Sunday, June 29, 2008

Sad Songs (Still) Say So Much

[If you got here through a Google search for "sad songs", you should read this first.]

A while back on this blog, there was a great discussion about sad songs in response to one of my posts entitled "Sad Songs Say So Much." I've been thinking about that again recently for a couple of reasons. First, I'm about to resume broadcasting my show "Americana the Beautiful" on Rhodes Radio (after taking about a 2 month hiatus) and I'm planning an "All Sad Songs" themed show for my return. Second, I've been playing a lot of music myself recently-- it seems like I can't do anything these days without running into another guitar player (such is Memphis)-- and with all that extra playing, I've discovered several more truly great sad songs.

And, of course, I just really, really love sad songs... so this topic never gets old for me.

As you may remember from the last discussion, I lauded Professor Grady for his erudition in choosing Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" as the saddest song EVER. There are a lot of songs that you should know how to play if you play guitar-- and I don't include "Free Bird" or "Stairway to Heaven" among them-- but I think that every guitar player should feel a moral obligation to learn "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." It's a classic. Here, just listen for yourself:



As I said in the earlier discussion, part of the reason that "Don't Think Twice" is so, so very sad is that it tries so, so very hard NOT to be sad. But that's only one kind of sad song. There are, of course, other kinds. For example, there are sad songs that are sad despite their lyrical content-- that is, the song can be "happy" or "hopeful" in terms of the story it tells and yet still sound very sad because, say, it's in a minor key... or it's sung by Nina Simone. I may be alone in this estimation, but I've always thought Nina Simone's recording of "Here Comes the Sun" (written by George Harrison, and originally from the Beatles album Abbey Road) counted as a sad song, despite the fact that the song continually repeats the refrain "it's all right" and, well, it's telling us "here comes the sun." Judge for yourself, though:


Anyway, today I want to recommend a sad song that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered subtle. Unlike Dylan's "Don't Think Twice," this song doesn't try to mask it's sadness; and unlike Nina Simone's "Here Comes the Sun," no counter-intuitive moves are necessary to recognize it as a sad song. This song is about "being sad," about the utter wretchedness of being sad, and about the inadequacy of our primary biological response to being sad, that is, crying. Julie Miller's "I Can't Cry Hard Enough" isn't about nuanced sadness or reflective sadness or mediated sadness. The composition is simple and spare, her voice is vulnerable and pure, the lyrics are straightfoward and blunt, the narrative voice is utterly alone. It's one of those songs that desparately, and unsuccessfully, reaches for something transcendent, relaying the simple and sad truth of how, even if it were at all possible to be more sad, one could only encounter that possibility as an impossibility. It's just damn sad, plain and simple.



So, I'm putting "I Can't Cry Hard Enough" on my list of top-ten saddest songs EVER, because sometimes, you know, subtlety is overrated.

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NOTE TO READERS: I hope that you are able to access all of these songs, but you may need to "allow pop-ups" to do so.
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Saturday, June 28, 2008

American Politics, in a word...

I just dicovered the website Capitol Words, which provides an "at-a-glance view into the daily proceedings of the United States Congress through the simplest lens available."

What is the "simplest lens available" you may be asking yourself? Well, it's really simple. Like, a single word. That's right, for every day that Congress is in session, Capitol Words displays the most frequently used word in the Congressional Record. Yesterday the word was "nominations" and before that some of last week's winners were "veterans," "energy" and "oil."

In other American political news, I hope you were able to catch the drama that ensued at John McCain's speech to the National Association of Elected Latino Officials (NALEO) earlier today. McCain was heckled by protestors (here's a link to the video on MSNBC) who held up signs that read "McCain = Guerra" and shouted to the audience "Your silence is assent to war crimes!" McCain, not surprisingly, completly ignored the (multiple) protests.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Damn Your Eyes!

Here's a little tune from The Man in Black to make you smile on a Friday. Nevermind that it's an execution song. (Details, details.) As I've said before, I think God speaks to humanity through Johnny Cash. Maybe not in this song in particular... but I don't pretend to know the mind of God.


Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Coen Brothers' Coin-Flip: amor fati or fait accompli ?

Last year's Academy Award for Best Picture went to the Coen Brothers' haunting film No Country for Old Men, based on the novel of the same name by (University of Tennessee alum) Cormac McCarthy. In one of the most important scenes-- which actually occurs twice--the film's murderous, mysterious, and thoroughly amoral antagonist, Anton Chigurh (Javier Barden), comes face-to-face with someone who we are led to believe will almost certainly not survive the encounter. But instead of killing his victim(s) straight away, Chigurh flips a coin and asks them to call it. Chigurh does not explain what the coin flip is meant to signify or determine, nor does he explain why his putative victims are "lucky" enough to be afforded this "chance." We (the audience) implicitly understand, however, that the result of the coin flip will be a life-or-death determination and that, as such, it is meant to signify... um... well...

What IS the coin flip meant to signify?

[Spoiler Alert: I will reveal semi-significant plot details in the following!]

In the first iteration of this coin-flip, which happens fairly early in the film and is really a character-establishing scene, Chigurh tests the fortitude of a boorish, maladroit, back-country gas station attendant with his coin. This scene is really one of the Coen brothers' finest-- Chigurh is as intense and determined as the gas station attendant is bumbling and hapless, producing the sort of uncomfortable contrast of emotional intensities in which one can't decide whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle of it. (The skill with which the Coens are able to produce these moments of uncomfortable, forced, nervous laughter in their audience is one of their greatest virtues as filmmakers.) Because we, the audience, don't yet understand Chigurh, we are allowed to believe that the first coin-flip is in good faith, that the wretched attendant has a real chance at a lucky call that will save his life. And, of course, this intuition is partly confirmed when the attendant does correctly call the flip and is spared.

If the film stopped there, or if the coin-flip weren't repeated later, I think that we would be led to belive that the character of Chigurh is attempting to impart the lesson of Nietzschean amor fati ("love of fate") to his target. After the attendant guesses correctly, Chigurh gives him the "lucky" coin, and then promptly chastises the attendant when he attempts to thoughtlessly stuff the coin in his pocket. The attendant, confused, asks where he "should" put the coin and Chigurh answers, cryptically:
"Anywhere not in your pocket. Or it'll get mixed in with the others and become just a coin. Which it is."

So, on this first rendering of the coin-flip, we are permitted to indulge whatever pretense of a-morality we can muster. Here, Chigurh is merely the messenger and the executor of Fate, and the result of the coin-flip no more confirms the evil of his soul than it does the innocence of the attendant. The virtue lauded in this scene, such that it is, is only to be found in embracing (and loving) the non-knowledge with which we call "heads" or "tails" in a game of chance-- even and especially when we are ignorant of the stakes of the game.

However-- alas!-- there is another coin-flip at the end of the film, long after the audience has been permitted the luxury of making what seem like "justified" moral judgments about the characters. When Chigurh finally meets up with Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald)-- the wife of Chigurh's prey throughout the film and, in terms of the narrative, a total "innocent"-- we know by this time that Chigurh will no doubt kill her. But the Coens/McCarthy reproduce the coin-flip exchange again here... only this time, we know in advance that neither we nor Carla Jean can possibly "love" the "fate" that will soon be confirmed. Like the gas station attendant before her, Carla Jean wants to know the stakes of the game, which Chigurh refuses her, but unlike the gas station attendant, she refuses to play. Not only does she refuse to call the coin, but she refuses the very pretense of the flip, saying to Chigurh: "The coin don't have no say. It's just you."

To which Chigurh replies:"I got here the same way the coin did."

And so, it seems, we have moved from a story of amor fati to a story of fait accompli. The coin, which in the earlier scene seemed to represent a kind of subject-less agency, is now no more than a ruse, a distraction, an ornament. It determines nothing and it signifies nothing. Just like real people.

In the end, No Country for Old Men is a tale about the evils we do not, and can not, understand. In fact, we cannot even understand them enough to know whether or not they are, really, "evils." The west Texas country is an unforgiving, uncaring, and an unaffected place-- least of all forgiving of, caring for or affected by the suffering of we random individuals. The film and novel No Country for Old Men asks us to consider what might be if we encountered a human being just like the west Texas country. What would become of our ultimately makeshift and incomplete notions of morality then? Can we love that fate? Or, as the penultimate scene of the film suggests, is our response-ability to that-which-will-be, ultimately, beside the point?

If, in the end, we all "got here the same way the coin did," does that mean that there is no difference between ourselves and the coin? I wonder...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In Memoriam: Michel Foucault

Twenty-four years ago today, on June 25, 1984, Michel Foucault died in Paris, France. In an interview with Lé Magazine Littéraire, barely a month before his passing, Foucault remarked:

"The work of an intellectual is not to mould the political will of others; it is, through the analyses that he does in his own field, to re-examine evidence and assumptions, to shake up habitual ways of working and thinking, to dissipate conventional familiarities, to re-evaluate rules and institutions and to participate in the formation of a political will (where he has his role as citizen to play)."
--Michel Foucault, "The Concern for Truth"

A Genuinely Original Thought About Race

Pace the author of Ecclesiastes, every once in a while we find that there is, in fact, something new under the sun.

As evindence, I refer you to the political philosophy blog Public Reason, where Simon Keller (Philosophy, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) recently offered what I find to be a remarkably original "Thought About Racial Profiling." Keller begins by granting that the moral and political permissability of racial profiling is a judgment that can be yielded using both consequentialist reasoning (of the utilitarian sort) and contractualist reasoning (of the Rawlsian "original position"). That is to say, the logics of both consequentialism and contractualism lead one to the conclusion that it is in the greater interest of society as a whole--given certain statistical evidence about the relationship between racial identity and crime--to allow police to employ these statistical trends in the execution of law enforcement, to bring about a more just society.

So far, so good... but so far, not so original. However, Keller proceeds to tweak the proposed "policy" of racial profiling, suggesting that if one already advocates the conventional practice of racial profiling (in the interest of a more just society), then one ought to advocate even more strongly a "slightly modified version" that Keller wants to suggest. Here comes the curveball. Keller's slightly modified policy of racial profiling, in his own words, is as follows:

"Police pay extra attention to members of a certain race, but whenever an individual object of such attention is not arrested, she gets a payment as compensation.

This is a crude thought, but the idea is that if someone is pulled over partly because he is black, or searched at an airport partly because he is Arabic, then he gets - say - $100. Alternatively, we might have a blanket policy of tax rebates for - say - young black males, or they could receive cheaper college education, or some other institutionalized benefit, as compensation for being the innocent victims of a policy that is, on the whole, socially justified.


...I can’t see that [this modification of racial profiling] would be especially difficult to implement, nor that it adds any extra level of stigmatization or racial tension that the standard policies wouldn’t contain anyway."

Now, I think there are more than a few nuanced problems with simply conceding the permissability of "conventional" racial profiling to the consequentialists and the constractualists in the first place. (For example, doesn't the fact that we begin with a question about the moral/political permissability of racial profiling already illustrate our somewhat naive acceptance of a certain set of social-scientific "facts" that are themselves deserving of more critical judgment? I mean, shouldn't the first and most obvious question be: "does the practice of racial profiling produce--or at least reinforce--the racial profiles that are taken as the justification for this policy?") But my suspicion is that these nuances aren't lost to Keller, and that the point of his thought experiment is rather to demonstrate that there is a better and more just way of implementing the policy of racial profiling... IF racial profiling is really as justified as its advocates claim.

Which, of course, it may not be.

As Keller says in his conclusion, if you find his proposed policy obnoxious, then "isn't it obvious that whatever is wrong with [Keller's policy] is also wrong with racial profiling intrinsically?"

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Battle Royale

For those of you following the battle between Chet and me over the merits (and demerits) of Paul Thomas Anderson's film, There Will Be Blood, you mght be interested to learn that our argument has spilled over onto another blog. See Chet's response, "Diegesis, etc." for more of the not-yet-bloody action.

Monday, June 23, 2008

30% ? Really?

The Washington Post reported this weekend that "3 in 10 Americans Admit to Race Bias." It's fairly amusing to watch this little piece cycle through the news channels today.

Some of the reporters are saying "30% of Americans admit to race bias" like this: "Oh. My. God. There are RACISTS in this country! This is NEWS! We must let the people know that this VERY WELL MAY affect the UPCOMING ELECTION! Man your stations, journalists!"

Others are reporting the same story like this: "Well, yeah, 30% of Americans SAY that they have race bias, but we all know the real deal here. Americans just know better than to ADMIT to race bias. I mean, like, duh."

I demand a recount.
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ADDENDUM: I suppose things could be worse. Fellow blogger Petya recently posted on the first-ever Gay Pride Parade in Sofia, Bulgaria this weekend, which is laboring under serious threats of violence from right-wingers there (who are calling for a repeat of similar violence that accompanied the parade in Belgrade). You can also read more news about this on Professor Grady's blog.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Bandidos Yanquis

Since I'm spending most of my days writing about philosophy, I've decided to limit my writing on this blog to the topic of film for a little while. Today, the subject is another one of my favorites, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford (soundtrack, funny enough, by Burt Bacharach). The press release of the 1969 film hailed it as "The (Mostly) True Story of the West's Most Charming Outlaws." When the film was released, Redford had just done Barefoot in the Park and Newman had delivered his turn (in one of my top-ten films of all time) as Cool Hand Luke, so these two actors were, in fact, the most charming charmers-- outlaw or otherwise-- at the time.

Westerns are not usually described as "charming" films, nor are they generally funny... which is one of the reasons that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was such a ground-breaking film. In fact, the genre of "Western" only ever received two makeovers as far as I am concerned: first, with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and, second, with Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. That just goes to show you how deeply engrained the tableau of the Western really is in the American psyche... like it or not.

I just want to comment on one theme in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which doesn't occur until about halfway through the film, that is, the idea that outlaws can never "go straight." Not because they don't want to, which Butch and Sundance most definitely did, and not because they are essentially "bad" people, which Butch and Sundance certainly weren't... but because the circumstances of our lives sometimes--nay, most of the time--determine the possibilities that we see available to us. (Full disclosure: my emphasis on this theme is in part a response to Chet's suggestion, in his comment on my There Will Be Blood review, that I believe that human beings are "autonomous subjects" that can be extracted from their "social and economic conditions." Let me go on record as saying that I don't believe that.) As much as I loathe to admit it in my own life, our past decisions (autonomous or otherwise) inevitably serve as pruning mechanisms to the tree of our future possibilities. Sometimes that pruning allows us a set of better and more productive possibilities than would have arisen without the pruning, and other times... well, other times it forces us to choose the "least worst" alternative.

It's true that, in the end, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid comes off as a martyrs' story. And even though the film ends in that sepia-toned freeze-frame (pictured below) of the two bandidos yanquis heading to their doom, with the nameless voice shouting Fuego!, we're still rooting for them to make it out some way, somehow. And, yet, but... we can't root for them, at least not as long as we remain in the frame of the traditional Western, where bad guys must always get their come-uppance. But unlike the Westerns before it, we were never asked in this film to identify with the lawman or the law... and that is what makes Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid revolutionary in the cinematic sense.

Much to my own detriment, admittedly, I've never been one to hold "the lawman" or "the law" in high regard. I'm much more an advocate of, in Derrida's formulation, justice beyond or before the law. (And, to be honest, I'm much more a fan of the kind of complicated sense of "forgiveness" and "redemption" that serve as the implicit themes of Westerns generally, and the explicit themes of Westerns like Unforgiven.) My kind of limited regard for the law, I can attest, will definitely prune one's possibility-tree... and might even land one in jail for more than few hours, as it did to me several years back. But, whatever, I think my particular affection for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid comes from this love of the lovable outlaw, of whom I know and love many.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Goodfellas

In my last post, I praised the skill and acumen of director Martin Scorcese's Taxi Driver, which I think is one of his best films. In a rather serendipitous turn of events, I also watched on television that same night the American Film Institute's 10 Top 10, which listed the top ten films in ten different categories (animation, romantic comedy, western, sports, mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, gangster, courtroom drama, and epic). "Gangster" movies are probably some of my favorite movies of all time, so I watched with baited breath to see what the top three gangster films would be. I was sooooo happy to see Scorcese's Goodfellas squeezed in at #2, just between Francis Ford Coppola's first and second installments of The Godfather triology. For all of us who love Goodfellas and constantly bemoan the fact that it isn't given the respect that The Godfather movies get, this was a small but totally gratifying coup.

[Side notes about the non-gangster AFI rankings: I totally agree with the #1 chices in the categories of epic (Lawrence of Arabia), courtroom drama (To Kill A Mockingbird), fantasy (Wizard of Oz), and western (The Searchers). I would have switched #3 (Rear Window) and #1 (Vertigo) in the "mystery" category, but I'm okay with any Jimmy Stewart/Alfred Hitchcock combination. I think that Pinocchio should have gotten #1 in animation, and The Philadelphia Story should've gotten #1 in romantic comedy. And in the most egregiously bad omission, I can't even believe that Chariots of Fire wasn't included in the top-10 "sports" movies! I am inclined to say that it should've been in a dead-heat contest for #1 with Rocky. I mean, Jerry Maguire in the top 10? Really?]

Anyway, back to Goodfellas.

To attempt to capture the sheer brilliance of Goodfellas is as formidable an undertaking as Liotta's attempt to explain to Pesci, in the most famous scene from the film, why Liotta thinks Pesci is a "funny guy." Scorsese's prowess when it comes to the ambiguity and plurality of meaning are almost legendary. His (in)famous shady rooms and dim lighting within the surreal world of "made" men cinematically translate his obsession with the games life comically, cruelly, and consistently plays with its participants. The central theme in Goodfellas is quite straightforward, that is, just at the times when you think you've got it all under control, you don't. This kind of subjective impotence in the face of a world that refuses to be domesticated is only magnified by that world's relentless demand on select men to make their home in the world as it is. Scorsese's men are tossed into the game like poker chips in a smoke-filled room, all the while believing that they are bellying up to the table to play for a chance to be "made." Yet, in Goodfellas, the dealing is always from the bottom of the deck.

The first, and perhaps most obvious, directorial influence in the film is Scorsese's decision to give his audience an inside point of view. By placing us shoulder-to-shoulder with Liotta for almost the entirety of the film, the audience is provided a real sense of involvement in the mafia scene. The overarching narrative being told by Liotta directly to the audience provides us a semblance of inclusion, even participatory influence, and directs all the events at the viewer. Scorsese gives his audience a passenger seat on the fast track of an up-and-coming insider from the very start, and when Liotta begins to lose control and move out of the inside, we are alienated along with him. Most of the camera angles are tight shots, giving the audience the sense of an intimate, "family" surrounding, and encouraging all of the feelings that family engenders, including both familiarity and precariousness. Scorsese emphasizes the point of view of subjective control by aligning the audience with Liotta, and as Liotta's world becomes more disjointed and chaotic (as he begins to lose control, or be controlled) the audience's take on the action also begins to lose its coherence and rigid linear direction. Liotta moves from a slick insider, barely noticeable as he cruises in and out of the circles of made men, to a progressively more clumsy and conspicuous outsider, unable to blend into the shadows, glaringly out of place and out of control, until finally he seems the parody of the man he was. In the last scene, Liotta is standing anonymously, ridiculously, in a fenced-in suburban lawn. And, in the end, we're standing there with him.

The more technical of Scorsese's directorial influences on point of view are masterfully evident in his use of the Steadicam and the freeze-frame. Extremely long and meticulously planned Steadicam shots in both the wedding scene and the Copa Cabana scene determine the audience's involvement in the foreign world of the mafia. As the camera weaves in and out of tables at the wedding and the Copa Cabana, we are given a real sense of family and the enormous ramifications that entails. Scorsese puts us right into the subjective experience of backdoor handshakes, business deals sealed with a kiss on the cheek, and the endless stream of introductions and connections that weave together the fabric of a community based on exclusive interiority. The Steadicam shots intimate a sense of control, as if moving in and out of a system with the agility of one who knows which palms to grease, which backs to scratch, which guys to whack. For a good part of the movie, Scorsese lets us be "goodfellas," too. We get to walk where they walk, see what they see, know what they know. Yet, the Steadicam also produces a certain amount of uneasiness, a sense that the world of the goodfellas has an invisible control that is finally impenetrable.

Scorsese uses the freeze-frame for just such little epiphanies. There is no time to stop and think in the mafia world, but with the privilege of hindsight, and the medium of the narrative film, the freeze-frame arrests the progression of events and affords us a subjective commentary that may have well come straight from the director's mouth. The freeze frames in Goodfellas are Scorsese's opportunity to say: "Wait. Stop here. This is really important." They are the moments of ultimate intimacy between artist and audience, when the film is no longer speaking to us through the art of the story, but is rather speaking directly to us. Scorsese plays on the theme of control throughout Goodfellas, saying at times to us "you may be part of the story now" and at other times "you are completely outside while I stop and tell you this story." As with Liotta, Scorsese allows his audience to be close, even intimate, with the mysterious mafia world. He allows us to feel as if we are swelling our autonomy within this world, gaining control of our lives, making our own choices. But Scorsese never, ever, permits us to be taken in completely, never accepted, never inside, never "made." In the end the audience is again fenced-in to the narrative of a freeze-frame, just as Liotta is fenced-in his final suburban failure. Or, even worse, we are shot in the back by a naive belief in our own control, as Pesci ends up face down in his own blood, just on the verge of being made.

One last thing: it would be an injustice to overlook Scorsese's prodigious ability to perfectly place characters with actors. Liotta gives us the obsessively ambitious and flawlessly cool insider, as well as the cracked-up and falling-apart outsider. Pesci is the quintessential Scorsese-Italian: fast-talking, shady-dealing, story-telling, and temper-blowing. Deniro consecutively turns the same line over in dozens of different ways as he has done many times for Scorsese before, and as ingeniously as ever. Scorsese wants us to smell, hear, feel, taste goodfellas. And he gives us this Italian/Irish/New Yorker sensory blitz without missing one glass of wine, one pasta-filled plate, one grotesquely whacked traitor, or one gaudy pinky ring. As his characters play out their parts in the high stakes game, Scorsese involves his audience in such a way as to almost make the viewer another character. He stamps Goodfellas with his directorial mark by not only revealing once again the fascinating and opaquely intriguing world of La Casa Nostra, but doing so in such a way that the camera's involvement very realistically and concretely becomes the audience's involvement. The viewer is not only shown the illusory sense of control that Scorsese's story is attempting to convey, but is actually given that illusory control. In the end, one gets the feeling that the power and control of made men eludes both Scorsese and his characters (and us), and Scorsese uses his film as a commentary on his ultimate failure to enter a world that so passionately intrigues him. His camera is as much the control for Scorsese's involvement in what I would call "intimate distance" as it is his medium to communicate the paradox of intimate distance to us. It is Scorsese's alter-world, this world of made men and money and control, much like the alter-world Liotta set up for himself in the film with his mistress. As Deniro says of Liotta's arrangement:

"This... This is what this is. We all know what this is."

As ambiguous as it may be, it is the perfect encapsulation of the Scorsese project.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

There Will Be Blood is a bad Taxi Driver

I just watched There Will Be Blood (2007), the Paul Thomas Anderson film adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! about a small Texas village that becomes a boomtown in the crude oil rush of the early twentieth century. Daniel Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his performance as Daniel Plainview, the story’s tortured protagonist, and the film itself was also nominated for an Academy Award, so I was very much looking forward to seeing There Will Be Blood.



I didn’t get it.

First, let me acknowledge that I do get why Daniel Day-Lewis won the award for best actor. His performance would have been totally compelling even if it were excised from a coherent narrative milieu and plopped down on the screen sans context... which, in my estimation, it pretty much was in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film. Basically, I think There Will Be Blood did badly almost everything that Scorcese’s Taxi Driver did well (with the obvious exception of first-rate performances by both leading men). In fact, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood are just better and worse cinematic renderings of the same phenomenon, that is, the manner in which individual and collective decadence slowly comes to drive a person mad, and how the relentless monotony of that slow decay eventually erupts in meaningless violence that is (desperately, ironically) intended to reinstitute some kind of meaning.

Both protagonists, Travis (Taxi Driver) and Plainview (There Will Be Blood), are loners steeped in a world of moral blankness, compulsively executing the demands of a profession that does not allow its practitioners the luxuries of a stable home, a conventional family, or any other of the various kinds of “roots” that ground and validate human existence. Both the taxi driver and the oil man look down on the world around them with a kind of forced moral high-mindedness, indulging its inhabitants and its ways when necessary, but never making themselves at home in it. They both attempt to authenticate their otherwise empty lives by attaching themselves to a child who, for both, represents the vulnerability and innocence that has yet to be sullied by the cruel world they know. But they both inadvertently defile that innocence and exploit that vulnerability, and they both hate themselves for it.

Scorcese and Anderson establish the spiritual isolation of their protagonists through slow, sometimes monotonous, pacing and a constant reinforcing of the milieu in which their loners are alone. For Anderson, this means plenty of long-shots of the sweeping, but barren, Texas countryside and the relentless drumming of larger-than-life oil pipes, two environmental “characters” that are meant to be indifferent to and to dwarf the individual. For Scorcese, this means tight, almost claustrophobic, shots of New York City at night, porno houses, tiny efficiency apartments, crowded political rallies, and the inside of a taxicab—all situated in the world of junkies and johns and red-eyed taxi drivers whose tacit refusal to sleep only makes the surrounding decadence seem more relentless.

And, of course, Taxi Driver and There Will Be Blood are both revenge films. Travis and Plainview are both angry, self-righteous, slowly simmering powder-kegs of ressentiment, fueled by their pretension of a kind of Everyman morality. The explosion of violence at the end of both films is ultimately a parody of revenge, though, since the bloodshed is only superficially for the sake of an Other (the child). Really, this violence is the failed exorcism of a heart of darkness, and it makes no difference at all in the world. There will be blood, for sure, but for the sake of nothing, accomplishing nothing.

So, how does Scorcese pull this off in a way that Anderson doesn’t? I think it’s because Scorsese gives us a point of view in Taxi Driver—mainly through the voiceover narration of Travis—which not only serves as a thread through which we can trace the arc of the story, but also provides the audience a first-person point of entry into the stratum of undifferentiated sense-data (what Husserl would call the not-yet-explicated Sinn) that serves as the antagonist and eventually drives the protagonist mad. Anderson, on the other hand, opts for the (mere) intimation of a story, concentrating all of his effort instead on the intensification of a character who is never adequately developed. Watching There Will Be Blood gave me the feeling that someone must have made an error or two in post-production, that somewhere there are a lot of missing but critical scenes that got left on the editing room floor. Hence, the film is too much “impression” and not enough “substance,” too much raw Sinn and not enough Bedeutung or Austruck. The result is that Daniel Day-Lewis’ compelling performance is suspended in thin air—groundless and senseless—a lot like his character, but not in a good way.

Monday, June 16, 2008

I'm Voting Republican

[NOTE FROM DOCTOR J: I really, really hope it's obvious that I'm not actually voting Republican.]

Saturday, June 14, 2008

International human rights v. Multinational corporate money

About a month ago, the U.S. Supreme Court almost heard a case from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in which the plaintiffs, South African citizens, sought damages from several American and multi-national corporations for their role in (and profiting from) the perpetuation of apartheid in violation of international law. The Circuit Court had ruled that the case (American Isuzu Motors v. Ntsebeza) could proceed under the Alien Tort Statute (also known as the Alien Tort Claims Act, or ATCA), which is an over-200-year-old law granting jurisdiction to U.S. federal courts to hear complaints by foreign nationals for torts in violation of the “law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Although the law was originally drawn up to protect against acts of piracy, it has in recent years been used more and more to hold government, military and corporate leaders responsible for human rights abuses committed as a result of their presence in a foreign country. Not suprisingly, the Bush Administration has consistently advocated the restriction of ATCA and has filed many briefs and letters in support of companies accused in ATCA cases. Given the increasing controversy surrounding the Alien Tort Claims Act, one may wonder why the U.S. Supreme Court didn't hear the apartheid case...

Why? Because the Court couldn't constitute the 6-judge quorum required to hear any case. Justices Breyer, Alito, Kennedy and Chief Justice Roberts ALL recused themselves, leaving only the remaining 5 justices to hear the case. Why did they recuse themselves? Because they ALL own stock in, are related to the managers of, or have some other financial stake in the companies that are defendants in the suits (including, among others, Ford Motor Co., Credit Suisse, Hewlett-Packard, BP, Exxon-Mobil, IBM, and Colgate-Palmolive, Inc). As it turns out, the inability of the Supreme Court to cobble together a quorum was good news for the South African plaintiffs since, in situations like this, the decision of the lower court is effectively upheld. (However, it should also be noted that Congress passed a law in 2006 that permits federal judges to sell shares of stock and reinvest the proceeds in mutual funds or other investments without capital gains tax penalty so that the judges could avoid having to recuse themselves in these cases. Chief Justice Roberts has already done this twice in order to get back into cases from which he initially stepped aside.) So, despite the protests of the Bush Administration, the South African goverment and, of course, the multinational companies involved, the $400 billion dollar tort case will go forward... for now.

Are there any lessons to be taken from this story? Of course there are...

(1) Human Rights Watch lists the status of the Alien Tort Claims Act under the things it's "watching" in the United States, since ATCA is one of the few toools we have to prosecute human rights abusers. Along with the folks over at Human Rights Watch, I also want to urge readers of this blog to actively work to defend ATCA.

(2) While you're working to defend ATCA, keep an eye out for the Supreme Court justices' questionable recusals. There's been very little coverage of this case in the media, which is disheartening, since this case is a crystal-clear demonstration of the mutual contamination of multinational corporate interest, domestic and international "justice" trends, and U.S. foreign-policy paranoia. Of course, Supreme Court justices should avoid involvement in corporations that are regularly involved in lawsuits-- but if they aren't inclined to do so independently, even after being thrown a great big tax carrot from Congress, then maybe we should look for some way to compel them to avoid these kinds of conflicts of interest.

(3) Although, as a rule, this is not the direction I am inclined to pursue first-- maybe we should take a lesson from Lester Freamon of The Wire and "follow the money" in our efforts to defend human rights. The $400 billion that the South African plaintiffs are seeking in the case discussed here my be a "blue sky" figure, but my guess is that it makes the corporations who may have to pay it sit up and take notice. If we can't win human rights cases in the U.S. on principle, then we can at least make it very, very expensive.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s Friday the 13th today, and I am superstitious. I realize of course that superstitions like these are totally irrational fears—but fear is a pretty powerful thing. I’ve heard people argue before that fear can be fun and exhilarating, especially in reference to things like roller coasters or haunted houses, but I think they’re making a category mistake. If you are exhilarated and have fun on roller coasters (which I do) or in haunted houses (which I don’t), then you aren’t really afraid of them (which I am of haunted houses but not of roller coasters). This is why, even though most people thought this movie was lame, I thought The Blair Witch Project was particularly horrifying, because not only was the story scary in itself, but it was also a story about “being scared”—and the utterly miserable, helpless and incapacitating dread that real fear produces in us. There’s nothing “fun” about being really afraid.

Speaking of scary movies, today is also the day that auteur M. Night Shyamalan is scheduled to release his newest and scariest (and first R-rated) film, The Happening. I’ve seen a lot of hype about this film over the past few weeks and I think it looks like one of the most interesting things that have shown up in the theaters in a long while. But I won’t go see it. Because I don’t see scary movies. Because they scare me.

There are a few exceptions to this rule, almost all aimed at mediating the ‘scariness” of the film. I won’t ever go see a scary movie on the big screen, but I will occasionally watch a scary movie at home under the following conditions: (1) it’s been described to me as “not that scary” by someone whom I trust, (2) I already know pretty much everything about what goes on in the film, especially in the “scary parts,” (3) I get to watch it in my own home, on a television, in the afternoon, preferably a sunny afternoon, and (4) I get to hold the remote (so I can pause or stop it whenever I want).

So, under these conditions, I’ve actually seen all of Shyamalan’s other films and I really liked almost all of them. I think his films are smart and philosophical, and that he is a real master of his craft. But I also will concede that Shyamalalan’s previous films (none of which were R-rated) weren’t “that” scary. My aversion to scary movies has basically two roots—Poltergeist and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte—both of which absolutely terrified me and which explain my severe anxiety around clowns or psychotic-old-women-who-look-like-Bette-Davis even to the present day. I don't think I actually believe in ghosts or evil spirits, and I'm pretty sure I don't believe that either ghosts or evil spirits are able to inhabit otherwise inanimate objects (like clown dolls, televisions, or trees, just to use the Poltergeist example)... but I do believe in all the scary and evil things that human beings do, especially if they're psychotic and look like the older Bette Davis after being spurned by her community and locked away in an antebellum mansion for too long. And I also believe that it's entirely possible that one of them is hiding under my bed.

From everything I've heard about it, this is what Shyamalan's The Happening captures so well--that is, all the unlikely and improbable things that are so scary because, however unlikely or improbable they may be, they're also possible--and this is why everyone is reporting that The Happening is a genuinely scary movie. So, if you're one of those people who isn't "really" scared by scary movies, I hope you go see it and then tell me all about it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ranking the "Stars"

Rankophiles (n. pl., people who are in love with "rankings") might be interested to learn that Brian Leiter has identified the top three "Rising Stars" among newly hired junior faculty in philosophy. The stars (Agnes Callard, Matthew Kotzen and Japa Pallikkathayil) earned their rank, according to Leiter, by exhibiting a level of "talent and promise" that "resulted in the most [job] offers from leading departments this past year." So, if you weren't already sweating under enough pressure from this profession, these rising stars ought to give you new reasons to stay up at night.

As I've said before, I'm neither an enthusiastic advocate nor a staunch opponent of rankings per se... though I'm certainly more in favor of ranking programs than I am of ranking individual philosophers. But, what actually perplexes me about this story is the criterion that was used. How can anyone possibly know who received the most job offers from leading departments in any given year?

This is a genuine question. I really don't know. My assumption was that job offers (especially ones that are eventually declined) were, for the most part, kept confidential. Can anyone explain?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

You think your job is tough?

Since it first premiered on the Discovery Channel 3 years ago, I have been addicted to the show Deadliest Catch, which follows some of the heartiest devil-may-care boats and fisherman during the Alaskan Crab fishing season on the Bering Sea. Crab fishing ranks as one of the top ten deadliest jobs (hence, the title) and, if you saw the show last season, you know that even with cameras rolling, people still died. I've seen young, manly, strapping new deckhands ("greenhorns" as they're known on the boats) reduced to wimpering piles of soggy fear after just a few weeks of the physically and psychologically gruelling work of crab fishing. They have to battle some of the most inhospitable natural conditions known to man as well as literally tons of rickety, unsteady, sometimes icy, steel machinery-- all while slipping and sliding on a rolling boat. And they sometimes work at 18 hour or more stretches, taxing their bodies and minds far more than what seems endurable by mere mortals.

The producers of Deadliest Catch also put out another show over on the History Channel about another one of the world's top ten deadliest professions. It's called Ice Road Truckers, and it follows the men who drive equipment up to natural gas factories located 100 miles or more north of the Arctic Circle. Here's the catch, though: the only way to get the equipment up there is to wait until the oceans, lakes and rivers freeze (at least 20 inches thick) and then create trucking roads over the ice. There's only about a two-month window when the ice roads are traversable, and no one knows exactly when the ice roads will finally give way, ending the delivery season. In case you were wondering, this is what happens when the ice road gives way:


What I love about both of these shows, really, is that they are bona fide existential dramas. The "characters" are characters, but not "characters," and certainly not caricatures. They're real men living real lives, reflecting on the meaning and mortality of human existence in ways that are not manufactured or pretentious, but nonethless profound. I've considered several times showing clips of these shows in my Existentialism class this fall, if only to reinforce to my students the fact that all existential questions are not necessarily asked in college classrooms or Parisian cafes. In fact, the most important ones are not asked in either of those places.

One last thing: Many years ago I saw a documentary (with the provocative title Hands on a Hardbody) about a contest that is held in Longview, Texas every year in which people compete for a "hardbody" pickup truck. The contestants each place one of his or her hands on the truck and the last one standing with his or her hand on the truck wins. Seem simple, no? No. The contest literally goes on for days, and the competitors only get very short breaks (10 minutes, I think) every few hours to go to the bathroom. They can't sit down, they can't "lean" on the truck, and most importantly, they can't let their hand slip from the truck for even a second. After the first 24 hours or so, people's legs are numb, their bodies are in pain, they're sleep-deprived and some of them are starting to lose their minds a little. But many, if not all, of them really, really need that truck.

Watching the contest is like watching a sped-up microcosmic representation of the evolution (and devolution) of the human condition. It is, as one of the contestants reports in the film, a "genuine human drama." Unfortunately, the film is prohibitively expensive, so I haven't yet been able to show it in class--and, because of the title, I've been too embarrased to ask my library to purchase it--but if you ever have the fortune of getting your hands on it (heh, heh), I highly recommend it. Like Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers, I think that Hands on a Hardbody perfectly captures the fragility, finitude, and weakness of human beings that I, for one, find absolutely profound.

Monday, June 09, 2008

How We Got Here



In other election-related news, check out the dubious decision on the part of supposedly left-leaning German magazine Die Tageszeitung editors to run a picture of the White House with the headlineOnkel Baracks Hütte (“Uncle Barack’s Cabin”). Wessen dumme Entscheidung war das?

Mama, trains, trucks, prison, gettin’ drunk... and Obama

There’s a very famous country song, made popular by David Allan Coe, called “You Never Even Called Me By My Name.” (NOTE: That link is to a YouTube rendering of the song, which might be one of the weirdest things I've ever seen.) As Coe explains in the song, it was actually written by Steve Goodman (who also wrote Willie Nelson’s hit “City of New Orleans”) and in the instrumental break between the second and third verses of the recorded version, Coe talks over the music and tells the following story:

Well a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote this song, and he told me it was the perfect country and western song. I wrote him back a letter and I told him it was NOT the perfect country and western song, because he hadn’t said anything at all about mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk. Well, he sat down and wrote another verse to this song and he sent it to me, and after reading it I realized that my friend had written the perfect country and western song. And I felt obliged to include it on this album. The last verse goes like this here....

If you know the song, you know that the last verse includes all of the requirements. Goodman even throws in a couple of extras, like “rain” and a tragic death. (It’s the death of “Mama,” of course, who gets run over by a “damned old train.”) All in all, it’s pretty hard to argue with Coe’s assessment of the song as the “perfect country and western song.” Here, just click play below and listen to it yourself...



What I love about this little exchange between Goodman and Coe is that they acknowledge, first, there is something like a Formula to country music and, second, sometimes the fact that a song is completely formulaic is what makes it great. Of course, Goodman’s song isn’t completely formulaic, inasmuch as it also (implicitly) involves a reflection on the “Formula.” But it’s that very small tweaking of the Formula, without departing from the Formula in any dramatic way, that I think defines not only great country music, but more generally great “pop” music. (I’m using “pop” in the broadest possible way here. So I mean to refer to “popular” music of all genres, but especially the genres that have historically resonated the most with the (American) populace—country, rhythm & blues, rock n’ roll.) If you’ve never tried to write one of these songs yourself, let me tell you, it’s really, really hard to do.. which it doesn’t seem like it should be, since there’s practically a blueprint for how to do it. Yet, oddly enough, what makes it so hard to write one of these songs is the very existence of the Formula. If you depart too much from the Formula, then you cut the legs out from under the song and it can’t stand up on its own. If you stick to the Formula too closely, you end up with something either completely boring or completely plagiarized. You can only allow yourself a limited number of tweaks, and even the tweaks need to be, in their own way, formulaic.

I actually think that the same applies to political campaigns. There is a Formula for constructing a platform and a message and a political persona that will resonate with the American populace and, although it can be tweaked, it cannot be circumvented or disregarded. I don’t point this out as a way of advocating some kind of “pandering” politics, but only to say that I see an interesting parallel between the story of “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” and the Obama phenomenon. That is, Obama and his message are, in their own way, very formulaic... including even his emphasis on change (because, after all, it’s a change “we can believe in.”) If Obama were a country song, we could replace “mama, trucks, trains, prison and gettin’ drunk” with another set of completely elemental and equally formulaic political criteria, like “integrity, vision, change, more change, and not gettin’ drunk.” Just like a country song, he is in effect saying “come over here, listen to me, you’ll recognize what I’m saying because it’s stuff you already know, stuff you already think is important, stuff that sounds familiar because it’s the stuff you sit around your supper table and talk about, stuff about your life.” And, unlike HRC, he’s singing that pop song very well, because people are listening. The other parallel that I see is that Obama, like the Coe/Goodman song, is also reflective about the extent to which his allegiance to the Formula (and our insistence on that allegiance) is itself something that needs a subtle highlighting. So, there is a kind of critical reflection on the Formula that is built into the otherwise formulaic packaging of his message—it’s subtle, but it’s brilliant, and it is very, very hard to do. Obama is not just giving us “Change,” because that would be too ham-handed. He’s giving us “change we can believe in”—a tweaking of the Formula that is repetition with a difference. A difference that makes a difference.

But, you know, I’m sure I’m not the only person drawing this obvious parallel between Obama and David Allen Coe. (She says while chuckling to herself...)

Friday, June 06, 2008

Naturalistic Fallacy, Schmaturalistic Schmallacy

Guess what this post is about? No, seriously, you'll never guess. Think "dead things that I like to keep on kicking"....

Yeah, that's right, it's another installment in my weak humanism series. 'Cause there's something about being atop this particular soapbox that I find just so damn edifying.

There may be some concern that I am, like my be-turbaned friend to the left, trying to derive the "ought" of human rights from the "is" of human weakness. And, the truth is, I am. Frankly, I just don't believe in the value of David Hume's (in)famous "guillotine," which seeks to completely sever the "ought" from the "is", the prescription from the description. My guess is that most of the participants in this discussion so far don't ascribe to Hume's Guillotine either, so the real issues here involve differences in (1) how we are describing the "is", and (2) how we are getting from that "is" to an "ought." (Although I feel semi-confident that we have a general consensus on what the "ought" is, so to speak, that may still be up in the air.)

With regard to (1), I am obviously the most strongly influenced by Foucault and Derrida, both of whom I think give us way more in the way of descriptions than prescriptions. Of course, as has been pointed out to me almost every time I have a conversation about this with someone familiar with contemporary philosophy, neither Foucault nor Derrida had any (explicit) interest in preserving the old idea of the "human" or resuscitating the old idea of "humanism" in any way. In fact, they were both openly hostile to such projects. So I'm treading on thin ice, I know, whenever I try to move from Foucaultian or Derridean descriptions to some sort of humanist prescriptions. I'm treading on very thin ice...wearing a tuxedo, cape and turban... and trying to pull a bug-eyed philosophical rabbit out of my hat.

That said, I still maintain that this "weak humanism" project is the "ought" that ought to be derived from the "is" that Foucalt and Derrida say that "is" is.

That is in part because I assume that we don’t want to say something as ridiculous as “Foucault and Derrida were merely interested in describing x. Full stop.” Such a position would have a hard time accounting for the stubbornly persistent moments of quasi-prescription in their work, not to mention their personal lives. But it’s also because I think our job, as their philosophical successors, is to figure out what we “ought” to do with the insights we’ve inherited, in the world as it “is.” One of the things that worries me is the possibility of an overly-reductive reading of postmodern/poststructuralist critiques of “the Enlightenment,” the canon, the metaphysics of presence, et cetera—ones that, I think, ultimately end up sanctioning complicity while people suffer and die.

In his book, Postcolonialism, Robert Young wrote: “In any system of force there will always be sites of force that are, precisely, forced, and therefore allow for pressure and intervention.” As a deconstructionista, I am always looking for those “forced-force” sites and always trying to see how much pressure and intervention they permit... because that is where I think the move from the “is” to the “ought” is possible, even necessary. As should be evident in this discussion by now, I think the fact that critics of “humanism” have difficulty rejecting the moral validity of “human rights” is one of those sites—perhaps the most important ones.

From ressentiment to rights?

It has occurred to me that I need to say a lot more about what I mean by “weak” in the formulation “weak humanism,” about which I posted a short while ago (here) and which has sparked a very interesting and productive discussion. My clarifications herein are in part attempts to sharpen my own sense of what I mean by this term, but also in response to some astute objections from my very smart readers. I’ll probably have to break up my responses to these issues into a series of posts, since to address them all at once would inevitably try your patience. (And, as I recently learned from Prof. Grady, people don’t like reading long text on a black background!)

First, one of Dr. Trott’s objections. Dr. Trott objects to my emphasis on the “weakness” of humanity (s’il en y a) because she worries that stressing the fragility and finitude of human beings amounts to claiming that, in her words, “rights follow from victimhood... [thus making] rights the product of ressentiment.” I must admit at the outset that I am, as a rule, always suspicious of arguments that devalue the first-hand accounts of victims or (in what amounts to the same thing) assume that there is no qualitative political, ethical and social difference between the lived-experience of victims and that of victimizers. This is probably an issue for another post, but I think that this suspicion of “victims” and the “rhetoric of victimization” is a broad cultural consequence of the neo-liberal insistence on a cadre of virtues that are ultimately incompatible with community: privatization, solipsism, de-contextualized “personal” responsibility, et al. For the record, I don’t think that Dr. Trott herself ascribes to those values, nor do I think she is a “neo-liberal,” which is why I find it all the more interesting to hear this objection coming from her.

I suppose that what I want to say to is that, well, in a way, rights DO follow from (real or potential) victimization... at least a lot of political and legal rights do. That’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t important and legitimate a priori arguments for human dignity (which I think are necessary for a sustainable humanism) and the rights that obtain to dignified human beings. However, I think we need to remember that when rights have been inscribed into the law or into constitutions, it has historically been a consequence of those rights having already been withheld, denied, or abrogated first. Why do we secure, in law, the right to a person’s freedom of conscience? Because, for centuries, human beings lived under the oppressive authority of monarchs and priests, and consequently were victims of various types of violence that did not respect the dignities that should be afforded to rational, autonomous, and free agents. I think most of the time, political and legal rights are secured along exactly these lines, that is, following victimization, though I know that some are secured as a kind of preemptive strike against just that sort of vicitimization.

So, the next question to ask is: does this mean that the need to inscribe these rights into law, presumably in order to circumvent the possibility of further “victimization,” is a need motivated by ressentiment? That’s a harder question, and I suppose that how one answers it depends a lot on how much one signs on to the Nietzsche-via-Delueze distinction between active and reactive spirit. It seems to be conventional wisdom these days that when one suffers an offense, the “natural” result is to react with bitterness, contempt, retribution or ressentiment. And on this line of thinking, ressentiment is unambiguously bad, since what we should be doing instead is “creating our own values” out of the sheer force of a strong will, or some other such Nietzschean nonsense. I don’t think that ressentiment is the only “reaction” to victimization. In my view, there are a host of potential advantages—moral, epistemological, social and political—that only arise in situations in which one has come face-to-face with one’s vulnerability and in which that vulnerability has been exploited. (Charles Mills makes this point in an essay on the “epistemological advantage” of non-whites, qua “subpersons,” in his essay “Alternative Epistemologies” in the book Blackness Visible. And I also think that this is what Sartre was getting at in his Critique of Dialectical Reason when he emphasized the need to see the world “from the point of view of the least advantaged.”)

A more familiar and oft-cited example of what I’m talking about can be seen in the nonviolent resistance movements. One could argue, and people like Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall have argued as much, that those movements introduced a genuinely novel mode of political action (not reaction) into human affairs—and that possibility could have only arisen as such in the minds of those who had been brutally victimized, dehumanized, by a system of power that relied on violence. To reach back into my bag-of-one-trick, I think you can say the same thing about a lot of what one sees in the political action of truth commissions throughout the latter part of the 20th C. So, here are examples where groups of people who (at least in part) identified their common element in weaknesses, and who had already been “victims,” found a way to leverage that experience into productive and progressive political action.

That’s not to say, of course, that we don’t always need to remain on the watch against the base and counterproductive expressions of ressentiment as Nietzsche articulated them. It’s just to say that I’m not ready to reject outright the possibility that we may, in fact, get a better polis when we reckon with the wisdom and unique insight of victims. Or, to put it more directly, if you gave me a choice between cohabitating a State created by those who had never intimately known their own weakness, and those who drafted their laws on the basis of the evils that they already know men (and women) do, I’d choose the latter.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Weak Humanism Redux

The "weak humanism" debate rages on, thanks to a reinvigoration by Professor Grady. If you're still interested in having this one out, especially if you've got some Cartesian or "Enlightenment" axes to grind, you should check in on the extended discussion here.

[NOTE: Please direct comments to the original post, not this one.]

Tightening the Democratic Belt

Now that Barack Obama is the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, it's time to officially move to the next stage in the Party's game plan to take back the White House. Among other things, this means that we will (finally!) get a break from all of the intra-family fighting and the supporters of both Clinton and Obama can (finally!) re-direct the aim of their scopes onto the real opposition, instead of each other. As I've said a couple of times already on this blog, I've been both tired and disappointed by the rhetoric of the primaries of late, so I am happy to slough off that nonsense. Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty...

The thing is, I think we've got a LOT of "sloughing off" to do. All of those slings and arrows that Obama and HRC threw at each other over the last few months have landed on the other's person like blobs of adipose tissue. The DNP pretty much hung out every last bit of its dirty laundry during the primaries, and all the extra sound and fury has made us bloated, distended, distracted. I think we may have inadvertently gotten a little fat and lazy during the primaries and, as we know from elections past, we're going to have to bring our leanest, meanest A-Game if we want to have any hopes of beating John McCain and the Bush League in the fall.

So, for these reasons, I really hope that Obama and HRC "make up"-- though, for the record, I think it's a bad idea for them to share a ticket. And although I'm not sure this is possible in this election year, I wish we could really, really slim-down the Democratic message. Something like: It's the war, stupid. (Except, of course, that it's also the economy, stupid. And the environment, stupid. And don't forget about health care, stupid. Alas.)

My point, I guess, is that I think we need to remain cognizant of the very real possibility that we could still be a big, fat loser come November. It's time to shape up.

--------------------

ADDENDUM: Please take time to read the comments of Paul Zeleza on the "political wonder" of Obama. Zeleza, by the way, is one of the most brilliant people I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. (Full disclosure: Zeleza was on my dissertation committe, but as far as I know, he's not compensating me for promoting him.)

Monday, June 02, 2008

Healthy Blogging


This is a very happy day in the blogosphere! I woke up this morning to discover that three of my favorite fellow-bloggers, who had let their pages lapse for quite a while, are back in business with new posts. Petya, Ideas Man,PhD and Professor KGrady... welcome back! You may be interested to read about a study discussed in Scientific American that demonstrates the therapeutic value of blogging. It's called "Blogging-- It's Good For You." So, in the interest of your own health, keep it up!

One of the things that I really appreciate about having very good (and very smart) friends who blog is that it gives me a way of keeping up with them-- and, what's more, keeping up with them in a way very similar to how I would if we weren't living so far apart. Unlike birthday or Christmas cards, my friends' blogs are never simply about conveying information, but rather they provide a little snapshot into what my friends are thinking and how they're thinking about it. Funny enough, I find that my friends' blogs (and the comments) tend to mimic exactly the kinds of conversations that I would expent to have with them over a beer. And even more peculiarly funny is that the "style" of writing on each of their blogs reminds me very much of their style of speaking, of relating, and their style in general.

Kyle's blog is thoroughly erudite, carefully written (despite his pretentions to the contrary), often bitingly funny and almost always imbued with a warmth and kindness that is, well, exactly like Kyle.

Petya, cosmopolitan cultural critic extraordinairre, writes a blog that's quirky, sweet, inexhaustably inquisitive and that brilliantly traverses the fine line between politics and proselytizing.

Speaking of proselytizing, Ideas Man, PhD tends to be a regular commenter but only a sporadic poster... but I find that the wait is always worth it. Ideas Man's blog is verbose (but not boorish), comprehensive (but not reckless), sardonic (but not mean), and edifying (but not preachy).

If you read new blogger Dr. Trott's stuff, you'll get a pretty accurate glimpse into the mysterious tour de force that is Dr. Trott. She's brilliant, blunt, discerning, driven, passionately and conscientiously engaged in The Things That Really Matter. Trott don't play.

And then there's the lone literary critic among us, Booga Face, from whom I have learned everything I know about Oromo culture, The Scarlet Letter, and Walleye fish. Booga Face is, as far as I'm concerned, a philosopher-in-exile... that is, he's got enough theory in his toolbelt to start a fight with the rest of us, and he can basically put us to shame with all his other tools.

Finally, completely unpredictable, irregular and obscurist blogger Chet writes in a style that is almost a perfect mirror of "Chet" (though maybe not a perfect mirror of the man behind "Chet"... but who knows?). I think of Chet's blog like a desert mirage-- your first reaction is to say something like "what the hell is that off in the distance?" You may sit around where you are and try to figure it out, to no avail, but eventually you'll be forced to draw closer and try to get a better sense. Maybe, when you get there, it will be something completely different and unexpected, and maybe it will be nothing. But, hell, you just gotta go have a look.

It is my hope that the combination of the Scientific American article and my own mini-tributes here is enough to keep all of you blogging regularly. With the blogosphere, it's a small world after all.