Thursday, May 27, 2010

Dr. J Answers Your Questions

A while ago, I invited readers to submit questions through my "Ask Doctor J" site over on Formspring and promised I would do my best to answer them here on the blog. Then, I quickly forgot about the whole thing. Oops.

I just went back and found that there was quite a list of questions just languishing there without answers. So, I'm going to try to knock out several at once here, which means my "answers" will be brief (and not necessarily informed or serious). The questions submitted so far don't easily organize themselves into "categories," so I will just take them in the order they were submitted.

If you have a question that you want to pose, visit the Ask Doctor J site and submit it there. (I've also provided a link in the column to your right, if something occurs to you later.) Buckle up, here we go:

If you were in Memphis for only one day, where would you eat breakfast, lunch and dinner (and possibly barbecue)?
First, I want to say that I do not understand what function your parenthetical clause is meant to serve. If you are in Memphis for only one day, assuming you are not on some kind of fast, you MUST eat barbecue. (There's no rule against eating barbecue for breakfast, by the way, which I have done often.) Anyway, this is a really tough question, because over the last 10 years or so, Memphis has become more and more of a "foodie" town. My answer to this question would likely change depending on which day you asked me, but for today I'm going to recommend the following:
BREAKFAST: The Arcade (This is probably the one meal that I wouldn't change depending on which day you ask me. A lot of Memphians will tell you to go to Brother Juniper's or Otherlands or Cafe Eclectic for breakfast, all of which are great, but The Arcade offers great food AND a quintessentially "Memphis" experience. So, if you only have one day, The Arcade wins hands down.)
LUNCH: Central BBQ (I will insist also that you go to the Central BBQ location that is actually on Central Avenue. Don't let your tour guides sucker you into eating barbecue any further east than East Parkway.)
DINNER: Mollie Fontaine's (This is a tough one, because there really are a lot of great places to eat in Memphis. I'm choosing Mollie's for its combination of awesome location, great tapas-style food, and radiant cool ambiance.)
AFTER-LAST-CALL EATS: Alex's Tavern (One thing to remember about visiting Memphis is that you'll have to include another "meal" to soak up all the libations. Alex's is the best choice for this. And there's no "last call" at Alex's.)

How does this dazzling multiplicty of identities which become salient in different social contexts, and this array of sensations and memories, hang together to form a "self"?
With pixie dust, I'm pretty sure, which I think is secreted from the pineal gland.

How do we respect difference without collapsing into ethical relativism?
Well, I suppose if you're really worried about "collapsing" into ethical relativism-- a worry that I'm not sure that I share with you-- then there's no reason why you can't "respect" difference and still be an absolutist about moral claims. The trick, I think, is to find yourself a mysterious and compelling authority to whose revelation you can appeal. It's perfectly fine for you to be the "chosen" human scribe for that revelation, but you'll definitely need to get it down on paper at some point and give the book a catchy name. Something like "The Holy Antiqua." Then, when you find yourself in a moral dispute with someone else, you can say: "Of course, I respect your position, and I understand that you, as a woman, are inclined to think that way... but as it is written The Holy Antiqua (insert chapter and verse reference here): "She who speaks in her own voice and of her own mind is like the camel who spits in the direction of the western wind."

To many, even in Continental philosophy, Jacques Derrida is becoming passe. Is he?
No, he is not. As it is written in The Holy Antiqua: "Those who must resort to the lanaguage of the hated in order to hate him are usurers and gossips, and are not loved."

Do doctors wear underwear?
I suppose that depends on whether or not you mean "real" doctors (MD's) or the rest of us (PhD's). I have it on good authority that PhD's often go commando. I can only assume this is also true of MD's, especially given the fact that they get to wear those loose and comfortable scrubs.

Of the problems in Memphis, how much do you think is the fault largely of the black community, how much of the white community, and how much is more of a "joint fault" kind of thing?
It's ALL a "joint fault" kind of thing. But the "joining" parts in that fault are entirely constituted by people living east of East Parkway.

Do you ever plan to get married and/or have children? Why or why not? Do you think the man you marry would have to be adept in philosophy, or could you fall in love with a guy who did not know much about philosophy?
Uh... er... well... none of your beeswax, really. But since I'm answering, I guess I'll say that I don't know if I'll ever get married or not. It's not really a "plan" of mine, and my strong suspicion is that I won't, though the reason I won't (or won't be able to) has very little to do with my "plans." As for kids, that's more of a definite "no." I love children, but I have no desire at all to be a mother. I suppose I would say, as a general principle, that if I were to marry, it would be important to me that he or she be "adept" in philosophy, though that doesn't necessarily mean that he or she would need to be a professional philosopher. Love is a mysterious thing, which means that it's unpredictable. It's also a burning thing, by the way. So, yeah, I don't know.

What are the five most common and/or frustrating misconceptions non-specialists have about your discipline?
Great question. Here's my list.
1. That philosophy is "just theory"-- by which people mean, I think, that it has nothing to do with the "real" world. Without philosophy, there is no way to think or talk about anything. All of the other "disciplines" were originally sheltered in the House of Philosophy. You simply cannot engage in ANY activity that involves concepts without philosophy. It's our sandbox. Everybody else is just playing in it.
2. That philosophy is "too hard" for "regular" people. Everybody uses concepts. Everybody is bound (or should be bound) by the same rules of logic. Everybody engages in arguments with others that require (or should require) the ability to construct and defend reasonable positions. Everybody decides questions of meaning and value on a daily basis. And by "everybody," I mean "regular people."
3. That philosophy is just your opinion. Funny enought, the very same people that think #2 above also think this. If they're talking to a professional philosopher, they will treat philosophy as elitist and overly abstruse. But if they're sitting on the barstool next to yours, they will happily regale you with their "philosophy" on what the government should (or shouldn't) do, how to be in (or get out of) relationships, what really matters about x, or how to be a good person. And if you happen to disagree with their "philosophy," they will probably politely concede that you can have your philosophy and they can have their's. Not true. Philosophy is a DISCIPLINE. It has rules. One of the first things you learn in a philosophy class is the difference between (what the Greeks called) doxa and logos. Your "opinion" is doxa.
4. That philosophy is responsible for the culturally- and ethically-devastating effects of "postmodernism." This may be partially true, but I prefer to think that the effects that most people are referring to here is really the fault of the other disciplines misreading and misunderstanding those philosophers that get tagged as "postmodern."
5. That philosophy is ahistorical. Philosophers are partly to blame for this misconception. There are branches of Anglo-American philosophy that do operate as if the discipline is ahistorical, or that if it has a history at all, that history began in Vienna in the 1920's. But they're wrong. Philosophy is not only deeply embedded in the history of all human endeavors, but it has it's own history as well.
[If I could be allowed one more addition to this list, I would add the following:]
6. That philosophers are "uncool." I mean, c'mon, really?! Philosophy IS cool, and there are plenty of hip (living and dead) philosophers. And, what's more, I'm a philosopher. Q.E.D.

Keep those queries coming!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Yes, Jessica, You CAN Do Anything Good

I'm not usually one to forward or re-post YouTube videos of cute kids doing cute things, of which there are literally hundreds of thousands, but I recently came across one that I just couldn't resist. It's a little girl named Jessica-- I'm guessing around 4 or 5 years old, probably pre-school age-- standing on her bathroom counter and delivering into the mirror, with all of the vim and vigor of kids that age, a rousing and impromptu manifesto on the numerous joys of her little life. I've probably watched this video a dozen times already and I just can't get over it. Sure, little Jessica is absolutely adorable, of course, but she's also enthusiastic, brave, self-assured, uninhibited, confident, even loud, in her enumeration and affirmation of the overwhelming goodness of herself and her world. In other words, she is all of the things that are so regrettably conditioned out of women's personalities as they grow up and, Simone de Beauvoir speculated, learn how to "become" a "woman." When I posted this video on my Facebook page, my good friend (and fellow-blogger) Petya commented: "This makes me a little sad that we live in a world that takes sweet, brave, smart little girls and transforms them into plastic-surgery-wanting, dieting, body-image obsessessed, insecure women." So true. It's unfortunate that feminism too often gets stereotyped as reactive and angry, because the truth is that a good part of what feminism aims to achieve is fundamentally affirmative and liberatory... and this little girl somehow "gets" that already.

But, here, just see for yourself:

I was so taken with Jessica's video that I thought to myself: oh, IF ONLY someone could tell her now to never lose whatever moved her to climb up on that counter and say those things! So, in the spirit of Francis Church's famous 1897 reply to 8-yr-old Virginia O'Hanlon ("Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus"), I offer this Open Letter to Little Jessica:

Little Jessica,

My, how big and strong you look in the mirror! You are right; there are many, many things to like in your life. And you are a very smart little girl to think of so many of them at once! You have really wonderful people in your family-- your mom and dad, your cousins and aunts, your sisters-- and you do indeed have a very pretty haircut. Some of your friends may not have a bedroom and a house and other stuff that they like as much as you do yours, and it's very good of you to be thankful and excited about those things. Always remember that other people probably like your stuff, too, so remember to share it with them whenever you can. I think you will find that you like those things even more when you share them, because sharing is a good thing to do.

As you grow up, some people, maybe even your friends, will tell you that it is sometimes too hard to do good things or right things. If you try to tell them what you told yourself in the mirror-- that you can do anything good, better than anyone-- they may even tell you that you should be quiet and that you shouldn't climb up onto counters and shout like that, because that's not how girls are supposed to act. But those people will be wrong. They won't admit it, but they are sad and lonely and angry people. They might be jealous of your house, or your family, or your pajamas, or your hair, but more than anything else they will be jealous of your spirit, your courage, and your imagination. You see, Jessica, some grown-ups forget that they can do anything good, and so they stop using their imaginations to think up all the good things that they might do. And when grown-ups stop thinking of all the things that they like and the good things that they can do, their spirit gets very sick. It wilts like a flower without sunshine or water, which flowers like as much as you like your whole house, and then it dies. And when a person's spirit and imagination dies, they have nothing else to do except tell little girls like you that you can't do anything good.

Yes, Jessica, you CAN do anything good. Anything at all, better than anyone else. As you get older, keep looking in the mirror every day and reminding yourself that you like what you see. Tell yourself about all of the people you like, and then remember to go and tell those people how much you like them. Be brave and strong and loud and excited about good things. You should always keep imagining NEW good things that you can do, and try to do them better than anyone else. Smart little girls like you can think of good things that nobody else has ever thought of before and, if you try hard enough, little girls like you can make the wilted flowers inside of other people bloom again.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lazy Relativism, Again

As readers of this blog (and students in my classes) know well, I hate lazy relativism. I readily concede that there are lots of things about which we cannot know the Absolute Truth (s'il y en a), but regardless of the strengh or weakness of any particular truth-claim, it will ALWAYS be the case that its opposite cannot also be true. That's the principle of non-contradiction, a fundamental axiomatic rule of logic, upon which rational discourse itself depends. As much as we may sometimes want to do so, none of us can violate it and still make sense. Over the course of my several posts on this blog about relativism, it has occurred to me that I can, at times, sound a bit schoolmarm-ish about the whole issue, what with my prattling on and on about the mutual exclusivity of P and not-P. I've barely tarried with the question of why one would want to posit two mutually exclusive truth-claims simultaneously or, correspondingly, why one wouldn't want to posit a truth-claim (and subject oneself to the axiomatic necessities of logic) at all. So, today I'm putting on my sympathetic hat and I'm going to try to articulate what I think is so dangerously seductive about this particular rational pitfall.

Taking a position, especially a position in matters of politics or ethics, is a difficult thing to do. Part of this difficulty arises, I suspect, because we intuitively and rationally understand that one major consequence of taking a position on any particular moral or political issue is that we are (logically, necessarily) commiting ourselves to opposing another position. If I say that capital punishment is immoral, or that it should be illegal, then I am at the same time saying that capital punishment is NOT moral or (justifiably) legal. If I run into someone who thinks that capital punshiment is both morally and legally justifiable, then I am obligated by my own position to oppose my interlocutor's position, that is, to think they he or she is wrong. And here is where the seduction of irrationality begins to sound its siren call: we (by which I mean "good liberals") generally don't want to preclude the possibility of others holding positions that are antagonistic or oppositional to our own, because we believe in protecting the rights of free speech and freedom of conscience. We are, for the most part, good fallibilists as well, meaning that we generally permit the possibility of our own error. And most of us are some hybrid of capitalists and democrats, too, who believe in both the merit and the justice of a (largely unregulated) marketplace of ideas. For the last 30 or 40 years, there is yet another character-ingredient thrown into the mix as well-- an appreciation for diversity-- which has made us (thankfully) critical of the pretensions of a "view from nowhere" subject-position that has so regrettably ignored, silenced or erased contributions from non-dominant groups. So, here we are, good liberal-fallibilist-capitalistic-democratic-multiculturalists (hereafter, LFCDM's) and, for all of our principled commitment to Truth and Justice and Right, we find ourselves unable to commit ourselves resolutely to any particular true, just or right position.

I submit the following as an exmaple: Miss Oklahoma (Morgan Woolard), answering an interview question about Arizona's new anti-immigration law at the most recent Miss USA competition.

I think it's safe to say that what Miss Oklahoma means by "I see both sides in this issue" is "I don't really want to take a position on this issue." But, of course, she DID take a position on the issue (when she said "I'm a huge believer in states' rights... so I think it's perfectly fine for Arizona to create that law") and then she took the OPPOSITE position (when she said "I'm against racial profiling"). To reconcile these two positions, which of course cannot be reconciled, she offered the "I see both sides in this issue" platitude. The Arizona law under consideration is a law that permits, some would say necessitates, racial profiling as a manner of immigration policy enforcement. Quite simply, one cannot be BOTH "for" the law AND "against" racial profiling. But Miss Oklahoma, not incidentally, was answering this question in the course of trying to win the Miss USA competition, which means that not offending potential detractors from her position was more important than actually taking a logically-defensible position.

So, sure, it's not hard to see what is so seductive about the "I can see both sides of this issue" (non-)position in the course of a competition like the Miss USA pageant. My worry, though, is that this same strategy is used by LFCDM's everywhere, even when they are not pursuing a tiara. It's as if the non-position of Miss Oklahoma has become the default position of LFCDM's, the very definition of what it means to be an LFCDM. There is good reason for an LFCDM to want to "see" both (or all) sides of an issue, not least of which is because rational and critical consideration of all perspectives provides one the most solid foundation for taking and defending the claims of one perspective over another. But simply "seeing" or understanding all of the competing claims on a debatable issue is only the first step toward weighing in on the resolution of that debate. It is not a position. Or, as I have said many time before on this issue, it is not a logically defensible position.

Nobody wins a tiara for being a lazy relativist. (Even Miss Oklahoma didn't win one. She was the First Runner-Up.) Perhaps what needs to be rethought, I suggest, is the very seduction of the tiara for LFCDM's. There's nothing about the various parts of that identity-- neither the L, nor the F, nor the C, nor the D, nor the M-- that wouldn't find lazy relativism contrary to the very history of its position. Yet, somehow, the LFCDM combination has produced this strange, frightened, accomodating, fatuous, sycophantic and ultimately unreasonable creature, fated to impede the very rational discourse that is the rightful inheritance of its constituent traditions.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thanks x 50K

We've reached another milestone here at Dr J's blog: 50,000 hits! We passed 10,000 hits back in our second year, and so it's exciting to reach the 50K mark at just under four years! Here's a big THANK YOU to all the readers who keep coming back to this small little speck in the blogosphere. When I started in 2006, I never could have anticpated all of the great (virtual and real) relationships that have been established and maintained through the conversations here.

Please keep reading. Please share with your friends. And, again, thank you.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Why "Exile On Main Street" Gets My Rocks Off

There's a contest going on over at No Depression (the greatest music magazine EVER this side of Rolling Stone) that they're calling the "Exile On Main Street vs. The White Album Smackdown." As the title suggests, they want readers to weigh in on which is the better of two of the greatest albums of all time: The Rolling Stones' "Exile on Main Street" or The Beatles "White Album." Now, I'm both a Beatles fan and a Rolling Stones fan, so this is just the kind of music-nerd contest that I love. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I'm probably a bigger Stones fan than a Beatles fan, but not by much. I could easily imagine several variations on a contest between albums from each band in which I might side with the Beatles, though my guess is that I would side with the Stones more than half of the time. I also want to note that I don't think "Exile on Main Street" is the Stones' "best" album (that would probably go to Beggar's Banquet, Some Girls, or Sticky Fingers), nor do I think "The White Album" is The Beatles best album (I'd pick Rubber Soul)-- but they're both iconic albums from iconic bands, and the comparison between the two is a worthy undertaking, if only because they're also so very different in so very many ways.

I suppose there are several ways that one could go about making the case for one album over the other. A song-by-song comparison would likely come out a wash, I'm afraid, as there are both moments of brilliance and real duds on both albums. And I'm not sure that measuring their "significance," in terms of impact on American culture or the history of rock n' roll, really helps all that much, either. The thing is, I think which album one picks basically comes down to which band one likes better. So, I'm going to give my case for the Stones over the Beatles, with just cursory references to these particular albums.

Here's what I love about the Beatles: their invention and subsequent mastery of "pop." One of the reasons that Rubber Soul is my favorite Beatles album is that it captures that brilliant, almost mathematical, perfection of the pop "hook" and the pop-song "formula" (verse, chorus, verse, bridge, chorus, chorus). Songs like "Drive My Car" and "I'm Looking Through You" from Rubber Soul are about as contagious as it gets. "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" from The White Album is the same. What's really amazing about those songs is that they demonstrate what Pythagoreans of old intuited about the world and the human spirit two millenia ago, namely, that eveything yearns for and is made sensible by the ordered ratios and rational order of mathematics. And music is, fundamentally, mathematics. The irresistable sonic pleasure of those ratios and that order is what makes pop music "popular." It's what leans us toward an anticipation of the resolving chord, such that we know where the song is going even when we've never heard it before. It is something that The Beatles crafted with the precision of scientists. So, although I can and do appreciate The Beatles experimental, groundbreaking, and "revolutionary" stuff, their brilliance is to be found in those simple, true, catchy formulas that each time sound simultaneously so familiar and so fresh.

What I love about the Stones, on the other hand, is precisely the opposite. The Stones' music is also great "pop," but it's messy, sloppy, lazy even. It's still formulaic in the way that all rock n' roll is, but the Stones execute that formula like they're always a little high or a little hungover (which, of course, they were). There's something about their sound that is always a tad under-practiced and un-polished, with a close-is-good-enough attitude that falls just behind the beat. And, probably most importantly, I can hear distinctly in the Stones' music all of the ingredients that combined to make the mish-mash genre that we call rock n' roll today: country, blues, jazz, gospel, folk. All those ingredients are identifiable in the lyrics, too. Where The Beatles seem to sharpen my attention to the mathematical elements of music, The Rolling Stones relax, even loosen, all my sensibilities. Nothing in the world grooves like Keith Richards' guitar lick on "Beast of Burden." That song is not on Exile, but it is the epitome of the Stones' sound and the Stones' feel. Jagger asks: Am I hard enough? Am I rough enough? Am I rich enough? In love enough? Of course, the answer is "yes, yes, yes, yes" for the Stones, just as it is for The Beatles. The difference, I think, is that everything about the Stones' music suggests that they need to ask. The Beatles don't. What I love about the Stones, unlike The Beatles, is that they always sound like the wrong side of the tracks: the speakeasy, the dive bar, the juke joint, the jailhouse. They still, and always, got to scrape that sh*t right off their shoes. That's what rock n' roll is, in my book. If it ain't got something messy to scrape off, then... well, it's just too pretty.

Maybe it's not fair to decide this contest of albums primarily on the basis of my prejudice in favor of the Stones, but it's hard to imagine how else to compare these albums except by using whatever criteria one uses to compare the bands. Even still, I think the first track on Exile, "Rocks Off," is a great example of all those things that the Stones do that The Beatles don't, or maybe can't. It's noisy and messy. Jagger slurs the lyrics and Richards slurs the licks. You can hear the bluesy boogie-woogie piano, the jazzy-gospel horns, the 1-4 chord progression of country and folk, the driving heartbeat of a straightforward rhythm section. The story is simultaneously profane and profound. And, in a way, they say exactly what distinguishes them from The Beatles right there in the song: The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.

Game, set, match: Stones.

Monday, May 10, 2010


I'm a total sucker for the underdog. I don't even care what the domain is-- sports, politics, games, academics, business, love, war-- if there is an odds-on favorite, I'm pretty much guaranteed to root for his opponent. As many people have noted, 2010 is shaping up to be the Year of the Underdog, beginning with the election of our first black President, followed by the New Orleans Saints' unlikely SuperBowl victory, then one of the most nail-biting, heart-wrenching, buzzer-annihilating Big Dances of NCAA basketball history and, in the entertainment world, the Academy Awards also pitched in this year by awarding Best Director/Best Picture to Katheryn Bigelow and "The Hurt Locker." Even when there wasn't an identifiable "underdog" to root for, several times this year already we have been able to indulge in that oh-how-the-mighty-have-fallen schadenfreude. (See: Tiger Woods, BP, John Edwards, Jay Leno, Goldman Sachs, Mark Sanford, etc.) Given that underdogs qua "underdogs" are always a pretty bad bet-- because, unless something extraordinary happens, they usually LOSE-- our affection for them is pretty hard to explain. Why do we love the underdog?

Sociologists Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder, in a paper entitled "The Underdog Concept in Sports," tried to explain this counterintuitive phenomenon using a little bit of emotional economics. Frazier and Snyder speculate that sports fans are always looking to maximize excitement (pleasure). So, the self-interested sports fan might root for the underdog because a close game is always more enjoyable than a blowout. Or, what is more likely, the sports fan might root against the odds because the emotional "payoff" of a underdog win far outweighs the emotional payoff of a win by the favorite, and the same is true of an underdog loss vs. a loss by the favorite. That is to say, the achievement of the unexpected win is exponentially more pleasurable (and the unexpected loss is exponentially more painful), while the expected loss or expected win is emotionally neutral because it's only, well, just what was supposed to happen. It's like Pascal's wager (or maybe it's like the opposite of Pascal's wager, I'm not sure). Either way, Frazier and Snyder's account suggests that it's a matter of simple hedonistic/utilitarian calculus.

I think that's probably half of the explanation, but I am inclined to agree with Daniel Engber who argues (in his Slate article "The Underdog Effect") that some of us believe our rooting for the underdog adds an extra variable to the calculus of Sports Equity. Like monkeys and dogs (or so it is hypothesized), we might have a psychologically-hardwired aversion to inequity. We want games to be "fair," and disproportionate odds lead us to believe that the contests under consideration "unfairly" lack equity, even when that inequity is the result of something like "natural talent." According to Joseph Vendello et al (in "The Appeal of the Underdog"), we are more inclined to attribute "talent" and "intelligence" as character traits of the favorites, but we tend to think that the underdogs have more "hustle" and "heart." We want hustle and heart to matter as much as talent and intelligence, so our rooting for the underdog is a manner of passive-aggressively forcing that to be the case. That is, we underdog-lovers "justify" our rooting-against-the-odds by fiddling with the Sports Equity calculus a bit. Pace Frazier and Snyder, I think that there is a little irrational part of the underdog-lover that doesn't really believe s/he is rooting "against" the odds. S/he just thinks the odds-makers haven't taken into account all the variables (like hustle, heart and, of course, my passionate and heartfelt cheering at home in front of the TV).

Nietzsche would say that we root for the underdog out of ressentiment, because what we share with the underdog is the psychology of the weak. When the underdog wins, it's not only an actual "physical" victory, but also a moral one. This is probably why we tend to lionize underdogs, making of them posterchildren for the Good, the True, the Beautiful. This is, after all, the point of the David and Goliath story as a morality tale: it doesn't make any difference that you're a giant and I only have one measly stone and a homemade slingshot if I also have God on my side. One thing that disrupts this Nietzschean interpretation, I think, is our love of the underdog in the form of the antihero. Antiheroes are underdogs of a sort, too. They're not heroes, after all, and I think we may root for antiheroes for the same equity-desiring reasons that we root for more "heroic" underdogs. (See my previous posts "Why Do We Love the Antihero?" and "Antiheroes (Again)".) What's interesting about the antihero, I think, is that we don't root for the antihero because we hate the strong for being strong (which is what Nietzsche would suggest is going on when we root for the underdog), but we root for the antihero, perhaps, because sometimes we hate the strong for (really) being weak, for masking their weakness as strength.

Finally, and perhaps the most interestingly, it appears that our tendency too root for the underdog is more abstract than it is tied to any particular underdog. That is, Frazier and Snyden's studies showed that, unless we are beholden to some team for sentimental reasons, we tend to root for "the underdog" whomever that may be in a particular contest. And it often happens that, in the course of a single game, the abstract placeholder of "underdog" can be occupied by both sides of a single contest. (For example, when two #5 seeds in the NCAA basketball tourney are playing each other, fans tend to root for whichever team is behind in the score, which sometimes means that they change teams mid-game.) This seems to indicate that underdog support is something more like what I want to call "underdogmatism," a rigorous (even if irrational) insistence on the appearance of equity in the game combined with a dogmatic (even if irrational) belief that the participation of fans can somehow contribute to its reality.

At any rate, go dawgs!

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Here's My "Top 25 Books" List, Now Build Me A Park

Inspired by Brooke Foy's project for UrbanArt at Brent Ferguson Park, where she is building a maze of huge, concrete books as a public art installation, I tried to figure out which books I would choose for such a project. Here, I've listed my Top 25 Books. I don't think Brooke Foy reads this blog, but just in case, I'd love to see some of these books made into enormous pieces of art and strategically placed in a park. (I would never leave said park.) I'm not an artist, so I didn't choose these books just for their cover art, but I did give myself a few rules in compiling the list, which were as follows:

(1) No repeated authors. That is, one book per author. Even if there are 2 books by the same author that I absolutely loved, I made myself pick one.
(2) The list must be mixed-genre. For me, that means fiction, non-fiction, and philosophy.
(3) Make the list once, then stick with it. This rule was just to impose a little self-discipline, and to keep myself from spending the next 2 weeks revising my list over and over.

I tried a couple of times to "rank" these books, to no avail. So they're listed alphabetically, by author.


1. Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, by Judith Butler

Why is this on the list?
Because this book was one of about 3 texts that inspired the manuscript I am writing now.

Just one quote: "For if I am confounded by you, then you are already of me, and I am nowhere without you."

2. Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Why is this on the list? For that conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice.

Just one quote: "If you're going to make a word do a lot of work for you like that, you've got to pay it extra."

3. Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee

Why is this on the list? Because nobody writes a good allegory anymore.

Just one quote: "Truly, man was not made to live."

4. Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, by Jacques Derrida

Why is this on the list? It's Derrida. He could have his own list.

Just one quote: "No politics, no ethics, and no law can be, as it were, deduced from deconstruction."

5. The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

Why is this on the list? Because tragedy needed to be redone. It needed to be a whole lot funnier. And have a lot more swearing.

Just one quote: "It's never the changes we want that change everything."

6. The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Why is this on the list? Because I've never met a human being that wasn't, deep down, one of the brothers.

Just one quote: "What is hell? I still maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love."

7. Black Skin, White Masks, by Frantz Fanon

Why is this on the list? Because existentialism was too white, and Negritude was too black.

Just one quote: "O my body, make of me always a man who questions!"

8. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Why is this on the list? Money and sex and mystery and death. And faaabulous parties.

Just one quote: "I hope she'll be a fool-- that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool."

9. Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Why is this on the list? Memory. It ain't how you remembered it.

Just one quote: "One day you will do things for me that you hate. That's what it means to be family."

10. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, by Michel Foucault

Why is this on the list? Because you can't fight the power until you know what it is. And, even then, I'm not sure you can fight it.

Just one quote: "Calling sex by its name thereafter [the 17th C.] became more difficult and more costly."

11. It Came from Memphis, by Robert Gordon

Why is this on the list? See the quote below.

Just one quote: "Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does."

12. Phenomenology of Spirit, by G.W.F. Hegel

Why is this on the list? Absolute knowing. To be read with Absolut.

Just one quote: "No man can be a hero to his valet. This is not because the man is no hero, but because the valet is a valet."

13. King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild

Why is this on the list? The horrible story of the first real battle for human rights. And an excellent example of eminently readable academic writing.

Just one quote: "When Leopold wrote that the precise frontiers of the new state or states would be defined later, [German Chancellor] Bismarck said to an aide, "His Majesty displays the pretensions and naive selfishness of an Italian who considers that his charm and good looks will enable him to get away with anything."

13. The Critique of Judgment, by Immanuel Kant

Why is this on the list? Because you don't want to be that person. The one who only reads the first two parts of a trilogy and pretends to know something.

Just one quote: "Laughter is an affection arising from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing."

14. Fear and Trembling, by Soren Kierkegaard

Why is this on the list? Because without it, Abraham is lost.

Just one quote: "If there were no eternal consciousness in a man, if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment, a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential; if an unfathomable, insatiable emptinesslay hidden beneath everything, what would life be but despair?"

15. Immortality, by Milan Kundera

Why is this on the list? For that gesture... the lightest leitmotif in all of literature.

Just one quote: "The basis of shame is not some personal mistake of ours, but the ignominy, the humiliation we feel that we must be what we are without any choice in the matter, and that this humiliation is seen by everyone."

17. My Traitor's Heart, by Rian Malan

Why is this on the list? Because the grand design is so often in the details. And to remind myself that we're never as innocent as we want to be.

Just one quote: "I'm burned out and starving to death, so I'm just going to lay all of this upon you and trust that you're a visionary reader, because the grand design, such that it is, is going to be hard for you to see."

18. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, by Karl Marx

Why is this on the list? Because I'm alienated, and I'm still trying to understand it.

Just one quote: "The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates."

19. The Colonizer and the Colonized, by Albert Memmi

Why is this on the list? Because it's a character study in oppression. And nobody wants to be any of the characters here.

Just one quote: "He [the colonizer] is a privileged being, and an illegitimately privileged one; that is, a usurper."

20. Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov

Why is this on the list? Because everyone needs to fall in love with a protagonist that she knows she should hate.

Just one quote: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."

21. On the Genealogy of Morals, by Friedrich Nietzsche

Why is this on the list? One of the most original pieces of philosophy ever. Every time I read it there's something new.

Just one quote: "To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength."

22. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach

Why is this on the list? Because, I'll admit it, I want to know what they do with the bodies.

Just one quote: "The human head is of the approximate size and weight of a roaster chicken."

23. The Human Stain, by Philip Roth

Why is this on the list? Because it's a Great American Novel. As is the first book in the same trilogy, American Pastoral. Unfortunately, the middle book in the series sucked.

Just one quote: "Everything stoical within me unclenches and the wish not to die, never to die, is almost too much to bear."

24. Being and Nothingness, by Jean-Paul Sartre

Why is the on the list? Because the chapter on "Bad Faith" is the single most intuitively true piece of philosophical writing I have ever read.

Just one quote: "Nothingness sleeps at the heart of man like a worm."

25. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

Why is this on the list? Because poverty and misery have yet to be eradicated from human existence... and because we should not look away.

Just one quote: "They [the banks] breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don't get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat."

That's the offiial list. Here are the runners-up:
~~ Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
~~ anything else by Jacques Derrida
~~ Republic, by Plato
~~ Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
~~ Country of My Skull, by Antjie Krog
~~ Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
~~any collected works of T.S. Eliot or Walt Whitman
~~ The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
~~The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, by John Barth
~~The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus

Okay, readers, what did I leave off? Or, what's on there that shouldn't be? Comments section is open and unedited, per usual.

Friday, May 07, 2010

What Makes It "Art"?

In the documentary film Man on Wire, about French high-wire walker Philippe Petit (pictured left traversing the space between the World Trade Towers in 1974), Petit remarks several times that his act was more than simply a daredevil stunt, but rather it was a work of art. This evaluation is echoed by his co-conspirators in the planning of the Twin Towers walk, each of whom also risked life and limb (and arrest) by assisting him in his "work of art." Even the NYPD officers, who waited to arrest Petit when he came off the wire, were somewhat dumbfounded in trying to explain what they witnessed, opting instead to describe Petit's walk as a "dance" rather than a "stunt." When Petit was interviewed by Stephen Colbert last year, he said that when you see him on the wire, you will not be afraid or amazed by his technique, but you will be "inspired." And Petit has consistently refused to answer the question "why did you do it?" over the years, insisting that for his walk, like all art, "there is no why."

One of the more fascinating-- and, admittedly, maddening-- aspects of Petit's cryptic accounts of what he did is his tendency to describe himself as a man possessed. In the film, he claims that something he "did not understand but made no effort to resist" quite literally drew him out upon the wire. And, of course, there is also his now-famous remark to reporters, upon descending the Towers in handcuffs in 1974: "When I see three oranges, I juggle. When I see two towers, I walk." In fact, much of the film Man on Wire is devoted to re-creating Petit's Twin Towers walk as a fait accompli. He believed that the Towers were built for him, and there was nothing else he could do but heed their beckoning.

But what makes it "art"?

I've seen the film and, without a doubt, the images of Petit almost 1500 feet in the air, without any harness or net, are (for lack of a better word) "beautiful." And what those images simultaneously represent and imply-- the unrestrained indulging of a passion that is not tempered by fear or death-- is (as Petit wants it to be) "inspiring." Leo Tolstoy, in his essay "What is Art?," wrote:

The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man's expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it... Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.

By Tolstoy's definition, I can understand Petit's walk as "art." But by that same definition, I am also compelled to understand a thousand mundane acts of countless nameless people as "art," too. What makes Petit's walk different from the inspiration I might find in another's utterly ordinary, utterly commonplace, uttlerly prosaic and right-here-on-the-ground walk? Aren't there a myriad of human existential projects and activities capable of inspiring in me sensus communis? Is it art beause it does not yield itself to the "why?" or permit explanation? Is it art because we now have images, moving and still, of what was once something else? Is Petit's walk "art" merely because he called it so?

When it comes to serious questions of art, I am a serious amateur. It may be that art is everywhere and in everything, but the philosopher in me wants some clarity to the concept, some way of distinguishing it from its opposite or absence. I am resistant to relying too much on the "artist's intentions" to define what counts as "art," almost as much as I am to allowing the kind of open-admission policy that would welcome all and distinguish none. But, for now anyway, I am concerned only with Petit's walk. And so, readers, I ask you: what makes Petit's walk "art"?