Monday, March 31, 2008

Some people blog ...

... others embroider.

To learn more about the Swedish artist furthering the beautification of public transport by clandestinely embroidering the seats in trains and busses with symbols and names of IKEA-furniture, klick here. If you feel like participating in her "Pimp my Bus" campaign, you can contact her: she will provide you with needle and yarn. If you see words like "Hensvik", "Henrik" or "Bosse" stitched on the gum-pasted polyester on which you are sitting, don't fret -- you're not going mad!

I ... don't ... think that this is an April fool's story.

Sunday, March 30, 2008


I need to share my bewilderment at the odd cover that Penguin chose for Jim Crace's novel Being Dead.

It's not so much the cover itself that bothers me (which is quite apt, though I hate the silly Blair Witch font), as the quote from the Guardian review they have chosen to add as a little marketing gimmick. These days, if a book is not encrusted with smartarse statements by Oxbridge-educated pen pushers it's apparently deemed worthless (which is why those random snippets from the Sunday supplements now make up a sizeable part of any serious publication. It's worse in the States, of course, what with The-Woman-Who-Doesn't-Have-A-Clue-About -Literature Winfrey).

I secretly hope that, like me, others don't bother to read them either.

In case you can't read this one:

Being Dead
Jim Crace
"A Joy to Read" Guardian

Don't get me wrong: it's quite an astute evaluation of this book, which, by the way, I can wholeheartedly recommend. It's a must for any committed materialist and contains beautiful passages like this one:

Judging by the modest blood-flow of her far from modest wounds, Celice’s heart had ceased pumping almost as soon as she was hit. Her skull was not as thick as Joseph’s. (That was something that she’d always known about the man. Her husband was curmudgeonly, distracted, timid and thick-skulled.) Her skull was weaker than the granite too, of course. The bone caved in like shell. Her brain, once breached and ripped, was as pale and mushy as a honeycomb, a kilogram of dripping honeycomb …. The blows across her face and throat cut off the blood supply and, though her brain did what it could to make amends, to compensate for the sudden loss of oxygen and glucose, its corridors of life were pinched and crushed. The signals of distress it sent were stars. The myths were true; thanks to the ruptured chemistry of her cortex, she hurtled to the stars (6-7).

But taken out of its context and placed next to the title in this blunt manner, the word "joy" in the Guardian quote seems a trifle ... flippant ... to me. Or is that just my sense of humour?

Friday, March 28, 2008

Tricks of the Theological Trade

Ario's migraine -- or rather the scholarly trigger of his ailment -- reminded me of something I had started to write a while ago but somehow never got around to posting. The comrade over at Altering Labyrinth was distraught by the following statement by the mathematician Detlev Dürr (who teaches at LMU Munich):
"[...] while everything is deterministic, the universe evolves in such way that the appearance of randomness emerges, and precisely as described by the quantum formalism."
Now, although my own reaction to this quote was slightly less ... vehement ... the statement affirmed the general suspicion that I have regarding all things quantum, especially when they are being applied to fields outside of the natural sciences. Some literary scholars love quantum theory because they think it fits their deconstructionist bill. Chaos theory was all the rage amongst English scholars in the 1990s (as was the habit amongst Shakespeare specialists to change the names of their cats from Cressida to Schrödinger). But like me, most English scholars don' t really know what they're talking about when they take physics on board (and when they do, results tend to be far from convincing).

The thing is: people in the humanities don't need to think on the subatomic level. The cultural artefacts that we're dealing with are one hundred percent middle world. Anything above and below is not relevant to our work. Stick with the here and now, people!

About a year ago I learnt that theologians, too, like to fiddle with the subatomic for their own purposes. This disturbing epiphany occured in a lecture by a professor of "Fundamentaltheologie" at a nearby university , entitled "Astrophysics and Creation" -- a bold notion, I thought, and went to attend.

This theologian was a very nice man indeed – as nice as all deeply defensive people tend to be who are somehow aware that their message may be disturbing to many. They tend to hide this awareness behind a hefty layer of charm, though in this case it resembled the grating charm cultivated by the forever youthful hosts of the folklore and umpah shows that haunt public television in this part of the world.

Granted, superficially our speaker was impressively competent: the polysyllabic idiom of the natural sciences passed his lips with a similar ease and fluidity as his copious quotes from the Bible did. In the end, however, all this amounted to the kind of scientific sell-out that you would expect from someone investigating the fundamentals of theology for a living.

The charming man began with a brief jeremiad about the deepening incommunicado between science and theology. What a shame, he said, that science has left the comfort zone of big bang theory -- whose fundamentally ontological nature allowed it to be appropriated easily as an alternative version of the Genesis story -- to pursue its relentless search for a mathematical theory of everything. It seems as though the idea that the universe is meaningless, coincidental and purely material has triumphed for good. Wouldn’t it be nice to return a dash of the divine spirit to it?

Well, actually, I though, no -- but kept silent.

Instead of supporting the comforting notion of a divine pyromaniac in the sky, quantum cosmological killjoys like Hawkins present us with the terrible concept of a timeless, infinite space that may eventually be captured with a formula but a formula that leaves no room for a creator. As a result, human feel lost in a universe whose coordinates they will probably never fathom.

By way of a segue into the heart of the matter the charming man dropped an old argumentative chestnut: science might explain how things function, it doesn’t explain why they function in this way at all (Yawn). Here, he claimed, creation theology may provide a “reasonable alternative explanation” to those offered by the natural sciences.

Poor atheistic self that I am, and quite happy to lead a life with no purpose in a universe that simply is, I remained undisturbed by this epiphanic promise and instead focused on the how of his argumentation. And I sat there increasingly aghast as I listened to this charming man perverting the insights of rational science in order to conclude on a note of religious triumph by turning science (or parts thereof) against itself.

First of all, our charming speaker said, the reason why we should feel the need to explain the creation of the universe is given by science itself. Taking his cue from such fringe theories as string theory (only one of the more esoteric branches of contemporary physics, championed, it seems, by Trekkies hooked on the good old “Beam me up Scotty” fantasy), he emphasised that life, really, is far more complex than a silly little theory of everything would suggest.

Didn’t Gödel himself (yes, the Gödel who suffered from bouts of depression throughout his life, was hospitalised several times for his mental imbalance and spent his later years trying to come up with an ontological proof of God’s existence based on formal logic) challenge the ideal of the world formula? And doesn't string theory reveal to us a world of such disturbing complexity that one single formula could never do it justice? We are multiple! (This is the point where Deleuze and Guattari ought to have made an appearance, but didn't. Maybe next time.).

Even “mere matter” (like, uh, me and you and all other living organisms on this planet – among many other things) possesses such a complicated structure, urging us to challenge the supposition that everything that exists in the universe is coincidental -- a term which he rather glibly equated with the trivial during the talk. But isn’t the coincidental nature of this planet and all life forms on it what makes it so awe-inspiring?

The fact that despite this complexity this world makes sense, he proceeded, suggests that this might be a trace of a divine signature in this mathematically readable universe. At this point he pulled out a lovely fifteenth-century book illustration of God in the act of creating the world in an elegant gesture of benevolent authority and absolute freedom, while an equally benevolent posse of angels smiled on him. And this world, he suggested, is beautiful in the near-mathematical perfection that its forms and operations take.

To prove the wild speculations supported by this uncommented conflation of a late medieval literalist image and mathematical graphs illustrating the time-space relation, the charming man shifted from the as yet unexplained singular to the plural. In addition to being free to create one world, God of course is perfectly capable of creating other worlds, he reminded us – worlds to which our cherished world formula might not apply (however, why this argument should counter the validity of a formula for this world – which we are stuck with whether we like it or not– is beyond me).

This plurality, according to our hero, can be discovered in contemporary quantum cosmology, which, he emphasised with a discernible note of triumph, has long ceased to believe in only one universe. Instead, the inflationary view of the universe proposed by physicists since the 1980s, which entails the possibility that our solar system is merely one tiny pocket in a huge accumulation of universes, can illustrate the idea of God’s freedom. "His" eternal omnipresence reveals itself in the ability to create multiple universes – an ability documented in odd religious tracts and texts throughout church history (for instance by Giordano Bruno, burnt at the stake for his blasphemous Renaissance scepticism, and to this day unrehabilitated by the Catholic Church) …

… and, of course, in the natural sciences. Because really, the charming man said (on whose uncannily smiling lips I hung by this time like a rabbit mesmerised by a black mamba): doesn’t all this support the findings of contemporary physicists? Christianity was right all along – and really, the scientific model of the multiverse was an appropriate alternative model to theological conceptions of creation.

I repeat: the model of the multiverse is an appropriate alternative to theological conceptions of creation.

Not the other way round.

At this point it dawned on me that the slur in his otherwise clear elocution whenever he said “creation theology” – making it sound a bit like “creation theory” – might have been more intentional than I'd initially thought. I declined the invitation by the speaker to join him and the rest of the audience to talk things over over a glass of local wine, and instead stumbled out of the room in a state of cosmic bewilderment. Had all this really happened or had I briefly slipped through the membrane into an alternative universe?

Have I already mentioned that this was a public lecture at a state-funded university?

More Hun Faults

One day it's polythene, the next day it's British Summer Time ... I wonder which astounding historical secret uncovered (and blamed on the Germans) by The World-Famous British Investigative Journalism we're in for tomorrow.

Cult Following

For those of you interested in the psychodynamics of cultish behaviour, The Sueddeutsche has a rather disturbing feature (in Deutsch) on the Jehova's Witnesses, who demand to be officially recognised as a religious denomination. Of course, we all know about sectarian psychoterror, but it's chilling to read nevertheless.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Posh prickdom

How do I put this diplomatically (and non-actionably)?

I could comprehend the actions of someone who might (though via no encouragement from me or anyone else associated with this blog) wish to kick the head in of this particular individual, aka, Master Nicholas De Lacy Brown:

Not that I'm advocating any form of violence whatsoever. That's just plain wrong.

The evidence for the prosecution.

And this:

Here's Me, Trembling With Terror

No comment.

Le Petit (President) Nicolas

Is it just us, or is there an uncanny similarity between these two charming little chaps?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

(Via, The Guardian)

Le Petit Nicolas, drawn by Sempé:

We leave it up to you.

A local perspective

Two recent, unconnected, comments suggest the value of stepping back from the keyboard and taking a look around.

Peter Ryley, on vacation in Greece, discovers the joys of narrowed horizons:

The lack of broadband reduces my contact with my favourite blogs and so my world shrinks further into the parochialism of the Greek village. Today it was Argalasti market and a plant sale in Lafkos. Previously, it was the big news about someone leaving his job and moving to Promiri. Then there is Iannis giving us eggs, Chrisanthi feeding her goats, and Stavroula (no teeth, gum boots and dubious personal hygene) coming to the gate to tell us about goats in our garden, our insecure wood pile and then to weep over her 'broken heart' - she tragically lost her son - and the pain in her leg. All this matters; the rest fades.
And Shuggy, in reflecting on his support for the Iraq war, makes a very good point that, to me anyway, seems related to the above.

I astonished and disgusted many people who know me by my support for this war. I astonished myself. I'm no stranger to self-disgust either but I'd have to say that this never has anything to do with the positions I take on this or that issue. For this is part of a wider problem we have on the left - the idea that morality is a function of the stands we take on big geo-political issues. As if what we think matters a damn, as if this was important compared to how we quit ourselves as men and women in relation to our families, friends, colleagues and neighbours.

It's not, obviously, that those positions on larger issues don't matter.

But it may be useful to remind ourselves that the imagined struggle of world-historical importance that we often feel we're involved in (a sense that blogging only amplifies) is, in most cases, just two people arguing.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chop off his ear!

There's only one way to deal with the kind of hooligan behaviour recently exhibited by a Finnish tourist visiting the Easter Islands.

Article in Deutsch, I'm afraid. Oops, no -- here's an English version, too.

So it's us again, or wot?

More cheese and wine party info that you don't really need from The Independent. Is it just me, sensitive me, who detects a hidden anti-Hun agenda in Rob Sharp's article on polythene?

Yeah, yeah, go ahead -- blame your bloody national rubbish problem on us.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

When he's right, he's right

We just wanted to say that we completely agree with Will on this one.

Go to work on an egg

Easter has passed us by, but a few good words about British eggs seem to be in order.

As Francis observes:

On this sceptred isle the befrocked prelates are worrying themselves silly and profoundly irritating everyone else over government plans to regulate the use of hybrid embryos in medical research. Church-issued press releases are littered with words such as “monstrous” and “hideous”, and politicians are tying themselves in knots in a feeble attempt to accommodate Catholic prejudices.

Another juicy quote comes from one of the Church of England’s prize gobs – Bishop of Durham Tom Wright – who has accused ministers of pushing through legislation from “a militantly atheist and secularist lobby”. Christ on a fucking velocipede!


Ophelia notes the Bishop of Lichfield's comments against embryo research, in which he said:

It's a very important part of our society and a very important part of the Christian faith that you should have respect for human embryos.

She responds:
And in what sense is that respect a very important part of the Christian faith? Where does that come from? Where is it written? How long has it been the case? What is it based on? Anything? Did Jesus say anything about it? Did (even) Paul? Did Augustine? Tertullian? Aquinas? Luther?

To be blunt, I don't think that is a very important part of the Christian faith, I think it's a recently invented rule that some Christians have made an enormous fetish of for the simple reason that there is nothing much else they can make a fetish of because they've been superseded. We don't need Christianity in order to work for human rights or equality or animal rights or justice or peace or benevolence. There is little room left for Christians to exercise moral scrupulosity, so they have to find little neglected corners that are neglected because they are in fact bogus. So the poor sad underemployed Christians trundle around finding embryos and cells to protect, since real people with real needs can be protected by atheists just as well as by theists. It's sad for them. Soon they'll be making ethical fusses about molecules and atoms.

PZ, experienced in these battles, also chimes in:

I addressed this a couple of years ago when Bush wanted to ban this kind of research (by the way, we aren't ahead of the Brits in this game; they're at least discussing this, while our government has mostly acted to shut this work down, leaving little to argue over). This is not a science-fiction project to create half-human slave labor or anything silly like that — it is serious research in early development that puts human disease-related forms of genes into animal models so that we can try experimental treatments. "Monstrous" would be taking risks or doing experiments on Down syndrome children; humane would be inducing an analog of Down syndrome in mice so that we can figure out causes and treatments of health problems in an informed way. I would also put using ignorance and medieval dogma to prevent biomedical research in the "monstrous" category, but then, I put just about everything about the Catholic church in that bin.

I can't really say whether this should be a 'free vote' or not -- the latest news seems to be that this it will be, but the criteria for doing so seem to be very uncertain -- but in any case, it seems clear to me that the potential benefit from the research proposed clearly outweighs any of the rather vague oppositions to it.

It's irksome that 'conscience' is all-too-often equated with 'religious mysticism'.

(Title reference)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Atheist Field Day

Ok, ok -- I admit it. I don't really have that much to say, I only wanted to write that title. Well, and draw your attention to some of the issues that us poor Germans are told to worry about by the media. And a nice little basket of eggs it has become.

There is, first of all, the outcry by German politicians and bishops about the Hollywood blockbusters shown by private TV channels this Easter (Die Hard (1-3, too!), King Kong and Highlander).

Now there's a few people with nothing else to do .... Shouldn't they be in church anyway? Like you, dear visitor???

Second, the prohibition of the sale of condoms in a chemist's in the sleepy (but staunchly Catholic) town of Fulda in Hesse. The snag: the building that houses said chemist is owned by the Catholic church -- and condoms, as we all know, are the devil's work.

Fulda, one must say, has a reputation for harbouring silly ideas.

This is a doddle, however, compared to the most recent British terror: the fear of Nazi racoons. The sun has it's own characteristic view of the matter. I really and truly love that famous British humour ....

Less cuddly but chillingly beautiful are the oversized creatures discovered in the Antarctic. But beware ... giant Nazi starfish out on a slippery blitzkrieg -- and saluting, too. Next step: Polar Bears that look like Hitler.

For the more arty ones amongst you, a nasty review of Thomas Ostermeier's Mark Ravenhill/Martin Crimp double feature at the Berlin Schaubühne. Here's the trailer (yes -- these days theatre goes movie):

I reckon I gave up on "In-Yer-Face-Theater" after voluntarily exposing myself to Irvine Welsh's totally forgettable play You'll Have Had Your Hole in Leeds in 1998. Though I quite liked Ostermeier's production of Sarah Kane's Blasted. Well, it had Ulrich Mühe in it ....

Finally, in an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, John R. Searle seems to get evolution completely wrong.

Happy egg-hunting everyone!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Till things are brighter...

I've been ruminating over the last couple of weeks on an article by Rebecca Solnit at Orion. In 'One Nation Under Elvis', she considers the seemingly unbridgeable divide between urban liberals (or progressives) and the rural communities where many of their issues lie (particularly for environmentalists) but whose residents, Solnit suggests, they consider with -- at best -- condescension and at worst outright hatred.

Solnit's essay is a very personal one (it may be that that is the mode best suited to this issue), but it touches on a tangled parcel of issues of broad relevance. After all, as she rightly points out, the electoral map that was much discussed in 2004 was only a north/south one on the surface: look below it and you'll find that one of the more crucial divides is that between urban and rural, with the suburbs often breaking one way or another based on their proximity to cities or local factors such as the presence of a university.

My home state of Illinois, for instance, is in the 'blue' column, but only because of the enormous electoral weight of Chicago (even if only the living vote only once, the city carries a lot of voting clout). Drive a couple of hours west and you're in a very different world.

The same kinds of divisions were apparent in my adopted home state of Maryland (one stop south of the Mason-Dixon line, don't forget) where the distance between, say, downtown Baltimore or the 'People's Republic of Tacoma Park' and a place like Taneytown was about more than merely geography.

(There were, though, as I recall, more than a few cowboys to be found at the gay bars around the corner from where I used to live in Mount Vernon...but that was Bawlmer, hon.)

Now, some kind of urban-rural cultural divide is probably a historical continuity or global commonality: the rhythms of life, the interpersonal networks, and perhaps many of the needs of living in a city are different than those of living in the country. However, there does appear to be something particularly virulent and odd about the contemporary American version of this conflict.

Odd, because it's not something that is entirely geographical. Solnit, not unfairly, identifies country music as one of the key cultural divisions. Building on her point, I suppose it's fair to say that 'country' is a serious cultural category in the land of my birth. And it's not all about geography.

I have a little bit of personal experience about this.

The town in which I grew up, for instance, was far from 'rural'. But while paying my way through college, I spent a couple of summer and winter breaks working at a steel lacing factory located there, and I came to realise something. (No, before that, I didn't know what 'steel lacing' was either.)

I was one of the few 'college boys' who worked there, which was the source of no small amount of ribbing -- most of it good natured -- but, still, at lunch time you sat and talked with whomever happened to be around. You get to know people.

A quite large percentage of my co-workers drove pickups, were extremely patriotic (I was there when the First Gulf War was under way, so that became hard to miss), loved country music and tended to drop the final 'g' from any 'ing' endings that they spoke. Quite a few were enthusiastic hunters -- or at least gun-owners.

But after work, 9 out of 10, I'm quite sure, did not drive home to a ranch or farm, but rather to a housing development off of some four-lane road chock-full of big box stores and strip malls. And, again, this was northern Illinois, less than an hour's drive from the Chicago Lakefront, when traffic was good. (Which it most often wasn't.)

So what I realised was this: 'country' is very much a state of mind.

Solnit refers to a variety of examples of what we might call urban middle-class disdain of 'rednecks' and assumptions that 'country' means racist. She observes:

So on the one hand we have white people who hate black people. On the other hand we have white people who hate other white people on the grounds that they hate black people. But that latter hatred accuses many wrongfully, and it serves as a convenient coverup for the racism that is all around us. The reason why it matters is because middle-class people despising poor people becomes your basic class war, and the ongoing insults seem to have been at least part of what has weakened the environmental movement in particular and progressive politics in general.

I'll leave you (no, urge you, in fact) to take a closer look at her article, since, as I said, it's full of the sort of personal anecdotes and nuances that are hard to summarise. What it comes down to, however, is more or less a plea to try to address this downward urban glance toward all things rural and twangy, with the argument that this is acting as a serious brake on progressive politics.

In general, I think there's a lot to her argument. The article provoked two quite positive -- and readable -- reactions at Dave Neiwert's Orcinus blog, one from Dave himself, and one from Sara Robinson. Each, in their own way, reiterate Solnit's basic point. Perusing the comments at each response, however, brings you to other perspectives (and to the depressing realisation that there are people who really do hate country music because they think it's 'right-wing'.)

One of the main objections that commenters raise -- one that I think carries some weight -- is that the cultural divide she rightly identifies is not one sided. There are, if you'll forgive the mangled physics of this observation, two sides that are mutually looking down on one another. In short, some of the commenters argue that 'rural communities' (for lack of a better or more neutral term) don't want any kind of alliance with liberals, no matter how much Johnny Cash those young city slickers might have on their I-Pods.

In a great number of cases, their rejection of Solnit's argument (and Neiwert and Robinson's agreement with it) are driven by personal experiences, often painful ones, with the kinds of environments with which she urges greater bridge-building efforts. (One of the more striking of which involves memories of a school bus driver named 'Skeeter'.)

Partly because those arguments are so personal (and so painful), they point to the difficulty of the project that Solnit suggests: if they can be taken as at least a partially valid sample of country folk (at least of the sort of formerly country folk who have turned into the sort to read Orion), then we're talking about more than a clash of grammar and musical tastes.

I don't, though, read Solnit as saying one has to necessarily overlook the urban-rural differences (or even conservative-liberal) that exist: she seems to be suggesting that both sides would have much to gain in trying to distinguish those areas where differences remain from those where commonalities exist.

This is not an easy thing.

I wonder whether this kind of cultural divide is quite so pronounced in other places. I know that in Britain the 'Countryside Alliance' has succeeded in making a lot of noise about representing rural interests in the face of an allegedly uncaring (or clueless) urban elite. On the other hand, I'm not so sure that this has had quite the significance of the urban-rural divide in the US (Britain is, after all, much smaller and more densely populated), and I wonder whether it has had quite the cultural impact. There are many ways in America in which a particular kind of cultural code (country music, NASCAR, traditional gender roles, hunting and fishing, perhaps a kind of casual racism -- the latter recalled by Dale here) has come to stand in for a particular set of political beliefs.

I have the sense that the British version of this is quite a different beast.

Here in Germany, you might be interested to note (and if you're not, just skip down a ways) there is a political drama that is in some way relevant. The Green Party is facing the possibility of forming coalition governments in two Bundesländer: Hesse, and the city-state of Hamburg.

That is not particularly unusual in itself, as Germany has a proportional voting system that has allowed smaller parties to have more influence. The more curious bit is their potential coalition partner: in Hamburg the CDU and in Hesse a combination of the CDU and the Free Democrats. (Reminder for Americans: 'liberal' in a European context very often refers to a predilection for small government and free markets 'As much state as necessary, as little state as possible', as the FDP puts it. It's confusing, I know, but it's the US that, for whatever reason, paints its conservative states red, which I've never understood.)

Considering that the Greens are often seen as a 'left' party (and probably in some important sense are) the possibility of the first black-green (or black, yellow, green...parties in Germany are known by their colours) coalitions at a state level have been causing no small amount of political soul searching within the party.

There are certainly what we could call 'cultural' barriers to overcome: the Green movement, after all, came of age in the era of Helmut Kohl, and as a movement that saw themselves in opposition to much of capitalism, militarism and consumerism, they can certainly be placed to the left on most conventional political spectra. However, their suspicion of statism, celebration of self-sufficiency, desire to preserve traditional ways of life and commitment to civil liberties suggest that there are points of agreement with at least some sections of mainstream conservative and liberal politics in this country.

As in America, it is hard not to notice, this is indeed more than a policy debate: it's partly cultural. Polling data shows that the Greens' most solid electoral base consists of well-educated and relatively well-off urbanites. In Germany, as in the US, there is a rural-urban divide of sorts. However, it is my theory -- and any German readers with more knowledge on this point are welcome to chip in if you wish -- that this division is not as stark as the one painted in Solnit's article in the USA.

There is a village not too far from here -- certainly 'rural' by any standard -- that we have the pleasure to have gotten to know through a friend of ours. On the roofs of its houses you would not be surprised to find solar panels, and in the gardens you'll likely find all of the paraphernalia of a conservationist lifestyle that most American (and German) environmentalists are expending so much effort to promote. (I commented on something similar in an earlier post.)

Nonetheless, I feel quite sure that its inhabitants tend rather toward the conservative side of the spectrum when it comes to the ballot box.

There are some Greens, it seems, for whom the idea of even working with Conservatives in a government is anathema. However, I think they have much to gain, not least since it would be the opportunity to gain some new voters while also freeing themselves from a left-wing camp that -- at least for the near future -- seems doomed to internal dissension and competition from a more radical left that seems rather far from electable. Times have changed. Conservatives wear sneakers too.

And, so far as I can tell, a love for Volksmusik has not quite taken on the political significance of country music in America (even if I imagine you'll find relatively few fans of it among Green voters...or among sane voters of any party for that matter....)

As someone who identifies -- though not uncritically -- with the Greens, I'm quite excited by the possibilities that the new alliances open up. Of course, this possibility requires that there are voters who are 'culturally' Liberal or Conservative who are willing to at least consider voting Green.

And that's not a foregone conclusion.

As a final note, I few personal memories about trying to bridge the divide that Solnit describes.

In a former and distant life as a campus activist, I recall that it took a relatively short time for me to become frustrated with the main vanguard of leftist politics at my university. There was a network of groups that tended to all have the same members and who sought to turn every campus issue into their own personal struggle. They were the reason that the Black Student Union for a time refused to work with any predominantly white left-wing group: they had experienced a few too many episodes where erstwhile revolutionaries (invariably white and middle-class) showed up to tell the BSU what real oppression was all about.

In any case, a few friends of mine and I decided to do our own thing and formed a new group that sought out contact with the local unions. One of the first issues we got involved in was the then prominent miners strike at the Pittston Coal company in western Virginia.

The strike was a drawn out and particularly difficult one. And it was clear that kind of people who were directly involved with it were the sort that, in Solnit's article, were the object of so much scorn from her well-educated environmentalist friends.

Along with raising attention to the strike on campus and organising a canned food drive, we called a meeting with local unions and (pro-union) religious groups at a church just off campus. And, indeed, you could sense a cultural divide of sorts in the room.

However, focusing on the commonalities and the issues at hand helped, though, as well as the fact as one of our co-organisers at the university was a history teacher who also happened to be the daughter of miners.

To make a long story short and to not belabour my own small part in these proceedings, our efforts culminated in a talk given by a United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) representative who came up from downstate (yes, there is mining in Illinois) to talk to a packed university auditorium about the strike.

Our contacts with local churches and unions ensured that the audience was about equally mixed between students, staff and non-university types. It turned into a rather remarkable evening, and I recall vividly the way that after the talk, one by one, the representatives of the locals that we had helped bring together stood up to pledge their members' support (and money) to support the UMWA. Campus groups chipped in as well, along with and a few local churches. It may not have been decisive. But I like to think that it helped.

The curious thing is that on many other issues we (the students, the churches and the unions) may not have had a lot to say to one another: indeed, we may have been at odds. And there were undoubtedly far more Hank Williams fans among the union members than among the students.

However, at least just for a short time, it didn't seem that that mattered. It was one of the finest evenings of my college years.

The following video is a 'mini-documentary' of the strike. It's quite good.

And I dare you to look down on the people involved.

(Warning: viewers may experience bluegrass music.)

Friday, March 21, 2008

More history

It's Good Friday, there is -- thanks to the crazy weather (we had a massive hailstorm earlier) -- a truly Biblical "darkness all over the land", and I guess we all deserve a little distraction on a day which tends to be a downer even for a dyed-in-the-wool atheist like me. And anyway, I've been meaning to point you to this interesting article in Der Spiegel about "Germany's secret superbunker" for a few days.

Disturbing to think that German politicians seriously thought that their subterranean Disneyworld (complete with lounge, beauty parlour and a stash of valium against the claustrophobia) would have withstood a full-blown nuclear strike: apparently the complex wasn't deep enough in the first place. And even during a "minor" attack the EMP would have shut down systems completely -- essentially locking in the German chancellor and his entourage forever

... until freed by a Princess who, trying to find the golden ball she had accidentally dropped in a crevice, inadvertently released a secret latch whereby the heavy steel doors would open and out would come ... a terribly dishevelled but still fundamentally sexy Prince Willy -- with his balalaika:

I had one hell of a crush on Willy Brandt when I was about four ....

Most of the 17 kilometres of the complex have been dismantled by now, but a small remaining part is now open to the public. So, as part of your Romantic grand tour down the Rhine, why not go visit. You might pop round for coffee and cheesecake chez nous afterwards ....

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Morituri te salutant?

William Deresiewicz's article in The Nation on the decline of the profession of Eng Lit -- based on a re-edit of Gerald Graff's influential "institutional history" Professing Literature -- provides a disturbing snapshot of the state of the field in the US.

Much of what he has to say is true of the field of English in Germany as well, with one stark difference: the "steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline" of English that Deresiewicz, describes (and which he links -- quite plausibly, I think -- to the rapid turnover of fashionable disciplinary trends, at the cost of more "traditional" topics, in US academia) is something unheard of in Germany.

Here, numbers have been rising steadily -- much to the government's joy, especially in light of the snub the German education system received last year from UN investigator Vernor Munoz for its fundamental "inequality." (A good introduction to his report and the vehement reactions to it is via here). And much to the despair of all sane people, who know that quantity and quality do not necessarily go together.

That the government's wish to increase the student population is being heeded, in the humanities at least, clearly has to do with the fact that many of the students in those fields study to become teachers. Teachers are currently in demand, it is a terribly safe profession to be in over here (most teachers are civil servants -- that is, they have a job for life) -- and teaching has for a while now been something of a last resort for the, shall we say, more blunt tools in the shed.

A recent study has bolstered this felt lack of quality amongst teacher students with real evidence. As Udo Rauin, a professor at Johann-Wolfgang-von-Goethe University in Frankfurt points out, the students who typically study to become teachers are not only weaker than most in their field, disturbingly they are also aware of their shortcomings. Most disturbingly, however, when confronted with their lack of talent and ability, they still don't rethink their desire to "teach" others.

Now why is that? A neuroscientist would point out that self-delusion is the human condition. People like Michael Gazzaniga and V.S. Ramachandran have ably proven that our perception of the world and ourselves is merely a convincing simulacrum built on the flood of information that constantly pours into our brain.

So, we're all, by definition, deluded. Ok, I can live with that. But even delusion is selective. Why is it, for instance, that I would never in my life have deluded myself into wanting to be a quantum phycisist? Because physics is hard and I was terribly bad at it in school. Why can somebody barely capable of grunting English (let alone German) delude him or herself into thinking they can become an English teacher? Because English is easy and everyone can sing along to a few crap Christina Aguilera lyrics.

And so we live not only with more and more students, but also with more and more weak students. Students who spell "through" thus: "thru" -- and don't even notice. Students who will write things like "the book of McEwan" or "he go" -- after years of training in the secondary and tertiary sector (thereby wasting the precious time of people like me).

Hence we have an odd situation in German universities: rather than leaving the sinking ship, the rats are flooding on board.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

History Fortnight

If I weren't a halfway rational person, I would suspect an extraterrestrial conspiracy behind the unusual interest in German historical topics over the past two weeks. This is not to say that Germans are not interested in history -- it's only the Brits who think they need to give us private tuition in WWII by way of a cheap excuse to indulge their own fetish for black leather and heel clicking -- but this has been a particularly fertile period for hobby historians.

At the same time as we are kindly informed by the British press that our view of the French occupation is going to be radically altered thanks to 'Allo 'Allo, last week also saw the release of Dennis Gansel's German film version of Morton Rhue's novel -- based on the notorious behaviourist experiment at an American high school -- The Wave. For an article, in German, see here. Here is the trailer:

The film did not make British headlines (at least none that I came across), which is astounding, given its investigation into Nazi psychology, but then it might be that it is not sexy enough (and the main actor has teeth that would do any NHS-dentist proud).

A sexier brand of heroism is provided by Nikolai Müllerschön's Red Baron biopic which, as Mr Paterson at the Independent points out with unusual perceptiveness, might please the Brits more than the Germans -- most of whom might not even know who von Richthofen was. The trailer is here:

To keep with the topic of flying heroes, it appears that the riddle around Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's death has finally been solved. The wreckage of his plane was discovered in 2004 off the coast of Marseille, and now Horst Rippert, an 88-year old former fighter pilot, admits that it was probably he who shot down Exupéry during a reconnaissance mission. Apparently, Exupéry was his favourite author and personal hero, and Rippert -- who later on became a sports journalist for German TV -- asserts that he would have never shot the plane down had he known who was flying it.

The interesting punchline for Germans of Generation Golf and older: Rippert is the brother of Ivan Rebroff, a talented faux-Russian singer who in the 1970s landed hits with Russian folk classics such as "Kalinka." You want to see?

Rebroff died a few weeks ago. R.I.P. and dasvedanya.

And in the "non-history department" there is a Gazprom-sponsored exhibition about German-Russian relations during the Holy Alliance. Apparently, the organisers take the word "holy" a tad too seriously, forgetting about the injustice committed in the name of this thoroughly calculating bit of Realpolitik.

There's a ray of hope, however: Joachim C. Fest's autobiography is no. 10 in the German paperback charts. Fest, the most prominent German historian of Nazi Germany, came from an upright Catholic family who staunchly resisted being absorbed by Nazi Gleichschaltung.

Maybe we don't need to learn our history through 'Allo 'Allo after all.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Bodies that matter

Since there are people out there who seem to fret about the rapid decline in quality of my reading matter, here a brief missive of reassurance. Fear not -- help is at hand and good times just around the corner (pending NHS decisions)!

Thanks to -- dare I say it? -- The Mail, I know that with the aid of a simple kidney transplant I will be returned to the world of intellectual thought from which I stray so peevishly and with such insistence.

Behold, the miraculous story of Cheryl from Preston, who after having a kidney transplant "ditched the lowbrow novels" and turned to "documentaries on Egyptology," Jane Austen and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

It's a pity, though, that as yet this change in personality has not had an impact on the way Cheryl -- who says: "I totally respect the family which gave me this kidney" -- speaks. Now just where exactly in Pride and Prejudice did she find this unpleasant Americanism, I wonder?

Just to, like, totally reacclimatise myself with highbrow thought, I delved into some recent Judith Butler this afternoon -- you want to be prepared when the big personality change comes:
If one wants to begin with most common of beginnings, namely, with the claim that one would like to be able to consider sexual politics during this time, a certain problem arises. Since, it seems clear that one cannot reference "this time" without knowing which time, where that time takes hold, and for whom a certain consensus emerges on the issue of what time this is. So if it is not just a matter of differences of interpretation about what time it is, then it would seem that we have already more than one time at work in this time, and that the problem of time will afflict any effort I might make to try and consider some of these major issues now. It might seem odd to begin with a reflection on time when one is trying to speak about sexual politics and cultural politics more broadly. But my suggestion here is that the way in which debates within sexual politics are framed are already imbued with the problem of time, of progress in particular, and in certain notions of what it means to unfold a future of freedom in time (In: The British Journal of Sociology 59.1 [2008]: 1).
As no clock in this house shows the same time, I totally know what she means.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Celebrity plaything

The Wife insists that we remedy a serious injustice.

We think that The Mail was very unfair today.

The article's title says it all: 'Botox is turning Nicole Kidman into a "bat face", says cosmetic guru'.

The evidence:

This is unjust. To the bat.

We think, if anything, Nicole resembles a piece of flesh-coloured PVC with attached hair-like tufts created sometime -- we're guessing here -- around 1960.

The evidence:

(Picture Via)

OK. You may go about your business.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Radical indeterminacy, lots of bullets and several gallons of blood

I read No Country for Old Men late last year, as part of a spurt of fairly frantic Cormac McCarthy reading that began earlier in the year, with reading The Road. Shortly after, I re-read it, as I was both captivated and mystified by it.

At Faith in Honest Doubt, Dale makes a series of extremely perceptive comments about the book. (I haven't yet seen the film: I'm waiting for the DVD to come out in Germany to watch it in English -- dialogue being important in both Coen films and McCarthy books.) Dale's observations are in response to complaints by publius at Obsidian Wings that the book is 'logically incoherent':

So that's my complaint -- is No Country a story about choice and consequences, or is it a reflection upon how Nietzschean amoral Nature collides with Man. It seems like it can't be both -- but Chigurh certainly has elements of both. Maybe I'm missing something basic, but these strike me as inconsistent metathemes.

Dale says:

I don't think publius has missed anything, basic or otherwise. These are inconsistent metathemes but the incoherence belongs to life itself, not to the Coens nor to Cormac McCarthy. Good things happen to rotten people; rotten things happen to good people; good people can be brought down by their choices; bad people can be brought down by their choices; good and bad alike can be brought down by the timing with which a squirrel darts into the path of a moving car. Lightning can strike, hard work and persistence can pay off. A psychopath can show up and stake your life on a coint toss. As in the film's very last scene, you can do a favor for a stranger you later find is a cold-hearted killer.

You can go to work in the morning and find yourself in the very building that a fanatic has decided to destroy for the cameras and the creed. You surely made a choice to enter that building, and the fanatic will give reasons why your having been crushed under burning rubble was a proportionate and merited result of that choice. Your survivors and others will no doubt disagree with those reasons. Perhaps the people who called in sick that day will draw conclusions about providence, or perhaps they'll see blind luck. Which is the truth?

I think No Country is so unsettling because it presents these possibilities -- perhaps life's outcomes come from sheer chance, perhaps life's outcomes come from the choices we make -- presents compelling examples of each possibility, but in the end refuses to decide between them. This radical indeterminacy leaves knots in the gut no less than life itself does.

I agree completely with Dale's version of this, and the incorporation of such themes in several of McCarthy's books is what gives them much of their power.

One of the problems with publius's question is the false dichotomy between random nature and self-controlled 'Man' (with all the force that that capitalisation gives). As I noted recently, there are indications that this kind of distinction between 'nature' and 'Man' and between 'choice' and 'coincidence' is untenable, or at least not quite so clear as it would seem.

This includes the basic matter of plot. For instance, publius contrasts the character Llewellyn Moss's 'choice' to take the suitcase full of money with the apparent randomness of Chigurh's reliance on a coin-toss to decide whether particular people live or die. However, Moss's 'choice' is, of course, first only possible because of the coincidence of coming across the scene of a shootout while hunting. He certainly chooses to take the money, but with what motivation? Is this reason? Impulse? Who knows.

And while Chigurh's coin-tossing might seem 'random', he -- of all the characters in the book -- seems to embody a relentless devotion to a code of ethics. A sick code of ethics to be sure, but it is certainly one that is the product of a determined will (to adopt, for a moment, publius's Nietzschean language).

It is, in fact, the mixing of such notions of determination and coincidence that makes No Country such a powerful book. I keep reading complaints of the films 'abrupt' or 'indeterminate' ending, or of the 'unsatisfying' off-screen demise of some of the main characters (he said vaguely, trying not to give anything away), and -- having read the book -- I keep thinking, 'Yes, that's precisely the point.'

The last thing McCarthy would want to do, I think, is to suggest that the universe cares about us, even for a second.

Or about Nietzsche either, for that matter.

And, on this matter at least, I think he's right.

What, after all, is the contradiction in people (or characters) trying to make meaning in a meaningless world?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Welcome to Planet LaLa (a fully licenced subsidiary of Virgin Galactic)

Oh dear, what would we do without the British press! Both The Independent and The Telegraph bring us a deeply welcome, indeed essential, piece of news that otherwise would have slipped under our radar: Finally, after all these years, a German TV station will air (dubbed, of course) versions of 'Allo 'Allo.

With due thanks to Tony Paterson of The Independent for that excruciatingly witty headline "'Allo, 'Allo to invade German Screens". My midriff still hurts from all that laughing. You haff vays off mayking us laff indeed. (As the new Citroen ad says, very German.)

Thanks a bunch for this hyper-relevant info. We really have other problems to deal with over here at the moment. There is not only the major leadership crisis currently rocking the SPD. We also have the continuing drama around the polar bear infant 'Flocke' (who is three months old and being weaned off the bottle).

But going beyond the zoo into the human freak-show department, we also have our own, (in)famous incestuous couple, who are intermittently featured at Der Spiegel -- that stalwart defender of those poor people who claim to be victims of that harsh, terrible, inhumane system called "The Welfare State."

In an article about the upcoming decision by the Federal Constitutional Court as to whether this couple -- brother and sister, who are not only deeply enamoured of one another, but who have also sealed their love by producing four (!) children -- should be punished for their luv, the mildly defensive author goes beyond a perhaps understandable sympathy into the realm of scientific illiteracy.

According to Dietmar Hipp, abhorrence of incest is merely a culturally specific artefact of "an evolutionary dread" turned into a "powerful taboo," and does not deserve its illegal status. Apparently seeing evolutionary influences on our psychology as a bit old hat, he calls upon the mythical Oedipus, the French Revolution (though no Robespierre in sight) and Sigmund Freud to vouch for the legitimacy of these blood-crossed lovers. (The temptation to label them "Bro'Sis" is intense, but we will try to resist...oh, fuck it, never mind, we give in.)


I'm sorry, the negative reaction to incest is not triggered by some outdated prejudice. It is, rather, a universal phenomenon among humans and (at least most) animals, and it is a sensible natural strategy to keep that ol' gene pool a mixin'. (The results of failing to stir the pot can be scary: just see the royal family.) Amongst people unafraid of scientific ideas, such avoidance of sibling relationships is sustained (with little or no "repressive" cultural input) by what is known as the "Westermarck effect".

But this is not the only popular science clanger dropped today. The New York Times paints a grim apocalyptic scenario for the world. Of course, it's 7.59 billion years hence, but adapting the old boy scout adage, it seems it's never too soon to be prepared.

Not only does the article report about the doom that faces us all (eventually), it also makes all sorts of really neat suggestions about what to do about it. Like, shifting Venus an inch or so to the left and making preparations for colonising other planets (and presto: start catapulting your bottled water up to Mars now. No doubt Richard Branson will soon offer a semi-affordable shuttle service. Having been unable to get the toilets to work on his crappy trains under normal gravitational influences, he now wants to make a big mess in space...)

Which would be all cool and the gang, you know, if there weren't a few billion more problems that are a bit more down to Earth. (I could write headlines for the Independent any day, I tell you.)

Besides which: consider -- just for a moment -- what we're talking about here. 7.59 billion years is something like twice the amount of time that life has so far existed on the Earth. Homo sapiens has been around for all of about 100-150,000 years ago (give or take a few ten thou...).

What makes these geniuses (or anyone else) assume that we're going to be around to watch our planet be "dragged from its orbit by an engorged red Sun and spiral to a rapid vaporous death"?

Is it just me, or is there something breathtakingly arrogant about this?

I'd give us even odds to make it out of the century, let alone the next millennium...

(But, might I be able to interest you in some real estate on Venus? Get it while it's cheap!)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Life is demanding without understanding

At the risk of seeming obsessive (because of recent previous references), but in honour of our having ordered Heretic Pride today, we present, the one, the only John Darnielle with what I assume to be the best ever rendition of this song.

It's worth making your way through the poor video quality. Believe me.

The Mountain Goats
'The Sign'
(Originally by Ace of Base)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Thoughts on ex-seagulls

The Telegraph .... I hate have to confess so publicly that I read that rag so regularly, but truly, it's informative. Today, for instance, it had this ripping yarn about how an "Immigrant was cooking swan surrounded by the bodies of slaughtered birds."

No pun, no alliteration, no baby bump -- this is a sign of serious outrage in the Tory Press. Peruse at leisure.

Here's me, having another lateral moment, thinking "where did I read that one before?" and dashing to the bookshelf to dig out Sam Selvon's excellent and hilarious 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. In one of the episodes a West Indian character named Cap, at a bit of a low point and fantasising in a famished frenzy about the pleasures of Chinese and Indian food, has a great idea inspired by the seagulls circling the roof of his digs.

I love this passage:
These seagulls that come up from the old Thames when things too hard for them by the sea, you could never tell where you will see them. Sometimes they join the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, and it have some of them does hang out by the Odeon in Marble Arch.
Anyway, instead of imagining seagulls having a great night out at the flicks, Cap decides to hunt them for food. After a bit of trial and error -- including somehow enticing a seagull into his room -- he develops a successful trapping system:
Now the bird start to fly round and round the room, making circle with the electric light in the centre.

But hunger have Cap desperate now and he making some wild grab that almost catching the bird, but the bird making some kind of fancy swerve every time and getting away.

Cap get so vex that he take a blanket off the bed, and he wait until the seagull coming around in the circle, and he throw the blanket. He bring the bird down, tangle up in the blanket, and he throw himself on the blanket and hold down the bird.

In the two weeks that Cap stay in that top room, he lessen the seagull population in London evening after evening. Not to arouse suspicion he used to put the feathers in a paper bag and when he go out in the night, throw it in a garden or a public rubbish bin.

The menu had him looking well, he eat seagull in all manner and fashion. He recover his strength, and when the landlord tell him that he had to leave, Cap cast a sorrowful glance upwards when he was leaving Dawson Place.

The next place that he went to live, he get a top room again when he ask for it, but seagulls never come on that ledge, though Cap used to put bread out every day.

Always remember: a little bit of literary knowledge goes a long way. And I'll get my tea now. Toodlepip.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

When the hit points finally run out

I was saddened to read of the death of E. Gary Gygax (I originally heard via Boing Boing).

If you've never used the phrase 'chaotic neutral' or coveted a 'vorpal sword' and would have no idea what '1d20' refers to, then that announcement probably doesn't mean much to you.

But for nearly a decade or so, starting in about 5th grade, I believe, some of Mr. Gygax's gaming creations--particularly Dungeons & Dragons (which he co-created with Dave Arneson)--were an important part of my life.

I've been thinking about that time a bit more in the last several months, perhaps because years in which a high-school reunion with a nice, round number comes up are good opportunities for backward-looking reminiscence.

Not for nostalgia, certainly, since a great deal of adolescence was so unbearably horrible.

But most of what wasn't nightmarish was down to my friends from those years, and one of the main things that tied us together--along with Monty Python, Dr. Who, the works of Douglas Adams, the local video arcades and sixties music--was D&D.

I wasn't much of a joiner in high school, but the one membership I maintained through the whole wretched experience was in something called 'Conflicts and Simulations'. They wouldn't, as I recall, let us call it 'The Wargaming Club' as that was too 'violent'. (I could be wrong, but I believe that there was an army recruiter who would make periodic appearances on campus. Real war, though, is apparently not 'violent'.)

Once a week (Thursdays? I don't recall now) there we'd be after school, playing D&D or any one of a wide variety of other strategy or role-playing games. Traveller and Diplomacy were among the other favourites, as well as an RPG we had created ourselves--with a rather shifting set of rules as I remember--that we simply referred to as 'Insanity in a Box'. On many weekends, the dungeon crawling and board-game warfare continued into the wee hours in the dining rooms and basements of friends' houses.

Every couple of years, our high-school yearbook would send someone by to snap a few photos of us freaks at play. Here's me, only a few years before the end of the Cold War, contemplating my next move in...something. (I'm the one in the middle, with a very fashionable haircut and a jacket that is oddly reminiscent of something from the GDR.)

It may seem strange to you--or even pathetic--that some of my fondest memories of that era are times when I was imagining being somewhere else and, more importantly, someone else. For me, though, that's the main association I've always had with the phrase 'teenager'.

If you had a better time of it, well then good for you.

But there were certainly some fine times had and strong friendships made around tables strewn with papers, dice, lead figurines and enormous quantities of caffeinated drinks.

Thinking of those times inspired me to dig out my copy of Neal Stephenson's first (and partly disowned) novel, The Big U. The description at Wikipedia is pretty adequate if you've never heard of it before:

The story follows the misadventures of a socially inept physics student, a pair of gun-wielding lesbians, a hardcore LARP/war gaming club, and other misfits through a series of escalating events that culminates with a full scale civil war raging on the campus of American Megaversity.

I loved the book when I bought it when it came out in 1984, although leafing through it again I realise my fourteen-year-old brain must not have understood a lot of what was going on in the book (especially regarding those gun-toting lesbians). (It has also reminded me to be angry at one my friends who borrowed the book and returned it to me with his handwritten comments all over the place. He was like that though.)

Nonetheless, it was probably the tone and the atmosphere of that geeked-out milieu that probably appealed to me. And the humour. And the violence.

Here is a brief excerpt, which seems appropriate on this occasion. We join the scene where a group of computer geeks are debating how to break into a computer lab. One of them recalls an incident when a burglar tried to break into his grandmother's house and she smashed his hand with a ball-peen hammer.

Their fun was cut short by a commanding voice. 'A sixteen-ounce ball-peen hammer isn't much good against a firearm. If I were a woman living alone I'd carry a point thirty-eight revolver, minimum. Double action. Effective enough for most purposes.

The startling newcomer had their surprised attention. He had stopped quite close to them and was surveying the door, and they instinctively stepped out of his way. He was tall, thin and pale, with thin brown Brylcreemed hair and dark red lips. The calculator on his hip was the finest personal computing machine, and on the other hip, from a loop of leather, hung a fencing foil, balanced so that its red plastic tip hung an inch above the floor. It was Fred Fine.

'You're the guy who runs the Wargames Club, aren't you,' asked the blond student.

'I am Games Marshall, if that's the intent of your question. Administrative and financial authority are distributed among the leadership cadre according to the Constitution.'

'The Wargames Club?' asked Gary, his voice suffused with hope. 'What, is there one?'

'The correct title is the Megaversity Association for Reenactments and Simulations, or MARS,' snapped Fred Fine. Still almost breathless, Gary said, 'Say. Do you guys ever play "Tactical Nuclear War in Greenland"?'

Fred Fine stared just over Gary's head, screwing up his face tremendously and humming. 'Is that the earlier version of "Martians in Godthaab"', he finally asked, though his tone indicated he already knew the answer.

Gary was hopelessly taken aback, and looked around a bit before allowing his gaze to rest on Fred Fine's calculator. 'Oh, yeah, I guess. I guess "Martians in Godthaab" must be new.'

'No,' said Fred Fine clearly, 'it came out six months ago.' To soften the humiliation he chucked Gary on the shoulder. 'But to answer your question. Some of our plebes--our novice wargamers--do enjoy that game. It's interesting in its own way, I suppose, though I've only played it a dozen times. Of course, it's a Simuconflict product, and their games have left a lot to be desired since they lost their Pentagon connections. but there's nothing really wrong with it.'

The trio stared at him. How could he know so much?

'Uh, do you guys,' ventured the blue one, 'ever get into role-playing games? Like Dungeons and Dragons?'

'Those of us high in the experiential hierarchy find conventional D and D stultifying and repetitive. We prefer to stage live-action role-playing scenarios. But that's not for just anyone.'

Well, you know, you had to be there.

'The secret we should never let the gamemasters know', Gygax is quoted as saying, 'is that they don't need any rules.' As I recall, our own adherence to the rules was...creative at best. And that was perhaps not a bad lesson to learn.

Thanks, Gary, for all the great experiences.

And experience points.

He's Alive!

Now what do you think this enormous crash test dummy is doing here?

1) he is in the process of erasing the woman's short term memory with the aid of an everyday device known only in The Dimension Where Crash Test Dummies Rule

2) he and she are members of a suburban theatre group enacting a scene from Frankenstein or Paradise Lost (he's Eve, tempting Rosemarie)

3) this is an intimate instance of courtship. He is handing her a pack of worm bait (or contraceptives?) that he usually keeps in one of the many pockets on his exceedingly fashionable survivalist waistcoat (currently on sale at Aldi for EUR 9,99)

Nooooo! You silly semiotically overcharged fools (been reading too much Derrida lately, have we?). He is offering her a packet of painkillers to assuage the pains in her arthritic knee (daintily indicated by her gloved hand on her leg).

Only a German marketing genius could come up with this at once subtle and surreal suburban snapshot.

Breakfast Reading

Waking up to a bouquet of articles (at The Independent, The New York Times and The Telegraph) about fraudulent "misery memoirs", I feel prompted to cancel the plans I had for the morning and immediately put finger to keyboard.

The NYT discusses Love and Consequences by "Margaret B. Jones," which the author claimed to be a truthful account of her upbringing as a foster child in LA gangland. As was discovered a couple of days ago, the book was actually composed by one Margaret Seltzer, a young woman from a prosperous LA suburb apparently blessed with an imagination so wild it borders on the delusional.

The 'graph article mentions Jones'/Seltzer's book in connection with a comparable UK case: Kathy O'Beirne's Kathy's Story: A Childhood Hell Inside the Magdalene Laundries (aka Don't Ever Tell in Britain). An immediate best seller on publication in 2005, O'Beirne's account of the abuse she had suffered for years in the Magdalene home of Our Lady of Charity of High Park has now been exposed as a fraud by journalist Herman Kelly. Kelly's research, the results of which have become Kathy's Real Story, has uncovered, among other things, that there are no records of O'Beirne ever being in the home in question.

The articles bring to mind Germany's own literary scandal of this ilk, Feuerherz, an "autobiographical" account by Senahit Mehari, an Eritrean-born German pop star, whose claims to have been a child soldier are being seriously questioned as possible distortions of historical facts (including her life story). The author has admitted inventing key details of her book -- though this did not prevent the release of a film loosely based on it.

Given Homo sapiens' continuing fascination with confessing and "witnessing", the success of this type of text does not come as a surprise. There's a long tradition of "true" tales in the tradition of the Puritan spiritual autobiography, from Defoe's criminal Moll Flanders via Hogg's vicious antinomian Wringhim in Confessions of a Justified Sinner to McEwan's obnoxious Briony in Atonement (a prudish pubescent Puritan if ever there was one). The enduring popularity of confessional literature suggests that there is good reason to think of these texts in light of the social function of confession as a ritual whereby a sinner begs for reintegration into her or his community (even if the last two cases cast serious doubt over the success of this kind of reintegration).

But at least with Defoe, Hogg and McEwan, we know that we are dealing with fiction. In fact, Defoe's claim the his account of Moll Flanders is "truthful" -- established through the introduction of an intercepting editorial voice -- served as a defence against contemporary suspicions regarding fictional literature. He disguised his novels as confessions, because fiction qua fiction was then still considered by many a sinful waste of time.

While the current spate of what is sometimes disparagingly referred to as "misery lit" is part of this tradition of fiction as confession, it is also more troubling precisely because the authors of these allegedly non-fictional accounts deliberately set out to deceive their readers -- who themselves are only too happy to be taken in.

Granted, such sorrowful texts (and their current ubiquity and historical longevity) seem to testify to an apparently ingrained human sense of compassion. This might at first sight seem a good thing. But in manipulating readers' compassionate responses, misery literature also confirms Karen Halttunen's suspicion that a presumably humanitarian fascination with the suffering of others amounts to little more than a "pornography of pain".

"The truth" is far from irrelevant to this matter: the emotional punch readers experience when confronted with accounts of genuine suffering is far greater than that obtained through fiction. And it is this "punchiness" that makes misery lit so enormously marketable.

Which brings us to the other side of the coin. If the confession is a communal ritual in which the confessor begs for reintegration, then he or she too benefits from it. Michel Foucault makes that point when he calls the confession "a ritual of discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement" (The History of Sexuality I, p.61). The confessor, precisely in affirming social power by participating in this communal ritual, asserts her or his identity as a person who deserves to be heard.

Apart feeding individual vanity, however, there are more down-to-earth benefits at stake in misery-lit. As the author of the Telegraph article astutely points out: misery lit is a neat little money spinner. "Inspirational memoirs," which differ on in degree from tell-all magazines for middle England's bored housewives, might make up as much as 9% of Britain's book market.
So why has other people's misery become such big business? One of the biggest factors is the impact of the rise of the supermarket: eight out of 10 misery memoirs are bought at the checkout, mostly by women (who make up 85 per cent of the market) who would not visit a bookshop but buy "true life" magazines such as Pick Me Up or Chat, which feature stories about abusive fathers, cheating husbands and distasteful diseases.
So, apart from being self-centred and egotistic, misery-lit is the soppily self-indulgent flip side of a culture dominated by the fantasy of the quick buck. In a world of the sub-mediocre, where people without talent, intelligence, charm or skills can become media superheroes, confession promises to be a route to the top (and dovetails neatly not only with a quasi democratic rags-to-riches fantasy, but also a more esoteric demand for "authenticity"). The X-factor and Oprah are both variations on that theme. In this climate, misery lit -- both of the truthful or deceitful variety -- was an accident waiting to happen.

Sadly, though not unpredictably, too many academics in search of an as yet unoccupied ecological niche have jumped on this cultural bandwagon. This is not to deny the reality of trauma (though I'm not so sure about therapeutic hopes for "closure" deriving from this reality). However, much of "trauma studies" -- especially in humanities departments -- is not only solipsistic and self-centred, but actually harmful to the understanding and treatment of truly traumatised people.

More disturbingly, there is a political angle to all this. Tales of personal suffering such as those mentioned here are often sold as having political relevance. Now. some of them might actually have this relevance. However, as the author of an article in die Zeit about the scandal surrounding Mehari's Feuerherz rightly points out, some tales of personal suffering might actually distract from or even undermine the political debates in which they claim to participate.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

What the hell am I doing?

One of the questions that Norm asks contributors to his profile series is 'What philosophical thesis do you think it most important to disseminate?' Like many of the other questions, that's a tough one all right.

The answer I gave -- 'To promote both the use of rational thought and the awareness that people are not fundamentally rational' -- is far from perfect (or even profound) perhaps, but it does more-or-less express what has become a guiding principle of mine.

It has at least the benefit of being both parsimonious and symmetrical, as each side of this particular outlook has a single source:

Do we need to promote rational thought? Yes, why, just look at all the crazy shit people do?!

Are we, deep down, fundamentally rational beings? No, why, just look at all the crazy shit people do?!

What is more, given the sheer volume of said crazy shit, I get to see my beliefs confirmed on a daily basis.

That is nice.

It's helpful now and then, though, to discover that at least some of the views I hold have a more firm grounding in what has succinctly and pithily described as 'earth-logic', something from which all too many people's thinking achieves escape velocity.

Last week, Elizabeth Kolbert had an interesting article in the New Yorker on a related point. In 'What was I thinking?', she looks at a couple of books on research being done on the irrational bases of behaviour. She focuses on 'behavioural economics' in the form of Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions.

I've not read it, but I like the gist of his arguments.

He claims that his experiments, and others like them, reveal the underlying logic to our illogic. “Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless—they are systematic,” he writes. “We all make the same types of mistakes over and over.” So attached are we to certain kinds of errors, he contends, that we are incapable even of recognizing them as errors.

With regard to a somewhat different sphere, 'The Moral Instinct', by Steven Pinker, appeared at the New York Times, summarising a variety of work on the issue of where people's moral beliefs come from. Confronting the assumption that morality is (simply) imposed through learning and imitation, he points to research suggesting a far more intuitive understanding of moral concepts that underlies a large part evaluating right and wrong.

At least a certain portion of culture, then, appears as a result of the effort to find post-hoc rationalisations for what we think anyway. (That certainly explains a lot of blogging...)

Like a lot of Pinker's writing, the article is a mixture of effective summary, brilliant insight and sometimes careless quips. (For instance: I'm not convinced that arguments about the environmental impact of, say, S.U.V.s are necessarily based on personal moral abhorrence about 'over-indulgence'. One does not need moral priggishness to critique personal wastefulness, merely an understanding that individual behaviour multiplied by hundreds of millions of individuals can have an enormous impact.)

Also like a lot of Pinker's writing, it is enormously compelling. He observes:

The science of the moral sense also alerts us to ways in which our psychological makeup can get in the way of our arriving at the most defensible moral conclusions. The moral sense, we are learning, is as vulnerable to illusions as the other senses. It is apt to confuse morality per se with purity, status and conformity. It tends to reframe practical problems as moral crusades and thus see their solution in punitive aggression. It imposes taboos that make certain ideas indiscussible. And it has the nasty habit of always putting the self on the side of the angels.

One of the researchers mentioned by Pinker is Jonathan Haidt. Haidt has a curious article at Edge: 'Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion'. I say 'curious', because its first part (up to about page six on the printed version) is a fascinating and convincing look at the intuitive nature of moral judgements and the unconscious causation of most behaviour whereas its second half is a much less convincing critique of 'New Atheism' .

This is one of the best bits, at least with regard to the topic I'm discussing here:

Our brains, like other animal brains, are constantly trying to fine tune and speed up the central decision of all action: approach or avoid. You can't understand the river of fMRI studies on neuroeconomics and decision making without embracing this principle. We have affectively-valenced intuitive reactions to almost everything, particularly to morally relevant stimuli such as gossip or the evening news. Reasoning by its very nature is slow, playing out in seconds.

Studies of everyday reasoning show that we usually use reason to search for evidence to support our initial judgment, which was made in milliseconds. But I do agree with Josh Greene that sometimes we can use controlled processes such as reasoning to override our initial intuitions. I just think this happens rarely, maybe in one or two percent of the hundreds of judgments we make each week. And I do agree with Marc Hauser that these moral intuitions require a lot of computation, which he is unpacking.

Hauser and I mostly disagree on a definitional question: whether this means that "cognition" precedes "emotion." I try never to contrast those terms, because it's all cognition. I think the crucial contrast is between two kinds of cognition: intuitions (which are fast and usually affectively laden) and reasoning (which is slow, cool, and less motivating).
And there's another conclusion that is also important:

The basic idea is that we did not evolve language and reasoning because they helped us to find truth; we evolved these skills because they were useful to their bearers, and among their greatest benefits were reputation management and manipulation. (Emphasis added)

And this, I think is a key point: our psychologies are about use, not truth.

Haidt's article is fairly lengthy, as are the responses to it by David Sloan Wilson, Michael Sherman, Sam Harris, PZ Myers and Marc Hauser. So, this posting is an entirely too brief summary of what that discussion is all about.

Much of that discussion focuses on the much weaker part of Haidt's paper, where he tries to apply his empirical conclusions to the 'New Atheism'.

I'll simply direct you to the responses by Myers and Harris on that topic.

But I also think that Haidt's efforts to link religiosity to the current effort by some people to rehabilitate 'group selection' are unconvincing.

Hauser makes a very good point about this:

This is bad evolutionary reasoning, and the kind of speculation that ultimately led Gould and Lewontin to have a field day with loose just-so stories. But there is more. Just because there is variation doesn’t mean it will be selected. It has to be heritable variation. One has to show that the belief systems are genetically passed on in some way, or one has to argue for cultural selection, which is an entirely different affair, at least at the level of mechanism and timing of change. I don’t see any evidence that the observed variation in beliefs is heritable in a genetic sense. (Emphasis added)

Neither do I, and there are other problems with group selection in the sense that Wilson and others seem to be trying to revive. This is not a new spat: Geoff made some good observations about another Dawkins-Wilson tiff on a similar topic last year.

(Hauser's point about heritability is also germane, of course, to Gregory Clark's recent speculations about the genetic basis of capitalism. I commented here, here, and here.)

It seems clear to me that while Haidt is right to point out the benefits that might accrue to those who are well integrated into their communities, he is mistaking those benefits as being purely religious in nature. (This is partly what Myers rebukes him for.)

Moreover (and this comes out in Sam Harris's response), Haidt seems to be basing his view of religion largely (or maybe even exclusively, as far as his empirical evidence goes) on the relatively contained, civilised, reformed -- in short, tamed -- version that you find in some parts of the modern world and not the less cheerful versions of it so common in much of the past and present.

Finally, I think the issue of 'benefit' (are religious people 'happier') is a different -- and far less interesting -- one than that of 'truth' (do gods exist). It's mainly the latter question that the recent best-selling atheist authors have confronted; however, even on the issue of the former one, Haidt's view of religion seems oddly one-sided.

Anyway, the topic of intuitive judgements seems difficult to escape these days.

Just this morning I ran across Momus using Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink to think about the great deal of information we can gain from the briefest of impressions:

Gladwell calls this "thin-slicing" and explains that "as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience". This might sound lazy, but there's something rather elegant -- and sometimes startlingly acute -- about it. "In a psychological experiment, normal people given fifteen minutes to examine a student's college dormitory can describe the subject's personality more accurately than his or her own friends." It's why I always scribble down my first impressions of a new city within minutes of arriving. It's not just that first impressions are lasting, they're also some of the most penetrating thin-slices you'll ever get. "Reality", said Willem de Kooning, "is a slipping glimpse".

And our minds present us a view of that reality (in most cases) that is useful rather than truthful.

Finally: Some digging around has brought up a couple of very interesting-looking articles on this topic by John Bargh -- whom Haidt mentions -- that I've not managed to read yet: 'The Unbearable Automaticity of Being' (pdf) and 'What Have We Been Priming All these Years?' (pdf).

What all of these insights mean for topics of interest at this blog -- namely, the study of history and literature -- is a challenging question.

Last year, in 'The Limits of Culture?', I at least tried to make a start on thinking about how evolutionary psychology might be integrated into historical studies with regard to the topic of violence. (The article, by the way, is FREE for download. I mention this only because articles in most academic journals are not...and also because, as Elizabeth Kolbert points out in the opening paragraphs of her New Yorker article, the word 'free' has a profound affect on the human psyche. I'm trying to start a stampede... Also note: occasionally, the IngentaConnect site seems to pitch a fit and either never load or tell you that the content is not there. It is. Just keep trying. Or get in touch if you can't.)

Responses to the article can be found here and here; my response to the responses here. Access to these latter bits, however, will require either that you be affiliated with some kind of institution that subscribes to such online content or that you cough up some bucks first. Sorry. As in so many things, as the man said, TANSTAAFL.

Ain't it the truth.