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.