have this nasty habit of reinforcing the views and opinions of those that are dominant or in power in our culture. So, how about things that have "artistic merit"? This runs into the same problem as "beauty" (to the point where women back in the 18th and 19th centuries, in a number of noticeable cases, either published anonymously or published under male pen names so that their work would actually be considered). Well, how about anything that's put in a museum -- we can trust the artistically-minded curators to be careful about making sure some non-dominant culture's "good art" gets in, right? Well, this would be where found art comes in. It's in a museum, it has its own space, you're not supposed to touch it. If this doesn't qualify as art, how exactly can you frame your views of what is "good" and "bad" art, or even "art" at all, as anything but your own subjective criteria? It's a brilliant deconstructive practice. We value art museums as centers of worthy artistic expression, excluding all that fails to meet the standard, but that label is something we attach to it, not something intrinsic to art museums. The only option we have left is to realize that absolutely everything can be treated as art.

My own intellectual development in this arena has a lot to to with Roland Barthes' Mythologies (Amazon link), especially "Myth Today", the last chapter. Over the course of the book, Barthes does literary analyses of a bunch of different phenomena, from pro wrestling to detergent marketing to car design, and then in the last chapter, he gives a theoretical framework for all of it -- that mythology exists as an influence that serves to normalize certain cultural practices, such to maintain both the preexisting hierarchy of society and in the case of France when he wrote the book, colonialism and imperialism. From Barthes:
We reach here the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature. We now understand why, in the eyes of the myth consumer, the intention, the adhomination of the concept can remain manifest without however appearing to have an interest in the matter: what causes mythical speech to be uttered is perfectly explicit, but it is immediately frozen into something natural; it is not read as a motive, but as a reason. If I read the Negro-saluting as symbol pure and simple of imperiality, I must renounce the reality of the picture, it discredits itself in my eyes when it becomes an instrument. Conversely, if I decipher the Negro's salute as an alibi of coloniality, I shatter the myth even more surely by the obviousness of its motivation. But for the myth-reader, the outcome is quite different: everything happens as if the picture naturally conjured up the concept, as if the signifier gave a foundation to the signified: the myth exists from the precise moment when French imperiality achieves the natural state: myth is speech justified in excess.
 The "good art" argument works pretty much the same way -- it's a historical contingency, that is, the artistic preferences of white Europeans, usually men, transmuting into a natural and immortal idea, here, beauty. So while the people who make the objection to modern art probably aren't doing this consciously, it's still reinforcing standards of artistic worth and beauty that are, in context, hegemonic. The way to fight this, again from Barthes, is to fight it with revolutionary, political language:
There is therefore one language which is not mythical, it is the language of man as a producer: wherever man speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image, wherever he links his language to the making of things, metalanguage is referred to a language-object, and myth is impossible. This is why revolutionary language proper cannot be mythical. Revolution is defined as a cathartic act meant to reveal the political load of the world: it makes the world; and its language, all of it, is functionally absorbed in this making. It is because it generates speech which is fully, that is to say initially and finally, political, and not, like myth, speech which is initially political and finally natural, that Revolution excludes myth. Just as bourgeois ex-nomination characterizes at once bourgeois ideology and myth itself, revolutionary denomination identifies revolution and the absence of myth. The bourgeoisie hides the fact that it is the bourgeoisie and thereby produces myth; revolution announces itself openly as revolution and thereby abolishes myth.
 Of course this was a few years in advance of Derrida, deconstruction, and the Tel Quels, but it's a similar sort of idea -- we fight convention through subversion, or in this case by subverting our conceptions of "good art" with carefully-placed car mats and Brillo boxes.

I haven't done this topic nearly as much justice as it deserves, but it's at least part of a start, I hope. We need to get to a point socially where we can consider literature and art with room for more of a work(wo)manlike understanding and not just worry about the aesthetics. We could learn a lot.